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Training Indigenous Forces in Counterinsurgency: A Tale of Two Insurgencies

Training Indigenous Forces in Counterinsurgency: A Tale of Two Insurgencies - Cover

Authored by Dr. James S. Corum.

March 2006

71 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author examines the British experience in building and training indigenous police and military forces during the Malaya and Cyprus insurgencies. These two insurgencies provide a dramatic contrast to the issue of training local security forces. In Malaya, the British developed a very successful strategy for training the Malayan Police and army. In Cyprus, the British strategy for building and training local security forces generally was ineffective. The author argues that some important lessons can be drawn from these case studies that are directly applicable to current U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine.


Counterinsurgency is manpower intensive, and nearly all major counterinsurgency campaigns of the last century have relied heavily on indigenous police and military forces. Indeed, there have been few counterinsurgency situations in which the indigenous security forces were not the primary forces employed on the government side in the conflict, at least in terms of numbers.

Although the importance of training indigenous police and military forces is understood in counterinsurgency doctrine and theory, relatively little research has been conducted concerning how this mission should be carried out. Hopefully, this monograph will help fill some of the information gap on this vital subject. There are several major questions that need to be addressed: How can the supporting or governing power best organize the local police and military forces for counterinsurgency? What level of training do security forces need to conduct effective counterinsurgency operations? What is the role of the police in counterinsurgency? What is the role of home guards or irregular security organizations? What kinds of training programs produce effective police and military leaders?

These are very relevant questions today as the U.S. military revises its counterinsurgency doctrine. Currently, U.S. forces are engaged in campaigns against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, and are providing advice and support to the Philippine and Colombian governments in their battles against insurgents. In all of these countries, the U.S. military is engaged in training and supporting the local police and military forces for counterinsurgency operations. As the Global War on Terror continues, the U.S. military will certainly see many more missions to train and support indigenous security forces.

Training indigenous security forces is also one of the most complex tasks in developing an effective counterinsurgency strategy. Building new forces from scratch is difficult enough. It is often even more difficult to take indigenous police and military forces with a tradition of incompetence and corruption and transform them into effective forces that can find and defeat insurgents without undermining the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of the population.

This monograph is built around two case studies concerning the British experience in training indigenous security forces in the Malaya and Cyprus insurgencies. Although these events occurred 50 years ago, most of the problems faced in both insurgencies would sound very familiar to any American soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. In both Cyprus and Malaya, the hostility of major ethnic groups was at the heart of the insurgent movement. In both cases, the degree of success in counterinsurgency largely was determined by the effectiveness of the government in winning support among the disaffected part of the populace. The training, competence, and leadership of the indigenous security forces in these cases played a central role in the government’s ability to win civilian support.

The two insurgencies were protracted conflicts. At the beginning of each conflict, the government’s police and security forces were undermanned, poorly trained, and poorly prepared to conduct counterinsurgency. Strategic success in both cases depended on the government’s ability to recruit, retrain, and reorganize the indigenous security forces. In Malaya, the British eventually succeeded in building a highly effective Malayan police and army. As the Malayans became more capable of handling their own security, the British were able to withdraw forces and leave behind a stable and democratic nation that was able to finish off the insurgent movement. In Cyprus, the British dramatically increased the Cypriot police force and organized new local security units. However, they failed to adequately train the police or provide effective leadership. Indeed, the poor discipline and training standards of the Cypriot Police were major factors in the British failure to defeat the small insurgent movement.

The two case studies focus primarily upon the role of indigenous police in counterinsurgency. Soldiers must not forget that, in counterinsurgency, the line between law enforcement and military operations often is blurred. In fact, in most counterinsurgency campaigns, the primary role of the military has been to provide support and manpower for essentially police operations: search and cordon operations, roadblocks, and area control operations; and area search and sweep missions. In many, if not most, counterinsurgency campaigns, the police have been the major element of force employed by the government. This was the case in both Malaya and Cyprus where the police usually operated jointly with the military forces. Neither the Malaya nor Cyprus insurgencies were characterized by large-scale combat. In both cases, normal operations more closely resembled policing on a large scale than conventional warfare. This is yet another similarity with current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and, indeed, with most counterinsurgency operations of the last century.

This monograph first outlines the role of the Malayan Police in the context of the insurgency from 1948-60 and the evolution of the recruitment and training policies of the police. The process of creating and training the Malayan army and home guards also is considered. The programs to train the leadership of the Malayan forces are examined in some detail, and the British policies are assessed in terms of their effectiveness. The second part of the monograph provides a brief context for the Cyprus insurgency from 1955 to 1959 and examines the organization, training, and leadership of the Cyprus Police in counterinsurgency operations. The problems of police training and discipline are outlined, and the reasons for poor police performance in the insurgency are assessed.

Some important lessons to be learned from examining the histories of these two counterinsurgency operations are presented in the concluding section. First of all, these case studies offer a comparison of the effectiveness of widely varying strategies as they relate to indigenous forces. Several lessons relevant to current U.S. doctrine are outlined. Briefly summarized, the lessons deal with recruiting security forces from disaffected ethnic elements, the training of indigenous security force leadership, the role of home guards in counterinsurgency, the role of civilian police trainers, and the establishment of ongoing police and military force training.

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