Counterinsurgency operations are not just ‘difficult’, they’re ‘playing Pac-Man on level 256 while solving five rubik’s cubes with one hand difficult’. Intervening in foreign affairs in pursuit of a rules-based global order has sapped the energy from superpowers past and present – and will likely continue to do so into the future. Throughout the 20th Century, despite Pax Britannica being usurped by Pax Americana, Britain continued to use military force to pursue national interests in its colonies and protectorates. But rather than directly serve national economic, diplomatic, or security interests, Britain looked to enhance its reputation as a good global citizen and contribute to a rules-based global order. Britain’s response in Dhofar, Oman in the 1960s and 70s was a success at the operational level, however it could have very nearly resulted in a strategic catastrophe.
From 1962 to 1976, the Omani province of Dhofar was host to a protracted Saudi-backed rebellion. The British intervened to support the stability of Oman as a former protectorate and contribute to the fabric of global security. Although Oman may not have been a powerful ally, it could certainly have turned into an annoying adversary. Additionally, Oman’s peninsular was strategic; its sea lanes saw 30 percent of the oil requirements of the United States, 70 percent of those of Europe, and 90 percent of those of Japan transit through every year. Britain’s intervention was hailed by Ian Beckett as a success story; displaying the flexibility of the British approach to counterinsurgency campaigns. However, Geraint Hughes claimed that many of the popular assessments were based on myths and legends. There is no doubt that overall the counterinsurgency operation was a success, but the reason for its success was due to a combination of factors – not all of which were British. As is so common in counterinsurgency operations, Britain struggled to find a balance between appropriate resourcing, and the right scale and intensity of operations whilst simultaneously maintaining public support of a distant war with limited political objectives.
After years of instability and cultural division, the rebels in Dhofar began disrupting the British air base at Salalah and other critical Omani industrial infrastructure. The Sultan of Oman distrusted his own people and persisted with unpopular draconian policies. He suffered severe political and military decision paralysis, which provided the perfect opportunity for insurgent capacity to flourish.
In the 1970 Omani coup d’état, the Sultan was deposed and went into exile in London. He was replaced by his son, Qaboos bin Said, who immediately instigated major social, educational and military reforms. Qaboos had attended the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst and had served as an officer in the British Army. The British leveraged heavily off this relationship and worked with him to bring about change. British military intervention up until this point had seen only limited success, however once military action was combined with strong civilian policies, the insurgency began to crumble. Hughes identified that Qaboos was ‘the real turning point’ in the war, with the implementation of a five-point plan:
1. A general amnesty to those who had opposed his father;
2. An end to the archaic status of Dhofar as the Sultan’s private estate and its formal incorporation into Oman as a province;
3. Effective military opposition to rebels (with the assistance of British forces) who did not accept the offer of amnesty;
4. A national development program;
5. Diplomatic initiatives with the aims of having Oman recognised as a genuine Arab state with its own legal form of government, and isolating the insurgents from receiving support from other Arab states.
To support Qaboos, the British implemented tried and proven tactics that had been used previously in campaigns such as the Malayan Emergency. Food denial, for example, was used to force the hands of local militiamen and starve guerrillas into submission. The SAS, as well as British general-purpose forces focused on building small teams based around a model of intelligence, medical support, and mentors to generate local military capability. They built credible, well-trained military forces that could support legitimate government initiatives. Indeed, Brigadier Sir John Akehurst, commander of the Dhofar Brigade claimed that the keys to victory were ‘cutting the enemy supplies, and focusing on civil development, especially roads and encouraging normal commerce’. Too much focus on either military or civilian initiatives could have bought the operation undone.
On 19 July 1972, at the Battle of Mirbat, a detachment of SAS troops and the local militia forces that were undergoing training were attacked by 250 insurgents. The militia successfully repelled the insurgents with the help of the British. This was the beginning of the end for the insurgents who never regained credibility from the failed assault. The British were able to continue training local forces and support Qaboos’s initiatives, balancing civil and military action appropriately for the remainder of the campaign.
Operationally, the British response in Dhofar was a success, but strategically it had set a dangerous precedent and established unrealistic expectations of the responsibilities of major powers to contribute to the rules-based global order. The risk-versus-reward for Britain was not accurately calculated and the intervention was made out of habit rather than as a result of good strategic planning. The British response in Dhofar could have turned into Britain’s very own Vietnam; draining valuable resources and morale out of a western power in a time of geopolitical uncertainty. But Britain did not fail, so it did not learn. There was no public condemnation or ongoing media scrutiny of the campaign, at least not on the scale we have seen in recent times. The operation was filed away as ‘just another British victory’.
Pursuit of a rules-based global order is too readily thrown around as a legitimate justification to engage in military action. It is not.
We should not preclude ourselves from learning from this important part of history just because Britain did not explicitly fail. Pursuit of a rules-based global order is too readily thrown around as a legitimate justification to engage in military action. It is not. The risks associated with entering into a counterinsurgency are high and difficult to identify. Public support is incredibly difficult to maintain, particularly when indirect political objectives and national interests cannot be readily linked with tactical actions. The uncertainty and unreliability of local forces means that the success of the intervening nation often rests in the hands of uninterested parties. Finally, the timeframe and level of commitment required is difficult, if not impossible, to forecast before the operation commences.
Carl von Clausewitz warned “The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature”. Prior to engaging in conflict, a state must fully understand the reasons why it is willing to fight – whether those reasons are declared to the public or not. Genuine national interests and legitimate political objectives must be served, and the state must understand the lengths to which it is willing to go to in order to achieve them. Are the objectives of the action limited or unlimited? Enforcing, supporting, or maintaining the ‘rules-based global order’ in itself is an insufficient justification. Western powers who are willing to undertake military actions, particularly counterinsurgencies using only this as a justification would do well to take on Clausewitz’s advice.
Akehurst, John. We won a war: the campaign in Oman 1965-1975. M. Russell, 1982.
Beckett, Ian “The British Counter-insurgency Campaign in Dhofar, 1965-1975,” in Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian (eds.), Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010, pp. 175-190.
Hughes, Geraint ‘Demythologising Dhofar: British Policy, Military Strategy, and Counter-insurgency in Oman, 1963-1976’, The Journal of Military History, vol. 79, No. 2, April 2015.
Howard, Michael, and Peter Paret, eds. Carl von Clausewitz on war. Princeton University Press, 1984.