As the drumbeat of bad news continues in Iraq and calls for a U.S. withdrawal begin to take hold, a popular clich?ill get increased currency: that it is impossible to win a war against a guerrilla insurgency. This is the historical inaccuracy that Vietnam wrought. Americans assume that since they lost a war that had a guerrilla aspect in Vietnam -- never mind that it was a conventional North Vietnamese army that ultimately conquered the South -- everyone must always lose guerrilla wars.
Among other things, this ignores the American victory over an insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s, the Greek triumph over a communist insurgency after World War II, El Salvador's defeat of communist guerrillas in the 1980s, Peru's smashing of a terrorist insurgency in the 1990s, the recent qualified victory of the British over the Irish Republican Army, and Israel's continuing upper hand over terrorists in the West Bank and Gaza. Most importantly, the insurgents-always-win school skips over the textbook example of successful counterinsurgency, the British victory in Malaysia in the 1950s over a communist guerrilla movement.
The British experience is related in John Nagl's cult-classic book "Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam." It has become must reading for high-level officers in Iraq because its lessons seem so directly applicable to the situation there. Nagl himself, an Army major, has been in Iraq, where we still can duplicate the British experience in Malaysia of stumbling initially, but prevailing through innovation, stick-to-itiveness and shrewd political maneuvering.
Communist guerrillas in Malaysia took up arms in the late 1940s, murdering Europeans, sabotaging industry and using terror to try to strengthen the insurgency's base among the country's Chinese minority. Given their colonial history, the British had plenty of experience with such low-intensity conflicts, but had forgotten it after the conventional warfare in Europe of World War II. The Brits at first considered the insurgency primarily a military problem, and tried to take the guerrillas on in conventional military formations. These tactics not only failed to engage the guerrillas, who easily evaded the large jungle sweeps, but their heavy-handedness alienated the local population.