Counterinsurgency is not a subject particularly popular these days. Its a subject in which only a fraction of scholars and military analysts is interested in and of those only a small part believes that it actually works. In fact, following the debate on counterinsurgency, one cannot help but notice that the only thing still being debated is why it does not work—some reject it in principle, partly because they do not believe in military interventions in the first place and partly because it is too complicated an effort. Others reject it because counterinsurgency requires a persistence and patience that modern democracies can hardly ever muster—to them its simply not a sort of warfare that is suited to present times. Take as exhibit A a recent article by Karl Eikenberry in Foreign Affairs. Eikenberry, who held top positions in the fight against the Taleban and the attempt to rebuild Afghanistan, argued that counterinsurgency failed. Clearly, the proponents of the strategy, the COINdinistas, are in retreat.
Against this background, taking stock of the actual counterinsurgency efforts is not a small effort and demands respect. David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell have done exactly that and published the first comparative account of the British counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan's Helmand and Iraq's Basra provinces. The fundamental background of their study is easy to grasp: Given the British experience in small wars and the fundamental attention counterinsurgency enjoyed in British military writing, the British had always bragged about a unique capability in taking on this kind of warfare. No other army, it seemed in the early 2000s, was as equipped and as experienced for the kind of effort necessary in Afghanistan and later on in Iraq. What Egnell and Ucko found, however, is that the British were just as clueless as any other ally in Iraq and Afghanistan.
They start off by looking at how the British armed forces responded to the end of the Cold War and—no surprise here really—that the British drew roughly the same conclusion as did the United States and other European allies: After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact there was a peace dividend waiting to be cashed in on. Territorial conflicts in Europe appeared increasingly unlikely and whatever warfare would remain was largely perceived as a targeting exercise, as Egnell and Ucko write, demonstrated mostly in the hype around the Revolution of Military Affairs (RMA). The experiences in counterinsurgency, particularly those in Malaya and Northern Ireland, had little impact on the planning done in the 1990s and there was little institutional memory for these more difficult expeditionary campaigns. When the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan called for a counterinsurgency strategy, past experiences were looked at, but that effort was largely too little, too late and it was never done thoroughly anyway. Even though, both authors maintain that counterinsurgency is just a collection of insights, but not a strategy itself. Instead of developing such a strategy, policymakers simply used catchphrases like population security, doing no harm, etc. And at least this might sound familiar to anyone following the debate in Germany.
Ucko and Egnell take it a step further and dissect the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq separately. Along the way, the also find nuggets that explain why the Iraq counterinsurgency effort was more successful than the effort in Afghanistan, where the Obama administration had initially hoped to recreate the success of the Iraqi surge. While the allies in Iraq managed to create the ink spots necessary to create population security and turned former adversaries into allies, such efforts went nowhere in Afghanistan. There is a number of reasons for this that the book, unfortunately I might add, does not explore at all: the differences in population densities, the difference between sectarian and tribal splits that offer different rooms for manoeuvre. A real comparison of the two efforts has still to be written and what Ucko and Egnell demonstrate, probably without intending to do so, is how superficial our understanding of the war efforts still is. But needless to say, this book is not only a damning account of British efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which lays to rest any myth about a special liking for counterinsurgency operations by the British armed forces, it is also one of the finest accounts thus far.
But before choosing closing remarks, it is important to note that what Ucko and Egnell assert with regard to the British experience is largely true for the German experience in Afghanistan as well. There is a certain similarity to the German attitude going into the Afghanistan mission back in 2001. Berlin was touting its soft approach to state building, build on its legacy on the Balkans in the 1990s, and used it to contrast its approach with the U.S. approach that Berlin assumed relied too heavily on military force. Nation-building, Berlin believed, was a German speciality, which is why it volunteered to spearhead the effort in Afghanistan and invited all international and Afghan players to Bonn. It has become a bit of a fashion in Germany to scold the United States for the nation-building effort in Afghanistan, which many German observers now blame on U.S. naivety. But the truth is that it was Berlin that was pushing for something more than just the obliteration of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. To fully understand the fate of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan Ucko and Egnell's fine book would have to be complemented by similar studies covering German and U.S. efforts.