December 21, 2007

“It is a case of the son surpassing the father”

The Economist confirms what Abu Muqawama has been saying for quite some time: the U.S. military has learned the basic principles of counterinsurgency with frightening speed, and whatever supposed expertise the British Army possessed in COIN, the U.S. Army surpassed that expertise, accumulated over centuries, in the first five years after 9/11. Not that British officers have forgotten how to be condescending about it...

Senior British officers, who until recently regarded themselves as experts in counter-insurgency, marvel at the speed with which the American army is learning imperial policing. “It is a case of the son surpassing the father,” says one British officer.

Update: Charlie, here. David Kicullen, GEN Petraeus' former strategy advisor, offered some interesting thoughts on the British experience in Basra earlier this fall in a lecture sponsored by the USMC Small Wars Center of Excellence (briefing slides here). Kilcullen argues that the Brits, based on experience mostly in the Balkans and Northern Ireland, adopted a peacekeeping (vice COIN) mindset in Basra, to the detriment of the stated mission.

What's the difference, you ask? Well in PKO your primary task is to keep people from shooting each other; little or no violence is the metric of success. But from a COIN perspective, that might only be the calm before the storm. You needn't be an expert on Mao to know that quiescent periods can serve as an operation pause for refitting and regrouping. But, far more perniciously, op-pauses facilitate political organizing--the backbone of any good insurgency. While the Brits were patrolling in soft caps, competing Shia factions were busy recruiting and securing the the political bases for their future confrontation.

PKO is almost by definition apolitical; COIN is, of course, wholly political. And that's what the Brits got wrong in Basra: they mistook lack of violence for a lack of threat. Let's see how they do as they ramp up their presence in Aghanistan.