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Losing Small Wars

Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan

Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Losing Small Wars
    Book Description:

    Partly on the strength of their apparent success in insurgencies such as Malaya and Northern Ireland, the British armed forces have long been perceived as world class, if not world beating. However, their recent performance in Iraq and Afghanistan is widely seen as-at best-disappointing; under British control Basra degenerated into a lawless city riven with internecine violence, while tactical mistakes and strategic incompetence in Helmand Province resulted in heavy civilian and military casualties and a climate of violence and insecurity. In both cases the British were eventually and humiliatingly bailed out by the US army.

    In this thoughtful and compellingly readable book, Frank Ledwidge examines the British involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, asking how and why it went so wrong. With the aid of copious research, interviews with senior officers, and his own personal experiences, he looks in detail at the failures of strategic thinking and culture that led to defeat in Britain's latest "small wars." This is an eye-opening analysis of the causes of military failure, and its enormous costs.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18022-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vi-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Now that it was dark we were led out onto the tarmac, formed two files and trooped into the hold of the C-130 Hercules, its engines already running. We were directed, as always, to sit along the sides of the aircraft. One of the last to board, I took my place towards the back. The RAF loadmaster, like some camouflaged flight attendant, went around offering us all foam ear defenders for the flight to offset the constant roar of the engines. Ready now, he stood just opposite where I was and pressed a button for the great rear ramp to...


    • CHAPTER 1 ‘Ridiculous Expectations’
      (pp. 15-37)

      The drive from the airport into Basra is much like that into any other developing-world city. Fast freeways take you from the airport into progressively more depressing suburbs. Huge open spaces with rotting trash, playing kids and scrap metal separate the road from the shanty flats in which a predominantly poor population live. There is a smell – burning plastic, with the distinctive tang of open sewers. Desultory males and the occasional woman, black burka flapping in the light, hot wind, wander the dirty wastelands between road and tenement building.

      ‘Lovely place, Basra, sir. Pity you’re only seeing the posh...

    • CHAPTER 2 ‘Defeated, Pure and Simple’
      (pp. 38-59)

      By 2006, the situation in Basra had deteriorated even further. When General Richard Shirreff took over command of the British presence in Basra in June 2006 there was, as he himself said, ‘no security’. Of the force at his command of about 7,000 soldiers, only 200 were available for patrolling Basra’s streets. The rest were engaged in securing their own bases in the city and outside. They were ‘fixed to their bases … this was not what I had been led to expect’.² This did not stop the army from attempting its framework patrols; but by now these were regularly...

    • CHAPTER 3 ‘Where’s Helmand?’
      (pp. 60-83)

      On your way out of the Joint Command and Staff College at Shrivenham, the intellectual home of the armed forces, just to the left of the main doors, is a painting that is striking in its contemporary relevance and redolence. Lady Butler’sRescuing the Wounded under Fire in Afghanistanshows the aftermath of a brief and evidently ferocious fire-fight somewhere in an Afghan desert during the Tirah campaign, one of Britain’s larger interventions on the North West Frontier in 1897. A trooper from a cavalry unit dismounts, grabbing his wounded comrade as his horse rears. Another cavalryman, a white headband...

    • CHAPTER 4 ‘A Bleeding Ulcer’
      (pp. 84-106)

      The six-month syndrome that had proved so damaging in Basra was in full swing in Helmand, with each successive brigade defining its own objectives irrespective of what went before or what was to happen afterwards. While six months may be more than sufficient for fighting soldiers, crucially the headquarters elements were also on a six-month rotation.²

      It was 3 Commando Brigade that took over from the paratroopers. The Commando Brigade is composed of probably the most highly trained infantry soldiers in the world – the Royal Marines – and their support services. This brigade was rather better prepared, having seen...


    • CHAPTER 5 Dereliction of Duty: The Generals and Strategy
      (pp. 109-134)

      From the day an officer enters basic training, the notion of taking responsibility is presented as central to the very idea of having a commission. In the oldest armed service in the world, the Royal Navy, this idea is written into the law. If any mishap befalls a ship — a collision, perhaps, or a running aground — the commanding officer is held almost automatically responsible, whether or not he is actually to blame. A recent example of this was the removal of the commanding officer of Her Majesty’s submarineAstuteafter it (rather publicly) ran aground off the island...

    • CHAPTER 6 Cracking On: British Military Culture and Doctrine
      (pp. 135-148)

      In current military parlance, the conduct of battle takes place at the so-called ‘operational and tactical’ levels. Even a flawed strategy can be mitigated if not remedied by superb operational and tactical acumen. Unfortunately, as we will see in this and the next chapter, the approaches governing the conduct of the fighting belonged to another age.

      Those ideas and approaches are developed and inculcated at the United Kingdom Defence Academy at Shrivenham. The academy sits in a valley, deep in the classic southern English county of Wiltshire, not far from the nondescript town of Swindon and about halfway between the...

    • CHAPTER 7 ‘Tactics without Strategy?’: The Counterinsurgency Conundrum
      (pp. 149-170)

      In Iraq and Afghanistan, the UK and US found themselves deep in ‘the fog of war’. Clausewitz, the doyen of strategists and thinkers of war, calls this ‘friction’. In Chapter Seven of Book One ofOn WarClausewitz describes how war is essentially a ‘wicked problem’. With every apparent solution, new problems are thrown up: ‘Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult … Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.’³ As ever, Clausewitz goes on to prescribe countermeasures. He identifies experience as the only...

    • CHAPTER 8 Doing No Harm? The Question of Force
      (pp. 171-191)

      In January 2006, Zulu Company, 45 Commando – about 120 men – deployed to Garmsir, a village in the desolate and sparsely populated south of Helmand province. The parapets overlooked a road controlled by checkpoints. On the other side of the road was a large area of scrubland. Knowing that the British would certainly engage them, the Taliban would send their new fighters there to be blooded, and the British would oblige. ‘It was just like boys meeting for a fight after school,’ one soldier who was there at the time told me. The bizarre nature of the place was...

    • CHAPTER 9 Civvies
      (pp. 192-209)

      Consider something for a moment. If there is a patrol walking down your street in Britain or the USA, it is likely to be made up of policemen. Well trained, English-speaking, in Britain unarmed. There are still barriers, of course – the uniform primarily. These are men, though, who are probably relatively local, and they speak your language.

      Now imagine another patrol, this one hypothetical. These men are heavily armed, dressed in the uniform of a foreign army – let’s say the Chinese army. They have been ‘invited’ in by a government they have themselves installed, and for which they...

    • CHAPTER 10 Bad Influences
      (pp. 210-239)

      An entirely new field of military activity, as well as a fruitful source of jargon and military chatter, has grown up to try to cope with working and succeeding in that harsh environment of foreign, hostile civilian populations. It is called ‘Influence’. In essence, like ‘effects’, another fashionable military buzzword, ‘influence’ can be made to cover the results of almost any warlike activity. It has been defined as ‘the power or ability to affect someone’s beliefs or actions’. Indeed, war itself is, it is often argued, merely the exercise of armed influence. As with so much contemporary military jargon, this...

    • CHAPTER 11 Opening Networks
      (pp. 240-256)

      Published by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), theRUSI Journalis the in-house journal of the British military establishment. While the debates in it can be vigorous, the tone is generally subdued. In spring 2009, a very different article appeared. It was written by a recently retired army officer who, significantly, had served at the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre in Shrivenham, on the same campus as the Joint Command and Staff College we visited in Chapter 6. Patrick Little writes about what he regards as the development of an insular, conformist culture in the British army:

      The UK...

  7. Conclusion
    (pp. 257-267)

    It was only in 2009, when General David Richards, a considered, highly intelligent officer, took over as chief of the general staff and head of the army, that the latter was placed on a ‘campaign footing’. Almost incredibly, up until that point the operations that were taking place were deemed formally secondary to ‘normal’ activities of training and administration. The implication of the new ‘campaign approach’ was that training and equipment would be directed primarily to Afghanistan. At a speech to the Royal United Services Institute, General Richards said something that resonates with history:

    If this, arguably at least our...

  8. Abbreviations and Acronyms
    (pp. 268-269)
  9. Notes
    (pp. 270-292)
  10. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 293-298)
  11. Index
    (pp. 299-308)