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‘Counterinsurgency in Crisis’: An objective assessment of the British experiences in Helmand and Basra

‘Counterinsurgency in Crisis’: An objective assessment of the British experiences in Helmand and Basra

By Emile Simpson
Best Defense office of counterinsurgency doctrine

Counterinsurgency in Crisis concerns specifically the British experience of conflict over the last 10 years. The timing of this book matters, given that the British combat mission in Afghanistan is now in its twilight, at least on current plans: By publishing in 2013, the authors — the estimable David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell — free themselves from the temptations of a polemical approach to influence events on the ground; they rather deploy a dispassionate, analytical style that will serve to influence the debate over the longer term, as this admirable book deserves to do.

The central conceptual argument is that counterinsurgency in the abstract offers guidance and principles based on past experience that may be helpful in the design and execution of an effective campaign plan, but that it is an operational approach, not a strategy: “the focus on military operations can easily obscure the fact that they require a political strategy to be meaningful”.

This argument is presented in four thematic strands: how the British understood and applied their own past experience of counterinsurgency, two main case studies in Basra and Helmand, and an extensive analysis of the British Army’s internal institutional adaption over this period.

In terms of the British understanding of their own doctrine, the authors argue that the examples of Malaya and Northern Ireland in particular were overly privileged, selectively understood, and superficially applied. This resulted in operational approaches driven by principles that did not necessarily translate across to substantially different political and military contexts.

For example, the promotion of a legitimate government makes sense in the abstract as a generic counterinsurgency principle, but “who were the established authorities in Basra in 2003 or 2006, and who were the established authorities in Helmand of 2006 or 2009?”

The authors propose that both historical case studies and contemporary conflicts need to be understood on their own terms, not regurgitated as templates. Of course there would be few writers on COIN who would disagree with that. The real power of this argument concerns how, given the experience of Basra and Helmand, the British Army’s own historical experience of counterinsurgency operations did not make the impact it should have done.

The reasons presented for this are complicated, but this important chapter goes a long way to explain the difference between assumed corporate knowledge, which the British Army did have in places, both in terms of people in and out of uniform, and actual operational practice. For example, the book mentions the successful British Dhofar campaign in the 1960s and ‘70s as one example of a lacuna in the British Army’s understanding of its own history: It was only “remembered” at an institutional level long after Basra and Helmand had started.

The Basra chapter is calm, objective, and ruthless. There is no escaping that the British made a secret deal with Shiite militias in Basra in 2007 that, however spun, remains a deep humiliation. What about Charge of the Knights in 2008 that re-took the city? Ucko and Egnell are fair: While recognising that this was “salvation” for the British, who played a relatively minor part, so too is there acknowledgement that the British Army in Basra made important reforms that enabled aspects of the operation, such as an evolution in the partnering and mentorship structures with the Iraqi Army.

However, these eleventh hour successes are analysed as being in spite of London, which does not speak to a coherent strategic process: “Operation Charge of the Knights unfolded so quickly and so unexpectedly that there was less chance for the British Government and MoD back in London to interfere”. Indeed, a strength of the book is the analysis of the conflicting demands that British field armies in Basra, and to a lesser extent in Helmand, have experienced in reporting both to London and in-theatre chains of command.

The authors acknowledge the basic resource and political constraints that put in a kinder context the operational problems of the British field forces on the ground in Basra. But London does not come off well. The presentation of Basra as a strategic success by senior political and military apologists is forensically dismantled: “if this strategy was ever sincere, it failed”.

Turning to the Helmand chapter, I would take a different view of the dynamics of the conflict, specifically the claim that Helmand was a hornet’s nest of Taliban before 2006. In my view, there was not a specifically Taliban insurgency in Helmand before the 2006 British deployment, and the insurgency that emerged initially was of a local and fragmented nature, not a coherent Taliban enemy. To be fair to the authors on this point, my view is currently in the minority in terms of the wider debate. Leaving that to one side, I agree with the chapter’s main assertion that despite operational progress in Helmand later on, the early campaign lacked clear focus, and replicated the problems of Basra at the strategic level.

The analysis by Ucko and Egnell of the problems of the Helmand campaign is convincing, and points out inter alia that the substantially different approaches taken by successive brigade rotations did not make sense in terms of an overall campaign, which raises real question-marks over the coherence of the British strategic process (although this was by no means a uniquely British problem).

From a personal point of view, having served in Helmand, there were many British officers who were familiar with COIN in the early phase, but we lacked the manpower before the surge in 2009 to hold cleared ground, the intelligence resources to understand the political complexity, and tight enough operational aims. Since 2009, I think the British Army has performed effectively in Helmand.

I also think that from an internal, institutional perspective, the single biggest practical difference to the British Afghan campaign, beyond resources and political goals, was the personality and drive of General Stanley McChrystal in 2008 and 2009. The fact that it ultimately took a U.S. general to tone down what was plainly an overly kinetic approach before 2009, which was antagonising too many people in Helmand, says something about British claims to be the guardians of the minimum force tradition of COIN.

The book’s conclusion does not advance either the retention or jettisoning of counterinsurgency, as other works in this area have done. Rather, a nuanced position is established: There may well be operations possibly involving British forces in the near future that require an understanding of counterinsurgency, but COIN should be properly understood as a pool of operational practice that needs to be applied to the particular context, and accompanied by a political strategy, which COIN is not in itself.

More specifically for a British audience, this book may trigger a more public discussion of what happened to the British in Basra. That debate has been on hold due to Helmand, and will be coloured by the extent to which Helmand is received as an exorcism for the British Army’s experience of Basra.

Given that it is naturally hard for British soldiers, many of whom have lost friends in Basra, to look at the subject objectively, the authors ultimately do the British Army a service by prefiguring a moment in the near future, when most of its troops are off the ground, when the British Army and its masters in the government and the electorate may come to take a dispassionate, and probably painful look, at this most emotively charged of subjects.

Emile Simpson served in the British Army as an infantry officer in the Gurkhas from 2006 to 2012. He deployed to southern Afghanistan three times and is the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (Columbia, 2012).