Foreign Affairs July/August 2005

The Wrong Lesson

Our counterinsurgency efforts abroad are starting to resemble the British Empire's. This could mean gains now—and trouble later
From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Secret History" (June 13, 2005)
Caroline Elkins, the author of Imperial Reckoning, talks about unearthing the sinister underside of Britain's "civilizing" mission in Kenya.

In an influential article that appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in September of 2003, John Arquilla, a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, urged the United States to look carefully at British imperial counterinsurgency efforts in 1950s Kenya. There, Arquilla argued, was a model the Bush administration could learn from in its efforts to fight insurgents in Iraq and terrorists around the world. In Kenya, he observed, the British, under the leadership of General Sir Frank Kitson, undertook a successful campaign against Mau Mau insurgents who were fighting for independence from Britain. Some 20,000 Africans had taken to Kenya's remote forests, where they waged a protracted guerrilla war. Arquilla wrote,

When conventional military operations and bombing failed to defeat the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the 1950s, the British formed teams of friendly Kikuyu tribesmen who went about pretending to be terrorists. These "pseudo gangs," as they were called, swiftly threw the Mau Mau on the defensive, either by befriending and then ambushing bands of fighters or by guiding bombers to the terrorists' camps. What worked in Kenya a half-century ago has a wonderful chance of undermining trust and recruitment among today's terror networks. Forming new pseudo gangs should not be difficult.

Kitson's pseudo-gangs were a key element of the "low-intensity operations" that were deployed throughout the British Empire in the waning days of colonial rule. Starting in the early 1950s, Kitson spent three decades moving from Malaya (now Malaysia) to Kenya to Cyprus to Oman to Northern Ireland, acquiring strategic knowledge and adapting his policies to local circumstances. His counterinsurgency program rippled even further, touching nearly every corner of the world where Britain had imperial and strategic interests. Many hold that Kitson and the British established the gold standard for disengaging from imperial occupation and defusing some international threats—that they dealt efficiently with local terrorists and at the same time managed to leave behind enduring institutions and laws that would help ensure democratic futures.

But are pseudo-gangs really the best model for the United States in its global war on terror, or in its ongoing battle against Sunni insurgents in Iraq? Not necessarily; and besides, Arquilla's thinking rests on a flawed historical analogy. For one thing, pseudo-gangs could not have succeeded without more severe and overarching measures of control by the British—in fact, police-state control. In addition to targeting insurgents directly, the British targeted civilian populations, which often illicitly supported insurgents and harbored critical intelligence. Through measures including collective punishment, fines and curfews, detention without trial, expanded capital punishment, censorship, and restrictions on movement, British forces sought to intimidate civilians, separate them from insurgents, and collect the intelligence necessary to infiltrate terrorist networks. In Kenya they broke civilian support by systematizing torture, inflicting heavy civilian casualties, and detaining nearly 1.5 million Africans thought to be sympathetic to the Mau Mau.

The British adopted similar policies in Cyprus at about the same time, creating "Q patrols" to help suppress Greek Cypriot insurgents who demanded unification with Greece. The Q patrols worked alongside security forces, snatch squads, and interrogation teams that earned the nickname "HMTs," or "Her Majesty's Torturers." Like the pseudo-gangs in Kenya, they operated with a free hand in a police state.

Nearly two decades later, to protect their interests in the Middle East, the British directed counterinsurgency operations in Oman. The British Army Training Team raised firqats—the Omani version of pseudo-gangs—by enlisting surrendered or defected rebels, and gave them carte blanche in their efforts to penetrate rebel networks. Here, too, Britain employed harsh policies, such as poisoning wells and cutting off food supplies. (Significantly, in Northern Ireland, where British forces could not resort to such extreme measures, their success in breaking down terrorist networks was limited.)

The Bush administration has already begun to adopt similar counterinsurgency strategies. It has detained suspected al-Qaeda members without trial in Guantánamo and conducted widespread civilian searches in Iraq; and in November of 2003 news broke that the Pentagon had assembled a Special Operations task force charged with capturing or assassinating Baathist insurgents. (Its mission has since expanded, and it is now operating in Afghanistan as well.) According to the investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, overseeing the "manhunting" plan are two of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's closest advisers: Stephen Cambone, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, and Cambone's military assistant, Lieutenant General William Boykin.

Presented by

Caroline Elkins is an associate professor of history at Harvard University and the author of Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya.

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