Hearts And Minds

While maintaining a psychological war against the guerrilla it is crucial to conduct a ‘Hearts and Minds’ campaign with the ordinary people.

In Malaya White Areas, heavily patrolled and free of communist influence, were set up in 1954. Initially these were heavily controlled, with curfews, food restrictions and body searches. However, the restrictions were quickly lifted to allow the privileged occupants of such areas to enjoy a near normal existence. Before long the occupants of peaceful villages surrounding the white areas began to demand incorporation, until all but a few of the most hardened pro-communist areas were involved.

At the same time power passed from the military to a civilian High Commissioner, while steps were taken to broaden the base of Tunku Abdul Rahman’s government-in-waiting to make it more acceptable to the Chinese and Indian minorities.

The policy of ‘Hearts and Minds’ was later extended by the British to her ‘brush wars’ in Borneo and the Oman and did much to facilitate her comparatively bloodless withdrawal from Empire. British involvement in Borneo began in 1962, when President Sukarno of Indonesia declared a state of Confrontation with the neighbouring states of Sabah and Sarawak in an attempt to coerce them into joining a Greater Indonesia.

Initially the Indonesians fought the war by proxy, employing local guerrillas to mount small-scale cross-border raids against isolated police and army posts. As the war intensified Sukarno introduced regular troops, including special purpose forces, trained in deeper infiltration. These received limited assistance from the Clandestine Communist Organization, mainly supported by the Chinese in the coastal towns and by a few Indonesian labourers in the timber trade along the southern border of Sabah.

To counter these incursions the British employed some 15,000 troops, mainly infantry. Borneo was a small-unit war in which patrols often spent weeks in the jungle seeking out and ambushing the enemy. In 1964 top secret British and Gurkha ‘Claret’ patrols began to infiltrate across the border in an attempt to drive the Indonesians back from their forward bases, without escalating the war or inviting intervention by the United Nations.

At the same time RAF helicopters worked closely with the British and later Australian and New Zealand SAS. Using their language and medical skills to win the hearts and minds of the Murat and Kelabit peoples and the numerous smaller groups living deep in the jungle SAS patrols amassed huge amounts of intelligence on enemy movements. The indigenous peoples were mainly pro-British, although some were quite introverted and resistant to outside influences. Others, like the Punans, were hard to find, migrating back and forth across the border.

Patrols were moved close to target villages, although at night they moved to jungle hides to maintain security. The comparatively simple medical and engineering services provided by the patrols vastly improved the villagers’ lot without fundamentally altering their way of life, which many SAS troopers came to respect and admire. Health education programmes were introduced and preventable illnesses treated, while malnutrition was overcome, initially by gifts of food and later by the introduction of better farming methods.

As contact increased, gifts of radios, medical kits, beer and even luxury hampers sealed the friendship. Ideology was rarely, if ever, mentioned. It was simply accepted that the tribesmen, to whom national borders were irrelevant, had no interest in politics and would happily support those who best served their very subjective interests. In appreciating this, and reacting to it, the British in Borneo proved the worth of ‘Hearts and Minds’, a policy which they were to adopt again with equal success in the Oman but which few other Western countries ever seem fully to have grasped.

In 1970 Britain was drawn with some trepidation into what was to be her last major colonial war. Since 1962 Sa’id bin Taimur, the aged and despotic Sultan of Oman, had been engaged in a losing battle with Marxist inspired guerrillas in the southern province of Dhofar. Using the recently independent People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen as a base, they had mounted an increasingly successful campaign against the small government presence in the region and were now threatening to destabilize the entire region. In 1970 the unpopular and totally out of touch Sultan was replaced in a bloodless coup by his son, the Sandhurst-trained Anglophile Sultan Qaboos bin Said.

Qaboos requested and was immediately granted British military assistance to crush the insurrection. SAS teams were introduced within days (there is some suggestion that elements may already have been in position) and at once began to implement Operation Storm, the regaining of the initiative in the South.

The area of operations was alien to the SAS troopers, most of whom were fresh from the jungle. It comprised a narrow coastal plain some 60km long and 10 km wide centred on the regional capital of Salalah. Inland the region was dominated by the mountainous Jebel Qarra, with its deep wadis and numerous caves running south and west to the Yemeni border. The Negd, a generally flat and treacherous area of desert between the mountains and Empty Quarter completed the uninviting panorama.

The Dhofari people were largely unknown to the SAS. The town tribes of the coastal plain were basically of Kathiri origin, industrious, comparatively sophisticated and unsympathetic to the Marxist cause. By contrast the Qarra Jebalis of the mountains were hot tempered, highly intelligent and fiercely independent. Their loyalty was to self, livestock, family and tribe in that order. As the SAS discovered to their advantage, the Jebalis made loyal friends if exploited sensibly, but bitter enemies if crossed. The Bedu of the Negd were nomadic herdsmen drawn from the Mahra and Bait Kathir tribes. They had their own languages and were equally independent.

Lieutenant-Colonel Johnny Watts, commanding 22 SAS, fully appreciated that his greatest battle would be for the hearts and minds of the indigenous population. A PsyOps team was formed to counter the Adoo, or Marxist rebel, propaganda. Initially most Dhofaris offered at least tacit support to the rebels, until the British were able to exploit the Marxists’ hatred of family and religion, the two main cornerstones of local society. Once it was safe to do so doctors and SAS paramedics visited the local villages, inoculating the tribesman and their families against preventable but previously fatal diseases. At the same time veterinary teams treated the camel and goat herds in the Negd, providing the nomadic Bedu with newfound economic security.

Watts then gave the Dhofaris the opportunity to take up arms against the Adoo. Newly formed groups of fighters were trained, armed and paid, but never actually commanded by, the SAS. Known as ‘firqat’ they were allowed to elect their own leaders, after which they were given almost total autonomy. By 1975 the SAS administered some 1,600 men deployed in twenty-one separate ‘firqat’ units. With skilful handling they became a key element in operations to recover lost territory and win the hearts and minds of the Dhofari people.


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