Tuppence for your COIN Thoughts

November 4, 2013

David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell, Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013)


This is not a comfortable book to read for members or friends of the British armed forces.  And it should generate equally discomforting questions for its American readers.  Counterinsurgency in Crisis is a dispassionate and objectively critical evaluation of UK strategic performance in its last two conflicts-Iraq and then Afghanistan.  Both authors have relevant scholarly credentials and prior works on civil conflicts and counterinsurgency.  Ucko (who is a colleague of mine at the National Defense University) and Egnell begin slowly, but end up with an eviscerating indictment of British preparation, strategic direction, and operational practice.  “There is no fig leaf large enough here to cover the deep flaws in the British government’s own approach and conduct in their counterinsurgency campaigns,” they conclude.

What accounts for the UK’s poor showing in Iraq and Afghanistan?  The authors identified the existence of a smug conception that British forces were uniquely qualified in counterinsurgency because of the UK’s extensive exposure in imperial policing, peace support tasks in the Balkans, and of course, Northern Ireland.  Much of that experience was dated and not well represented in British doctrine or military education.  As Alexander Alderson observed in the British Army Review, “Despite our institutional COIN heritage…[the study of small wars]…was relegated to a position of almost complete institutional irrelevance.”  Ucko and Egnell found that this unique heritage retarded learning and adaptation, further degrading performance.

The authors transition to the strategic level and don’t flinch:

…the British capacity for strategic thinking–its ability to formulate a campaign plan–has proved consistently and fatefully problematic throughout the last decade of operations.  Strategy requires a clear alignment of ends, ways and means, prioritization, sequencing, and a theory of victory.  In contrast, strategy making for Bara and for Helmand was marked by the failure to grasp the nature of the campaign, to adapt once new realities came to the fore, and to resources these efforts, both politically and financially, to achieve a clearly established objective.

This will not be news to informed students of British security matters.  As former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup noted, the Britain’s military has “lost an institutional capacity for and culture of strategic thought.”  After considering the past decade, looking at the prospects of a security environment laced with instability and complex contingencies, this pair of scholars concludes with an ominous assessment of British performance.  Afghanistan points to significant problems in the British way of preparing for and prosecuting modern wars: “the failure to properly formulate and resource strategy; the failure of civil-military coordination at both the strategic and operational levels; the limitations of military improvisation and of ‘muddling through’ in the absence of a plan.”  Worst of all, they claim, British leaders let “strategic intent and operational approach develop independently.”

Scholars, including Anthony King at the University of Exeter, have criticized the British military’s culture and approach to military command and oversight.  King argues that the concept of mission command is grossly misunderstood, and that a laissez faire style of detached oversight emerged in both conflicts.  This military command style failed to create and sustain any operational coherence between desired objectives and force activities.  Counterinsurgency in Crisis confirms this indictment.

This pair of authors does not believe that the UK’s Ministry of Defence has fully grasped the formidable tasks inherent to modern warfare, nor has proposed resource allocations ensured higher levels of preparedness for stabilization missions.  Ucko and Egnell conclude that civilian policy makers are not embracing the necessary changes in government to support even a respectable role for the United Kingdom in the most likely of scenarios.

This book also reinforces the critical comments made by UK strategy-making participants and scholars found in a recent anthology titled British Generals in Blair’s Wars It is far less emotional, but no less convincing than Frank Ledwidge’s Losing Small Wars.  What makes Ucko and Egnell’s work a unique addition is its linkage to future missions, and its evaluation of options for British policy planners.   Given the reduced resources and experience of the last decade, they concisely examine the merits of scaling down British contributions to niche investments, employment of more indirect approaches, and greater burden sharing with regional organizations.   The authors have a healthy skepticism that these approaches will meet all British political objectives, noting that “‘Strategic abstinence’ and ‘strategic selectivity’ are options fraught with a different type of risk, particularly for a state with global expeditionary ambitions or when alliance commitments come into play.”  American strategists should take note.

The hidden issue in this book is the validity of counterinsurgency theory.  Certainly current counterinsurgency theory has taken a blow of late.  Some have even called it “dead.”  Such conclusions are woefully premature.  As these authors show, theory has its place as a tool, but it is not to be the master of strategy or a substitute for it.  Britain went into two wars with an overestimation of its grasp of contemporary conflict, inadequate machinery and poor practice at linking its objectives to a sound strategy, and a military culture short on education, but long on improvisation and “cracking on.” Counterinsurgency theory cannot be a panacea that resolves so many structural and capability gaps, nor can it be employed as an excuse to shelter less than stellar professional competence in strategy or operational execution.  The last decade only reinforces my own reservations about how well we’ve captured environmental conditions and the context of contemporary civil conflict. Yet, I don’t think we can excuse ourselves from future contingencies or blame doctrine for substituting for vacuums in strategy.  Our UK partners and we need to do a better job of measuring our interests and designing pragmatic strategies that commensurate with our policy aims.

My only complaint about this wonderful book is the lack of graphics.   A few maps of Helmand province would have clarified British force positions better, and a table or two of force rotations would also help readers understand the timelines and size of various UK contingents.

This is a serious, sober, and objective scholarly analysis of British strategic and operational performance.  The United States needs a similar assessment.  The politics of drawing honest lessons via such “after action reviews” are delicate, but can and must be done.  For an example, see the admirable Joint Staff operationally oriented assessment titled The Decade of War. The next assessment, however, needs to go beyond just a study of military generalship or military issues, as recently recommended by Tom Ricks.  The challenges of modern warfare are just as pertinent to U.S. policy makers and elected officials as they are to senior military leaders.  Modern conflicts, so called “wars amongst the people,” are not entirely military in character, and thus we should not limit our learning, insights, lessons, and subsequent adaptions.  For too long in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the danger of “letting strategic intent and operational approach develop independently” was tragically evident.  American strategic performance needs the same level of dispassionate scrutiny and professional assessment.

Because of its solid scholarship and the issues it raises, Counterinsurgency in Crisis is highly commended to readers on both sides of the Atlantic interested in strategic studies, military effectiveness, and military history.


F. G. Hoffman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at the National Defense University.  These comments are his own and not reflective of those of the Department of Defense or NDU.


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