Are you sure?

Via Kings of War, an Anglo-Australian spat of sorts.

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 first thing I’d say would be to check out “Ajay” (you really need to get your own blog, mate) in the comments. As he points out, they didn’t “almost destroy” 16AAB or anything close to it. He also points out that the whole discourse of “failure” in southern Iraq is based on the belief that something different occurred in north-central Iraq.

After all, even accepting the American claims of success (well, the ones that aren’t completely deranged), Baghdad is still a war zone, disagreeable, infrastructure-challenged, dangerous, criminalised, ruled in name by a wildly corrupt sectarian government swinging between US and Iranian influence and in fact by whoever has the upper hand in any given street. Kirkuk and Baqubah are much the same but worse. And the improvement, such as it is, has been achieved by paying off both sets of enemies. Basra after the British move out to the airport is – corrupt, criminal, afflicted by tribal/sectarian violence, and governed by a chaotic sectarian authority. (Also, it never got as bad as Baghdad in the first place.)

But the meta-discourse of the Iraq war works like this: “fighting on” is a sufficient substitute for winning. Anyone who leaves must have been defeated, if they are not actually traitors. Therefore, the same endstate is defeat in Basra but victory in Baghdad. Who, after all, could swear to distinguish these guys – ex-NOIA now on our payroll – from ex-Sadrist or Fadhila men operating as Basra police so long as we (through the agency of the Iraqi government) pay them?

Another point here is precisely what tactics Kilcullen thinks the British Army should have adopted in Afghanistan in 2006. After all, his Iraq policy was to deploy lots of small units into permanent positions all over Iraqi cities, matched with units of Iraqi police and ex-insurgent countergangs, thus in order to gain intelligence, deliver economic relief, and exclude the insurgents from contact with the people, spreading out from reasonably secure areas in a classical counterinsurgency. When 16AAB went to Helmand, they sent individual infantry platoons out to as many villages as possible, there to set up an Afghan government presence, deliver economic relief, and exclude the Taliban. Can anyone see the similarities? No-one was willing to use the C-word at the time, but it’s pretty clear what was intended.

The point is well made over at Abu Muqawama; doing this implies being fairly confident that your outposts will be able to look after themselves against any force the enemy is likely to bring up. Among other things, the US Army in and around Baghdad was operating in a large city, so the gaps between units weren’t too big; this just isn’t the case in Afghanistan. The result was that the Taliban counter-attacked powerfully, trying hard to destroy the outposts and forcing the British Army to fight hard to hold on to them. The counterinsurgency policy broke down because the counterinsurgents were busy resisting insurgent assaults on their camps, and the fighting tended to kill, displace, and enrage the people who lived around the “platoon houses”.

Similarly, “Joint Security Stations” implanted in Musa Qala and Sangin would have been constantly under attack, and constantly firing back, producing the same scene of an empty bazaar shredded by gunfire. Which is precisely the result the Taliban were after. Further, it seems that the local force element is excluded by high-level political considerations.

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