British Versus the Americans: The War Over Strategy

BY Herschel Smith
7 years ago

Attacks perpetrated against the British in and near Basra are way down, as are attacks perpetrated against the Marines in Anbar.  There is currently a debate at the highest levels of military leadership as to why this has occurred and how these seemingly contradictory metrics are related to strategy.  The British have de-escalated, while the U.S. has escalated – or so the problem is posed.  But before we engage this debate, some background information is necessary to set the stage for the discussion as it applies to Afghanistan where the British are struggling.  Far from a merely academic fancy for military strategists and historians, the answers to this dilemma not only develops the narrative for history, but this narrative also trains future military leadership.  The answers also may literally decide whether the campaign in Afghanistan can be successful.

Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the British narrative of Basra was laced with more than a little bit of denunciation of American tactics, and Basra was hailed as the picture of successful counterinsurgency.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2003 invasion, this “soft” approach seemed remarkably successful, especially when juxtaposed with the chaos that had engulfed other parts of Iraq. Basra seemed to adapt relatively well to the new order of things, with little in the way of street battles or casualties. Both the British and American media — ever-ready to point out the comparable failures of American arms — energetically hailed the peaceful and stable atmosphere in Basra as a significant indicator of the virtues of the British approach, upholding it as the tactical antithesis to the brutal and aggressive Yanks. The Dallas Morning News reported in 2003 that military experts from Britain were already boasting that U.S. forces in Iraq could “take a cue from the way their British counterparts have taken control of Basra.” Charles Heyman, editor of the highly-respected defense journal Jane’s, asserted: “The main lesson that the Americans can learn from Basra and apply to Baghdad is to use the ’softly-softly’ approach.”

The reporting also featured erudite denunciations of the rigid rules of engagement that governed the United States military, while simultaneously championing British outreach. Ian Kemp, a noted British defense expert, suggested in November 2004 that the “major obstacle” in past U.S. occupations and peacekeeping efforts was their inability to connect with locals due to the doctrinal preeminence of force protection. In other words, had Americans possessed the courage to interface with the Iraqi, they might enjoy greater success.

It did not take long before the English press allowed the great straw man of a violent American society to seep into their explanations for the divergent approaches. The Sunday Times of London proclaimed “armies reflect their societies for better or for worse. In Britain, guns are frowned upon — and British troops faced with demonstrations in Northern Ireland must go through five or six stages, including a verbal warning as the situation gets progressively more nasty, before they are allowed to shoot. In America, guns are second nature.” Such flimsy and anecdotal reasoning — borne solely out of classical European elitist arrogance — tinged much of the reporting out of Basra.

As a result of the effusive media celebration, even some in the British military began believing their own hype, with soldiers suggesting to reporters in May 2003 that the U.S. military should “look to them for a lesson or two.‿ As a British sergeant told the Christian Science Monitor: “We are trained for every inevitability and we do this better than the Americans.‿

While the British took to wearing soft covers and working “softly” with the population, the security situation degraded little by little until the British public was eventually stunned by the capture of their soldiers by the Basra police and eventual rescue by military operations, leading to demonstrations, threats, angry denunciations and general ill-will between both the British and population of Basra.

The situation continued to degrade, and what at one time was seemingly a land of paradise had now become forbidding terrain.

Richard Beeston, diplomatic editor of The Times of London recently returned from a visit to Basra, his first since 2003. He says in 2003, British soldiers were on foot patrol, drove through town in unarmored vehicles and fished in the waters of the Shaat al Arab on their days off. He says the changes he saw four years later are enormous.

“Nowadays all troop movement in and out of the city are conducted at night by helicopter because it’s been deemed too dangerous to go on the road and its dangerous to fly choppers during the day,” he says.

Beeston says during his latest visit, he noticed a map of the city in one of the military briefing rooms. About half of the city was marked as no-go areas.

British headquarters are mortared and rocketed almost everynight.

This is indicative of many parts of southern Iraq, says Wayne White, a former State department middle east intelligence officer. White says the south is riddled with rival Shiite groups vying for power, and roving criminal gangs because there’s nothing to stop them.

Some of the Basrans believe that the British forces are part of the problem rather than the solution.  “The British are very patient — they didn’t know how to deal with the militias,” said a 50-year-old Assyrian Christian who would identify herself only as Mrs. Mansour. “Some people think it would be better if the Americans came instead of the British. They would be harder on the militias.”  Still another perspective is that the Iraqi security forces cannot effectively work the area.  “Soldiers from Basra can’t fight against militias,” said Capt Ali Modar, of the new 14th Iraqi Division, which has taken over responsibility for security in the city. “It is difficult to overcome them. We need people to come from other parts of Iraq. Soldiers from Basra know that if they arrest anyone they will be killed, or their families will be killed.”

This failure, combined with the tendency to study assessments from a year or two ago that don’t reflect the vastly improved security situation in Iraq (other than Basra), has caused Theo Farrell, Professor in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, simply to stop reading literature about Iraq because it is so depressing.  But Michael Yon has stated that “Basra is not in chaos. In fact, crime and violence are way down and there has not been a British combat death in over a month.”  So why the difference in narratives concerning Southern Iraq?  What causes such disparate views?

Metrics can be used to prove a lot of things, some true, others a mixture of truth and falsehood with stipulations and caveats, and still others plainly false.  The mere absence of attacks on British troops does not mean the same thing as the absence of attacks on Marines in Anbar.  The Marines continue to be all over the Anbar Province, patrolling, embedded with the Iraqi Police in combined combat outposts / Iraqi Police precincts, and on neighborhood diplomacy missions.  But it cannot be forgotten that these civil affairs and neighborhood diplomacy missions cannot exist in a vacuum or without pretext.  They are follow-on activities to kinetic operations to rid the area of insurgents (at least for the most part).

But the British have crafted a different narrative.  It is the British themselves who were causing the violence towards them.

Attacks against British and Iraqi forces have plunged by 90 percent in southern Iraq since London withdrew its troops from the main city of Basra, the commander of British forces there said.

The presence of British forces in downtown Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, was the single largest instigator of violence, Maj. Gen. Graham Binns told reporters Thursday on a visit to Baghdad’s Green Zone.

“We thought, ‘If 90 percent of the violence is directed at us, what would happen if we stepped back?’” Binns said.

Britain’s 5,000 troops moved out of a former Saddam Hussein palace at Basra’s heart in early September, setting up a garrison at an airport on the city’s edge. Since that pullback, there’s been a “remarkable and dramatic drop in attacks,” Binns said.

“The motivation for attacking us was gone, because we’re no longer patrolling the streets,” he said.

And in this explanation lies the answer to the questions posed above.  If the U.S. “heavy hand” was to blame for the violence, then the security situation would not be as good as it is today in Anbar.  Further, the Anbaris desire for the U.S. to stay long term.  It might be tempting to assign the Anbari desire for a long term relationship with the U.S. versus the Shi’a desire to be rid of the British to the presence of oil in Basra and a war over its wealth.  But this explanation suffers a quick death when it is recalled that significant oil reserves have been found in Anbar (see also IHT).

The explanation for the decrease in violence against the British in Basra is simply that the British are no longer there (while British headlines wax positive about the “Tide turning in Basra”).  They are at the airport waiting to be relieved and “training” with the Iraqi security forces.  Along with the absence of the British, there are other developments in Basra.  The police chief has recently survived his second assassination attempt, and militant Shi’a gangs and other thugs are still active in the city, engaging in kidnapping and dumping of dead bodies in the streets and at the city square.

It is true that part of the U.S. strategy has been payment to concerned citizens, participants in neighborhood watch programs, and even sheikhs.  We have strongly advocated this approach as anthropologically sound and morally upright.   However, there is a huge difference between turning over authority to a functioning, legitimate government and security apparatus, and leaving an area of operations because of the violence being perpetrated against your troops.  In the example of Anbar, U.S. forces want to leave more thoroughly and quickly that the Anbaris want, and in the example of Basra, the city is a no-go zone for British troops and the Iraqi security forces are powerless because of danger to family members.  Anbar is stable, while Basra is under the control of teenage gangs, religious militia (Jaish al Mahdi), and combatants (Quds and Badr) dispatched directly from Iran.

The British must surely regret their hard work to obtain the release of Moqtada al Sadr, who was in the custody of the 3/2 Marines in 2004 and was held for three days before the Marines were ordered to release him (for the role of the British in the release of Sadr, see Charlie Rose interview of John Burns, approximately 17:20 into the interview).  But it seems that some lessons are learned the hard way, or perhaps not at all.

The British are struggling in Afghanistan, and have pulled back from some engagements.  “Over the past two months British soldiers have come under sustained attack defending a remote mud-walled government outpost in the town of Musa Qala in southern Afghanistan. Eight have been killed there. It has now been agreed the troops will quietly pull out of Musa Qala in return for the Taliban doing the same.”  But Musa Qala has become a central training ground for terrorists (courtesy of Nasim Ferkat, Pajamas Media).  But more “negotiations” of the same kind that caused Musa Qala to become a training ground for terrorists might be on the way.

British officials have concluded that the Taliban is too deep-rooted to be eradicated by military means. Following a wide-ranging policy review accompanying Gordon Brown’s arrival in Downing Street, a decision was taken to put a much greater focus on courting “moderate” Taliban leaders as well as “tier two” footsoldiers, who fight more for money and out of a sense of tribal obligation than for the Taliban’s ideology. Such a shift has put Britain and the Karzai government at odds with hawks in Washington, who are wary of Whitehall’s enthusiasm for talks with what they see as a monolithic terrorist group. But a British official said: “Some Americans are coming around to our way of seeing this.”

New atrocities perpetrated by the Taliban should convince the British that their “moderate Taliban” are more than likely phantoms.  Negotiations with the Taliban is fundamentally a bad idea no matter how it is couched (“moderate leaders”).  At The Captain’s Journal, this is why we have recommended that the U.S. Marines be deployed to Afghanistan.  But as for Basra, along with Mrs. Mansour who desires the U.S. tactics in lieu of the British, there are other voices calling for looking beyond the numbers.  We have watched Al-Zaman for a while now, and while decidedly anti-Maliki (and this has not changed), there has been a shift in the tone of the editorials from this important Iraq daily.  Once virulently anti-American, they now seem to see the landscape more deeply and with a larger field of vision.

On November 10, the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman published an article about the meddling of the Iranian regime in Iraqi affairs and wrote: “In the first 3 months of the occupation of Iraq, the Iranian regime dispatched 32,000 of its proxies who were on their payroll into this country. Most of these people hold Ministerial, Parliamentarian and other high position in various Iraqi offices. Of these people 1500 are placed in very sensitive posts and 490 are spread all over Iraq as the representatives of the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.

Al-Zaman noted the infiltration of the Qods force in the Iraqi government as well as murder and terror of the Iraqi nationalist forces. It continued: “We ask the political groups to demand from the occupying forces to prosecute the members of the IRGC in Iraq to demonstrate their resolve in terrorist designation. They should detain and prosecute these elements according to the laws. Based on international treaties, maintaining security in Iraq is the responsibility of the occupying forces, therefore eradicating Iraq of terrorism, especially the terrorism by the IRGC is their job.

Pro-Iranian Shi’a militia are in control of Basra and much of Southern Iraq.  Metrics can fool anyone and the data behind the metrics must be analyzed to prevent being duped by numbers.  It is about seeing behind the scenes and understanding the local as well as regional terrain.  Powerpoint overheads and viewgraphs that display decreasing violence perpetrated against the British in Basra are correct and totally misleading and irrelevant.  The narrative for Anbar, written in the sweat, tears and blood of United States Marines (along with some Army and National Guard) well before the surge of troops, is cast in history as a counterinsurgency victory.  The U.S. won in Anbar not because of the surge, but because we were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis opted to side with a winner.  It is critical to get the Basra narrative correct, because the regional strategy is at stake, affecting Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the whole region - and our future.

Other resources:

The Problem of Musa Qala: Afghanistan’s Terror University Town, Nasim Ferkat, Pajamas Media
Western Anbar Versus the Shi’a South: Pictures of Contrast, TCJ
Basra and Anbar Reverse Roles, TCJ
The Rise of the JAM, TCJ
Calamity in Basra and British Rules of Engagement, TCJ
Has the British Strategy in Southern Iraq Failed?, Richard Fernandez, Pajamas Media



  • http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com Fabius Maximus

    One important – indeed vital — thing to remember when reading discussions of COIN of the foreign vs. local insurgents type:

    “… the literature on counter-insurgency is so enormous that, had it been put aboard the Titanic, it would have sunk that ship without any help from the iceberg. However, the outstanding fact is that almost all of it has been written by the losers.”
    - Martin van Creveld, in The Changing Face Of War (2006)

    Until some nation achieves a win — acomplishes its political objectives against a large, estabilished enemy of local insurgents in a foreign land — this is a largely theoretical debate. We’re debating what might work, on the basis of theory and a LARGE body of experience.

    As for the “US won in Anbar”, it is not clear what that means (and stated reason given is a guess). The locals turned against their foreign “shock troops”. We have assisted, then put large numbers on our payroll. How this helps us accomplish our political objects (as defined by the President), or the more limited “benchmarks” set by Congress, remains uncertain at this time. We’ve providing substantial aid to a wide range of Iraq’s factions, at the cost of undermining (perhaps terminally) the central government — the establishment of which was our primary goal.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Well, all of your points are well-taken. I have not said that we have won Iraq, or that the Iraqis have won Iraq. We cannot win Iraq, only the Iraqis can, and they have not yet mobilized to do that. The conditions have been set into place by the U.S.

    I strongly believe that the U.S. has set the pretext for the tribal awakening, and without kinetic operations to set enemy fighters on their heels, the tribes could not have had the breathing room necessary for the awakening to occur.

    So when I speak of winning in Anbar, that’s what I mean. I mean that there have been COIN victories in Anbar. Relative peace, security and stability have been brought to this region. I recall discussing the same subject you raise above with an officer in Anbar several month ago, in which he said approximately the same things that you have: until we see the broader strokes of the strategy, we won’t know if we have been successful.

    To me, this is a macroscopic view, and my take in this post is a little more microscopic – or if you will, macroscopic for a region rather than the nation holistically. It is the same position I take regarding the insurgency in Vietnam. It (U.S. efforts) was a victory. The fact that the corrupt S.V. government could not stand up, and the U.S. congress cut funding, doesn’t change the fact that the actual COIN operations in S.V. were remarkably successful.

    The same is true of Iraq. All we are capable of doing is setting the pretext in place for national stability. We cannot force Iraqis to reconcile. Our strategy is the best it can be given the circumstances.

    Another way of saying it would be this. The argument makes no sense to me that goes thusly: “Since our strategy cannot assure national success and is therefore imperfect, we should not pursue it.” Under this argument, no strategy could ever be pursued under any circumstances. We live in an imperfect world, so our COIN strategy will be imperfect.

    Or another way of saying it would be this. Before we had indigenous Sunnis allied with foreigners, all fighting ISF and the U.S. Now we have the foreigners having been essentially defeated, with the Sunnis providing their own security and allied with the U.S. I cannot see any circumstances where we would want to return to the former conditions in lieu of the latter.

    The U.S. hasn’t ‘armed’ the Sunnis so that they can now be a destabilizing force for the nation-state any more than they were previously. They were armed before, they are now. They were a destabilizing force to the nation-state before, they are less so now.

    I still advocate payment to concerned citizens, neighborhood watch groups, and integration of the Sunnis into the national forces. I am casting my lot with Petraeus and Odierno. Whether the Iraqis will stand up on their own remains to be seen. But at least we have done our part.

    Finally, I agree with you on COIN literature and strategy. I don’t know, but suspect that Petraeus’ PhD is worthless to him now. We are dealing with an insurgency combined with foreign terrorists combined with a factious country combined with at least some religious anomosity combined with sectarianism, and so on the story goes. The book is being rewritten for a completely new warfare. The U.S. is doing is as we speak. To the extent that we opine and people listen, we are contributing.

  • http://fabiusmaximus.wordpress.com Fabius Maximus

    “It is the same position I take regarding the insurgency in Vietnam. It (U.S. efforts) was a victory. The fact that the corrupt S.V. government could not stand up, and the U.S. congress cut funding, doesn’t change the fact that the actual COIN operations in S.V. were remarkably successful.”

    That seems to be a widespread belief, and a terrifying one. The essence of 4th generation warfare since brought to maturity by Mao is a relentless focus on the political factors for victory. Victory on the “battlefield” — conventional or unconventional — is irrelevant, except to the extent it advances us to achieve our political goals. Of course, this is nothing new — it was Clausewitz’s starting point.

    Failure to understand this means defeat, as it was for almost all western forces fighting 4GW.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Everything you said about the need for a political victory and change at the root level is correct, and NOTHING I said denied that. You imagine positions (and ascribe them to me) that I don’t take. It is literally impossible to cover all aspects of COIN in a single post, article, book, or position. My boundary conditions were well described, have been in the article, and were in the followup comments. And … I seriously doubt that you are “terrified” of any of my beliefs.

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You are currently reading "British Versus the Americans: The War Over Strategy", entry #749 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Counterinsurgency,Department of Defense,Iraq,Jaish al Mahdi,Small Wars,The Anbar Narrative,War & Warfare and was published November 18th, 2007 by Herschel Smith.

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