‘Imagined Strategy’


In previous blogs, I have talked about some of the problems inherent in strategy-making and also the internal process by which states unwittingly can create for themselves the perfect enemy. Both of these themes come together in a recent article that I have written on British operations in Borneo, 1963-66.

Strategy can be difficult for many reasons. One reason is that strategy by its nature can be paradoxical. In some contexts, notionally effective approaches to strategy actually can be counter-productive. This idea has been explored, for example, in Edward Luttwak’s famous book ‘Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.’ In this, Luttwak illustrates that effective strategy can prove ultimately ineffective precisely because its effectiveness will cause an adversary eventually to adapt to negate it. This blog explores another dimension of this paradox by highlighting the problems that can arise from attempts at the rational assessment of an adversary.

From 1963-1966, Britain, in concert with Malaysia, New Zealand, and Australia, fought an undeclared war against Indonesia, much of it conducted in the jungles of Borneo. Fighting to defend the newly created federation of Malaysia from a campaign of Indonesian small-unit cross-border attacks, Britain and its allies won a significant victory. Indonesia argued that the new federation was just a front for British interests, and that the population of the northern portion of Borneo had not adequately been consulted on the decision that incorporated them into Malaysia. Consequently, the Indonesians embarked upon a campaign of low level political, military and economic conflict that they termed Konfrontasi (‘Confrontation’). The result was a significant victory for Britain and its allies, reflected in Indonesian acquiescence to the new federation and regime change in Indonesia that resulted in an anti-communist and pro-Western regime under General Suharto. This outcome, however, was a surprise at the time for many British military and political decision-makers. Despite in the end winning, Britain privately for a long time thought that it was losing. Indeed, the British military felt at the time that the final peace settlement was merely an Indonesian mechanism to encourage British military withdrawal before the renewal of the campaign of subversion. How did Britain come to the conclusion that it was losing, even at the same time as it was winning?

Strategy is a relational activity: what works only works in relation to what an adversary does or does not do. Sadly, this is often forgotten, with the result that the fact that the enemy has a vote is ignored, or that the assumption is made that an adversary inevitably will take the actions that we would in their place. But even rigorous attempts at the rational analysis of the enemy perspective can lead to paradoxical difficulties. During Confrontation, British decision-makers made concerted efforts to try and understand the objectives, methods and outlook of their Indonesians adversary. The key problem facing British analysts was that they had imperfect information upon which to base their assessments. This, of course, is a recurring feature of conflict. But how then, was the British military to fill this information gap?

The British approach was to assume, reasonably enough, that the Indonesians were rational actors. Much about the Indonesians’ own strategy therefore could be calculated by inferring from Indonesian actions. It would seem to make sense to assume that what the Indonesians did was shaped by rational cost-benefit analyses in a coordinated effort to attain their goals. That, after all, is what any self-respecting strategy should seek to achieve. The problem, however, was that Indonesian actions seemed wildly contradictory. A key example of this was developments between June and September 1966. During this period, the Indonesians were engaged deeply in peace negotiations with the Malaysians. They then signed and ratified a peace agreement in August, apparently bringing the conflict to an end.

In parallel, however, Indonesian cross-border incursions into Malaysia continued. Moreover, evidence from captured documents and maps, and interrogation of those raiders caught during these operations indicated that the Indonesians were committed to continuing Confrontation. For example, the four day interrogation of one captured Indonesian officer revealed the existence of a long-term plan, codenamed Ngaiauniting, for the three stage subversion of East Malaysia once the British had left. In phase one, Indonesian infiltration teams would be sent across the border to establish liberated pockets within East Malaysia. These would make contact with local subversive groups and would then carry out reconnaissance for phase two. In phase two, to begin around November 1966 once Commonwealth forces had withdrawn, the infiltrated forces would conduct terrorist attacks and sabotage against such targets as oilfields, radio stations and airfields. In phase three of the Ngaiauniting operation, the pockets established in phase one would promote a general rebellion in East Malaysia. More Indonesian troops would then cross the border under the pretext of pursuing communist insurgents. To do this, Indonesian battalions would cross with their lead company dressed as communist irregulars; the remaining companies would then cross in pursuit of these ‘communists’. Overall, this intelligence was assessed by Borneo Headquarters ‘as being an authoritative indication as to Indonesia’s intentions and the tactical operations to be undertaken.’

Rationally, then, this evidence could be reconciled with Indonesia’s parallel process of political negotiations only by assuming that the latter were not being conducted in good faith. Thus, the British military view was that Commonwealth tactical military successes had not defeated the Indonesians: rather, they had simply encouraged the Indonesians to change their strategy. And so the peace agreement of August 1966 could only be for the British commander in East Malaysia evidence of a ‘dual policy of establishing peaceful relations with Malaysia whilst simultaneously endeavouring to secure North Borneo by covert means’.

In fact, with the benefit of hindsight it is evident that Indonesia during the last stages of Confrontation had no co-ordinated strategy that linked its various activities; that the relationship between military and political activity was in the Indonesian case chaotic, disaggregated, and ad-hoc. Confrontation was for Indonesia a conflict that was as much about internal politics as it was about the fight against Britain and its allies; and its actions could be understood only in the context of competing interest groups often focused on domestic objectives. If any Indonesian leaders were at the time vexed by the incoherence in Indonesian strategy, they might have been reassured if they had had access to the deliberations of Borneo Headquarters; because the latter in their own minds created for the Indonesians a strategy of Machiavellian brilliance.

Borneo Headquarters’ situation demonstrates the often paradoxical nature of strategy. Attempting to understand their adversary by rationalising Indonesian actions led British military leaders to interpret the apparent inconsistencies in Indonesian strategy as the fruit of an especially clever relationship between means and ends. Perversely, the more illogical Indonesian actions seemed, the more intelligent it was assumed their underlying strategy must be. Borneo Headquarters took apparently incoherent Indonesians political and military actions, and imposed on them a coherent strategy of diabolical cleverness. In doing so they created in their own minds the image of a patient and perceptive opponent, fully cognisant of British weaknesses; and in their assessment imbued Indonesian strategy with a potency that, in retrospect, it did not have.


Image: Lieutenant (Lt) Edward M (Ted) Heslin, of Chapple Hill, Qld (left), 24 Construction Squadron, Royal Australian Engineers (RAE), consulting a map of the state of Sabah with Michael U Adin (right), a Murut tribesman, who has been engaged by the Army as an interpreter and guide. Lt Heslin is leading the advance road building section as it clears the way for the main road building group following some way behind, circa 1965, via wikimedia.

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