March 24, 2008

COIN in the Colonies

Over at toohotfortnr, where Spencer shares Abu Muqawama's love of both counter-insurgency doctrine and the Raveonettes, we get called out with respect to how the British might have executed a counter-insurgency strategy against the pesky American colonists in the late 18th Century.

This is an admittedly personal issue for Abu Muqawama as his great(times 8 or 9)-grandfather helped lead the North Carolina militia against the British and another ancestor was the founding father (in)famous for refusing to sign the Constitution (on account of the absence of a bill of rights). But having said that, he thinks the British might have enjoyed some success in the southern colonies, if not the colonies writ large. Tom Ricks sent along this really interesting study on the failure of British counter-insurgency strategy in the south (.pdf) which basically takes 20th Century COIN theory and applies it to the British efforts.

Key findings:

1. The British were never able to muster troop levels approaching the 20:1 ratio often mentioned as ideal in COIN. Cutting corners somewhat, a RAND study suggests a ratio of 100:2 (that is, two soldiers for every 100 civilians). The British ratio in the American south, by contrast, was closer to 195:2. If the British had surrendered the north or at least decided to concentrate initially on the south and build north from there, they might have concentrated forces where the population was slightly more amenable to British rule if not enthusiastic supporters of the crown.

2. British brutality contributed toward the alienation of the population. Abu Muqawama was walking through the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square last week and spied a portrait of Banastre Tarleton. Where have we heard that name in the history books? Oh yeah: On May 29, 1780 LtCol Tarleton's legion fought a battle against a Continental force at Waxhaws. After a violent initial encounter, the American commander attempted to surrender, raising a white flag and ordering his men to lay down their weapons. Tarleton's force ignored the white flag and continued to attack the unarmed American force, including the wounded. The massacre became known as "Tarleton's Quarters", and emerged as a rallying cry behind which both rebel and, more importantly, non-committed colonists flocked to oppose the British. This single event, more than any other, hardened the population against the British and further undermined their legitimacy.

3. The British never realized the extent to which the Colonists viewed themselves as independent members of the Empire, and therefore never took steps to work with the colonists to raise taxes to pay off the enormous debt from the Seven Years War. On the contrary, they kept in place the tax acts that were the principle source of discontent among the colonists, and actually fueled the insurgent cause. In regards to the flawed Southern Campaign, the British tragically never realized that their belief that there were large numbers of Loyalists in the South waiting to be liberated was an illusion. Since the British did not enjoy a broad base of support in the South, it became critically important that they design and conduct a flawless campaign in the south designed to win the "hearts and minds" of the colonists. Although the operational concept of "Americanization" was clear, the British failed to translate this into effective peace keeping/peace enforcement tactics. The tenuous legitimacy of the campaign was shattered by the brutal conduct of the British and Loyalist forces throughout the theater. A primary reason for the failure of the campaign was the unrestrained acts of violence that inflamed the general populous and drove the uncommitted faction squarely into the camp of the rebels.

Conclusion: The British never attempted COIN in the U.S. colonies, but it is the opinion of Abu Muqawama that had they tried -- given a small standing army and instability elsewhere -- they might have enjoyed some success in the south and then perhaps extended control north. Would the colonies have remained pliant satellites of the British Empire? Probably not. But the British, had they been a little smarter, might have worked out some kind of devolution process which would have kept the U.S. a part of the commonwealth (like a sexier version of Canada, and without Tim Horton's). They would have had to have had a serious talk with their heavy-handed commanders, though. And honestly, the thing that worked against the British the most was that condescension and arrogance toward the colonies and their legitimate gripes. That famous condescension is charming and funny in the early 21st Century, sure, but not so much in the late 18th Century when the British were still -- how does Abu Muqawama write this diplomatically? -- important.

So, Poms, a successful COIN strategy might have looked something like this:

1. Work to address the real gripes and concerns of the colonists with respect to the tax acts. Probably should have done this before the shooting started.
2. Counsel field commanders to exercise restraint and work with/subvert local authorities.
3. Work the oil spots: Concentrate forces in the American south -- not the population centers of the north -- and then spread north.
4. Have a little humility. (You know, the kind you're forced to accept when none of your football teams qualify for the European Championships.)