COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure.

Summary:  The British empire, in the words of historian John Seeley, “was acquired in a fit of absence of mind”. Unlike the lucrative British version, our mad unprofitable empire was acquired though years of careful work by like-minded people (as John Robb has said, open-source movements dominate our world), preparing the way with intensive bombardment of propaganda on the American people.  To help reclaim reality, this is one of a series explaining why foreign armies consistently fail at COIN. This chapter examines one of the false claims of success, starting with pretty pictures spun by our tinpot version of Kipling.

An early Africom. From Punch, 10 December 1892



  1. Ferguson paints a fond picture of Kenya
  2. The 2 most-cited examples of successful COIN
  3. The reality of colonial Africa
  4. Does this look like victory for a colonial power?
  5. One more lesson from Kenya
  6. For more information


(1)  Niall Ferguson, our Kipling, paints a fond picture of Kenya

In the London Review of Books Bernard Porter points to a vignette about the amnesia that supports America’s love of empire: “Niall Ferguson’s panegyric to British colonialism, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2003), Kenya gets just one significant mention. It comes in the introduction, and is a description of his time there as a boy. It was in 1966, 3 years after independence, and …

… scarcely anything had changed since the days of White Mischief. We had our bungalow, our maid, our smattering of Swahili – and our sense of unshakeable security. It was a magical time, which indelibly impressed on my consciousness the sight of the hunting cheetah, the sound of Kikuyu women singing, the smell of the first rains and the taste of ripe mango. I suspect my mother was never happier.

And although we finally came home — back to the grey skies and the winter slush of Glasgow — our house was always filled with Kenyan memorabilia. There was the antelope skin on the sofa, the Masai warrior’s portrait on the wall, the crudely carved but exquisitely decorated footstool that my sister and I liked to perch on.

False — or shall we say incomplete — memories of the glories of the British Empire drive America’ adventures aboard, building a mad unprofitable empire. In this false history the subjects benefit from the just rule of their western overloads, and western power crushes local insurgencies. At the end are links to articles about the horrors of empire, and several reviews debunking Ferguson’s happy imperial fairy tales.

(2)  The 2 most-cited examples of successful COIN by foreign armies


Perhaps the saddest part of our COIN adventures is that an honest reading of history would have warned us about their low odds of success, since very few foreign armies have defeated local insurgencies (see section 5c below for details). Especially bogus are the two most-often cited examples of success.  Ralph Peters mentions both in”Dishonest doctrine“, Ralph Peters, Armed Forces Journal, December 2007 — “A selective use of history taints the COIN manual.”

The manual’s worth revisiting a bit longer to underscore the dishonesty of the selective use of history. Citing a narrow range of past insurgencies — all ideological, all comparatively recent — the authors carefully ignored parallel or earlier examples that would’ve undercut their position.

For example, the British experience in Malaya is cited ad nauseum (although it’s portrayed as far less bloody than it was in fact), but the same decade saw a very different and even more successful British campaign against the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya. After realizing (a bit ploddingly) that the Mau Mau could not be controlled by colonial police forces, the British took a tough-minded three-track approach: concentration camps for more than 100,000 Kenyans; hanging courts that sent more than 1,000 Mau Mau activists and sympathizers to the gallows; and relentless military pursuits that tracked down the hardcore insurgents and killed them.

It worked. A few years later, British rule ended in Kenya — but only because Britain had decided to give up its empire. And the thousands of British citizens who remained behind in Kenya weren’t massacred.

While correct about COIN, this is still daft.  The Brits decided just for fun to give up their colony; this had nothing to do with the war?  Here we’ll seek a more accurate view of the Kenya insurgency,  seeing that victory was obtained only by the Brits surrendering that for which they fought — domination of the colony. (For a description of the bloody Malaya Emergency (equally falsely described by our empire-lovers) see section 3 in this post.)

The Kenyans earned independence.  How many died in their struggle for independence?  Since UK officials so diligently destroyed the evidence before leaving (e.g., this letter), the full truth will never be known.  But the outline of the story has become clear for those who wish to see it.

(3)  The reality of colonial Africa

This is one aspect of the “white mischief” Ferguson lightly alludes to.  From Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire By David Anderson (2005), chapter 3:  ‘Parasites in Paradise’, race, violence, and Mau Mau:

Settlers punished their labourers and domestic staff with the kiboko, a whip made of rhinoceros hide. Floggings on the farms were part and parcel of the African workers’ experience. By the early 1920’s, the deaths of several African servants from beatings at the hands of their European masters earned Kenya’s white settlers an unenviable reputation for brutality.

The colonial state, too, through its legislation an the practices of its courts, deployed physical punishments as a means to retain order. Colonialism everywhere in Africa depended upon the threat of coercive power to sustain its authority, but in Kenya this had a particular sharpness. … By the 1920’s the vast majority of those Africans convicted by all Keyna’s colonial courts were flogged, this in addition to other punishments handed down, such as imprisonment or fines. Flogging was a far commoner punishment for Africans in Kenya than in neighbouring Uganda or Tanganyika, where settler influence was absent.

Mau Mau warrior

(4)  Not victory for a colonial power

The Mau Mau fought, with savagery unusual even in modern blood-soaked insurgencies. But the Brits co-opted local elites by offering the ultimate coin: emancipation from British rule. Unlike us, the Brits understood that pride does not warrant holding unprofitable colonies.

(a)  From Anderson, Chapter 8: Spoils of War – Decolorizing Kenya, memorializing Mau Mau

By the early months of 1957 the forest armies had been broken, their remnants scattered in the remote mountains. The best known leaders were by then either hanged, taken captive or presumed dead. … Kenya’s Mau Mau freedom fighters had lost their war against the British. The ‘civil disturbance’ was coming to an end. To the imperial power, however, this did not feel ike much of a victory. The scandal of the detention camps blew up, slowly at first as the breeze caught word of unsanitary conditions and heavy labour, then a raging storm as the reality of brutality against prisoners was revealed.

… This all clouded the future. … Things should return to normal, but in Kenya no one seemed any longer to know what normal was. Margery Perham, who in the 1930’s had caught the attraction of the settlers’ sunny lives in Kenya, now thought the place to be drenched in ‘a pathological atmosphere’.

… Over the 7 years since the Emergency had begun in 1952, Britain’s world role had been steadily changing, the empire slowly coming to its inevitable end. … Wars were too costly; and empire wars could be the costliest of all. … A rash of nationalist conflagrations had by then broken out all over the empire’s body politic, and they could no longer be contained either by persuasion or by military might. … Kenya’s emergency had cost a princely 55 million {pounds}. There were cheaper ways of securing influence in the world.

(b)  From Decolonization and independence in Kenya By Bethwell A. Ogot and William Robert Ochieng (1995)

Chapter 2 — The formative Years

The Mau Mau fought against the empire, the state, the settlers and the Home Guards for a period of 2 years. By 1955 they had been defeated militarily in the forests. They had also been defeated by the Home Guard in the villages.

…Some people won the the war: the Home Guard and their followers: about 10% of the Agikuyu population. … In this feat they did a political somersault over the settlers, who were the other losers in the war. the settlers lost the colonial state and lost the White Man’s Country. The future of everybody stood starkly at stake because of the Mau Mau. In this sense the rhetoric of Mau Mau — land and freedom — became the turning-point around which future Kenyas were to be built.

Isaac Deutscher has repeatedly drawn attention to the ironies of history: surely this must be one of them, that the Mau Mau rhetoric won the war even as the protagonists who caused it all, the settlers and Mau Mau, were about to be shunted off to the footnotes of history.

The second irony is also a paradox; Mau Mau played a constructive role, albeit unwittingly, in that the military defeat of the Mau Mau militants cleared the political arena and enabled the loyalists to re-emerge as nationalist politicians in the postcolonial society and made moderate competition a legitimate and effective vehicle for utetezi — the agitation for African independence.


… The Swynnerton Plan was significant in that it pulled the rug from under the Mau Mau’s feet:  it gave land to the Home Guard, the collaborators, those who stayed at home, women in the middle … It amounted to a mental revolution for those at the bottom … The propertied Agikuyu fell back on the politics of moderation, progress and representation.

… First, Mau Mau revealed to the British government that Kenya’s metaphorical handful of Whites — comprising throughout the colonial period a mere 1% of the total population — was unable to control burgeoning mass nationalism.  The imperial army had intervened to suppress Mau Mau, but both General Erskine and General Lathbury, the successive British commanders, were clear that the ultimate solution to Mau Mau had to be political.

Chapter 3: The Decisive Years:  Reform Response to Mau Mau

The struggle against Mau Mau had exacted a political price from the British imperialists. Their military occupation of Kenya could not last indefinitely, but neither could they return the country to the status quo ante. Reform became imperative. The colonial regime now saw the need to broaden the basis of collaboration at the national level to include Africans within the political and economic structures of the colonial society. The main objectives of these colonial reforms were to create a base upon which a collaborative African leadership could emerge and to undermine the support of Mau Mau freedom fighters.

1954 was a watershed year in Kenya’s tortuous road to independence. Not only was it the year of the draconian ‘Operation Anvil’ in Nairobi, which put thousands of Africans in detention camps, but it also saw the birth of the Swynnerton Plan, the Carpenter Committee Report, the Lidbury Report and the Lyttleton Constitution, all of which in their various ways embodied new state policies, which reflected and further shaped the underlying structural changes in Kenya’s political economy.

(5)  One more lesson from Kenya

Does this sound familiar? From Anderson, Chapter 2: “Burying the Past

Where the {Kenya} Special Branch saw divisions in the ranks of African politics, the political arm of the government made the fatal mistake of lumping all activists together and assuming that they all danced to the same tune … The prevailing opinion from Government House was that all senior members of the KAU must be, in some way or other, behind the Mau Mau movement. .. Special Branch reports suggested otherwise.

This is systemic error of colonialists, then and now.  During the election 2008 Senator McCain appeared unaware of the differences between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam — as our many of our politicos today.  Many of the war’s advocates conflate all Islamic fundamentalists with al Qaeda, al Qaeda with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Pashtun tribes with the Taliban, and the Afghanistan and Pakistan Taliban.

This coarse view of the world creates an endless stream of strategic and tactical errors. Multiplying enemies with a recklessness not even a superpower can afford, no matter how large its VISA card.

(6)  For more information

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(a)  For some excellent reading about the British Empire, and ours:

  1. The Good Empire – Should we pick up where the British left off?“, Vivek Chibber, Boston Review, February/March 2005 — Review of Colossus: The Price of America’s Empire by Niall Ferguson
  2. How did they get away with it?“, Bernard Porter, London Review of Books, 3 March 2005 — Review of Histories of the Hanged: Britain’s Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson and Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins
  3. Pankaj Mishra’s review of Civilisation: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, London Review of Books, 3 November 2011
  4. Why weren’t they grateful?“, Pankaj Mishra, London Review of Books, 21 June 2012 — Review of Patriot of Persia: Muhammad Mossadegh and a Very British Coup by Christopher de Bellaigue

(b)  Another history lesson we can learn from:

(c)  History of foreign armies waging COIN

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010



7 thoughts on “COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure.”

  1. Boyd often made a similar point when briefing Patterns 97, Guerrilla results. There were only 5 listed as “unsuccessful,” and he would usually mention that one of these, South Africa 1900-1902, could as easily be considered a success.

  2. I’ve been pondering this for a while and am starting to wonder if we’re measuring successful/unsuccessful insurgencies correctly. What we should be, perhaps, looking at is the percentage of the native population that is killed or displaced versus the success of the “counter-insurgency.” This is based on my realization that it seems that most successful “counter-insurgencies” bear close resemblance to “ethnic cleansing.”

    I’m even wondering how much territory-grabbing warfare in which there is a native population has succeeded unless it was also accompanied by “ethnic cleansing.” I hope I’m wrong because the very idea nauseates me but a quick mental riffle seems to bear it out. If not “ethnic cleansing” at least a concerted attempt to eradicate the target’s culture and replace it with the conqueror’s.

    1. That’s an interesting metric.

      I think the usual metric, however, works better. Wars are waged for control of land. Who owns the land at the end determines the winner. The peoples involved seldom consider the cost too high, although the casualties in (misnamed) Low Intensity Warfare usually range from high to mind-blowingly high.

      This makes sense, looking at the big picture. They were all going to die — eventually.

  3. rootless_e posted at comment to More Lies from Niall Ferguson: Fire-His-Ass-Now Department, Brad DeLong, 20 August 2012:
    My favorite Fergunsonianism is from his glowing review of a bit of racist moronic trash written by some comrade in Colonel Blimpism:

    His new book, “Terror and Consent,” is in many ways a manifesto for a new Atlanticism, not just a reassertion but a reinvention of the dominant role of the trans-Atlantic alliance. It will be read with pleasure by men of a certain age, class and education from Manhattan’s Upper East Side to London’s West End.
    — “War Plans“, Niall Ferguson’s review of Terror And Consent – The Wars for the Twenty-First Century By Philip Bobbitt, New York Times, 13 April 2008

    Oh I say, Fergie, call the boy in to top up my whiskey and soda. What were you saying about the wogs again? So fascinating.

  4. Empire and the Mau Mau: A Story of Colonialism and Counter-Insurgency“, Katie Engelart, Los Angeles Review of Books, 13 May 2013

    A review of Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency by Huw Bennett

    For many decades, it was fashionable to contrast British military restraint (embodied in the 1948–60 Malayan Emergency) with bloody American excess (as seen in the Vietnam War). There was said to be a “British way” of warfare: synonymous with economy, reserve, and a culture of “minimum force.” Yes, there were spectacularly bloody displays of British force — but ultimately, Britain got it, in a way that the Americans (and the French and Portuguese and Germans and Spaniards and Dutch) did not.

    The conceit is that bumbling Britain managed a more graceful exit from Empire than its imperial peers. Recently, this seductive logic has been challenged — not least by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have renewed interest in British counter-insurgency techniques. But it is still a dominant paradigm shaping Britain’s postcolonial self-history.

    So how to confront what happened in 1950s Kenya? Such is the goal of Huw Bennett, in his new book Fighting the Mau Mau: The British Army and Counter-Insurgency in the Kenya Emergency.

  5. Pingback: Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars? | Bill Totten's Weblog

  6. Pingback: What is a fourth generation war, the wars of the 21st century? Who fights them, and why? - Sci-Fi-islam

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