Friday, February 11, 2011

Karl Hack on Malaya and counterinsurgency

After last week's post and the brief discussion that followed it, this could not have come along at a better time: "Setting the Record Straight on Malayan Counterinsurgency Strategy: Interview with Karl Hack" at Small Wars Journal.

I hate to keep hinting at a big, earth-shaking post that I keep not writing, but this bit in particular just absolutely nails something that I think is absolutely essential to understanding COIN in a broader context and to talking and writing about it in an accurate, honest way:
Yet for counterinsurgency, people do sometimes ask ‘what is the one key ingredient’? The answer is, menus do not work like that, and neither did the Malayan Emergency. There were distinct phases or stages. I would argue that many other insurgencies are also likely to have distinct stages, and indeed that within a single insurgency different provinces or regions may be at different stages at any one time. It is quite possible that Helmand and Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar, could simultaneously be at very different stages, requiring very different policies.
The question above, therefore, encompasses what I would like to dub the ‘temporal fallacy’ (that policies abstracted from one defining moment might be equally valid in qualitatively different phases), and the spatial fallacy (that different geographic regions will be in the same phase, so allowing a single strategy for a country no matter how fractured and diverse).
Much popular writing and most military messaging about counterinsurgency is guilty of both the termporal fallacy and the spatial fallacy; whether this is a matter of disingenuous manipulation of public and political opinion or innocent but misleading oversimplification is still something of an open question.


  1. Gulliver, in my opinion the simplification occurs because people want a simple answer to a complex problem. And when something appears to have yielded results somewhere, it is exported, ripped form its context, and applied elsewhere. Knowing why it happens is to me less difficult than combating this intellectual tendency, which is often detrimental.

    A lot of it has to do with balance and sensitivity as to what can be borrowed from previous times and far-away lands. It may just be that that which is exportable is quite vague and self-evident, but it may nonetheless be useful (just witness Western armies reinventing the wheel over and over again when it comes to political violence).

    In a piece I wrote on Malaya and the 'Relevance and Legacy of a Counter-Insurgency Success Story', I came to a similar conclusion:

    'It is clear that Malaya can be a useful case study in the analysis of current and future counter-insurgency campaigns. The key, however, lies in not confusing particular methods with general principles. The former are often bound to the specific context of Malaya or inextricably tied up with the wider counter-insurgency strategy employed in that campaign. The latter are more universal and point to and elucidate the unique logic of counter-insurgency operations, which differ substantially from conventional military campaigns. Though some of these principles can appear commonsensical, even truistic, in theory, they should be remembered and engrained within the ethos of any military intent on engaging in counter-insurgency.'

  2. David -- Thanks for commenting. I very much agree with your point, but I think there's an element to this that you're not considering: in the politics of national security, oversimplification is almost always beneficial to those who champion a particular cause. And this actually dovetails with the point you're making, because I think we can agree that while there may be "universal" "general principles" that CAN be exported, that CAN be used as accurate shorthand for what effective COIN is, simplistic sound bites like "the people are the prize" -- false "principles" that propagate the myth of kinder, gentler, less-bloody if not bloodless war -- are not among them.

  3. Gulliver, quite right. Given what was once COIN's indelible association with the Vietnam War, it is quite remarkable that it could - only a few decades on - be contorted to imply a 'kinder, gentler, less-bloody if not bloodless war'. If anyone bought this myth, it speaks to a very impressive re-branding campaign!

    Perhaps it can be explained by how we got to COIN in Iraq in the first place: a shift from a more lethal variant which made COIN seem fuzzy and nice by comparison. Was this deliberate spin? I don't know...