Counter-insurgency by Ian Beckett and John Pimlott

In the past I have heard all kind of funny things said about counter-insurgency warfare. It’s not ‘real war’, or that it causes armies to ‘go soft’. Both of which are, in my opinion, horse shit. But I guess on the other hand it is also symptomatic that military historians have not really studied COIN as much as they should have. This is a very useful book, therefore. And it is extremely relevant, in that both of the authors have lectured at Sandhurst and other Defence institutions.

The British Army has perhaps the most experience of fighting counter-insurgency. Not only does the Army have a history of fighting small, foreign wars against populations and having to make do and improvise, but in the long drawn-out withdrawl from Empire British Forces were time and time again called in to provide a bulwark against unsavoury insurgents. This happened in Malaya, Borneo, Aden, Oman, and in numerous places in Africa. And not to mention Northern Ireland. And the British Army has an enviable record of success. One of the key lessons learnt from the insurgency in Malaya is the importance of uniting civilian and military leadership – in Malaya the land forces commander was also the Governor-General, not only providing unity in leadership but also eliminating a possible area for rifts. In Oman, every effort was made to win ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals, and to take care of economic and social factors so the insurgency did not seem a viable alternative.

The French Army, on the other hand, did not fare too well in Vietnam or Algeria. The author of this chapter even feels that at times the French Army studied COIN so much that some officers began to sympathise far too much with revolutionary ideals. Certainly, the French failure in Vietnam led to the debacle that the US waded into not long after. And failure in Algeria led to all manner of instability at home, including leading the Generals to machine for a change of Government.

It would be difficult to argue that the US Army has a good reputation when it comes to COIN. Clearly, the flexible, unconventional and tactful approach that it calls for does not lend itself well to forces based on overwhelming firepower and materiel. Listening to quotes from US Generals over Vietnam, you get the feeling that it was not the kind of war that they wanted to fight. Well, you’re lucky if you get to pick your wars, otherwise you fight the ones your masters want you to. And when you do, you should fight to win. Or at the very least, not lose. Lines of command were hopelessly complicated – one observer found it hard to work out who was actually running the Vietnam War, with so many headquarters and Departments involved.

In contrast, the Portuguese Army actually had a pretty good track record at dealing with COIN in countries such as Guinea, Angola and Mozambique. This is even more remarkable when we consider Portugal’s size, it’s economy, and the fact that its forces were routed in Goa not long before. Their success in fielding such forces in their colonial possessions and their subsequent success would suggest that size is not an issue in dealing with COIN. A military coup led to Portugal’s withdrawal from Empire in 1974, rather than any kind of military reverse.

It’s a similar picture with the Rhodesian Army, which fought a COIN campaign against the pre-cursors to Robert Mugabe in the African bush. As well as the Selou Scouts and forming a Rhodesian SAS, part of the Rhodesian’s tactics for countering the terrorists included erecting game fences and minefields along frontiers. The amount of haven states along Rhodesia’s borders, however, made things more problematic. Rhodesia might have become Zimbabwe eventally, but the Rhodesian security forces were by no means defeated, and in the opinion of the author could have continued the campaign indefinitely.

So, looking at these various COIN campaigns, do any lessons emerge? Firstly, that civil and military leaderships needs to be as one – either united, or merged. Officers need to forget about ideas of set piece battles and focus on the campaign at hand, and how to win it. The US General who said that he would not let Vietnam ‘destroy everything that the US Army stands for’ was ironically showing the kind of inflexibility that loses COIN campaigns in any case. And far from making security forces ‘go soft’, the flexibility and agility required in COIN campaigns can actually be very useful – witness the experience gained by the British Army in Northern Ireland, and how it engendered excellent leadership at junior NCO level.

Whether we like it or not, insurgencies are a fact of life in the modern world, and if we want to defeat them we would do better to work out how best to make their success impossible, rather than bemoaning that they do not fit into our fixed ideas of what war is, or should be.

This is a very credible book, and I enjoyed reading it immensely.

Counter-insurgency is published by Pen and Sword

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12 Comments

Filed under Army, Book of the Week, Uncategorized

12 responses to “Counter-insurgency by Ian Beckett and John Pimlott

  1. johncerickson

    There is a movie called “The Siege”, quite prophetically telling the story of terrorist attacks on New York City, a couple years prior to 11-September. Bruce Willis has a telling line, when the city government decides to call in the US Army when the FBI fails to stop the attacks. “The Army is a broadsword, not a scalpel.”
    COIN requires flexibility and agility – in other words, a scalpel approach. When the US Army tried small-unit assaults, with lightweight equipment and fast, flexible fire support, the results were good. When they tried to roll in tanks supported by heavy fixed-wing bombing support, well, we’ve seen the results (or lack thereof). Add in the military “leaders” being directed, at regimental levels and even lower, by US politicians, and it’s a wonder we did as well as we did.
    It’s a shame we waited as long as we did, flailing away with “traditional” tactics, in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Fewer B-2 raids and more Seebeas/Corps of Engineers support in rebuilding and expanding infrastructure, might have resulted in a more stable situation, especially in Iraq. Then again, with our political track record, we could probably screw up a one-car funeral! ;)

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