Since 2003, the UK has been involved in operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that have involved large elements of counter-insurgency (COIN). This article, published in the Royal United Services Institute Journal, explores the question of reform and adaptation for COIN by the British Government. It criticises the lack of coordination between government departments and Whitehall’s failure to develop institutional memory. It argues for a change of culture within government and presses the need to work with other organisations such as the private sector and the media.
Despite efforts, most objective observers agree that the UK has failed to deliver effective stabilisation and COIN. The current Government has sought to tackle this through ad hoc organisational changes. Some of these innovations have been valuable. However, tough organisational and cultural changes across government are still necessary. The US government has committed itself to making many of the required changes. Its dynamism stands in stark contrast to a UK system that has, largely, sought to muddle through in an incremental manner.
The article makes the point throughout that building Britain’s own capacity is only a first step towards the ultimate goal in most COIN environments, which is effectively influencing the host government.
Five key failings of the British Government are highlighted:
- Central management, inter-departmental coordination and in-country management processes often have the feel of being ad hoc mechanisms dependent on personal relationships and goodwill.
- The common behaviour is for the main national security departments to operate as sovereign powers and to coordinate only where necessary.
- With a small number of exceptions, the British system has done little to build institutional memory and to translate lessons back into education and training above tactical level.
- There have been plenty of adaptive responses at the tactical level in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they have often been of limited duration, and have not shared or institutionalised.
- Neither the executive nor the legislature has been able to institutionalise a reliable, comprehensive and transparent mechanism for analysing performance.
British central government is characterised by a conservative culture that inhibits innovation, difficulty working across departmental silos and failures to deliver on complex, cross-cutting policy areas. Some of the problems faced in relation to COIN are symptomatic of common failings. In order to build government institutions that are able to operate effectively in an era of globalised insurgency, the following recommendations are made:
- Government needs to accept that this is not about changing wiring diagrams, creating new units, or employing more staff. It is about changing the behaviour patterns and cultures of the organisations we are using to do COIN.
- There should be political agreement on how much effort to expend on this topic, and how much political capital to expend on overcoming departmental and service vested interests.
- It should be recognised that twenty-first century COIN is only partly about government. COIN can nowadays only be delivered through a complex chain that includes NGOs, the private sector, media organisations and a wide range of international entities.
- The mantra of evolutionary change should run throughout the process of reform. Lessons need to be learnt and internalised rapidly, junior personnel need the freedom to experiment and we need to allow experimentation with a variety of approaches.