March 31, 2008

1776 and all that...

Andrew Exum received permission from the gang at Abu Muqawama to re-visit some of the debate we had vis-a-vis British COIN in the Colonies in Abu Muqawama's favorite British newspaper. This is sure to generate some grumbling from the comments section of the Guardian, we're sure.

The past few days have witnessed horrific fighting in Basra, where the British army turned over the province to the control of the Iraqi government last year. Questions are being raised as to how effective the army was in the early years of the Iraq war and whether or not it allowed Shia militias to take root and grow in southern Iraq to the point where taking action against them would have meant combat operations as bloody as the American-led offensives on Fallujah in 2004.

These questions are good ones. To a large degree, the British went into southern Iraq confident their imperial history and recent experience in Northern Ireland gave them a leg up on the US army and Marine Corps - relative neophytes to counterinsurgency warfare. But every insurgency, as Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely is right to stress [PDF], is sui generis. Going into southern Iraq and treating Basra province like an Arabic-speaking County Antrim was always going to end in heartbreak.

That does not mean, however, that we cannot learn general lessons that can be applied to most insurgencies and post-conflict environments. Recently, senior British army officers have privately expressed horror at the rapid degree to which the US military has learned to wage population-centric counterinsurgency warfare effectively, in contrast to the British military, which has, in their estimation, remained intellectually rooted in its 20th-century experiences in Ireland and Malaya. Having turned down an American offer to help draft the new US counterinsurgency manual issued in 2006, the British army is now scrambling to draft and publish a new manual of its own.

But maybe the British army was never that good at counterinsurgency warfare in the first place. In fact, the very existence of the United States of America points toward an 18th-century counterinsurgency failure of epic proportions. At the moment, Americans are reliving their revolutionary era through HBO's slick new mini-series on founding father John Adams. But this interest in the American Revolution surely opens the door onto an interesting thought experiment: What would have happened had the British army applied contemporary counterinsurgency doctrine against those pesky colonists in the 18th century?

Read the rest here.