Tuesday, 11 January 2011

British COIN down against the US dollar

Britain's approach to counterinsurgency (COIN) is equal to any, including that of the US.  Where it differs is in the amount of resources we have to throw at the problem...

Several weeks ago now, another ‘Wikileak’ brought us news that the US and Hamid Karzai had criticised British counterinsurgency (COIN) efforts in Afghanistan.  It got me thinking, after failure in Iraq’s Multi National Division (South East) (MND(SE)) and well documented struggles in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, were these latest criticism another striking blow for British COIN?  I decided, no, not really.  More of a repeated underlining of the fact that without the correct resourcing, COIN is a non-runner.  British performance in Afghanistan since the turn of the year is testament to the fact that with the correct force density, Britain is still up there with the COIN elite.

The criticism coming from US General Dan McNeill was hard to stomach over my breakfast and that is no slight on McNeill’s character.  This is criticism coming from a highly decorated and competent soldier whose opinions should be valued.  Yet, it was only four years ago that the US was the King-Kong of COIN.  All conquering?  No; clumsy, power-oriented and scaring locals left, right and centre.  In fairness to them, the US now seemingly ‘get’ COIN.  Its army has taken on a rapid learning curve; identifying its weaknesses, reaching consensus on how to address these weaknesses, codifying doctrine to bridge the gap and then effectively diffusing new doctrine.  The result has been a highly resourced army that is focused on the centre of gravity in COIN (the population) and that adheres to all the associated principles; minimum force, political supremacy, intelligence lead ops and so on.  What we can best learn from the Americans relates to the former point; resources.

We do not necessarily need a tactical or organisational rethink.  We have been ‘getting’ COIN for decades.  The brick wall we hit in Iraq and the formative periods of Afghanistan has more to do with money and boots on the ground than it does with tactics.  What we need is a strategic rethink.  That means the thinking needs to come from the top; from politicians as well as top army brass.

COIN is inextricably resource intensive.  In order to beat an insurgency, one needs not only ‘clear’ an area, yet ‘hold’ it, and ‘hold’ it well.  COIN is about development and governance as much as it is about security.  Yet, the former cannot be achieved without the latter.  In order to keep ‘the people’ safe, therefore, boots on the ground are needed; lots of them.

And so it is imperative to understand that McNeill’s criticism, and indeed Karzai’s, came at a time when British forces were chronically underfunded.  Sangin was, and continues to be, a uniquely challenging area in which British forces fought bravely and so, the handover to US Marines does not mark a failure.  It merely marks a logical move, allowing an equally brave force to ensure security with the backing of better resourcing. 

How do we match that in Britain?  Throw more money into the military?  We all know that is not going to happen.  The answer lies in efficiency; in our own and in partnerships and coalitions.  We must simply get better at working within a framework of sound strategy in unison with our partners so as to compensate for what is an unbridgeable gap for an Island and army of our size.  Turning the corner in Helmand throughout 2010 shows that working in unison within a coalition such as NATO can, and indeed does, work.

by Dane Vallejo

This blog was originally published by The Henry Jackson Society, 03/12/10, accessed at http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Henry-Jackson-Society/155214731155612

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