Learning lessons in counter-insurgency

Browsing on the RUSI’s website I found this very ineresting article by Huw Bennett, entitled ‘The reluctant pupil? Britain’s army and learning in counter-insurgency. It is extremely relevant to the current conflict in Afghanistan, and I think it is worth summarising here with my own thoughts.

Often the failures of armed forces, especially in counter-insurgecy campaigns, are blamed on the inability of the miltary to learn and absorb the lessons from past conflicts. Looking at the example of past wars should demonstrate that our forces and commanders need to develop an ability to react flexibly to the unique nature of each campaign. Learning is crucial in military command and leadership. Particularly when we are all too aware that the cost of lessons not learnt is counted in lives lost. This is one sphere where military history can have a real impact on doctrine.

Post 1945 the British Army found itself involved in one counter-insurgency campaign after another, notably in Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, and most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. All of these examples are hallmarked by initial failings, before classic doctrine comes into play and varying degrees of success were achieved. Isnt it ironic that the British Army’s experience in the second half of the Twentieth Century was spent overwhelmingly in counter-insurgency, yet looking back we get the feeling that operations such as Northern Ireland were an unpleasant necessary, while the Army would rather have been fighting a real war?

History suggests that rather than being a new conflict out on its own, the current war in Afghanistan is in strong continuity with other counter-insurgency campaigns, albeit with its own unique local nature. It has been lumped under the banner of the war on terror, but that is down to US-political factors. The UK as fighting terror long before 9/11. There are strong lessons that shine through all campaigns. Hearts and minds matter, and civil-military co-operation is important. If you are going to ‘do’ nation breaking, then you have to do nation building. There will be no victory parade like in ‘real’ wars. Excessive use of force causes more problems than it solves. The objective is to make the enemy’s objective impossible, and to remove the factors that allow then to exist and operate.

But why is it that military culture struggles to learn these lessons? Does change – in particuar with looming cuts and restructuring – need to embraced rather than shyed away from? Certainly, deeply held beliefs and cultures, such as those found in an organisation like the Army, shape military beaviour and stifle abstract thinking and innovation. All too often a convenient orthodoxy reigns, and all thinking outside of it is frowned upon. Although there is also a strong culture of pragmatism and ‘muddling through’, is it the case that if we were pay more attention to history, then we might not have to? After all, how come the US military got their approach to Iraq so badly wrong, when there were ample case studies from their time in Iraq and the British experience in Northern Ireland?

Bennett’s conclusion is most interesting:

Historical campaigns should be studied as an exercise in analytical thinking for commanders, rather than being expected to serve up easily transferable generic lessons. Failure at a counter-insurgency campaign’s start is structurally inevitable, and is thus no cause for demoralisation. The trick is to recover, and learn about a new situation, fast.

Recovering and then learning quickly is likely to become a common theme in a time of cuts and overstretch. It will be impossible for the armed forces to be all things to all people all of the time, expecting the unexpected is likely to become the norm in an uncertain world. In the twenty-first century, has the unconventional become the new conventional?

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Filed under Afghanistan, Army, debate, historiography, Iraq

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