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COIN machine: the British military in Afghanistan

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This article assesses the British military effort in Afghanistan looking at three key elements in the campaign: strategy, military operations, and the inter-agency “Comprehensive Approach.” We start by recognising the scale of the challenge that has faced the British: of all the provinces in Afghanistan, Helmand is the toughest to stabilize and secure. We then examine the evolution of all three elements above and find significant improvements in each: a flawed strategy has been corrected; the military have received more resources and become significantly better at COIN; and there is significant progress in the development of the inter-agency approach. In short, what the Americans will find in Helmand is a British COIN machine; a little creaky perhaps, but one that is fit for purpose and getting the job done. We briefly conclude on the prospects and the key to success: namely the development of a more coherent international strategy that accommodates the challenges posed by both Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is a growing consensus that the British are no longer effective at counterinsurgency (COIN). The irony is that just a few years ago senior British officers felt able to lecture the Americans (much to their annoyance), often contrasting U.S. problems in Iraq with Britain's record of successful COIN campaigns from the end of empire.1 Now the roles appear reversed.2 The U.S. Army and Marine Corps produced a new COIN manual (FM 3-24) in December 2006 that is now in use by militaries the world over.3 Informing this manual are new COIN tactics and capabilities that were developed and road-tested by U.S. battalions in Iraq in 2005-2006.4 Around this time, the British were beginning to lose their hold over Basra. British failure in Iraq was complete when it was left to the Iraqi Army, supported by the U.S. military, to wrestle back control of Basra city from Shi’ite militia in March 2008.5 It is hardly surprising, therefore, that The Economist should note “a new mood of self-doubt” in the British military, citing one British general as declaring that “we have lost our way” when it comes to small wars.6 To be sure, much of the criticism has focused on the lack of a national strategy and political will in Iraq. Britain played its traditional role as the United States’ most steadfast ally in committing a massive 46,000-strong force to support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003. But Britain had no strategy of its own for victory in Iraq. Moreover, British political and military commitment to the Iraq campaign began to wane in the face of growing public anger over the circumstances of Britain's entry into the war. By mid 2004 the British force had been drawn down to around 8,500. Three years on, the force was down to 5,700—nowhere near enough to assert British authority over Basra. The failure of Iraq casts a long shadow over British campaign in Afghanistan.7 Critics routinely pair the two campaigns in concluding that both demonstrate that “we lack the troops, wealth and stomach for anything more than the briefest conflict.”8 And just as the lack of political will, resources, and strategy undercut military operations in Iraq, so it is held that the same dysfunctional dynamic is at play in Afghanistan.9 Hence, it is argued the British are reliant on airpower “to blunt Taliban offensives” and that, due to the lack of commitment by non-military Whitehall agencies, efforts to develop an integrated civil-military Comprehensive Approach have been “largely still-born.”10 These criticisms have significant implications for the British campaign in Afghanistan at a time when the United States is surging an additional 20,000 troops into the South. Of these, 8,000 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) will deploy into what has been, until now, British-controlled Helmand province. If the critics are to be believed, then the Americans should expect little from the British. To be sure, American expectations are low.11 U.S. commanders and commentators tend to lump all the Europeans together, in contrasting the American war-fighting effort with the more effete European peacekeeping contribution.12 Such a comparison ignores the sacrifice of the British, Danes, Dutch and Canadians, who have been involved in heavy fighting in the South for almost three years.

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