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The State of British Counterinsurgency–and its Lesson for the U.S.

From the 1950s to the 1990s–from the Malayan Emergency to the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland–British troops developed a reputation as the foremost counterinsurgency experts in the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have been the undoing of their reputation.

In Iraq, British troops allowed Basra to become taken over by Shiite extremists and criminals. They hunkered down in an airbase outside the city even as extremists rained rockets and mortars down upon them. Order was not restored until Prime Minister Maliki ordered an Iraqi assault, Operation Charge of the Knights, in 2008, which received some much-needed, last-minute American help.

In Afghanistan, British forces similarly allowed Helmand Province, once their exclusive preserve, to become a Taliban stronghold. The Taliban were not driven back until U.S. Marines entered Helmand in strength in 2009.

The latest embarrassment for the British was the Taliban attack last fall on their airbase in Helmand, Camp Bastion: an assault squad managed to blow up six Marine Harrier jump jets on the ground and kill two marines, including the squadron commander.

Now the Washington Post reveals that the attack was made possible because the British had turned over perimeter security to a small contingent of troops from Tonga who had left key watchtowers unmanned. Meanwhile the Marines, who had done vigorous patrolling around Bastion (which adjoins their own base, Camp Leatherneck), had scaled back their presence in the vicinity because of a larger troop drawdown, which put combat troops at a premium.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation in the Post account is this: “No U.S. or British military personnel have been reprimanded as a result of the attack. The Marine Corps does not plan to release its review. NATO also intends to keep its investigation confidential, in part to avoid embarrassing the British for leaving towers unmanned, according to officers briefed on the findings.” In other words, there is no accountability for this gross negligence.

In fairness, British troops remain of high quality and the British army remains one of the most professional in the world. But Britain’s military has been badly hurt by crippling and continuing budget cuts and by a lack of support on the home front for their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Both of these factors have led British commanders to take the most cautious approach possible toward the employment of their forces, trying to limit casualties even at the expense of allowing the enemy to make gains. That is a sad fate for what was once the world’s premier “small wars” force–and a warning of where the U.S. armed forces could end up as our own budget cuts and manpower reductions continue unabated.



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