Failure of British COIN

Forwarded to me by a friend is the article below which I am posting in full because it’s (IMO) rather important and I can’t find a link to it at present. What it says, in a nutshell, is that the British Army, which not so long ago strongly critiqued the American Army’s efforts in COIN has a hell of a lot to learn.
General saw police forces play counterinsurgency role
By Sean D. Naylor –
August 04, 2008

An adviser to incoming U.S. Central Command boss Gen. David Petraeus predicts that the general will seek to re-create his Iraqi success in Afghanistan, using many of the same methods that appear to have turned the tide in Iraq over the last 18 months.

“It can be safely assumed that he will apply many of the lessons learned from Iraq to what has until recently been a forgotten war” in Afghanistan, retired Lt. Col. John Nagl told a packed audience at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on July 22.

Nagl, who retired this year to become a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, was speaking as part of a panel on “Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare,” held to promote a book of the same name edited by two other panelists, Daniel Marston, a research fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University, and Carter Malkasian, director of the Center for Naval Analyses’ Stability and Development Program.

Nagl, who was due to leave for Iraq on July 25 to advise Petraeus, and who co-authored the Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual produced under the guidance of Petraeus when the latter commanded the Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., highlighted one lesson in particular from Iraq: “Foreign powers cannot win counterinsurgency campaigns, but they can enable and empower host nation governments to do so, and one of the most important tools they have to accomplish this task is the use of combat advisers.” With that in mind, he said, “perhaps the single most pressing need is for a larger Afghan National Army and police force, and additional American and allied advisers to help them fight our common enemies.”

Malkasian also focused on the important role played by “police and other community self-defense forces” in quelling the violence in Iraq, particularly in the Sunni areas.

“The thing that made them more effective than anything else … was their ability to collect intelligence,” he said. By late 2006 police and community self-defense forces in Sunni areas “were capturing and killing twice as many insurgents per policeman as their counterpart was in the Iraqi army,” he added.

Afghans, however, are still waiting for a similar model to be implemented in their country, according to Malkasian.

“The lessons of Iraq have not fully been transferred over to Afghanistan to learn how to do this the right way,” he said.

“The [Afghan National Police] … have potential, a potential that has not been exploited,” he continued, noting that the Afghan and coalition governments had capped ANP strength at 82,000 police.

“Even combined with the [Afghan National Army], which is projected to be 86,000 people, that is not enough to protect a population of 33 million. Amir Abdurahman in 1890 had roughly the same number of men to protect a population of only 5 million. Afghanistan is a dangerous, difficult country. We’re probably going to need more police to maintain stability there.”

Two speakers — Marston and David Kilcullen, who moderated the panel and is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s special adviser for counterinsurgency — were sharply critical of the British military’s performance in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying that the British had failed to back up their boasts of superiority in counterinsurgency and in fact had fallen behind the U.S. military.

“The British Army has the reputation of being good at counterinsurgency, and in 2003 and 2004 there was lots of fairly snide criticism of the United States by British commanders saying that Americans didn’t understand counterinsurgency [and] were taking too kinetic an approach,” said Kilcullen, who described the British attitude as, “‘Look at us, we’re on the street in our soft caps and everyone loves us.’”

Marston, who was until recently a senior lecturer at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst — the British Army’s rough equivalent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. — said that “as an American working in the British system for the last five years” in 2003, he watched the British “act as if they were the best in [counterinsurgency] in the world.”

But the British performance on Iraqi and Afghan battlefields since then has not backed up such strident talk, according to Kilcullen and Marston.

“It would be fair to say that in 2006 the British Army was defeated in the field in southern Iraq,” Kilcullen said, adding that there were numerous “incidents” in Afghanistan that further undercut the British claims of superiority in counterinsurgency.

“They’ve been embarrassed by their performance in southern Iraq,” Marston said. Meanwhile, the Taliban “almost destroyed” the British Army’s 16th Air Assault Brigade in Afghanistan. In some places, he said, “they just held on.”

The British military was simply unprepared for the challenges it faced in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Marston, who stressed he was not speaking in his official capacity as an employee of the British Ministry of Defence.

“There have been major problems with their pre-deployment training,” he said. “There were a lot of problems with their education. … The staff college had one day for counterinsurgency for majors. The RMA Sandhurst lieutenants course was a bit of a joke, bit of a video here and there.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesman was not able to provide a response by press time.

Chastened British officers have gained new respect for their American counterparts, according to Marston.

“There’s a lot of envy in the U.K., looking at the processes that the U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps have gone through in the last few years to get to where they are,” he said. “The British are open to that.”

Indeed, the British Army’s performance has improved recently, but only because it has embarked on a similar learning process to that which the U.S. military had already undergone, Marston said.

“We changed it from within, bottom-up, because we had platoon commanders who knew more than the generals on the ground,” he said, referring to his recent work with the British. “They are catching up. I’m not saying they’re going to lead anytime soon, but they are definitely catching up.”

Kilcullen and Marston each referred to a controversial article by British Brig. Nigel Aylwin-Foster that the U.S. Army’s professional journal, Military Review, published in late 2005. In the article, which ruffled many American feathers, Aylwin-Foster criticized the U.S. Army’s approach to counterinsurgency operations in Iraq.

“Many senior British officers feel that an American needs to write an article to embarrass the Brits in some ways,” Marston said.
This strikes me as fair criticism and should be received in the UK with the same spirit of sober self-reflection that Brig. Aylwin-Foster’s critique received in the United States. I would only add in defence of the Army that the essence of the problem is strategic in nature. The British government has never matched its stated aims in Iraq and particularly in Afghanistan with realistic resources. In both Northern Ireland and Malaya Britain deployed roughly 20 security personnel per 1000 inhabitants. According to its own doctrine and experience the Army has just about enough manpower to occupy a country the size of, say, Sierra Leone. It hasn’t nearly enough to do the job in Afgnanistan, by comparison. This fact is complicated by the other debilitating strategic factor, that no one seems to know what exactly they are supposed to accomplish there either.
See update CNA Panel on British COIN.

2 Responses to “Failure of British COIN”

  1. Tripper Says:

    Very balanced analysis. Many of us had a good chuckle at Aylwin-Foster’s critique of the ugly Americans. It doesn’t feel quite so fun to be on the receiving side. Strategy aside the US has a very well funded military. Spot the main difference with the UK?

  2. Derek Gregory Says:

    The full transcript of the original discussion can be downloaded at—Full-Transcript-of-Discussion-by-Senior-Military-Scholars

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