Managing Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Malaya

By Ladwig, Walter C., Iii. | Military Review, May-June 2007 | Go to article overview

Managing Counterinsurgency: Lessons from Malaya


Ladwig, Walter C., Iii., Military Review


Without a reasonably efficient government machine, no programmes or projects, in the context of counterinsurgency, will produce the desired results.

--Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency. (1)

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COMBATING AN INSURGENCY tests a government to its fullest. To succeed, the government must bring to bear all the elements of national power (political, military, and social) in a coordinated campaign. The absence of such coordination can result in a lack of clear authority, inadequate intelligence analysis, poorly integrated efforts by civilian agencies, and military operations that fail to achieve their desired effect.

The problem of achieving unity of effort is significantly more complicated for an outside power attempting to support a partner against an insurgency. The outside power must channel its efforts through the partner's political and social system, and success requires a high degree of coordination via management structures tailored to the needs of the specific situation.

The U.S. Army's recently released Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, recognizes the importance of effective coordination, advising that "military efforts are necessary and important to counterinsurgency efforts, but they are only effective when integrated into a comprehensive strategy employing all instruments of national power." (2) It further recognizes that the traditional imperative of unity of command is not likely to be achieved in a counterinsurgency operation. "An insurgency's complex diplomatic, informational, military and economic context precludes military leaders from commanding all contributing organizations--and they should not try to do so. Interagency partners, NGOs, and private organizations have many interests and agendas that military forces cannot control ... Nevertheless, military leaders should make every effort to ensure that COIN actions are as well integrated as possible." (3)

What are the mechanisms by which this interagency and inter-governmental integration can be achieved? FM 3-24 highlights the unity of effort achieved in Vietnam through the Civil Operations and Rural Development Support organization. Yet this is only one method of integrating civil and military efforts in counterinsurgency. The British achieved effective integration in a host of successful counterinsurgency campaigns through the employment of an executive-committee system. Among these campaigns was the Malayan Emergency, a British-led campaign against Communist guerrillas that lasted from 1948 to 1960. The Malayan Emergency is an example of successful coordination between the civil and military elements of government as well as between multiple nations. Making war by committee is not usually the best approach to military operations, but the British experience in Malaya is a case

of a successful counterinsurgency effort conducted against the backdrop of a complex political arrangement. It demonstrates one method of achieving close coordination and effective management of civil and military resources.

The British effort in Malaya followed a familiar pattern: at the start of the insurgency, authorities lacked adequate command and coordination structures. Initial attempts to coordinate government efforts fell short. Only through a process of analysis and adjustment did an effective coordination structure eventually emerge: joint (civil-military) and combined (British-Malayan) executive committees directed the operational conduct of the counterinsurgency campaign. (4)

Throughout its history with irregular warfare, the United States has often found itself in the position of supporting an ally's counterinsurgency effort. Present circumstances suggest that this task will remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. When U.S. forces must wrestle with the problem of how to integrate supporting elements from the United States with the host-nation government to achieve unity of effort in a counterinsurgency campaign, history can offer a necessary supplement to existing doctrine to produce a complete answer. …

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