How to beat Iraq's insurgents? Ask the British.
Britain's knack for countersinsurgency is being ignored.
LONDON — Even if you're vigorously opposed to the Iraq war, you'd have to agree that Britain has pulled its weight in the conflict. Too bad Washington hasn't fully leveraged Britain's military talents.
As the war began in 2003, Britain couldn't match America's military might, of course. But it boasted an impressive track record of fighting insurgents. That kind of experience would have proved invaluable to US commanders in Iraq as the insurgency gained strength. But the Pentagon didn't take advantage of Britain's knack or know-how.
Britain's impressive military record
Consider the many examples of British prowess in unconventional warfare:
In World War I, Lawrence of Arabia and his camel-borne Bedouins fiercely challenged the Turks along the Hejaz Railway. In World War II, Gen. Orde Wingate and his legendary Chindits drove the Japanese out of the jungles of northern Burma. After 1945, British successes continued in such places as Palestine, Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden, Borneo, Oman, and Northern Ireland.
The case of Malaya is especially illuminating. Three years after expelling the Japanese from Burma, British forces plunged into the jungles of Malaya to defeat a communist insurgency. "The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people," declared Gen. Sir Gerald Templer, who cut off the insurgents from the population and wore them down by relentless military, police, and civil action. By 1954, he had effectively won the war.
As Britain's long imperial retreat continued in the mid-20th century, it found itself battling determined insurgents in Aden and Cyprus. Then, in support of newly-independent Malaysia, it expelled Indonesian invaders from the jungles of Borneo. More recently, it has fought a 30-year counterinsurgency campaign in Northern Ireland to persuade the Provisional IRA that it couldn't bomb the British province into the Irish Republic.
The efficacy of unconventional warfare in fighting insurgents has not been lost on Gen. David Petraeus, the latest US commander in Iraq. Last December, he masterminded the publication of "The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual." Earlier this year, he set up a brain trust to assess whether counter-insurgency tactics could restore US fortunes in Iraq.
US Army was unprepared in Iraq
Writing in a recent edition of the manual, Lieut. Col. John Nagl declared that the US Army had been unprepared to tackle the Iraq insurgency when it erupted in the summer of 2003. It wasn't ready for "the time-honored insurgent tactic of roadside bombs," and it hadn't stressed the importance of ensuring the safety of the Iraqi populace. "In 2003 most Army officers knew more about the US Civil War than they did about counterinsurgency," he lamented.
But the British did know about counterinsurgency and, as a result, they've handled Basra, in southern Iraq, with considerable skill. They've made a point of consulting religious leaders and tribal elders there, patrolling in berets, eschewing scary sunglasses, and gathering detailed intelligence on the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that bedevil the city.
Bound by intense regimental loyalties, they've seemed steadier, more experienced, and more approachable than their US counterparts. Whenever possible, they've dispensed with their Warrior armored vehicles and traveled light and on foot.
US troops, by contrast, can appear sinister in helmets, dark glasses, and body armor. Forever watching their backs, they can often seem brash and trigger-happy. Indeed, in their Humvees, Bradleys, and Strykers, guns trained on likely targets, they've become the occupying army they desperately didn't want to be. While the British focus on winning Iraqi hearts and minds, US troops, imbued with a fierce warrior ethic, have been more reluctant to take up the task.
As the US pitted conventional forces against Iraq's shadowy insurgents, Britain should have urged its ally to drastically change its tactics. It should have shared its counterinsurgency wisdom. Then, it should have insisted on nothing less than a joint command in Iraq.
But as junior partner, Britain has never had more than minimal influence over US campaign planning and strategic deliberations. Essentially, Washington soldiered on with its costly conventional struggle, ignoring Britain's repository of counter-insurgency knowledge.
But with the appointment of General Petraeus as US commander in Iraq last February, the Pentagon appeared to concede that conventional force wouldn't be able to decapitate Iraq's hydra-headed insurgency.
Tough assignment for Petraeus
Instilling the principles of unconventional warfare into his war-weary troops will be a tough assignment for Petraeus. In fact, it could be tougher than he realizes. According to Professor John Tierney of the Institute of World Politics in Washington, America isn't partial to unconventional war. In his 2006 book "Chasing Ghosts," he noted that American strategic culture is actually "disdainful" of it and American political culture regards it as "dishonorable."
It might be argued that any prospect of waging a successful counterinsurgency in Iraq today has evaporated in a welter of sectarian shootings, roadside blasts, and suicide truck bombings. But if Petraeus can start hauling insurgent "fish" from Baghdad's raging "sea," he might still turn the tide in one of the most difficult wars the US has ever fought
He may want to call the British, though. Ignoring a gifted ally is not just impolite. It's not very sensible.
• Stephen Webbe is a former Monitor Pentagon correspondent and editor of NPR's "Morning Edition." He is currently writing a book about Mussolini's long-forgotten role in the Battle of Britain.