The Oman Lesson, or how to win a Counterinsurgency Op.

Tyanna of Pentos

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The basic Oman "secret sauce" of the 1965-1976 operations which allowed the British to create the modern country of Oman can be summarized like this, and they are important lessons we have neglected multiple times at our peril, now (the British have also forgotten them) :

1. You must support the power base in the country which can supply the most troops in the most disciplined fashion, even if it wants things you don't want. You never get to have your cake and eat it to in stabilising a country with widespread dissatisfaction--you must be wise enough to choose the least bad option, and you cannot let your own ideological beliefs stand in the way.

2. You must have an open-end commitment, and be serious about it. Exit strategies and deadlines and timetables are the work of the devil, since you cannot actually control the situation. If the country isn't worth an open ended commitment, pull out.

3. Remove those who are the focal point of the problem. The Shah did have to go -- the people identified him as the source of the trouble. Sultan Said had to go in Oman, too. So the British removed him.

4. Support someone who can retain legitimacy in the eye of the regime elements. This is the hardest thing for people to accept. The problem is this--you cannot stabilise a country by favouring one new, marginalised group while marginalising the prior leadership and the legitimacy of the prior regime. Yes, they may, in practice, not actually be marginalised, but they need legitimacy. So the British didn't form a Republic or pick some random military officer. They chose the Sultan's son. The Sultan was removed early, but by the person who would have succeeded him anyway. Another relative, if the Sultan's son had been just as bad, would have also worked. The US had already failed this once before, in South Vietnam, where we replaced Diem with someone who had no legitimacy as a revolutionary leader in the eyes of the people, starting a string of US backed puppets, instead of choosing a revolutionary leader who could maintain non-communist support on the basis of legitimately having fought the French rule.

The outcome of this is that the regime still supports your change of the leadership, and the people who previously opposed the regime in large numbers, now also support the regime. In Iran the issue was that the rural areas were very conservative, but could grudgingly support the Shah because he was the Shah, i.e., because of Royalism. Without the Shah, what was left? Well, then the conservative choice was the Ayatollah Khomenei. Removing the Shah as the focal point of the government actually reduced the government's ability to resist Khomenei's plan despite removing the hated Shah, because it flipped prior core support sectors.

5. General Amnesty. Nothing is more destructive than humans rights prosecutions to ending a war. The General Amnesty has saved millions of lives, objectively, by giving reason for bloodthirsty insurgents to lay down their arms and return to their farms in countless conflicts. Justice is useless, counterproductive, and a blanket for ideological pretensions and flights vindictive fancy when it encourages bitter fighting and prolonged resistance to peace. Concentrating continued resistance into small groups of Búnkeristas tends to collapse support for insurgencies and objectively and rapidly reduce the scale and scope of violence.

6. People are, at least in a broad trend or normally distributed, inclined to respond to situations in an outcome based, not structure based. You can remove people from supporting a conservative revolution by adopting morality-based legislation, you can remove people from supporting communism with land redistribution. If a situation has reached violence like it did in Iran, then you need to compromise on the structural elements. This lets you preserve the institutions which you wish to maintain. Qaboos preserved the monarchy but ended the status of Dhofar as a feudal property of the regime rather than a core part of the nation, and launched a vigorous development plan. In the case of a relative of Reza Pahlavi, the correct course of action would have been to engage in a series of major social programs at the expense of the military and continued development, and pass sumptuary laws inspired by Islamic morality without actually reimposing the Sheriat.

7. Locals must hold ground, your professionals must prosecute attacks against the enemy. Locals are the perfect ground holders. You must also trust them. Unfortunately this means tolerating questionable legal exigencies. If you don't like that, don't play the game of counterinsurgency. If you prosecute them for human rights abuses, they'll switch sides and you'll lose.

8. Just because you are being ruthless does not mean you are being cruel. Avoid communal punishment, and guarantee communal reward. This creates a situation where if people are upset by the counterinsurgency campaign, they don't dare speak up because all of their neighbours are pleased with how it is being conducted and want to keep quiet in the interests of their own peace and prosperity, creating social pressure on people who have been wronged, even if they, in an ideal situation, should have a right to complain. This isn't an ideal situation.

9. Figure out actual local needs and address them in a local fashion. The British opened experimental farms (!) in the middle of the insurgency zone to actually figure out what would work there. Then, when 40% of the country's expenditures were going to the 10% of the population in Dhofar, that investment actually worked, because the first step was to take the risk involved in tailoring the investment to the local environment. Enormous amounts of money have been wasted trying to replicate American infrastructure in the desert in a half a dozen countries now, with all-to-predictable results.

10. When the situation is completely under control, offer another amnesty. It will make the new leader look far better than continued trials and punishments, and instead of being a sign of weakness will be seen as strength, and will remove the risk of a renewal of fighting. People in prison is just a problem, something that looks bad. Exiled leaders and fighters who have resumed tending their farms is the objective. The Shah's secret police were his downfall and it would have been better for him or his replacement to face active opposition than to maintain a secret police force and prison networks. Socially it is better to kill people on the field than torture them in jail. Getting the Shah's replacement to immediately disband the secret police and free prisoners would have been ideal. It's quite noteworthy that, of course, Khomenei ended up employing a lot of SAVAK. There's no accident there.

An excellent source, though by no means complete, is Oman 1965-1976: From Certain Defeat to Decisive Victory by Jim White.
 

PsihoKekec

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For the look on how much of a clusterfuck the Oman army and society were before the coup, Where Soldiers Fear To Thread by Ranulph Finnes is a good read.

There were also more factors to victory in Oman. Perhaps the most important was the localization of conflict, as similarily to insurgency in Korea the asistance was coming through only one border and was therefore limited to Dhofar region, unlike the Vietnam conflict, where Ho Chi Minh trail brought men and material to fann the flames of war throughout the country.

Another is complete military superiority once Iran got involved and various upheavals in South Yemen, which curtailed the ammount of help the rebels recieved.

However replacing the incompetent leader with competent one was the key.
 

Lord Invictus

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I also recall this war was waged in near complete secrecy. No parliament or congress to deal with, and no public questioning or protest. Not something that would be possible today.

The British also had far more experience both in the region and in counter insurgencies more generally.

I concur with the amnesty point-war crimes trials or the threat thereof just incentivizes the side on the way to losing to fight to the bitter end. If they expect to be humiliated and executed anyway.

I also think the situation was paradoxically easier with a monarchy-a republic or semi republic would have had to deal with legitimacy and expectations in a far more demanding way than a monarchy. All the British had to do was get rid of the die hard reactionary sultan and place his far more enlightened son on the throne. No institutions were changed, no constituency felt betrayed or stomped on.

Fundamentally I suspect the reason why the British have forgotten how to wage counter insurgency is one-the generation of military leadership that conducted successful counterinsurgencies has retired or passed away-its replacement not taking the lessons into account or even rejecting them.

There’s also as I said, the PR aspect-the war the British waged in Oman could not be replicated today-due to an omnipresent media, and plenty of outfits like HRW or whatever that would criticize them for every human rights violation or harsh action necessary for conducting the counter insurgency.

Not to mention public pressure. “Why are we backing a despotic monarchy over freedom fighters?”(even if they were communist)-a lot of people would ask.

There’s also the point of goals-what is the counter insurgency aiming to achieve? In this case, it seems to be
-defeat the Marxist rebels
-install a pro western and also modernizing Sultan
-the country will develop on its own after these two goals have been achieved

In more recent times-the goals are far more vague, install democracy in Iraq? What does this mean? How is this to be achieved?

The british on the other hand had set and simple objectives and followed them.

I also concur the localized nature of the conflict made it easier to win. The soviet navy as I understand it wasn’t operating in the area, and the British had support or at least the backing of other states in the area. The rebels just had other rebels in South Yemen. Same I think with Malaya. Thus it could be isolated and dealt with locally and not become an internationalized war.

Also correct me if I’m wrong, but the war was mostly localized to Dhofar? And not spread throughout the whole country? Or at least not beyond sporadic terrorist actions?

If the above was the case, then it would have been even easier to keep it contained and waged on a local level.
 
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PsihoKekec

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Originally the Oman rebels were supported by Saudis, so potential for infiltration was quite broad, but as soon as radicals took over the movement, the Saudis went hard nope, so the only venue of support remaining was South Yemen. They tried to spread revolution beyond the Dhofar, but RN succesfully intercepted several dhows carrying weapons for agitators. Also the rebels missed their window of opportunity during the palace coup, retreat from Dhofar and reorganisation of Omani army, as they were busy with internal purges and solidifying power/terorizing locals in Dhofar, giving government forces time to rebound and take the initiative. It also helped that this was relatively small scale conflict, so one or two SAS squadrons at time could make a great impact.

Vietnam on the other hand was a conflict on much larger scale and you couldn't just localize the conflict to the north of the country, due to Ho Chi Minh trail, therby you would have to find competent enough leaders not just in Vietnam, but also in Laos and Cambodia. The British got really lucky with Qaboos, I seriously doubt Americans could get as lucky in three countries at the same time.
 
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