Special Report

Winning British Hearts and Minds

A military that pioneered counterinsurgency may need a refresher course.

By 3.9.09

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British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in his address to the U.S. Congress this week, "Past British prime ministers have travelled to this Capitol building in times of war to talk of war. I come now to talk of new and different battles we must fight together; to speak of a global economy in crisis and a planet imperilled."


But although Britain plans to draw down to only a few hundred troops in Iraq by mid-2009, British troop levels in Afghanistan are as high as they have been since 2001. Much of the debate in Britain is still about whether the British have achieved their goals or lost the political will, as well as what lessons can be applied in Afghanistan.

"If I had to sum up the debate in Britain about the counterinsurgency strategy, it's a sense of being stunned by the realization that not only have we not done this counterinsurgency flawlessly, but that others, namely the U.S., know how to do it, too… just as well, if not better," says Paul Cornish, head of the international security program at Chatham House, a top British policy research organization. "I've heard it time and time again in discussions."

With their colonial past, the British have a long history of counterinsurgency; a British general coined the term "winning hearts and minds" more than half a century ago.

"For a very long time it's been assumed that the British armed forces were almost genetically predisposed -- could trust in our historical and cultural disposition -- to being successful at counterinsurgency," Cornish said in an interview.

Senior British military personnel used to frequently argue that the British experience in Northern Ireland translated to preparation for Iraq and Afghanistan, but do no longer, Cornish said.

While the British already respected Americans for their fire power, equipment, tactics, and the courage of their troops, they have only recently gained "respect for American doctrine and operational ideas" and a sense that they could learn from the Americans, Cornish said.

"The tables have turned -- lessons and ideas and advice are now flowing back the other direction," to Britain.

For example, the British now have a greater appreciation of varied aspects of the American way – from the use of heavy fire power in counterinsurgency operations to cultural sensitivity training before personnel are deployed, according to Cornish.

The co-author of the U.S. military's "surge" strategy, retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane, said in an interview, "I hope the British will analyze what the U.S. did well and what they can learn from it. The Americans learned a lot -- we had the wrong strategy for three years and almost lost the country, but we had intellectual honesty to face up to it, to change the strategy and put the right leaders in place, and it worked."

Keane and American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick Kagan's 2006 report calling for a sustained increase of U.S. forces to secure critical areas of Baghdad was largely adopted by President Bush and credited with reducing violence in Iraq.

AEI scholar Kagan agreed that "the American military has earned a new respect in the eyes of our partners" and has heard British commanders and experts say so. "The American military has one of the most successful counterinsurgency campaigns in the history of counterinsurgency, after having screwed it up so badly. And none of our allies have been able to replicate that in their areas either in Iraq or Afghanistan."

Kagan expressed concern that British political leaders from all parties are not making a strong enough case to the public that "Britain's core national interest and security are tied to success in Iraq and Afghanistan." He added that British tolerance for casualties has not been fully tested, because progress did not accompany high casualties in Basra.

The British had a peak of 46,000 troops in Iraq. British troop levels in Afghanistan are now about 8,300 -- as high as they have been since 2001– making Britain the largest contributor of military personnel behind the United States.

General Keane said, "These irregular wars are very protracted by their nature and if you're going to get involved, you have to realize you must make progress to keep the political will." Progress toward goals and objectives must be constantly reevaluated and political support needs to be cultivated at home.

While Keane judges that British plans to leave Iraq reflect a failure of political nerve, Prime Minister Brown said that Britain's withdrawal is possible because it has achieved its goals. U.K. forces have improved security, created economic development, and helped prepare for provincial elections, he said. The U.K. has helped to train 20,000 Iraqi troops and more than 22,000 police.

Christopher Pang of the British nongovernmental defense research group Royal United Services Institute, cites another reason: the U.K. military is withdrawing from Iraq because it wants to use its limited resources where it believes they are most strategically important, in Afghanistan. Pang is RUSI's head of the Middle East and North Africa Program.

Cornish finds that the British are leaving because "In a sense, both positive and negative are coming together at the right time" -- the British have been achieving their aims in the past half a year and the British Army is also "exhausted."

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About the Author

Eleanor Stables is a British American and associate editor of the American Enterprise Institute's magazine the American.