Share this Post
Abstract: In recent years a number of commentators have posited that the British reputation for conducting small wars has suffered in the wake of setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The argument here contests whether such a tradition can be truly said to have ever existed. A close examination of this supposed tradition reveals itself to be highly elusive. Rarely has a facility for counterinsurgency or small war ever been claimed by the British armed forces themselves. Invariably, it has been a tradition ascribed to them by others. Most notably, the tradition of British COIN expertise has been a narrative generated by commentators in the United States who were keen to discern practices of minimum force or rapid institutional learning. While a later series of scholars came to question this narrative, arguing that the British conduct of small wars was often based on more coercive assumptions, ultimately, what this reveals is that it is political will, not an ingrained understanding of fighting insurgencies, that has determined Britain’s success, or otherwise, in so-called small-wars.
It’s hard not to have sympathy: the picture of a desolate British soldier, head in hands, despairing at the futility of it all on the front cover of Frank Ledwidge’s excoriation of British military conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan, Losing Small Wars. Ledwidge’s book documents a litany of shortcomings and institutional failures afflicting the British armed forces in recent years that have contributed to malfunction and under performance on the ground. More than that, the book is one of the key works that have created a narrative that now stretches back the best part of a decade which proclaims that an Army with a venerated reputation for waging small wars and counterinsurgency has now gone off the rails through complacency, ineptitude, cost-cutting, and laurel sitting. Here’s the product description of the book on Amazon, which well summarizes the argument:
Partly on the strength of their apparent success in “small wars” such as Malaya and Northern Ireland, the British armed forces have long been perceived as world class, if not world-beating. Yet under British control Basra degenerated into a lawless city riven with militia violence and fear, while tactical mistakes and strategic incompetence in Helmand province resulted in numerous casualties and a burgeoning opium trade.
But it gets worse. Not only were the armed forces woefully underprepared for their encounters in Iraq and Afghanistan, but when placed under the analytical microscope, the British Army’s vaunted capacity for handling small wars disappears. What was supposed to be a record of effective counterinsurgency campaigning actually reveals a legacy of failure and lack of achievement. More terrible still, even the occasional victories or partial successes were not the result of any real skill or finesse, but more often the product of the unsubtle employment of brute force that encompassed massacres and atrocities, and even, depending on whom you read, genocide.
It is not the intention of this short piece to maintain that there have been no shortcomings in recent British military operations. Serious deficiencies there have been and it is right that these are exposed. Nor is the intention to question the findings of the new historiography that suggest British counterinsurgency campaigning has been more coercive and brutal than has sometimes been appreciated. What this study does argue is that the “where did it all go wrong?” school of thought, which asserts a once esteemed tradition of small war fighting now lies in ruins, is itself a myth that deserves to be questioned. It is a myth because it conflates a number of different, and not necessarily related, analytical interpretations into single storyline that is neither accurate nor coherent.
The argument seeks to separate out some of these interpretations. When viewed in broad historical terms, the British military experience shows itself to be one full of problems, irony and paradox. It also shows, though, that what ultimately governs whether Britain has prevailed in its small wars and counterinsurgencies depends on political will. Where strong political will has been invested in a cause the British stayed and fought: they made mistakes, they learnt, they adapted, and mostly they were successful. Success here is defined in the only terms that matter, whether the actions of the British armed forces assisted in the attainment of political goals as determined by higher decision centers, that is, elected policymakers. Where political will was lacking, a decision was almost always made to withdraw quickly, or sometimes not even to contest the political space. Thus, running parallel to a record of prevailing in the small wars where it chose to fight, Britain has an equally honored tradition of cutting and running in wars where it didn’t.
Intellectually, then, it becomes difficult to sustain a narrative of a once proud “world beating” institution falling apart on instances where, though failures of leadership, doctrine and equipment there may well have been, the political will to stay the course was lacking, or in some cases, completely absent. The pronouncement of failure and a venerable tradition gone to seed can only be deduced from situations where military capability clearly failed to deliver despite strong political backing. With this consideration in mind, it is certainly possible to document disappointments arising from faltering political will – the 1956 Suez debacle for instance, and indeed quite possibly the loss of control of Basra between 2006 and 2008 – but equally it is difficult to pinpoint any generic failure where the British forces stood and fought with political support behind them. In fact, when the “where did it all go wrong” argument is itself subject to scrutiny, we find that the allegation of a once “world class” military reputation evaporating in a miasma of over-stretch and ineptitude is extrapolated from a single, and of itself somewhat questionable case, that of Basra.
Tradition, What Tradition?
Ledwidge and others allude to Britain’s “apparent success” in “small wars,” for which also read counterinsurgency. Therefore, to be clear in the first instance, what is meant by these terms? Small wars can be taken to mean military encounters where there is a large element of discretion in whether to be involved or not. That is to say, they are conflicts that reside below survival level threats that a country like the United Kingdom confronted in World War II, where the choice of not fighting (i.e. surrendering) possess far-reaching consequences. Decisions whether to invest causes with extensive time and effort that exist beneath this threshold, and which in all probability lie externally beyond national borders, are likely to be wars of choice rather than necessity. These can be said to constitute so-called small wars. Counterinsurgency campaigns are therefore likely to represent a particular form of “small war” that involves an attempt to confound an armed challenge to established authority.
Arising from its empire history where British forces found themselves frequently engaged in expeditions to conquer, occupy, or pacify foreign lands, a “tradition” of assumed expertise has grown up around Britain’s ability to wage small wars either for territorial gain or against attempted insurrections against colonial authority. We might note, however, the passive voice construction in the description of Ledwidge’s book, which claims “the British armed forces have long been perceived as world class, if not world-beating.” The question is perceived by whom? Once this the question is addressed, it becomes evident that rarely has this been a self-generated perception on the part of the British armed forces themselves, either at the time of, or even after, the campaigns that allegedly gave them such a revered name in this aspect of warfare. It is a reputation that has been largely ascribed to them by others.
Those who have extolled, or intimated, a British way in counterinsurgency or small wars have been diverse. They span ex-colonial civil servants, former soldiers, journalists, American academics and serving U.S. Army officers. A self-inculcated tradition of counterinsurgency campaign cannot, though, be found in any contemporaneous British Army doctrine or documents. If anything the later twentieth century British Army consciously overlooked any putative tradition of counterinsurgency expertise in favor of a focus on war planning for mass battle on the Central European Front. This in itself indicates an element of obfuscation in the “where did it all go wrong?” thesis that conflates a talent for small wars attributed to the British by analysts with the subtle, but erroneous, implication that this also coincided with the self-perception of the British armed forces themselves. There is scant evidence for this belief, and the little evidence that does exist is problematic.
So, who and what accounts for the ascription of a British proficiency for small wars? Undeniably, the Malaya Emergency informed much subsequent commentary, framing early perceptions of a British flair for such encounters. The work of Sir Robert Thompson, a former officer in the Malaya Civil Service, whose Defeating Communist Insurgency: Experience from Malaya and Vietnam (1966), provided the stimulus that intimated a British way in counterinsurgency. This was not so much because Thompson articulated a British approach, but because his five-step framework for orientating a counterinsurgency plan unambiguously drew on the Malaya experience, the success of which appeared to stand in positive contrast to the contemporaneous flailing American effort in South Vietnam with its seemingly misplaced emphasis on search and destroy missions. Following Thompson’s work, there were remarkably few direct allusions to a distinct British practice of COIN, the one exception perhaps being former Army officer Julian Paget’s Counterinsurgency Campaigning (1967).
Going into the early 1970s with a spirit of post-imperial decline beginning to root itself in the British national psyche, a different, and more depressing, set of challenges arose that denuded any residual sense of achievement in successfully waging small wars. 1971 saw the publication Brigadier Frank Kitson’s Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Peacekeeping and Law Enforcement, which chimed with the darker times, as the national gloom descended over the United Kingdom with rising levels of industrial unrest, economic despondency, social and moral decay, and crucially, the onset of the calamitous Northern Ireland crisis. Both in Low Intensity Conflict, and his later ruminations on the conflicts in Kenya, Malaya, and Cyprus, in Bunch of Five, Kitson makes no claims to discern a specifically British take on countering insurgency.
Interestingly, in September 1970 Kitson went onto command 39 Infantry Brigade in Belfast, a period during which Northern Ireland began its descent into chaos. Despite the fearsome reputation that Kitson possessed in Irish republican circles as a result of his experiences fighting in some of Britain’s more notable later twentieth colonial wars, there is little to suggest that Kitson, or indeed any other British Army commander in Northern Ireland then or since, implemented a systematic COIN plan based on any set of enduring British techniques developed in previous campaigns.
Here we can discern something of an irony in the current notion of a British COIN tradition being thrown away. During the years of the Northern Ireland tumult, which Ledwidge and others cite as a major source of Britain’s small wars heritage, the Army’s role was from the mid-1970s mainly devoted to supporting the police. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the British Army’s main focus remained on the planning for major battle against Warsaw Pact forces in Central Europe. In fact, the years of the Northern Ireland troubles represents a curious lacuna in British military thinking, for it is clear that far from elaborating, let alone celebrating, some ingrained capability to deal with such conflicts, the British Army’s was – along with the rest of British defense thinking at the time – intent on ignoring the conflict as best it could. During this period the only work to appear that even hinted at some generalized British approach to small wars was former Army officer, Colonel Michael Dewar’s 1984 publication, Brush Fire Wars that comprised a broad account of Britain’s experience of “minor wars” since 1945.
Born in the USA: The Invention of a Tradition
In sum, from the 1950s through to the end of the century there was no enunciation in official United Kingdom publications, either by the Army or any other government agency, or from any other British military commentator, of a pre-existing facility for waging small wars. At most, there were intimations of an underlying set of values that might have governed conduct in Britain’s minor wars, but no more. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was only after 1990 that a systematic line of thought developed that sought to explicitly identify a British approach. More paradoxically still, this evolving understanding was created not by British observers, but by a set of American writers. In effect, the attribution of a venerable British tradition of small war capability was made in the USA.
We can date the evolution of an interest in, if not admiration for, British counterinsurgency practice to the re-publication to Thomas Mockaitis’ British Counterinsurgency, 1919-1960 (1990) that produced the first properly academic analysis of Britain’s colonial campaigns. Although he did not propose that the British had developed a war-winning formula, Mockaitis did suggest that the British had, during a long period of tough encounters, evolved a set of practices that accentuated the principles of minimum force and discriminate violence. It was John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (2002) that further elaborated this argument by extolling the virtues of the British Army as a learning institution that was readily able to adapt its military methodology in Malaya to suit the needs of the situation.
The timely appearance of Nagl’s thesis struck a resounding chord in American military circles in a period that witnessed the slide of post-invasion Iraq into sectarian strife and a Sunni/al-Qaeda sponsored uprising against the Coalition occupation. As the U.S. armed forces debated how to transition from a main invasion force into an effective occupying power capable of dealing with the complicated conditions of civil insurrection, another American commentator, Montgomery McFate rose to prominence. McFate also drew inspiration from the British experience but unlike Nagl who focused on British Army practices during the Malaya Emergency, McFate was impressed by the Army’s ability to acquire “cultural knowledge” of its enemy during the Northern Ireland Troubles. This hard won knowledge, gained over many years of trial and error, she felt held important lessons for the U.S. military in attempting to operate in complex local environments such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To recapitulate, the attribution to the British armed forces of a special prowess in counterinsurgency was essentially one generated in the United States. Each observer emphasized an element of practice that they thought either distinguished a particularly British attitude towards small-scale military entanglements (Mockaitis and the principle of minimum force), or contained crucial lessons that could be adapted as best practice by the U.S. military (Nagl and the desirability of a flexible learning institution), and be useful in order to gain a sophisticated understanding of the challenges, subtleties and potential opportunities, in the specific theater in which U.S. forces were compelled to operate, especially those characterized by complex tribal interactions (McFate and the importance of acquiring cultural knowledge).
It was the construction of this American derived narrative about British counterinsurgency capabilities that led to further paradoxes. It was, ironically, only after the invention of this tradition that some sections of the British establishment consciously bought into this plotline. As the difficulties of pacifying post-invasion Iraq revealed themselves in mounting inter-communal violence and attacks on Coalition forces, the more turbulent American controlled sectors of the country seemed to stand in contrast to the quieter areas to the south under British tutelage. The perception grew that the harder, more kinetic American operations were creating more problems than they were solving, stirring up anti-Coalition hostility and generating further local resistance. In comparison, the southlands around Basra were characterized by a lower key British presence, where the Army patrolled in soft hats, and talked to the locals rather than engaged in frequent shoot-ups.
An Iraqi Aberration
Until the invasion of Iraq, it was uncommon for any official articulation of a distinctive British approach to COIN to be aired. One exception which came close to doing so was a House of Commons report in 2005 that took evidence from a number of serving and former soldiers, academics and other commentators who strongly intimated that Britain possessed an inherited knowledge of “post-conflict operations.” Explicit references were made to prior experience in places like Malaya and Northern Ireland as providing insights and lessons from which others (i.e. the Americans) might usefully follow. Undoubtedly, this view did gain adherents within sections of the Army after 2005.
The most notable convert to this line of thought in the British Army was the Chief of the General Staff, Mike Jackson, who drew distinctions between how British forces conducted themselves around Basra and the harder edged actions of the U.S. military. In one broadside he asserted in 2004 that “We must be able to fight with the Americans. That does not mean that we must be able to fight as the Americans.” In 2009 after leaving the Army, he stated in the Journal of Strategic Studies, that the British military experience was one that had extensive roots counterinsurgency that extended from its colonial policing encounters. “There is a sense,” he added, “of a real historical thread in this type of operation for the British Armed Forces.”
For the most part, though, formal British Army pronouncements rarely venerated a British take on counterinsurgency. Most statements emanating from British military personnel were couched in modest terms, and if they ever came close to acknowledging a British approach, it was usually implied rather than overtly declared as is clear even in the notable House of Commons Defence Committee Report of 2005. Thus, the most celebrated public criticism of the U.S.’s supposedly heavy handed tactics in Iraq, Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster’s 2005 article in Military Review entitled “Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” makes no mention of any presumed British penchant for counterinsurgency operations. Instead, Aylwin-Foster notes only John Nagl’s point in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, which distinguished the American Army’s facility for high end war fighting arising from its institutional experience and historical origins that emphasized “the eradication of threats to national survival” which contrasted, supposedly, with “the British Army’s history as an instrument of limited war to achieve limited goals at limited cost.”
As a result of these kinds of commentaries the relative tranquility of Iraq’s south began to be explained in terms of the differing military cultures and traditions of the British and American armed forces. It was in this evolving context that established British approaches to counterinsurgency came to be raised as one explanatory factor that accounted for this apparent difference in operational styles and outcomes. At this point a tone of self-congratulation did begin to creep into official British rhetoric. One Ministry of Defence report argued that the Army’s “positive start in Iraq” was attributable in part to the “counter-insurgency experience from Northern Ireland and Balkans.”
We know, of course, that such a view heavily downplayed the fact that the Americans were compelled to operate in the Sunni badlands of the north in contrast to the anti-Saddmite Shi’a south. The British controlled areas were initially far less hostile to Coalition forces after the ousting of the old regime. Yet, and here we encounter a further irony, it was at this time in 2005 and 2006 that the British themselves were indeed running into serious difficulties in the south, with Basra degenerating into anarchy at the hands of Iranian backed Shi’a militia groups.
The widely reported publication of Aylwin-Foster’s critique represented the height of a seemingly self-invoked, though again it should be emphasized, always implicit, sense of British superiority in matters of counterinsurgency. Feathers were ruffled with one U.S. officer, Col. Kevin Benson of the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced initially accusing Aylwin-Foster of being “an insufferable British snob.” Paradoxically, again, at some level Aylwin-Foster’s remarks were probably accurate in the context of the time, which witnessed degrees of U.S. excess, notably around Fallujah. In hindsight, moreover, few could disagree with his observations the Coalition had “failed to capitalise on initial success” and that Iraq was in “the grip a vicious and tenacious insurgency,” or that there was need to “be better prepared for Irregular Warfare and post conflict stabilisation and reconstruction operations.”
A careful reading of Aylwin-Foster’s commentary shows that it was delivered in respectful tones that paid fulsome tribute to American capabilities. It did not “slam” U.S. tactics, nor offer a “blistering critique” which was the tone of much of headlines. Such inflammatory headlines coverage did, undoubtedly, create the impression that Aylwin-Foster was venting an overbearing sense of superior British counterinsurgency wisdom, but it is difficult to sustain this if one pays close attention to Aylwin-Foster’s argument. Even Col. Benson modified his position, acknowledging that “sometimes good articles do make you angry. We should publish articles like this. We are in a war and we must always be thinking of how we can improve the way we operate.” In the end, Aylwin-Foster’s thoughts were an important prelude to the re-focusing of U.S. military efforts, which succeeded in realigning forces that enabled the stabilization of the country after 2007.
Banging on About Basra: The Decline of the Tradition that Never Was
Even though Aylwin-Foster’s article did not make invidious comparisons between the performance of the U.S. and British forces, there was no disguising that in the following two years the British controlled South was faltering around Basra. It was on this background that another false narrative was spun around the myth of British counterinsurgency, namely, the decline of a tradition. The relative quiescence of the south of Iraq was represented within some British defense circles as an exemplar of British competence in counterinsurgency, while other commentators also began to read the British Army’s preference for unobtrusive patrolling in berets and their apparent willingness to work with local leaders through the lens of an ostensibly British facility for counterinsurgency. What was ultimately going on, however, was that one questionable narrative was coming to be replaced by another.
A more skeptical analysis of the rhetoric and reality of British operations in the South of Iraq begged the question as to whether the Army was indeed practicing a counterinsurgency approach at all. The fact that British were patrolling in Basra without hard hats and governing – at first – with the consent of the local population, attested to the fact that in the aftermath of the invasion, Southern Iraq was not in a state of insurrection. The unobtrusive approach adopted by the British may therefore have been entirely appropriate at this stage. Why, it may be asked, was any heritage of counterinsurgency invoked when there was no insurgency to counter? It seems more accurate to claim that British forces were engaged in an occupying/peacekeeping effort, and it is this that failed rather than any counterinsurgency campaign.
Furthermore, given the decision to drawdown and pull out of Southern Iraq arose from the political unpopularity of the war among the British electorate, it can be argued that Britain never even attempted a concerted counterinsurgency program in the South. A political decision had been taken to leave. Without the political will, there can be no such thing as a coherent counterinsurgency campaign. Therefore, can Basra be said to represent a failure of a British approach to COIN? Most certainly operational shortcomings were revealed, as was the vaunted (but always inaccurate idea) about the Army’s capacity for rapid institutional learning, but categorical statements that an entire reputation – a reputation that the British Army itself never officially embraced – was jeopardized are wrong.
The Challenge of the New Historiography
The fact that the Ministry of Defence formally sought to identify a British capacity for “minimum force” practices by citing the examples of Northern Ireland (which was actually a bruising encounter characterized by a vicious undercover intelligence war) and the even more curious case of the Balkans (where nothing resembling a counterinsurgency campaign in any comparable sense ever took place) illustrated the tenuous grasp of even official viewpoints on a supposedly ingrained tradition. In the face of such self-regarding rhetoric and the declining hold on Basra it was understandable that commentators also began to identify the erosion, or even collapse, of that same tradition out of which grew the “where did it all go wrong” school.
In the wake of the seeming failure of established British military virtues in small war came an even more potent threat to an assumed tradition of counterinsurgency expertise. This arose in form of a new historiography of the later British imperial era that demonstrated, often decisively, that the examples from which the canon of inherited counterinsurgency wisdom was drawn, particularly the legacy of colonial withdrawal, were far removed from any minimum force practices.
Although the slew of books and articles questioning the assumption of hearts and minds and minimum force grew rapidly in the late 2000s, the debate was not new. A decade beforehand Karl Hack had exposed the highly coercive methods employed by the British in “screwing down” the Communists in Malaya in his revisionist account of the Emergency. Later in 2002 John Newsinger, coming from a Marxist historical perspective, developed a broader critique of a brutally suppressive tradition of British counterinsurgency. From the late 2000s the work of archival historians such as Huw Bennett did much to reveal how British approaches colonial insurrections were often fiercely aggressive in orientation. Bennett’s work on the Mau Mau war in Kenya in the 1950s, for instance, presented sufficient evidence to suggest that extensive atrocities were committed by British forces.
The revelations of coercive, sometimes ferocious, crackdowns on insurrectionary elements was sufficient for those like Newsinger and others to pronounce that the vaunted record of British military aptitude for counterinsurgency was misplaced, and more a product of political failure. Others like Douglas Porch similarly argued that the British Army “did not have a particularly exemplary record at COIN or at any warfare, for that matter, at the time of Malaya” and the evidence of “brutal COIN tactics” was sufficient in itself to discount any claimed successes. Further, to the extent that British forces demonstrated any aptitude for Nagl’s institutional learning, it was in Porch’s words a preference for learning “kinetic methods,” disguised under the cloak of hearts and minds, which were “every bit as repressive – even dirty as the French.”
Ironically, though, such historical revisionism does not objectively undermine any assumed British capability for fighting small wars, but merely re-frames it in more contingent ways. Strategic success, it should be recalled, is the attainment of political goals. The fact that the British campaigns were often extremely violent does not, ipso facto, mean that they failed: it simply means that such victories were just more violent and coercive than subsequent commentary previously thought. This is the point: historical revelations of coercive, and sometimes excessive practices, merely contradicted the ostensible narrative of minimum force that had been built up by (often non-British) commentators.
To reiterate, this was a narrative to which the British Army had no institutional commitment. As this study has elucidated, over the years only a few military figures, along with the occasional House of Commons or Ministry of Defence report, ever referenced a presumed British tradition of counterinsurgency achievements based on hearts and minds/minimum force, and that they did so was largely the result of a lack of historical understanding about how the Army regarded its own contemporaneous performance. Arguably, such ignorance arose from the poor institutional memory about the legacy of colonial warfare within British Army itself, which throughout the years of the Cold War was heavily focused on major land battle in Central Europe.
A Tradition Not of Minimum Force but of Political Will
In broader historical perspective, when British “COIN” experience is examined, what is demonstrable is that, ultimately, what has determined the success or failure in any theater is political will. It is the political investment in the cause that has governed whether the British state has had the wherewithal to stay the course that, traditionally, has always provided the space and time for the learning/adaptation process to occur in the contingent environment. It is this factor that holds the key to understanding the British military experience in so-called small wars: that is to say, Britain does not have any tradition in counterinsurgency, which is, as this study has indicated, is at best a loose idea. What Britain does have, though, is an extended tradition of committing itself long-term to a series of external, and occasionally internal, engagements.
The capacity to enact long-term commitments can be discerned across the spectrum of the British experience: initial mistakes, lead – eventually – to learning and adaptation, and invariably success in terms of the attainment of designated political goals (which is, to reiterate, the only objective measurement of success). We can see this in numerous examples from the Boer War onwards; Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Oman, and Northern Ireland.
One sees this process at work in Afghanistan. The initial British deployment to Helmand was certainly under-resourced and poorly thought through. British forces, though under pressure, did not buckle and retained their presence arising from the broader commitment of the British government to resolving the Afghan problem. It was the long-term investment in the problem that enabled considerable improvements in operational effectiveness to be gained. In other words, British forces learnt and adapted.
The capacity to change, stay the course, and achieve results, has little to do with an imagined sense of proficiency in “small wars.” It has everything do with the strategic calculations of elected decision makers about where the balance of the national interest resides. If that calculation is that it is worth the cost to stay and fight, the British have usually succeeded either in whole or in part in attaining their political objectives. Conversely, where the calculation has gone the other way, an entirely different set of imperatives has come into play, which brings us to the next crucial aspect of Britain’s engagement with so-called insurgencies.
A Fine Tradition of Running Away
Where political will has been lacking because calculations of the national interest have been deemed to lie elsewhere, decisions have invariably been made to minimize losses and quit. Hence, in addition to a reputation for “COIN,” there is an equally venerable British tradition of cut-and-run withdrawals. Examples are numerous. There is the case of the Palestine in the 1940s, a UN mandated territory, where Britain had no intention of staying following the agreement of a UN plan to partition the country. Aden is another example. The British evacuated the territory in 1967 because of a political decision to withdraw forces East of Suez as a result of financial stringency at home, which meant that, unlike Malaya, there was little strategic interest in stabilizing the country before leaving.
One of the most interesting cases was the participation in the multinational effort in the Lebanon in the 1980s. While the British have usually not been shy to send forces on peacekeeping missions, particularly in support of American initiatives, in this instance the British sent only a token force of 90 troops into Beirut. This was, somewhat unusually, dwarfed by the commitment of thousands of American, French and even Italian forces. Subsequently, after a few months, the British government unilaterally withdrew the force. The political assumption was that persisting with a presence in a rapidly deteriorating security situation was likely to be costly. Arguably, it proved an accurate calculation when in 1983 the U.S. Marines and French military headquarters in the city were attacked by Hezbollah backed suicide bombers resulting in the deaths of hundreds of troops.
It is in the context of the parallel British tradition of cutting-and-running that the supposed failures of British counterinsurgency in Basra should be seen. So here is the point: few serious analysts proclaim the failure of British COIN based on prudential withdrawals in places like Palestine, Aden or Beirut. There is no suggestion that just because the British failed to pacify Afghanistan in the nineteenth century or decided to quit India in 1947 that it failed in small wars or counterinsurgency. What the British external and colonial military engagement demonstrates is the deeply contingent character of war that involves constant assessments of the willingness to invest troops, money and material for a particular cause. Thus, alongside a legacy of often hard won and hardnosed success for British forces there is an equally fine tradition of running away. This is not a symptom of cowardice, weakness or failure, just political calculation – and arguably quite astute calculations at that – for if there is any wisdom contained in the British experience of contending with small wars, perhaps knowing when not to fight is just as important as committing to stay over the long term.
If one surveys the history of so-called British counterinsurgency encounters over the longer view, what is revealed is an extended and varied legacy of external entanglements (or in the case of Northern Ireland, an internal entanglement) ranging from colonial intervention, colonial withdrawal, peacekeeping, and peace enforcement. The outcome of each of these encounters has ultimately been based on the degree of political commitment to the cause. The legacy is one which – from the Boer War, to Malaya, from Kenya to Kuwait, to Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Kosovo, to Helmand, reveals a remarkable degree of operational success, but most importantly where the British authorities were fully committed, the attainment of political goals was almost always achieved. Arguably, perhaps with single exception in recent times of the Suez intervention in 1956, all the other examples of assumed failure were based on political decisions to withdraw from entanglements where there was no political commitment to stay.
Finally, then, we return to the key question, which is why so many commentators end up drumming on the cases of Basra and the initial commitment to Helmand, to build up a disproportionate argument about British operational failure within a presumed tradition of expertise in counterinsurgency? As has been demonstrated, if one looks closely at the evolution of this supposed tradition, it reveals itself as highly elusive. Rarely has a facility for counterinsurgency ever been claimed by the British armed forces themselves. Invariably, it has been a tradition ascribed to them by others. Ostensibly, it has been a narrative generated by commentators in the United States who were keen to discern practices of minimum force or rapid institutional learning. Such practices were deemed to constitute lessons from which the U.S. armed forces themselves could learn. A later series of scholars came to question a number of these lessons, suggesting instead, that British success was often based on more hard-head assumptions rather than on clichéd ideas of hearts and minds.
Seemingly, it is always attractive for commentators to filter their analysis through the lens of contemporary events, like the military commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan, and via popular tropes, like the assumption that Britain has an established tradition of counterinsurgency, to project arguments that assert the decline of a once esteemed reputation. Such plotlines are not historically grounded but are narratives that possess a certain broad though inevitably simplistic appeal for audiences that may not have the time or willingness to examine the British Army’s experience of military engagement in so-called small wars in all its historical complexity.
A longer term perspective, in fact, is likely to reveal that the examples of Helmand and Basra are exceptional, even aberrations, in relation to the vast majority of instances of British military interventions over the past 150 years, not least because in Iraq and Afghanistan Britain has functioned as a junior partner to the United States (though a significant partner in a broader coalition of nations) in an extensive nation building capacity. It is, in other words, a consequence of the over-stretch of resources in potentially unlimited commitments that weaknesses of early twenty first century British military capacities have revealed themselves, rather than any failure of a non-existent tradition of counterinsurgency.
. Montgomery McFate and Andrea Jackson, “An Organizational Solution for DOD’s Cultural Knowledge Needs’, Military Review (July-August), p.18.
. House of Commons Defence Committee, Iraq: An Initial Assessment of Post-Conflict Operations, Sixth Report of Session 2004-05, Vol. 1 (London: The Stationary Office, 2005), pp. 27-35.
. Richard Norton-Taylor, “General Hits Out at US Tactics,” Guardian, April 21, 2004.
. Mike Jackson, “British Counter-insurgency,” Journal of Strategic Studies, Vol. 32, No. 3 (2009), p. 347.
. Nigel Aylwin-Foster, “Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” Military Review (November-December 2005), p. 8.
. House of Commons Defence Committee, Iraq, p. 4.
. Ministry of Defence, Stability Operations in Iraq (Op Telic 2-5): An Analysis from A Land Perspective (London: MOD, 2005), p. 14. Available at
http://download.cabledrum.net/wikileaks_archive/file/uk-stbility-operations-in-iraq-2006.pdf (accessed 11 July 2006).
. Qoted in Matthew Davis, “UK Officer Slams US Iraq Tactics,” BBC News, January 11, 2006, available at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4603136.stm (accessed June 21, 2012).
. Aylwin-Foster, Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations,” p. 4.
. Richard Norton-Taylor and Jamie Wilson, ‘US army in Iraq institutionally racist, claims British officer’, Guardian, January 12, 2006.
. Quoted in Davis, “UK Officer Slams US Iraq Tactics.”
. David Betz and Anthony Cormack, “Iraq, Afghanistan and British Strategy,” Orbis (Spring 2009), p. 321.
. Karl Hack, “‘Iron Claws on Malaya’: The Historiography of the Malayan Emergency,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1 (1999), p. 102.
. John Newsinger, British Counter-insurgency: From Palestine to Northern Ireland (London: Palgrave, 2002).
. Huw Bennett, “Soldiers in the Court Room: The British Army’s Part in the Kenya Emergency Under the Legal Spotlight,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, Vol. 39, No. 5 (2011), pp. 717-730.
. Douglas Porch, “The Dangerous Myth and Dubious Promise of COIN,” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 22, No. 2 (2011), p. 249.
. See Theo Farrell, “A Good War Gone Wrong?” RUSI Journal, Vol. 156, No. 5 (October-November 2011), pp. 60-64.