Draining the Swamp: The British Strategy
of Population Control
The first reaction to guerilla warfare must
be to protect and control the population.- Brigadier Richard L.
Clutterbuck, from The Long, Long War:
Counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam
What the peasant wants to know is: Does the
government mean to win the war? Because if not, he will have to
support the insurgent.- Sir Robert Thompson, from Defeating Communist
Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam
When you're up to your ass in alligators, it's
hard to remember that you came to drain the swamp.- Anon.
Thirty years after the end of the Vietnam War,
the United States and its Army again find themselves confronted
with a tenacious insurgency, this time in Iraq. Given our decidedly
mixed record in counterinsurgency operations, we tend to look elsewhere
for successful models. Many look to the British, especially their
exemplary and thorough victory in Malaya, to provide such a model.1
Commentators cite the British Army's superior organizational adaptability
and flexibility, strategic patience, their predilection for using
the minimum force necessary, the relative ease with which they integrated
civil and military aspects of national power, and the apparent facility
with which they adapted their strategies to local circumstances
of geography and culture.
We would indeed do well to emulate the aforementioned
characteristics of British counterinsurgency practice, but there
was more to British success in Malaya than a good attitude. The
key element of their success was the effective internment of the
Chinese "squatter" population, the segment of Malayan
society from which the insurgents almost entirely drew their strength.2
By interning the "squatters" in fortified "New Villages,"
the British and their Malayan allies were able to deny the communist
insurgents access to recruits, food, and military supplies. It also
allowed them to narrow the scope of their intelligence efforts,
as the insurgents had to maintain contact with their base under
the very noses of the Anglo-Malayan government.
This strategy was liable to abuse. In Kenya,
against the contemporary Mau Mau rebellion, the British employed
the same strategy as they had in Malaya, in this case interning
basically all of the ethnic Kikuyu. The system of detention camps
and fortified villages quickly degenerated into what historian Caroline
Elkins has called "Britain's Gulag in Kenya."3
Eventually, the ensuing scandal forced Britain to grant independence
even more rapidly than the accelerating pressures of decolonization
would have anyway. Still, the colonial administration was able to
defeat a much larger and more widely supported insurgency, more
quickly, than it had in Malaya.
A strategy of population control was not invariably
effective, however. In Vietnam, the Diem regime's British-advised
and American-supported attempt to implement this strategy, the Strategic
Hamlet program, not only failed to weaken the insurgency but actually
exacerbated popular resistance. On the other hand, the situation
in Vietnam differed significantly from that in Malaya and Kenya.
In contrast to the insurgent movements in those two countries, isolated
both from external support and concentrated in a socially distinct
minority, the Viet Cong enjoyed robust external support from North
Vietnam and at least minimal legitimacy among the ethnically homogeneous
South Vietnamese. Indeed, it was Diem's power base, the minority
Catholic community, that was in danger of being isolated.
As troubling as it might be, the evidence suggests
that the main lesson to be drawn from the British practice of counterinsurgency
is that physical control of the contested segment of the population
is essential. Further, that control is greatly facilitated when
the insurgency's support is concentrated among a small and relatively
unpopular minority of the population.4
When that condition obtains, as it did in Malaya and Kenya, a strategy
of population control can succeed. When conditions are different,
as they were in Vietnam, this strategy will fail. In Iraq today,
the situation resembles that which obtained in Malaya and Kenya
more than it resembles conditions in Vietnam. A strategy of population
control could therefore be applied, provided it was modified to
account for local circumstances and the evolution in international
Draining the Swamp: Controlling the Chinese
"Squatters" in Malaya
According to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel John
Nagl and others, British authorities in Malaya took some time even
to realize that they were beset with communist "alligators"
before realizing that only "draining the swamp" could
eliminate them. This they did by systematically concentrating the
Chinese squatter population, roughly 500,000 of Malaya's 1950s population
of approximately 5,000,000, into fortified and tightly controlled
"New Villages." Denied effective access to supporters
and supplies, the insurgency melted away. Physical control and security
thus put the British in an advantageous position that their subsequent
and much-praised military and intelligence operations merely exploited.
Over the period between the implementation of the Briggs Plan in
1951 and the granting of Malaya's independence in 1957, this strategy
of population control broke the back of the communist insurgency.
According to Lieutenant General John Coates
of the Australian Army, the Malayan insurgency benefited almost
as much from British inattention and ineptitude as its own inherent
strength. In his operational analysis of the Malayan Emergency,
Coates discovered that the British mostly relied on the communists'
commitment to disarm and join the political process in the immediate
postwar period. Officials blithely ignored barely concealed subversion
until the scope and scale of communist attacks compelled the government
in London to intervene. By that time, insurgents were killing almost
200 civilians, police, and officials a month.5
British inattention had obscured the insurgency's
weaknesses. Most important, the Communist Party was never able to
broaden its appeal beyond the Chinese squatters, comprising about
one tenth of Malaya's population.6 The
squatters, as their name suggests, lived in ramshackle communities
in the jungle, on land to which they had no legitimate title. The
indigenous Malays bore little love for the Chinese, originally imported
by the British to work in Malaya's rubber plantations and tin mines
under stringent limitations. Moreover, while all ethnic Chinese
resented the Malays' entrenched advantages, those in the urban and
entrepreneurial classes had little yearning for a socialist utopia.
Even most of the squatters were far more concerned with material
improvements in their lives than with establishing a new political
Thus the communists were left depending
upon a minority of a minority to accomplish the revolution.
For that reason, it was relatively simple to
isolate the insurgency physically and politically. Sir Robert Thompson,
a Malaya veteran who later went on to advise the Diem regime in
Vietnam, noted how important it was that Malaya's short border with
friendly Thailand could be sealed easily.8
Within Malaya, it was a matter of denying insurgents access to potential
sources of support. Understanding that squatters constituted both
the insurgency's base of support and its Achilles' heel, the Anglo-Malayan
government moved to bring them firmly under government control.
Sir Harold Rawdon Briggs, appointed Director of Operations in 1950,
is generally credited with realizing that controlling the population
was essential to defeating the insurgency. Over the next two years,
the British relocated the entire squatter population into approximately
423 "New Villages," intended to be inaccessible to the
The government did more than put barbed wire
and entrenchments between the insurgents and the squatters; it neutralized
the desire to support the insurgents. Briggs conceived of the counterinsurgency
campaign as a "competition in government," which informed
the location, design, and organization of the New Villages. First,
the government attempted to minimize disruption to community life.
Whenever possible, the British relied upon regroupment, in which
existing communities were consolidated and fortified, resettling
or moving everyone only when absolutely necessary. In either case,
life in the resulting New Village represented a significant improvement
over the squatters' ramshackle jungle dwellings. The government
provided better infrastructure, ensuring access to medical care
and education. Another key difference was that the squatters now
had a formal right to the land on which they lived. These small
but significant steps eliminated many of the grievances which had
animated the squatters, thereby depriving the insurgents of considerable
There is nothing controversial about combating
an insurgency by improving the lot of the population, but there
was a substantial element of repression to the strategy as well.
Access to each New Village was tightly controlled. Villagers were
subject to search upon exit and entry. Smuggling food, medicine,
or other militarily useful items was subject to severe punishment.
Frequently it did not come to that. Instead, those caught smuggling
often led the authorities to the guerillas in order to avoid punishment.
Enforcing these and other emergency regulations was the responsibility
of the police, mostly ethnic Malays, who were not inclined to align
themselves with the Chinese, let alone with the communists. Usually
the police detachment would also include one or more ethnic Chinese
Special Branch officers, responsible for ferreting out subversive
elements within the community itself. The police detachment also
would be responsible for defending the community, assisted by a
"Home Guard" drawn from the community itself. The formation
of this Home Guard not only removed a manpower burden from government
forces, it also actively involved squatter communities on the side
of the government. The army assumed responsibility only for operations
outside the wire, being distributed so as to be able to rapidly
reinforce villages in the event of attack. Overseeing the integration
of the different elements were top-flight administrators, many of
whom spoke Chinese and had been drawn from throughout the British
The government then focused on destroying the
insurgency, conducting a campaign of indirect approach. Instead
of concentrating immediately upon the areas where the insurgency
was strongest, Sir Gerald Templer, Briggs' successor, focused on
building support for the government where the insurgency was weak.
Such a policy had the advantages of gradually accreting strength
to the government through enhanced economic activity. It also created
the appearance of momentum, and it created a favorable contrast
with conditions in areas troubled by insurgents. Of course, this
policy affronted businessmen and officials in areas where the communists
were strong. When, in response to their entreaties, the government
attempted to attack the guerillas directly, such operations were
Establishing the New Villages required not
only physical infrastructure but a legal one as well. The Emergency
Regulations of 1948 and 1949 that established the New Villages gave
the government significant powers: control of food, which it could
ration or restrict as a form of collective punishment; unlimited
police powers of search and seizure; the ability to detain suspects
indefinitely or deport without trial; and, obviously, the right
to forcibly resettle populations. Death was the penalty for many
of the more serious infractions of these regulations. Such measures
affront modern sensibilities and undoubtedly led to some abuses.
For instance, Anglo-Malayan government did impose collective punishment,
albeit sparingly. One of Sir Gerald Templer's first acts as High
Commissioner was to impose a 22-hour-a-day curfew on the rebel stronghold
of Tanjong Malim, simultaneously halving its food ration.13
Even unwitting mistakes could have drastic consequences. General
John Coates regrets the fate of Malayan aborigines, resettled to
protect them from insurgent intimidation, noting in passing that
On the other hand, the procedural protections
to which Western society was accustomed, even in 1950, would have
proved unworkable against an insurgent campaign of murder and intimidation.
As the quotation from Sir Robert Thompson at the beginning of this
article indicates, the government's determination to win, and its
willingness to take the measures necessary to prevail, will often
determine the allegiance of the uncommitted. While such broad and
severe measures were essential to controlling the insurgency, Malayan
veteran Brigadier Richard Clutterbuck argued that it was equally
important that these powers were formally spelled out and impartially
applied. Such formalities replaced the potential perception of government
actions as arbitrary and abusive with an understanding that the
government was strict but effective. They also ensured that the
Anglo-Malayan actions went no further than the British government
and elites within Malayan society were willing to support.15
The tight control over the Chinese squatters
was the decisive element in British strategy. It enabled the other
aspects of that strategy which recent analysts have praised so much.
In the words of Thompson, describing the general application of
such a strategy, "The 'hold' aspect of operations is undoubtedly
the most crucial and the most complex, involving as it does the
establishment of a solid security framework covering the whole population
living in the villages and small towns of a given area."16
Access control and surveillance identified insurgent supporters.
Officials could then exploit these individuals to find their contacts
both in the jungle and in the villages, enabling the intelligence-directed
operations, for instance. Isolating the population forced the insurgents
to reveal themselves if they wanted access to that population, and
greatly complicated the insurgent task in mobilizing the population.
The results speak for themselves. By 1957,
insurgent strength had declined from its estimated peak of 8,000
in 1952 to a total of 2,000, of which only about 200 were active
combatants. Attacks plunged from a monthly peak of about 100 in
1952 to about 20 in 1957. The insurgency, of course, did not merely
wither. Exploiting the favorable conditions created by population
control through offensive operations to kill or capture insurgents
still took several years. Because the government had control of
the population, however, the insurgency could not make good its
losses. But while victory could be measured in 1957, the decisive
point had been reached in 1952. As Clutterbuck put it, "The
government had won a major victory, though this was not to become
apparent until the middle of the following year ."17
Incurring Moral Hazard: Suppressing the
The British applied the same strategy in Kenya
to combat the Mau Mau insurgency, which officially lasted from 1952
to 1956, but they applied it with a far heavier hand. Like the communists
in Malaya, the Mau Mau in Kenya drew their support almost exclusively
from one ethnic minority, the Kikuyu. As in Malaya, the British
overlooked the Mau Mau's considerable growth in strength and support
until several spectacular murders forced the colonial administration
to acknowledge its existence. At that point, the government overreacted.
Sir Evelyn Baring, the newly appointed governor, imported the Malayan
model wholesale in order to combat the insurgency. Unfortunately,
Baring's government applied it without the sensitivity and restraint
that had characterized Britain's conduct of the Malayan Emergency.
At one point, almost every Kikuyu male of military age had been
detained, with the remaining Kikuyu interned in fortified villages.
These villages resembled Malaya's New Villages, but without the
amenities. An earlier passage in this article noted Caroline Elkins'
characterization of the resulting system as "Britain's Gulag
in Kenya." Historian David Anderson, in his Histories of the
Hanged, asserts that the colonial regime "became a police state
in the very fullest sense of that term."18
In the end, Britain's domestic reaction to revelations of the nature
and scope of the brutality accelerated Britain's retreat from empire,
much as revelations of torture soured the French public on the war
in Algeria. For all that, Baring's government had effectively crushed
the Mau Mau by then, and had done so using the colony's internal
resources. Britain's suppression of the Mau Mau thus teaches us
how a population control strategy can get out of hand. It also supports
the troubling conclusion that it is control of a given population,
and not cultural sensitivity toward it, that was the decisive aspect
of the British practice of counterinsurgency.
Britain's victory in Kenya was due in no small
part to the structural vulnerabilities of the insurgency. At first
glance, the Mau Mau may seem to have posed a much more formidable
threat than the squatters in Malaya. The Mau Mau had gained a much
stronger hold over Kenya's 1.5 million Kikuyu than the communists
had over Malaya's ethnic Chinese. Elkins asserts that almost all
of those 1.5 million people had taken some form of the Mau Mau oath
to expel the British or die trying. Actual combatants numbered around
20,000 at the peak of the insurgency, though how many of these were
effective fighters remains open to question.19
Yet the Mau Mau's success in mobilizing the Kikuyu apparently came
at the cost of alienating Kenya's other groups. To be sure, their
goals of ejecting the British and redistributing British-held land
enjoyed wide support. The Mau Mau, however, failed to advance a
political program for what would replace British domination, or
even a strategy for ejecting them. This failure prevented them from
drawing support from other segments of Kenyan society, who dreaded
the prospect of Kikuyu domination even more than they detested the
British overlordship. Finally, in contrast to the Malayan communists,
who could draw upon their World War II experience of guerilla warfare
against the Japanese, the Mau Mau lacked either the experience of
or any preparation for guerilla warfare. Their attacks thus consisted
mostly of small-scale massacres of isolated white settlers, and,
more frequently, Africans. Structurally, the Mau Mau could wreak
havoc, but not forge a revolution.20
The Mau Mau's failure to broaden their appeal
allowed the British to isolate the Kikuyu from the rest of Kenyan
society, and to draw resources from that society to suppress the
rebellion. Drawing on the example of Malaya, Baring enacted wide-ranging
emergency regulations to enable him to combat the insurgency. He
established a network of fortified villages for the purpose of isolating
guerilla fighters from their base of support. As in Malaya, these
villages were supposed to represent an improvement over previous
communities. Unlike Malaya, there were not enough resources available
to realize this intent. The inhabitants of these villages, mostly
women, children, and the elderly, were forced to build the villages
Conditions in those villages were brutal. The
Home Guard, recruited from Kikuyu loyalists or ethnic rivals of
the Kikuyu, treated the inhabitants as spoils of war. Rape, murder,
and other forms of despoliation and maltreatment were not uncommon.
As for the men, most were either fighting in the jungle or under
detention. At the high point of the insurgency, 70,000 Kikuyu were
in detention camps, where conditions were even worse. While one
might question Caroline Elkins' tenuously supported estimate of
100,000 deaths, it is probable that a great many civilians lost
their lives in detention camps and fortified villages. These conditions
constituted a very real stain on Britain's honor, and the revelations
over the extent of the abuse occasioned public outrage. The Macmillan
government, already unsentimentally committed to wholesale decolonization,
accelerated Kenya's autonomy as a result of popular uproar over
the so-called "Hola River Massacre" in 1959, in which
several inmates were murdered.21
Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of this
system of abuse was that it arose through neglect, not intention.
Even the impassioned Elkins is unwilling to attribute the cruel
conduct of the Kenyan counterinsurgency primarily to malice aforethought,
attributing much of the result to the lack of resources. Unlike
Malaya, Kenya could not claim to be part of the Cold War. Thus Governor
Baring had to make do with the colony's own financial and human
resources, especially the fairly racist and highly self-interested
white settler population. These settlers were more likely to take
vengeance than to ameliorate legitimate grievances. The much larger
population to be controlled also placed a much greater strain on
available resources. Most important, Baring had considerably less
room to conciliate the insurgents. In contrast to the situation
in Malaya, Baring was responsible for maintaining Britain's somewhat
unjust colonial domination, a goal to which few Kenyans could subscribe
from altruism. Thus instead of enlisting support, Baring had to
buy it with whatever he could expropriate from suspected rebels.
All this made the conflict especially and unnecessarily cruel.22
Even so, these tactics broke the Mau Mau. With
independence, power passed peacefully to Jomo Kenyatta. While Kenyatta
had been falsely imprisoned for fomenting their rebellion, he had
in truth steadfastly refused any connection with the Mau Mau, even
while in prison. Out of prison and in power, he continued to grant
former Mau Mau neither credit for independence nor a share of power
in post-independence Kenya. Kenya remained a member of the Commonwealth
of Nations. With constrained resources and flawed instruments, Baring
had defeated an insurgency of larger scope and greater appeal than
the one that had challenged the British in Malaya. He had also deeply
compromised Britain's moral status.23
Vietnam: The Failure of the Strategic Hamlet
One place where a strategy of population control
did not work was Vietnam. Of course, given the war's ultimate result,
it is hard to argue that anything else did, either. In the early
1960s, things looked different, however. Hoping to replicate Britain's
success in Malaya, South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem initiated
the Strategic Hamlet program under the direction of his brother,
Ngo Dinh Nhu. Diem relied heavily on advice he got from Sir Robert
Thompson, who had played a prominent role as a member of Sir Gerald
Templer's administration in Malaya. Thompson and others would later
argue that Diem implemented the plan poorly, striving for quantity
over quality. The speed and scope with which people were transferred
into these fortified camps ensured that the process not only alienated
the peasantry whose support Diem was trying to gain, but also was
ineffective in the end.24 In any event,
America abandoned the Strategic Hamlet program with the Diem regime
after the November 1963 coup, narrowing its focus to the formidable
challenge of defeating the People's Army of Vietnam and main force
Viet Cong maneuver formations. This approach, often referred to
as the strategy of attrition, proved an even bigger mistake in the
Yet while no counterinsurgency strategy attempted
in Vietnam proved ultimately successful, those which eventually
showed promise contained many of the same elements. The Marine Corps'
Combined Assistance Platoon program, largely successful where applied,
focused on providing security to villagers by embedding Marine squads
in local village militias, and the Civil Operations and Revolutionary
Development Support (CORDS) program of US Military Assistance Command,
Vietnam (MACV) achieved limited success by coordinating security
and civic action at the village level in a manner reminiscent of
Malaya's New Villages.25 Yet if these
initiatives produced any success, it was not enough to enable South
Vietnam to gain the internal strength and cohesion required to resist
North Vietnamese conquest indefinitely.
The most compelling explanation for the failure
of the Strategic Hamlet program lay in Vietnam's vastly different
recent history, geography, and demography. In contrast to the relatively
weak Malayan communists or the Mau Mau, the Viet Cong could build
on the remnants of the Viet Minh insurgency that had defeated the
French. Moreover, the Viet Cong were vigorously and continuously
supported by North Vietnam, unlike the Malayans and the Mau Mau,
who largely had to fend for themselves. Most important, it was the
Diem regime, and not the insurgents, that drew its strength from
a distinct minority of the population, the Vietnamese Catholics,
while the communists took special care not to alienate the Buddhist
majority. Indeed, deriving their lineage from the Viet Minh, the
National Liberation Front proved better able to lay claim to a legitimizing
Conclusion: Applying the British Model
The results of this comparative historical
analysis are troubling. In Malaya, Sir Harold Briggs and his successor,
Gerald Templer, combined a strategy of population control with an
effective "hearts and minds" campaign to better the living
conditions of the Chinese squatters, breaking the back of the insurgency
in about five years. In Kenya, Evelyn Baring executed a far crueler
version of the strategy employed in Malaya. There, the violence
and brutality of repression clearly outweighed the feeble and poorly
resourced attempts to win Kikuyu "hearts and minds." Nonetheless,
the Mau Mau were essentially broken in four years. This comparison
suggests that the vital element in both counterinsurgency efforts
was the effective internment of the subject populations, and not
efforts at social amelioration. While we would like to believe that
"winning hearts and minds" is both important and effective,
these examples suggest that the effort is neither essential nor
decisive. Instead, what will determine success in counterinsurgency
is how effectively the insurgent may be denied access to his base
of support. The question is whether this analysis has any bearing
on our current situation, especially in Iraq.
It may not. The situation there differs considerably
from that which obtained in 1950s Malaya and Kenya. Iraq's military
geography is considerably more challenging. Like Vietnam, and unlike
either Malaya or Kenya, Iraq shares long and porous borders with
neighboring states-in this case Syria and Iran, neither of which
favors the emergence of a democratic, Western-oriented Iraq. Foreign
fighters flow over these borders virtually unhindered. There are
also a lot more people in Iraq. There are almost as many Sunni Arabs
as there were Malayans. Moreover, unlike Malaya's small and easily
sequestered villages, Iraq's population largely resides in relatively
large, contiguous urban areas. Samarra, Falluja, and Tal Afar, all
scenes of recent combat, each number about 200,000 or more. The
United Nations estimates that Iraq is about 79 percent urbanized.26
Breaking these cities down into manageable and defensible units
would present considerable challenges in implementation. At a more
fundamental level, even with our Iraqi partners, we don't have enough
administrators, police, and soldiers with a sufficient working knowledge
of Iraqi society and culture. Such administrators and police were
critical to Britain's victory in Malaya in the 1950s.
Most important, there is one critical difference-and
it is that our current strategy is showing signs of succeeding.
Iraq's third successful election in the course of one year provides
evidence that we and the Iraqis are successfully isolating the insurgents
politically, if not physically. In particular, vigorous Sunni participation
indicates a move away from violence toward participation in the
political process. The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq states
that progress on the political front has led ordinary Iraqis to
provide better intelligence on insurgent activity. According to
the Brookings Institution's December 2005 Iraq Index, such tips
reached an all-time high in November. More important, the Iraqis'
increasing commitment to the political process has led to an increasing
and tangible commitment to the Iraqi state. In a key indicator,
recruiting for Iraqi security forces continues to outpace requirements.
Moreover, according to Lieutenant General David Petraeus, those
security forces are increasingly capable of independent operations.27
Iraq resembles Malaya in one critical respect,
however: the insurgency is concentrated in one social minority,
the Sunni Arab population, and lacks broader appeal to Iraq's other
constituent elements.28 Clearly, not
all Sunnis support the insurgency, either actively or tacitly, but
there is reason to believe that some Sunni elites are attempting
to leverage the insurgency to lay claim to a disproportionate share
of Iraq's political power and wealth.29
And while recent polls indicate that a majority of Iraqis want an
end to the US occupation, that shared aspiration does not necessarily
translate into support for the insurgency. The evident aims of the
insurgency-a return to Sunni dominance, perhaps tinged with the
imposition of a harsh Sunni religious orthodoxy-inspire opposition
rather than support among Iraq's majority Shia population and ethnic
Unfortunately, another key similarity is that
the insurgency has steadily gained in strength and effectiveness,
just as the Malayan insurgency grew in the years before 1952. Estimates
of insurgent strength have climbed from about 5,000 in the summer
of 2003 to a current figure that hovers between 15,000 and 20,000,
though the increase does appear to have leveled off recently. Moreover,
the insurgency continues to grow in sophistication and effectiveness.
Average daily attacks have reached a high of between 80 and 100.
While monthly US casualties are below their peaks in April and November
2004, the general trend has been upward, as it has for the number
of Iraqi civilian dead.30 Just as the
British experienced in the early stages of Malaya, we find ourselves
clearing an area of insurgents only to find ourselves returning
to the same place to fight a different group of insurgents later
on.31 These facts may dictate a willingness
to consider a modified strategic concept of intensified population
Now is not the time to implement such a strategy,
however, and we should refrain from doing so as long as current
methods continue to show signs of progress. In the short term, a
policy of internment might well engender more support for the insurgency.
International opinion would not stand for interning Iraq's Sunni
Arab population, and US soldiers might well balk at forcing civilians
into internment camps. Unless explained very effectively to Americans,
it probably also would erode domestic support for the war. It is
an option-but one that need not be exercised immediately.
If events recommend a change in strategy, however,
it might be possible to entice Sunnis into internment voluntarily,
as an alternative preferable to being continually fought over. The
Sunni Arab community is not monolithic. As several analysts have
pointed out, tribes are actually the dominant organizing unit for
Iraqi society.32 Some Sunni tribes
can undoubtedly be won over to support of the government, just as
the British managed to fracture ethnic solidarity among the Chinese
in Malaya. By submitting to a regimen of tighter control, such communities
could avoid becoming a battleground and get better access to reconstruction
aid. Rather than being imprisoned in internment camps, the Sunnis
would be joining "gated communities" with enhanced security
and perhaps better access to reconstruction support. The key is
keeping such communities small enough to deny insurgents the ability
to infiltrate them and coerce support from the inhabitants. In effect,
these Sunni communities would be opting out of the war. Such "opting
out" would work in our favor, by progressively narrowing the
insurgents' potential base of support. Foreign fighters would have
fewer places to hide, as they would no longer be able to simply
move in anywhere and coerce the silence of neighbors. Though this
strategy would not eliminate insurgent freedom of action, it would
narrow its scope, allowing US and Iraqi security forces to concentrate
their assets on unsecured areas. Moreover, just as it did in Malaya,
the establishment of secured communities should facilitate the collection
of intelligence. Controlling this population would simultaneously
strike at the source of the insurgency and contribute to convincing
large sections of the Sunni minority that their war is over. Such
a system would comprise an important element of our continually
evolving strategy, whose security component is "clear, hold,
and build." The core of US strategy would still remain fostering
democratic political institutions, effective security forces, and
a robust economy.
We neither can nor should impose this strategy
upon the Iraqis. It must be their choice, and it probably should
be their choice of last resort. Only the Iraqis could hammer out
the necessary compromises to ensure that a strategy of stringent
population control gains and retains popular legitimacy. Our role
would be to help the Iraqis develop a workable plan, and to support
them in its execution. If this strategy were to be implemented,
however, it would be vital that we help provide the resources necessary
to prevent the strategy from degenerating into mere repression,
as it did in Kenya. It should go without saying that this strategy
would have to be very carefully explained to the American public,
to the world, and especially to the Iraqis, so that everyone would
understand why they are doing it and what they hope to achieve.
The time may come when the Iraqi majority is
no longer satisfied with the extent of voluntary cooperation offered
the Sunni Arab community. If the insurgents continue to strike at
will, and if the Sunni community persists in its active and tacit
support of the insurgency, the Shiite and Kurdish majority may cease
to tolerate a situation in which their alternatives are enduring
torment and terror indefinitely or submitting to domination by a
detested minority. If that point is reached, involuntary internment
may prove to be the least bad remaining humane alternative. International
opinion, which views with equanimity the minority's imposition of
collective terror upon the majority, will undoubtedly oppose such
a strategy as "collective punishment." What the British
practice of counterinsurgency suggests, however, is that it just
1. In this vein, General Peter
Schoomaker commended Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl's outstanding
analysis of the British Army's performance as a learning organization
during the Malayan Emergency, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife:
Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Westport: Praeger,
2002), to the House Armed Services Committee in the summer of 2004.
Nagl's prescient study rose to prominence once we found ourselves
embroiled in Iraq. For other references to the British model, see
Robert M. Cassidy, "The British Army in Counterinsurgency:
The Salience of Military Culture," Military Review, 85 (May/June
2005); or James D. Campbell, "French Algeria and British Northern
Ireland: Legitimacy and the Rule of Law in Low-Intensity Conflict,"
Military Review, 85 (March/April 2005).
2. See, for example,
Richard Clutterbuck, The Long, Long War: Counterinsurgency in Malaya
and Vietnam (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), p. 64.
3. Caroline Elkins,
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya
(New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
4. Experts in the field
seem to realize this, but write only very obliquely about the subject.
In Kalev Sepp, "Best Practices in Counterinsurgency,"
Military Review, 85 (May-June 2005), 8-12, Dr. Sepp lists population
control as a "best practice," but limits his discussion
to identity cards and other administrative measures. In John A.
Lynn, "Patterns of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency,"
Military Review, 85 (July-August 2005), 27, the author briefly acknowledges
the role that physical isolation and internment played in the Malayan
Emergency without touching on its propensity for abuse.
5. John Coates, Suppressing
Insurgency: An Analysis of the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1954 (Boulder,
Colo.: Westview Press, 1992), pp. 2-3. Richard Clutterbuck, an Army
officer seconded to the Special Branch during the emergency, also
thought that the Anglo-Malayan government had been slow to recognize
6. For the story of
Lai Tek, see Clutterbuck, pp. 18, 29.
7. Coates, p. 86.
8. Sir Robert Thompson,
Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam
(New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), p. 19.
9. Clutterbuck, p. 57.
10. Coates, p. 82.
11. Coates, p. 83;
Clutterbuck, pp. 61-62.
12. Clutterbuck, p.
13. Ibid., pp. 80-82.
Coates and Nagl also cite this incident.
14. Coates, p. 92.
15. Clutterbuck, pp.
16. Thompson, p. 121.
17. Statistics are
taken from Clutterbuck, p. 87; the quotation is from p. 64. John
Coates confirms the assessment that internment was the decisive
element in victory (p. 83), as does Sir Richard Thompson.
18. David Anderson,
Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire
(New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), p. 5.
19. The figures are
from Elkins. Anderson, while acknowledging that support for the
Mau Mau was widespread, doubts that it ever attained quite these
20. Anderson (p. 4)
notes the weaknesses of the insurgents, especially the failure to
appeal to other ethnic groups.
21. Elkins makes frequent
reference to Baring's reliance on Malayan precedents for emergency
regulations (p. 55) and "villagization" (p. 235). For
the cosmetic nature of efforts at social amelioration, see p. 115.
For the use forced labor to build the villages, see p. 129. She
and Anderson concur that shame at these practices accelerated British
withdrawal; Elkins (p. 356), Anderson (p. 329).
22. Elkins makes frequent
reference to the expediencies forced on Baring by pecuniary necessity,
including the involvement of illegal settler operations in "screenings"
for Mau Mau suspects, the prevalence of forced labor (p. 129), the
squalid nature of life in the fortified villages (p. 237), and so
23. I should note
that Britain may well have been able to achieve the same result,
at lower cost and much less loss of life, by negotiating with Kenyatta
in 1954 instead of imprisoning him.
24. George C. Herring,
America's Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975
(3d ed.; New York: McGraw Hill, 1996), pp. 98-99.
25. For a nuanced
discussion of the history of counterinsurgency strategies in Vietnam,
see Richard A. Hunt, Pacification: The American Struggle for Vietnam's
Hearts and Minds (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995). Many readers
will no doubt be aware of Lewis Sorley's argument that a strategy
of population security had largely proved successful within South
Vietnam by 1972; see his book A Better War: The Unexamined Victories
and Final Tragedies of America's Last Years in Vietnam (New York:
Harcourt Brace, 1999).
26. United Nations
Settlement Program, Iraq, http://www.unhabitat.org/habrdd/conditions/westasia/iraq.htm.
27. George W. Bush,
National Strategy for Victory in Iraq (Washington: The White House,
November 2005), pp. 9, 21. The Brookings Institution's Iraq Index:
Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam
Iraq (http://www.brookings.edu/iraqindex), 19 December 2005, supports
the claim of increased intelligence from civilians; see table, "Tips
Received from Population," p. 25.
28. Anthony Cordesman,
"The Developing Iraqi Insurgency: Status at End - 2004,"
draft paper, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 22
December 2004, p. 12.
29. See Frederick
W. Kagan, "Blueprint for Victory," The Weekly Standard,
31 October 2005, http://www.weeklystandard.com/Content/
Public/Articles/000/000/006/249zzgbd.asp; Gary Schmitt, "Why
Iraq's Sunnis Won't Deal," The Washington Post, 13 September
2005, p. A27.
30. Estimates of insurgent
strength are drawn from the Brookings Institution, Iraq Index: Tracking
Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq,
"Estimated Strength of Insurgency Nationwide," 4 August
2005, p. 15. The assessment of effectiveness follows that of Cordesman.
31. See stories on
the border village of Qaim, "Insurgents Assert Control Over
Town Near Syrian Border," The Washington Post, 6 September
2005; and on Samarra, John R. S. Batiste and Paul R. Daniels, "The
Fight for Samarra: Full-Spectrum Operations in Modern Warfare,"
Military Review, 85 (May-June 2005), http://www.army.mil/professionalwriting/
32. William S. McCallister,
Charles Kyle, and Christopher Alexander, "The Iraqi Insurgent
Movement," Naval Post Graduate School, November 2003, http://library.nps.navy.mil/home/Iraqi
Also available online at: