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Why Did It All Go Wrong? Reassessing British Counterinsurgency in Iraq

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Journal article

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Britain has a relatively good track record in counterinsurgency COIN. But as one journalist commented in 2008 the war in Iraq has been one of the most disastrous wars ever fought by Britain. If judged in terms of the original aim, Britains achievements fell far short of expectations set in 2003. A fundamental reason for this failure was the apparent ineffectiveness of Britains COIN campaign. The aim of this article is to explain why a strategy used so effectively in the past unraveled in Iraq. Specifically, it challenges the view that British failure in Iraq was inevitable or that it was the product of an outdated COIN strategy. Although the British accounted for only 5 percent of the entire coalition force, such an analysis is warranted for two reasons. First, British experience of insurgency in Iraq proved to be very different from that of the Americans, and it is important to address this divergence if only because it reveals a different aspect of the campaign to stabilize the country. Initially at least, the British area of operations in the Multi-National Division South-East MNDSE presented a relatively benign environment there were no global insurgents, little sectarian conflict, and the 6 million people living in the MNDSE were primarily Shia Arabs, most of whom welcomed the downfall of Saddam Hussein. Why then did the people rebel against the British, and why were the British unable to deal with insurgent groups which began to blossom in the south British experience in Iraq demonstrates that failure was not due to an obsolete doctrine but happened because the British never implemented a proper counterinsurgency strategy. The political will to prosecute a COIN campaign was clearly lacking within the British government, and eventually even the militarys can do attitude steadily eroded, as it became clear that it did not have the resources or political direction to contest the key center of gravity in Iraq the people.

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  • Government and Political Science
  • Sociology and Law
  • Military Forces and Organizations
  • Unconventional Warfare

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