The British Empire Library

The British Way In Counter-Insurgency 1945-1967

by David French

Courtesy of OSPA

Nigel Inkster (Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk, International Institute of Strategic Studies, and former senior intelligence official)
Counter-insurgency - or COIN to use the currently fashionable acronym - poses a unique set of challenges to any government which finds its authority coming under challenge from an Insurgent group. It requires a set of skills that are not intrinsic either to professional armed forces or police and which have to be deployed in a context requiring an all-of-government approach to security which is equally alien to many of the civilian officials required to implement it. As General David Petraeus observed in his introduction to the revised US Army Counter- Insurgency Manual, counter-insurgencies normally begin poorly. Governments find themselves unsighted against an enemy which Initially enjoys all the advantages of asymmetry and their normal first response is to over-react. It is also important to remember that, in contrast to conventional military engagements, counterinsurgency is not about winning or losing. Rather It is about buying time and space to enable governments to take whatever political, social and economic measures may be necessary to address the causes fuelling insurgency. In the case of the insurgencies examined by military historian Professor David French in his latest volume, the solution normally came in the form of accelerated progress towards political independence.

Professor French undertakes a detailed and widely-sourced examination of the politically-motivated violence afflicting the British Empire between 1945 and 1967, including a number of situations not normally considered to be insurgencies, such as the Gold Coast and British Guiana. His basic thesis is that a misreading of the history of these conflicts led the British Armed Forces to develop a counter-insurgency doctrine which was fundamentally flawed insofar as it put winning "hearts and minds" at the centre of its strategy whereas in practice British strategy relied primarily on coercion. Professor French cites examples such as the forcible population resettlements which took place in Malaya and the highlands of Kenya as well as other security measures - detentions without trial, house searches - that were untargeted and impacted adversely on the population as a whole in ways that could only alienate rather than win round. Such measures were justified by a British practice of avoiding declarations of martial law whilst implementing local legislation which had a comparable effect.

Professor French has many criticisms of the British approach to counterinsurgency, some justified and some still in evidence today. Among these is the inability - or unwillingness - of colonial administrations to implement lessons learnt elsewhere; and the degree to which frequent roulements of military personnel militated against the consistent implementation of a single strategy - a problem much in evidence in Southern Afghanistan over the past six years. Some of his judgements are however less well-founded or based on a tendency to judge a very different if recent past by the standards of the present. British colonial administrations - by design - sat lightly on those they governed. But to characterise such administrations as "fragile states" makes assumptions about the role and functions of the state that are very contemporary and bear little relation to then-pertaining realities. Similarly, provisions such as the European and UN Conventions on Human Rights had come into being following the horrors visited on European populations during World War II and were no doubt interpreted and applied against that backcloth; they have since undergone much refinement and re-interpretation as expectations have changed. That said, Professor French gives the British a relatively clean bill of health when it comes to "dirty wars", concluding that extra-judicial killings and systematic torture were not part of a British approach. Individual excesses did however occur and were dealt with though not always in ways that would command contemporary acceptance.

There are two areas where Professor French's treatment fails to do the British full justice. The first is in the realm of intelligence. It is true that almost all the insurgencies with which colonial administrations had to deal began with a poor intelligence picture and that in some cases this did not improve enough to make a real difference But in most cases the intelligence picture did undergo significant improvement and there were some notable achievements which go unmentioned in this book such as the success of the Penang Special Branch In getting astride the Malayan Communist Party's external communications via Sumatra. The other is the way in which insurgents were characterised as thugs and criminals rather than as people with a legitimate political agenda. It is true that insurgents were so categorised and no doubt many rank-and-file soldiers and police, not to mention settlers in places like Kenya, genuinely saw them in that light. But part of that approach was no doubt motivational - soldiers need to believe they are fighting an enemy - and part political. Throughout the thirty-plus years of the Northern Ireland insurgency, successive British administrations referred to the Provisional IRA as terrorists, denying them legitimacy - until the point when political negotiations began in earnest. In COIN, as in so much else, timing and sequencing is everything.

British Empire Book
David French
Oxford University Press
978 0 199 587 96 4