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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The illusion of Tal Afar

Australians on patrol in Malaya

George Packer's article on Tal Afar, otherwise known as the HR McMaster campaign for his first star, is a long and disturbing article on the US efforts in Tal Afar and how the US Army usually operates in Iraq. Neither is comforting.

Is it too late for the Administration to correct its course in Iraq?


The refusal of Washington’s leaders to acknowledge the true character of the war in Iraq had serious consequences on the battlefield: in the first eighteen months, the United States government failed to organize a strategic response to the insurgency. Captain Jesse Sellars, a troop commander in the 3rd A.C.R., who fought in some of the most violent parts of western Iraq in 2003 and 2004, told me about a general who visited his unit and announced, “This is not an insurgency.” Sellars recalled thinking, “Well, if you could tell us what it is, that’d be awesome.” In the absence of guidance, the 3rd A.C.R. adopted a heavy-handed approach, conducting frequent raids that were often based on bad information. The regiment was constantly moved around, so that officers were never able to form relationships with local people or learn from mistakes. Eventually, the regiment became responsible for vast tracts of Anbar province, with hundreds of miles bordering Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria; it had far too few men to secure any area.

A proper strategy would have demanded the coördinated use of all the tools of American power in Iraq: political, economic, and military. “Militarily, you’ve got to call it an insurgency,” McMaster said, “because we have a counterinsurgency doctrine and theory that you want to access.” The classic doctrine, which was developed by the British in Malaya in the nineteen-forties and fifties, says that counterinsurgency warfare is twenty per cent military and eighty per cent political. The focus of operations is on the civilian population: isolating residents from insurgents, providing security, building a police force, and allowing political and economic development to take place so that the government commands the allegiance of its citizens. A counterinsurgency strategy involves both offensive and defensive operations, but there is an emphasis on using the minimum amount of force necessary. For all these reasons, such a strategy is extremely hard to carry out, especially for the American military, which focusses on combat operations. Counterinsurgency cuts deeply against the Army’s institutional instincts. The doctrine fell out of use after Vietnam, and the Army’s most recent field manual on the subject is two decades old.

Ah, the lure of Malaya

The Malayan Emergency began in February 1948 with terrorist attacks by Communist guerillas on European settlers in the Malay peninsula. The Emergency was declared in July of that year. The Communists were not prepared for the British response of aggressive counter-attacks and search and destroy tactics. The Communist units were very nearly destroyed in the ensuing running fights, but a pause caused by the delay of British reinforcements, and the death of the High Commissioner, allowed the Communist army time to regroup and retrain. The Communists continued their campaign: of either wooing the populace, or terrifying them into kicking the British out. Their campaign failed. The British employed one of their first helicopter units in a hearts-and-minds campaign, using the helicopters to evacuate military and civilian wounded to hospital, to bring in supplies and to provide troop transport.

The Communist force fell apart in 1960, after twelve years of jungle warfare. The British hearts-and-minds campaign was successful, in sharp contrast to the similar, but unsuccessful, campaign mounted by the Americans in Vietnam.

Malaya in the 1940s was a country that consisted of four-fifths jungle. Most of this jungle was primary forest, land that had never been cleared for use. Huge trees blocked out most of the sunlight in these coastal forests and swamps. Because of the density of the trees visibility was cut, in places, to only a few yards. Where clearings had been made, from time to time, secondary forest had grown up. The secondary forest consisted of clearings that had been allowed to revert to their natural state. The trees were not as tall or fully grown and there was invariably thick undergrowth, which inhibited movement. Although termed secondary forest, this growth really deserved the name of jungle - a loose expression applied to many of the parts of the country where the undergrowth was fairly thick. The remainder of the country consisted of towns, villages, agricultural clearings, rice fields, rubber estates and mines. At the southern tip was the small, fortified island of Singapore, about 220 square miles in area, joined to the mainland by a three-quarter mile long causeway.

The climate, then as now, was tropical and humid. Ninety inches of rain fell annually, spread fairly evenly throughout the year, although the monsoon seasons were distinguishable. There was little variation in temperature over the months. The equator lay only about 100 miles to the south of Singapore. Only the western part of the country had been developed to any extent. It contained most of the total of about 3.3 million acres of rubber estates (in 1939), then supplying about 40 per cent of the world's rubber requirements, and over 700 tin mines, producing 25 000 tons of tin annually. A railway ran the length of the peninsula on the western side, as well as a good, all weather road. Another railway crossed the country diagonally to reach Kota Bahru in the north-eastern corner. There were many smaller road complexes, usually near towns, estates or mines. As well as the roads, rail and sea, the rivers served as a means of communication.

Pre-war Malaya was made up of a number of political Federated and Unfederated States, and a Crown Colony. These were ruled by a Sultan, assisted by the Malayan Civil Service, the senior posts of which were held by British personnel. The Federated and Unfederated States had almost complete autonomy, and were merely under British protection. The Crown Colony was that of the Straits Settlements, which embraced Singapore, Penang and Malacca and was governed directly by Britain.

The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) initially believed that the War of Insurrection would be over by August 1948 after their troops had worn down the British troops in jungle warfare. But the MCP had internal difficulties. It was a disunited and discontented party. It also suffered from the loss of practically all the Chinese peasant support gained during the Occupation, and the fact that the British did have a political plan for Malaya.

The MCP failed miserably in its attempt to entice both Malays and Indians to join. A short-lived secret agreement with the left-wing Malay Nationalist Party failed, as police intervention and arrests crippled the latter, and brought the liaison to an end. The MCP had approximately 3 000 active party members in early 1948. As many again were active helpers. Throughout April, May and June of that year the MCP terrorism increased. Malay, Indian and Chinese employees of Europeans were threatened, beaten and sometimes killed to force them to desert their jobs. Several Chinese Nationalist leaders and personalities were assassinated. Large quantities of rubber were stolen and thousands of rubber trees slashed to prevent them yielding latex. Mining machinery was damaged and workers' huts burned. At this stage the MPABA (Malayan Peoples Anti-British Army ) was still recovering its arms from secret caches in the jungle and was not in a fit state to engage troops in guerilla warfare. Incidents of terrorism were far more numerous than those of guerilla activity.

The murder of three European planters on 16 June 1948, near the small town of Sungei Spur in Perak, brought matters to a head and resulted in the High Commissioner, Sir Edward Gent, declaring an Emergency in parts of Perak and Johore. This was extended to the whole of the country the next day. Many had urged this step for some time. The war had begun. The police were given extra powers of search, detention and of enforcing a curfew, and the armed forces were brought in to help them. On 23 July the MCP was declared an unlawful society.

The MPABA did not immediately engage the British armed forces. It was insufficiently organised and incapable of doing so. It would not risk itself even if in overwhelming strength. As soon as it was able it began to attack small village police stations, which usually had less than a dozen Malay policemen to defend them. Otherwise, it practised terrorist activities and sabotage on machinery, plantations and communications.

In the whole country, the British and Malay armed force amounted to five British, two Malay and six Gurkha battalions. British artillery regiments were converted to infantry roles, and were referred to as infantry regiments. This practice was followed for the rest of the Emergency. The RAF had 100 aircraft in the country. The Federation Police numbered 10 223, nearly all Malays. The military was commanded by Major-general C.H. Boucher, GOC Malayan District. He resisted calls for garrisons to be posted in all parts of the country, instead using his troops to hit the guerillas hard wherever he could find them. In the opening weeks of the conflict, this occurred frequently. The RAF started working the guerillas over in June 1948, using Spitfires to strafe the guerillas. In August they started to bomb the insurgent camps

The government had also taken countermeasures against the guerillas. It had formed a Special Constabulary. Some 24 000 Malays were enrolled in this during the first three months of the Emergency. They were given arms immediately and employed primarily in guard duties. Training took place when time permitted. These tactics enabled the troops and police to conduct offensive operations from the beginning. Small defensive systems grew up around European offices, works and bungalows in the interior of the country. They were protected by barbed wire fences and other devices, and guarded by Special Constables. These measures, encouraging the Europeans to stay put, thwarted the first stage of the MCP insurgency plan.

The second measure was a system of national registration and the introduction of identity cards. These were issued to everyone over the age of 12 years, and had to be carried at all times. The MCP was bitterly opposed to this and the MPABA stopped people and tore their cards up. The MCP also initiated an unsuccessful campaign to encourage people to destroy their cards. Owing to the frequent and rigorous police checks of cards, the MCP hierarchy was forced to flee Singapore and the towns, and to go underground in the jungle.

.................................... in July 1956, and authority was granted to establish the Malayan armed forces.
The Malayan Communists were defeated finally in 1960, their army entrapped due to the Royal Navy ships patrolling the coast and sailing the rivers. A curfew and stricter emergency measures prevented sympathisers in the Chinese community delivering supplies to the MRLA. The RAF sprayed poison into the jungle where communists attempted to grow their own food. This forced the communists into taking more risks to obtain food, and thus increased their casualties. Chinese squatters were moved out of jungle fringes into new villages, which gave them ample excuse for not aiding the MRLA. By 1953 the MRLA had alienated nearly all sections of the population, and was finally forced to turn to the aborigines for help and sustenance. It was later estimated that half the 50 000 strong aborigine population was helping the MRLA by supplying food; passing on information about security patrols; and hiding its personnel. A number of forts were set up in aborigine territory, supplied by RAF and Royal Navy helicopters.

The RAF also deployed voice aircraft, and dropped pamphlets and safe conduct passes into the jungle. Both activities resulted in frequent desertions from the ranks of the MRLA.

Throughout the war, the MRLA steadily lost jungle fights against the army regulars. As well, the ever-present jungle diseases took a heavy toll. The security forces also deployed hunter-killer platoons which remained out in the jungle and kept the MRLA continuously on the defensive.

These measures were so effective that the MRLA was pushed deeper into the jungle. By September 1953 the government (General Templar) was able to declare the first White Area, in which all Emergency restrictions were lifted.

By the end of 1955 the MRLA was reduced to 3000 fighting personnel. Over 14 000 square miles of Malaya were declared White. In the same year the RAF dropped an average of 15 million leaflets per month; over 170 crop-spraying missions were flown; and over 87 hours were spent on voice flight. In addition, the RAF flew some 750 bomber sorties and undertook 950 ground attacks. Seventy per cent of surrendered enemy personnel had been influenced by the voice flights.

The RAF first used 500lb bombs, but later found that 20lb pressure-fused, fragmentation bombs and 27lb cluster bombs were more effective. 60lb aerial rockets were used, as were Griffin (napalm) bombs, though the latter were found to have extremely limited effect in damp jungle.

By the time Malaya gained independence, the Security forces had shattered the MRLA, reducing it to less than 1500 fighting personnel from an original 4000. Malaya's achievement of independence had removed the vital MCP anti-colonial support base. This caused the communists deep anxiety. In 1956, Commonwealth countries sent contingents of their own troops to join in the fight against the MRLA, removing another support base from the MCP: that of anti-British imperialism. Malayan personnel took command of the Security forces in July 1956, and authority was granted to establish the Malayan armed forces

McMaster should have known better to compare Malaya to any other modern insurgency. The Malayan Communist Party was ethnically and physically isolated, was a fraction of the size of the British forces and had no support among Indians or Malays.

And it still took 12 years.

The British had every advantage and the local support of much of the population. They quickly drove the guerrillas into the deepest parts of the jungle, while isolating them from their Chinese base. They also had the ability to offer independence as a major carrot.

What Americans from the 1950's on down have not understood about Malaya is that the MCP and the MRLA never had much chance of success without widespread local support, like in Algeria. Their ranks shrunk, not grew, the Malays took over much of their defense and the British made it clear they were leaving.

And the most important point is this: the British moved the war out of the settled areas. Few people lived in the jungle., so the war quickly became one out of sight and mind.

Iraq is fought in the cities, among the people, and the support for the guerrillas is relatively widespread.

But they have a lot in common, otherwise.

posted by Steve @ 12:55:00 AM

12:55:00 AM

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