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.

Like their earlier British counterparts, the members of this task force are dependent on local intelligence networks. Former members of the Iraqi intelligence service have become coalition supporters and have provided crucial information; but observers have voiced fears that some of these newfound Iraqi allies, like loyalists in the British operations, may use their positions to settle private grievances and line their own pockets. Still, the United States has reportedly begun to move forward with similar operations in its fight against terrorism elsewhere in the world.

Militarily, the Bush strategists may be on to something. If Britain's past successes are anything to judge by, American low-intensity operations could help win the war on terror—at least in the short term. But Britain's long-term strategies seem hardly appropriate for contemporary American foreign policy—and the administration's readiness to mimic this sort of model should give us serious pause. There is this inconvenient fact: Throughout Britain's former empire, twentieth-century colonial rule and the suppression of terrorists—some of whom might more properly be called nationalists—inscribed a legacy of violence on the governments established in Britain's wake. As Somchai Homlaor, the secretary general of Forum-Asia, a leading human-rights organization, has put it, "Internal-security laws and anti-terrorist laws are a draconian remnant of the laws employed during the colonial era." Indeed, advisers from Britain's Colonial Office, who oversaw the crafting of police states throughout the empire, had a hand in drafting the new constitutions and legal systems that institutionalized coercion and political subjugation in Britain's former colonial states. In the final accounting, repressive laws and undemocratic institutions, not peace and progress, are the primary bequest of the British to their onetime empire.

A few examples. Britain's strategy in Cyprus during the insurgency of the 1950s engendered open Cypriot hostilities that persisted; violent clashes often erupted as Greek and Turkish Cypriots sought to annex part or all of the island for their respective countries. Malaysia experienced convulsive violence in the years after independence, culminating in a state of emergency from 1969 to 1971; the Malaysian government's crackdown on dissent, which included suspending due process and freedom of the press, took its cues from British repression. Malaysians still live under an Internal Security Act that was adapted from Britain's emergency regulations of the late 1940s; it allows for preventive—and indefinite—detention without trial. Since independence thousands of people, including the former deputy prime minister, have been rounded up and detained. And in Guyana, where Britain suspended the constitution and instituted a state of emergency in 1953, the independent regime of Forbes Burnham implemented arbitrary measures and legal structures similar to those that underwrote this colonial repression.

The independence leaders Jomo Kenyatta, of Kenya, and Hastings Banda, of Malawi, also used British methods to suppress opposition and to divide rather than unite new nations. Their governments, like many others in the former empire, adopted British regulations, penal institutions, policing policies, and military tactics with little alteration. Kenya's Preservation of Public Security Act—a near replica of British post-emergency legislation—enabled the harassment, detention, torture, and murder of hundreds of opposition members, first under Kenyatta and then under his successor, Daniel T. arap Moi. In Malawi laws similarly rooted in British colonial precedent gave Banda powers to eliminate dissent. And like the British, Banda wielded these powers liberally, overseeing not just detentions without trial but torture and extrajudicial killings.

Britain's legacy was not limited to institutions and laws; members of local populations who sided with the British in counterinsurgency operations often helped institute repressive measures both while the British were in power and after they were gone. Rather than providing the backbone of a civil society, these former loyalists helped ensure its failure.

Not coincidentally, the Bush administration's war on terror is being waged in some of the same regions of the world. During her Senate confirmation testimony Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice served up one of the latest slogans in this war, calling Iran, Zimbabwe, Cuba, North Korea, Belarus, and Myanmar the "outposts of tyranny." One of her responsibilities will presumably be to defend the practices—the detentions in Guantánamo, the commando and death squads in Iraq and elsewhere—that a strategy of low-intensity operations requires. But if history offers any lesson here, it may be that the real "outposts of tyranny" are the institutions left behind by the colonial and military strategists in Britain's twentieth-century empire.