Hearts and minds: The myth and reality of British counter-insurgency

Issue: 148

John Newsinger

Up until ten years ago the British army boasted of an expertise in counter-insurgency warfare from which other armies could learn. Whereas the French had suffered humiliating defeats in Indo-China and Algeria and the United States had been driven out of Vietnam, the British had defeated Communist insurgency in Malaya. Moreover, in their wars, both the French and US militaries had disgraced themselves by their excesses, their use of torture and their disproportionate use of fire-power. By way of contrast, the British had developed a methodology for conducting counter-insurgency that had kept their hands clean. Despite some ups and downs, this methodology had in the end even prevailed in Northern Ireland. Two of the key elements of this supposed methodology were “minimum force” and “hearts and minds”. This British claim to expertise was to become particularly influential in the US after the invasion of Iraq where, once the scale of the debacle began to become clear, there was a desperate search for the key to defeating insurgency.

Today, however, the British army’s counter-insurgency reputation is in ruins. What has brought about this turnaround? The army’s poor performance in Basra and Helmand effectively shattered the mystique. As one recent account puts it, “Basra pulled the mask away from the hitherto rosy popular trans-Atlantic perception of British competence at counter-insurgency”.1 This opened the way for a succession of critical accounts of previous campaigns. Two crucial books, both published in 2005, prepared the way. David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya by Caroline Elkins, books that should be read by everyone on the left, made it impossible seriously to deny British atrocities in Kenya.2 Their work gave welcome legitimacy to a more critical approach and, in the context of the military fiasco in Iraq, helped spawn a growing number of academic studies that threw a distinctly unflattering light on the British conduct of counter-insurgency campaigns more generally and on the extent to which these campaigns had actually been successful. A good example of this more recent work is Huw Bennett’s Fighting the Mau Mau, published in 2012. Bennett made use of a wide range of primary sources including the Hanslope Park archive, whose existence the government had only admitted to as part of the court cases brought by a number of former Kenyan internees. As he argues, his book “supports a wider emerging scholarship which shows that the British army followed most others in reacting to internal rebellion with severe repression”.3 Indeed, today it is fair to say that the academic consensus is that both British restraint in fighting these campaigns and success in winning them are largely mythological. The overthrow of the belief in British expertise in waging counter-insurgency has been so complete that now even the very existence of such a belief is being called into question!4

Keeping the natives down

An important pillar of the ideological support for the British Empire is the belief that British colonial rule was paternalistic, even kindly, and that however the French and the Germans might have behaved, when the British encountered “native” resistance or rebellion they responded with restraint. With this in mind, it is worth considering the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Osburn in his invaluable book, Must England Lose India?, published in 1930. He writes of how India was policed with:

a strictness that would not be tolerated in any European country. The half-clad natives of Lahore submit to English-made police restrictions that would drive a suburb of London into revolt. Magna Carta and Habeas Corpus do not exist in India…it must be remembered that any Indian may be thrown into prison and remain there indefinitely without trial, and even without being informed of what he is accused! Even a Labour government to everyone’s amazement, permitted this unjust and iniquitous practice.

The police themselves were “the lineal descendants” of the Black and Tans and he recounts one European police officer boasting to him of how “after some of my punitive police have been stationed in a village for a few days the spirit of the toughest of the political agitators is broken”. His men would “help themselves to everything. Within 24 hours there will not be a virgin or four anna piece (about sixpence) left in that village.” There was “a sort of Black and Tan simplicity about this method of subduing those whose politics…we do not approve of”. As Osburn remarks: “Bengal and Balbriggan are not as far apart as they look on the map”.5

The methods the British used to suppress the great Palestinian revolt, the first Intifada, against British rule and Zionist settlement in the late 1930s also provides useful testimony in this regard. Indeed, the Palestine Police, established by the British soon after they occupied the country, actually included over 600 former Black and Tans brought over from Ireland. This great popular revolt necessitated the effective reconquest of Palestine which was accomplished with considerable violence and great brutality. According to one study of British policing methods in Palestine: “Suspects arrested for interrogation were now tortured as a matter of course; bastinado, suspending suspects upside down and urinating in their nostrils, extracting fingernails and pumping water into a suspect before stamping on him, became commonplace”.6 The important word to note here is “commonplace”; not so long ago accusations of such behaviour were always dismissed as exaggerated and even when admitted they were put down to the misconduct of the rare “bad apple”, misconduct that was put a stop to as soon as it was discovered.

On the contrary, as Matthew Hughes has argued, during the “pacification” of Palestine “punitive actions and destructive and brutal reprisals…were central to British military repression after 1936 and constituted the core experience of Palestinians during the revolt…destruction and vandalism were certainly a systematic, systemic part of British counter-insurgency operations”. Houses were demolished, whole villages were flattened, usually blown up, and sometimes the troops forced the Palestinians to destroy their own homes. The worst example of this policy occurred in Jaffa in June 1936 when over 200 houses were demolished, leaving some 6,000 people—men, women and children—homeless and destitute. In the words of one British officer: “That will fucking well teach them.” And when it came to conducting searches, the troops were ordered to wreck the houses they searched. Hughes reports one officer being ordered to carry out a search operation in Safad again because his men had left the houses “perfectly intact”. A senior officer showed them how to do it by wrecking the interior of one house with a pick handle after which the men went to work: “You’d never seen such devastation.” Hughes provides a grim catalogue of torture, murder and destruction. He recounts the beating to death of 12 Palestinian prisoners at Silwan in reprisal for the killing of two British soldiers, and how at al-Bassa some 20 Palestinians were packed onto a bus which the driver was then forced to drive over a mine, killing them all. And so on. He also elaborates on the methods of torture that the British made use of: “Prisoners were sodomised and boiling oil was used on them, as were intoxicants (morphine, cocaine and heroin). There was also electric shocks…and mock executions”.7 Both at the time and still today it was widely believed that this was not how British troops and police ever behave. But methods such as these were standard with the severity dependent on the scale of the resistance and the ethnicity of the resisters. What is really astonishing is the success with which this conduct was covered up at the time and the extent to which, even today, it remains largely unacknowledged.


The defeat of the Communist insurgency in Malaya is the foundation of the British reputation for expertise in counter-insurgency. Influential books by Robert Thompson and Richard Clutterbuck, both veterans of the campaign, celebrated the victory.8

The revolt was provoked by the Clement Attlee government’s determination to hold onto Malaya and its rubber and tin wealth, dramatically to increase the exploitation of the colony’s labour and resources, and to destroy the left and militant trade unionism. The Communists responded to increasing repression by attempting to launch a Maoist-style guerrilla war. Supposedly they were defeated by a “hearts and minds” strategy that avoided alienating the population by the excessive use of force. Instead the government supposedly won the battle for the allegiance of the people leaving the Communist guerrillas isolated and enabling the security forces to hunt them down. This cosy counter-insurgency bore little relation to the reality of the conflict. To begin with, the British had a number of decisive advantages. First of all, the Communists had no access to outside assistance, no Ho Chi Minh trail along which they could be supplied with weapons and reinforcements. They were instead dependent on what weapons and ammunition they had stockpiled at the end of the war either captured from the Japanese or supplied by the British or that they could now capture from the British. This was a serious, indeed crippling, handicap. More important though was the fact that the Communists’ support was largely confined to the Chinese population in Malaya. They had failed, despite strenuous efforts, to recruit among the Malay and Indian population. At the start of the Emergency, Malays made up 49 percent of the population, Chinese 38 percent and Indians 11 percent. The British found themselves presented with the ideal circumstances for the implementation of a “divide and rule” strategy. Indeed, this strategy of “divide and rule” is the essence of British colonial policy rather than any spurious notion of winning over “hearts and minds”. “Hearts and minds” is how repression had to be dressed up for consumption back in Britain post-1945. Even so the Communist insurgency was only to be put down by considerable violence being inflicted on the Chinese population.

Even at the height of the insurgency, the Communists were only ever able to put some 8,000 poorly armed guerrillas into the field, whereas the British mobilised 40,000 soldiers, 67,000 armed police and 250,000 home guards, supported by RAF fighter and bomber squadrons. Even with this overwhelming numerical and material advantage, the high commissioner, Henry Gurney, still argued that “it is paradoxical though none the less true that in order to maintain law and order in present conditions in Malaya it is necessary for the government itself to break it for a time…the police and the army are breaking the law every day”. Indeed, he went on to argue that the only force to which “the floating Chinese” might attach themselves must be capable of “inspiring greater fear” than the Communists. As Bennett notes, Gurney’s decision “to effectively absolve the security forces from their duty to act within the law had terrible results”. Suspects were killed out of hand, culminating in the Batang Kali massacre of December 1948, when 24 unarmed prisoners were summarily executed.9 As Gurney subsequently explained to the Labour colonial secretary, Arthur Creech Jones, the Chinese “are as you know notoriously inclined to lean towards whichever side frightens them more and at the moment this seems to be the government”.10 In fact, this policy of “counter-terror”, involving casual brutality, the destruction of property, the burning down of homes, and the occasional murder (“shot while trying to escape”), actually increased support for the rebels. This forced the British instead to mount a massive operation to bring the Chinese population under government control.

One last point worth making about Batang Kali is that this seems to have been the worst single British excess. There were, of course, other admitted incidents: 11 men “shot while trying to escape” on 7 November 1948 south of Lenga, six more killed in similar circumstances in the Kuala Kubu area on 10 November and so on. Even so, when this record is compared with that of the French and Americans, it has been argued that it reflects favourably on British conduct and demonstrates the application of the doctrine of “minimum force”. Now, there are a number of factors that affect the behaviour of troops in this kind of warfare: tradition, culture, discipline, racism and official policy among others. The determining factor in Malaya, however, was the small scale of the war and the low level of casualties suffered by the British. If this conflict had been on the scale of Algeria or Vietnam, one can be absolutely confident that there would have been many bigger Batang Kali incidents.

The key to British victory in Malaya was the so-called “Briggs Plan”. This was a counter-insurgency strategy proposed by the new director of operations, General Harold Briggs, that involved the forcible resettlement of Chinese squatters, living and farming in the jungle, into so-called new villages. The support of these communities was vital in sustaining the guerrilla units in the jungle. The British had tried intimidating them and now opted for something considerably more drastic. Between 1950 and 1952 some 400,000 people had their homes, possessions and crops destroyed before being herded into camps where they could be effectively policed. Here they lived under police state conditions, without civil liberties or freedom of movement. They were held behind barbed wire, overseen by guard towers and searchlights, their every move watched by informers and spies, and they were subjected to the arbitrary brutality of the police. Alongside the round up of the squatter population, the British also set about forcibly “concentrating” Chinese and Indian plantation workers and tin miners in policed camps under the control of their employers.

By the end of the Emergency some 650,000 people, workers and their families, primarily Chinese, had been brought under police supervision and control. Something like half of Malaya’s Chinese population was forcibly resettled in this way. This was repression on a massive scale that had nothing whatsoever to do with any notion of “hearts and minds”. And, of course, the casual brutality and occasional murder continued. In 1953 a British officer wrote home to his parents that “no Chinese rubber tapper is safe when we search an estate, my men are trigger-happy with Chinese and several platoon commanders have had to plant grenades on tappers and call them bandits when their men have made ‘a small error in judgement’.”11

Alongside this resettlement policy, the British interned over 30,000 people without trial, a figure that would have been much higher except for the fact that they also deported large numbers of Chinese men and women suspected of Communist sympathies. By 1955 some 31,245 Chinese people, many of them born in Malaya, had been expelled from the colony. The fate of those deportees unfortunate enough to be handed over to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang has never been explored.

In the course of the Emergency the British hanged 226 rebels and rebel sympathisers, both men and women, including the president of the banned Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions, S A Ganapathy. He was hanged on 4 May 1949 on the trumped up charge of possession of a firearm. At the time the authorities in Malaya were worried that the Labour government might bow to the international campaign for clemency for the leader of the Malayan equivalent of the TUC, a campaign supported by Jawaharlal Nehru among others. They need not have worried: Labour governments had never had a problem with imprisoning, shooting, or even hanging trade unionists in the colonies.

One panacea that the British found irresistible was aerial bombardment. RAF heavy bombers had to be found something to do so they were used to carpet bomb the jungle in the hope of hitting someone, preferably an enemy. Altogether more than 30,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped, killing, it has been claimed, nearly 700 guerrilla fighters. This figure is certainly a gross exaggeration, but even if true would indicate that it took no less than 40 tonnes of bombs to kill one guerrilla. While this bombardment was certainly an exercise in complete and utter futility, it hardly demonstrates a commitment to minimum force. In a recent discussion, Andrew Mumford has argued that one reason for the bombing continuing despite its costly futility was that it was attractive to politicians, appearing to offer “a quick and visible fix”. As he observes, bombing still plays this role “in the contemporary strategic environment”.12

Resettlement cut the Communists off from their supporters and put them on the defensive. They were relentlessly hunted down. Fighting had to all intents and purposes come to an end in 1958, although the Emergency remained in place until 1960. By then the British had handed over power to a conservative pro-Western government.


The war in Kenya would never have taken place except for the presence of a large white settler community. If there had been no settlers there would have been protests and perhaps rioting, but the British would in the end have attempted some sort of deal with the moderate nationalist leader, Jomo Kenyatta, conceding self-government in a way that protected British interests. This was ruled out by the commitment to the white settlement and the maintenance of white supremacy in the country, a commitment that was shared by Labour and the Conservatives. Indeed, the turn to revolutionary politics and organising in Kenya was prompted by disappointment at the failure of the post-war Labour government to make concessions to African interests and by its repression of the trade union movement. On 1 May 1950 the recently formed East African Trades Union Congress (EATUC) called for independence and majority rule in Kenya, the first body to actually make these demands. For its trouble, it was banned and its leaders were arrested with the agreement of the Labour government in London. This provoked a nine-day general strike, eventually involving over 100,000 workers. The strike was put down by force, with 300 arrests and over 2,000 sackings. The secretary of the EATUC, Makhan Singh, was placed in detention without trial for the next 11 years for his trade union militancy—a completely forgotten British Dreyfus. In response, the militants turned away from the moderate Kenyatta and began organising a secret underground revolutionary movement, centred on Nairobi, a movement that the British were to christen the Mau Mau.

On 20 October 1952 a State of Emergency was proclaimed. It was accompanied by mass arrests (over 8,000 by the middle of November) that swept up moderates including Kenyatta as well as those involved in the revolutionary underground. This was accompanied by widespread shootings and beatings as the white settlers took steps to eradicate the resistance. Within six months 430 Africans had been officially “shot while trying to escape”; without doubt there were many more whose deaths were never recorded. Over the following weeks the underground regrouped and, in January 1953, took the decision to launch a war of national liberation. A guerrilla force, the Land and Freedom Army, was already in the process of being established in the forests. It was to be supported and supplied by the underground, based in Nairobi but extending into the white farming districts and African “reserves”.

The backbone of the movement was provided by the Kikuyu people, but it also had considerable support among the Embu and Meru, and was to put considerable effort into winning over the Masai and the Kamba. There were also a number of Asian radicals who sympathised with the movement and gave it their active support. Far from the repression destroying the movement, it drove many of the undecided into the ranks of the rebellion. Many young men fled into the forests to escape arrest or death and determined to strike back.

What the settlers were to find most frightening was that their own servants had often been sworn into the movement. Indeed, much to his embarrassment MI5’s liaison officer in Nairobi, Robert Broadbent, was to eventually discover that his servants were using his home to store Mau Mau weapons!13 They dealt with their fear by unleashing the most brutal repression with torture becoming absolutely routine and the shooting of prisoners and suspects an everyday affair. One settler boasted of executing 26 suspects in one night.14 Some farmers established their own interrogation centres on their farms where they tortured suspects to death with no one the wiser. Caroline Elkins notes the reputation of one particular farmer, known to the Africans as Doctor Bunny, who maintained his own torture chamber where he castrated and skinned those unfortunate enough to fall into his hands.15

Throughout 1953 and into 1954 the Mau Mau got stronger. Only a lack of modern weapons prevented it from inflicting a serious defeat on the British. It had only a handful of firearms and this was all that prevented the white farmers from being effectively driven off the land. The movement did attempt to crush those Africans who were intent on collaborating with the British and this so-called “civil war” has been used by apologists for the British cause as a way of legitimising the war. It is recast as if the British were protecting the African loyalists rather than a white supremacist regime. This is so much nonsense. First of all, in all wars of national liberation there are “loyalists”, collaborators who side with the imperial power and fight on its behalf. This was true even of the American War of Independence. In Kenya some 2,000 loyalists were to be killed in the fighting and one particular attack, the Lari massacre of March 1953, in which some 70 loyalists including women and children were killed, was to become the linchpin of the British propaganda effort. But the reprisal killing of over 400 people in the weeks that followed and the subsequent hanging of another 71 men for their involvement in the attack was kept quiet by the British. Moreover, the worst attack of the war was not the work of the Mau Mau, but of loyalist home guards armed by the British. Over two days in June 1953 loyalists massacred 400 at Mununga, an attack successfully covered up at the time and pretty much ignored ever since.16

The turning point in the war was the British decision to uproot the Mau Mau underground in Nairobi, Operation Anvil. On 24 April 1954 some 25,000 police and troops began rounding up and screening the city’s African population. People were not detained on suspicion but in order to fill the quotas the screening teams had been given. By the end of the operation 27,000 men, women and children had been interned, including everyone found in possession of a union card, and another 20,000 were deported from the city.17 These people, interned or deported with what they had on them, lost all their possessions and property which was looted by the police and home guard. The Nairobi underground, “the Mau Mau’s beating heart”, that played a vital part in sustaining the guerrilla armies in the forests was destroyed.18 The Kikuyu, Embu and Meru had been effectively removed from the city en masse, despatched to internment camps or back to the reserve where they were herded into new villages on the Malayan model.

The British followed up the clearing of Nairobi with the forced resettlement of the Kikuyu in new villages, behind barbed wire and at the mercy of the police and loyalists. This process was carried out with even more brutality than had been the case in Malaya. By October 1955 over a million people had been resettled in often appalling conditions in 854 villages. “By the end of the war”, as Elkins writes, “torture, exhaustion, disease and starvation would claim the lives of tens of thousands of these rural people”.19

The number of people interned without trial is the subject of some dispute, but at the highest point at the end of 1954 there were some 77,000 people in the internment camps, held in the most appalling conditions. The total number of people who passed through the camps is unknown. One senior police officer privately complained to the Labour MP Barbara Castle when she visited the colony that he had been a prisoner of the Japanese and that conditions in the British camps were far worse than anything he had experienced.20 According to Nicholas Best, the camps were a good illustration of the British capacity for self-deception. Officials would have been horrified if they had been called Nazis, but “there was not all that much to choose between some Mau Mau detention camps and those administered in Hitler’s Germany”.21 Thousands more were imprisoned for Mau Mau offences after what passed for trials during the course of the Emergency, including over 34,000 women and perhaps ten times as many men. And, of course, 1,090 men were hanged, including 45 for administering illegal oaths. This was an unprecedented judicial massacre with men hanged for the possession of a few rounds of ammunition (Wakianda Gachunga for the possession of two rounds and Karanja Hinga for the possession of 13 rounds, for example). The ferocity of the repression in Kenya was not in retaliation for the casualties that the rebels managed to inflict—they killed only 12 British soldiers and 32 white settlers. It was a racist response to the challenge to white supremacy.

This harsh police state regime successfully cut the Land and Freedom Army off from their support, cutting off supplies of food, weapons, medicine and recruits. Inevitably they, or rather the forests, were relentlessly bombed by the RAF with nearly 2,000 tonnes of bombs a month being dropped in 1954. In the course of the Emergency heavy bombers dropped some 6 million bombs on the forests. It was claimed that this killed and wounded some 900 guerrillas between November 1953 and June 1954 alone22 although this is certainly a wild exaggeration made in an effort to justify a particularly futile and expensive military charade. Much more effective was the pseudo-gang technique. This involved sending groups of “turned” guerrilla fighters under disguised British officers into the forest to hunt the surviving guerrillas down. Dedan Kimathi, the last of the movement’s leaders still at large, was wounded and captured on 21 October 1956 in a pseudo-gang operation run by Inspector Ian Henderson.23 He was hanged for possession of a gun and three rounds of ammunition on 18 February 1957.

Even though defeated, Mau Mau still encompassed the destruction of settler power in Kenya. The British recognised that settler rule was not sustainable and that the next inevitable African rebellion would have access to modern weapons courtesy of the Soviet Union. The white ­settlers were “sold down the river” by a Conservative government in London that handed over power to a regime of collaborators headed up and given some anti-colonialist credentials by Jomo Kenyatta. The Mau Mau resistance became for many years a suppressed memory in Kenya. When Nelson Mandela visited Nairobi in July 1990, to the intense embarrassment of his hosts, the notoriously corrupt Daniel Arap Moi and his gangster regime, he praised the Mau Mau fighters as “heroes” and as having been “candles” during his years of imprisonment. He demanded to know why Kimathi’s widow, Elosa Mukami, was not at the reception.24

Northern Ireland

While there is not the space here to discuss the 30 years war in Northern Ireland at any length, it was celebrated as another British success and does deserve some brief remarks. First of all, it is generally acknowledged today, even in military circles, that the British army’s conduct in the early years of the “troubles” contributed massively to the deteriorating situation that confronted the British by 1972. The Falls Road curfew, internment and the Ballymurphy shootings (ten civilians including a priest and a mother of eight children shot dead over 9-11 August 1971), the use of torture in the interrogation of a selected group of internees, the Bloody Sunday massacre of 30 January 1972 and a multitude of other everyday episodes successfully alienated the nationalist population, providing the IRA with a strong base of support that enabled it to sustain decades of struggle. The British commander in Northern Ireland, General Harry Tuzo, argued that after internment “half the Catholic population sympathises with the IRA and up to a quarter—that is about 120,000 people—is ready to give the organisation active support”.25

It had been a complete disaster. As Gerry Adams later explained to Tony Blair, “internment had helped create the modern IRA” and Bloody Sunday “had turned his community definitively against the army”.26 So desperate were the Unionists at this time that at one point, Brian Faulkner, the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, actually contacted Field Marshal Gerald Templer, widely regarded as the architect of the British victory in Malaya, for his advice. Templer refused to get involved. According to one senior civil servant at Stormont, Templer recognised that “the role of the news media and the political climate at Westminster…made the measures he had employed to such good effect in Malaya totally unacceptable in the UK of 1971”.27 Repression on a Malayan or Kenyan scale was politically impossible. The manifest failure of counter-insurgency in the early 1970s led to the development of an “internal security” strategy more adapted to the ­circumstances of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.

The army took a back seat with the police, specialist surveillance units and the SAS taking the lead in the war against the IRA. Instead of internment, Republicans were to be criminalised, imprisoned by no-jury courts on the evidence of confessions extracted by beatings and intimidation. It is worth remembering that James Callaghan’s Labour government lost office in March 1979 because Gerry Fitt, a Westminster MP from the nationalist SDLP, would not support Labour in a confidence vote. Labour’s condoning of and attempt to cover up the systematic beatings that were being handed out in police cells in Northern Ireland made it impossible for him to support them. This shameful episode has been conveniently written out of the history of the Labour Party.

The IRA was not defeated, but it was successfully contained. In the course of the 1980s it only succeeded in killing 96 British soldiers whereas in 1972 alone it had killed 103. The Republican response was to shore up support by adopting an electoral strategy parallel to the armed struggle. This was certainly successful in rallying support, but paradoxically it also made the Republicans more accountable to the nationalist community, who were becoming weary of the conflict. In the end, the IRA was brought to terms by a process of attrition, by the British success in containing its struggle while operating a “shoot to kill” policy together with the wearing down of the nationalist community.

The IRA was heavily infiltrated at every level by British agents and informers. The revelation in May 2003 that senior IRA man Freddie Scappaticci, code named “Stakeknife”, had been a British agent since 1978, came as a total surprise to the Republican movement.28 British surveillance methods had become increasingly sophisticated and effective, making it difficult for the IRA to carry out operations successfully.

Alongside this, there was the war that loyalist paramilitaries, condoned and assisted by elements within the British secret state, were waging against the nationalist community. The importance of the loyalist murder gangs to British success in Northern Ireland is predictably almost invariably ignored in the literature on British counter-insurgency. Nevertheless, while the British could claim victory in Northern Ireland, in the sense that no fundamental British interests had been damaged, it was only a partial victory. The IRA had not been destroyed and the Unionists had been forced to accept power-sharing. This was not the Republic, but for most Catholics it was seen both as a step forward and as bringing to an end a war that could not be won.29

America’s Wars: Afghanistan and Iraq

British counter-insurgency campaigns post-1945 took place in a context of retreat. British governments, no matter how reluctantly, in the end found themselves fighting to try and determine the nature of the regime that succeeded British rule and to ensure the protection of British economic and strategic interests. Northern Ireland was the exception, but by the mid-1970s counter-insurgency was abandoned for a different approach.

The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq were very different. Here the British participated in American wars of aggression that were intended to demonstrate the military power of the United States and to establish its domination over the Middle East. The British were very much junior partners with no control over the decisions that were being made, but rather trusting that US military power would triumph. The British assumption was that these would be little more than victory parades—so overwhelming was US military might. What followed were wars characterised by quite exceptional levels of incompetence and duplicity. The British reputation for counter-insurgency campaigning was fatally compromised in Basra and Helmand and is not likely ever to recover.

The attack on Afghanistan was always regarded as a sideshow by the George W Bush administration. The country was of no real strategic importance to the US, but 9/11 demanded some sort of devastating response. The overthrow of the Taliban regime was accomplished in a matter of weeks by the CIA, with some special forces assistance, organising a small Northern Alliance army that was supported by overwhelming US air power, although both the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaderships escaped across the border into Pakistan. The Americans installed a gangster warlord regime dominated by drug traffickers in their place. Indeed it was as if the US had invaded Columbia to install the drug cartels in power. These people only came to power with American support, and clearly would only be able to remain in power with continued American support, but the Bush administration had no interest in the country. The Hamid Karzai government received very little US aid and very few US troops were kept in Afghanistan. The British famously volunteered to supervise the eradication of opium production which had been achieved by the Taliban in 2000-2001, with the exception of those areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. In 2001 opium production was some 185 tons. Under the British eradication programme it had increased to 8,200 tons by 2007.30 Afghanistan had become the hub of the world opium and heroin trade and could legitimately be described as a “narco-state”. The return of the Taliban was, in the circumstances, inevitable.


For the Bush administration, the real war was in the Middle East. 9/11 provided a pretext to attack Iraq. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein would prepare the way for attacks, whether overt or covert, on Syria and Iran with the US using its overwhelming military might to reshape the whole region. Now that the Soviet Union was gone, the US could finally deal with the petty regimes it had helped shelter. There was nothing it could not do. The overconfidence of the Republican neocons was wholeheartedly shared by the New Labour government in Britain.

To justify the attack, a non-existent Iraqi threat was manufactured. It was well known that the Iraqi military had never recovered from its crushing defeat at US hands in 199131 and had moreover been further weakened by years of sanctions, but nevertheless it was seriously argued that the Saddam regime and its mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction were a threat to world peace. There was, of course, nothing new in a colonial war being waged on a false pretext; indeed this had invariably been the case as far as Britain was concerned. It had usually not mattered because the wars were so one sided that any domestic opposition was swept aside by the euphoria of victory. There is no doubt that this is what Blair expected in 2003. He assumed that the massive, indeed unprecedented, level of opposition to the war would be overcome by the splendour of the victory: a dictator overthrown with hardly any British casualties, Iraqis celebrating in the streets and a grateful puppet government installed in power, privatising everything in sight. All the warnings, from the likes of the CIA and MI6, that this was not going to happen, that the Iraqis would resist occupation and that the country would become a breeding ground for Al Qaeda and similar organisations were wilfully ignored.

The conquest of Iraq was accomplished remarkably easily with very few British or American casualties. There were no weapons of mass destruction and it is clear that this was known at the time. The troops were prepared for possible chemical attack, after all this was the pretext for the invasion, this was why they were risking their lives, but much more significantly, no serious attempt was made to secure any of the 946 supposed sites where the weapons or materials for their manufacture were allegedly held. The level of deceit involved in the invasion is perhaps best illustrated by the fate of the Tuwaitha nuclear research facility where there actually was “yellowcake”, unprocessed uranium, stored under Independent Atomic Energy Authority seal and which the US had been officially notified about. American troops stood by in the facility, watching while it was looted with two tonnes of yellowcake disappearing, apparently dumped so the barrels could be used for storing rainwater!32

Armed resistance to the US occupation was inevitable, but not the scale it was to assume. All the early decisions of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) seemed designed to provide it with recruits and support. The banning of Baath members from holding government jobs, which saw, for example, some 40,000 teachers lose their jobs and closed down hundreds of schools, together with the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the police, putting over 500,000 armed men out of work, were complete disasters from which the occupation never recovered. The CIA, the US military and the British all advised against these steps, but the neocons went ahead. Whatever the private reservations British ministers might have had, in public they loyally supported the decisions. One US officer, serving as liaison with the CPA, described these decisions as the point at which the US “snatched defeat from victory”.33 And at the same time as the resistance was being given this welcome boost, the Americans cut their already low troop numbers down to levels that made it impossible for them effectively to keep control of the country. When American troops encountered protest and resistance they responded with overwhelming firepower that further fuelled the developing insurgency.

The situation was further complicated by another development that has not received enough attention on the left. Much more significant than the technological advances of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs was the role played in Iraq by private security companies. By the end of 2003 private security companies were the second biggest providers of troops to Iraq, second only to the US military. This is a development of tremendous importance. It created serious problems for the US military because these mercenaries were not susceptible to military discipline and were even more trigger happy than American soldiers. More important, however, is the fact that in the 21st century we actually have a situation where there are large private companies that are armed to the teeth, where the capitalist class, in effect, has available its own private armed forces. The implications of this for the class struggle have yet to be worked out, but clearly this is a matter of some urgency.34

The British took responsibility for the occupation of the four provinces of southern Iraq, including Basra. From the very beginning this whole enterprise was doomed. The British army was configured to fight alongside the Americans but only for limited, short-lived interventions. It did not have the manpower or the equipment for long-term occupations and yet this is what the Blair government committed it to and what the generals enthusiastically supported. Blair and the New Labour government were in Iraq for one reason and one reason only: to maintain close relations with the United States. They had no interest whatsoever in the security situation on the ground in Basra and were only prepared to commit the resources necessary to maintain what amounted to little more than the token presence necessary to appease the Americans. For the British army, even though it was clear that there were not enough troops on the ground, the commitment was vital because it prevented further budget cuts and might even serve as a lever to extract more money from the Treasury. These concerns led to the British volunteering to undertake what was from a military point of view a completely unrealistic commitment, for which there were not the necessary resources. And on top of that, the war was unpopular at home which made the commitment of more troops and resources politically impossible no matter how serious the situation became.

Initially the British army took some satisfaction in the unfolding catastrophe in US occupied Iraq, which was put down to their ­inexperience at counter-insurgency warfare, their excessive reliance on firepower and their general incompetence. British officers regularly contrasted British success in Northern Ireland with US failure in Iraq and while many US officers were undoubtedly offended, a growing number took British criticisms seriously, among them David Petraeus. These American officers had come to believe that the US needed a counter-insurgency campaign modelled on British experience to save them from defeat. Their bible was John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam.35 The end result was to be Petraeus’s Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24, published unprecedentedly by the prestigious University of Chicago Press, which actually became a bestseller in the US.36 The problem was that at the very same time that the British were busy noting the mistakes the Americans were making, the situation in the south was slipping out of their control.

The British had committed 46,000 troops to the invasion of Iraq, but within three months this was reduced to an occupying force of only 10,500. This would have been inadequate even if the British had been allied with effective local police and troops and surrounded by a friendly population. In the deteriorating situation they found themselves in, confronted by an insurgency by the radical Shiite movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, the result was to be complete and protracted military humiliation. A good way to appreciate the situation they found themselves in is to compare troop levels in Belfast, one soldier to 65 civilians, with Basra, one soldier to 370 civilians. And, of course, one has to remember that in Belfast the British had the support of a paramilitary police force, the RUC, and of the majority of the population.37 In Iraq the British found themselves reduced to the role of observers as rival Shia militias battled it out for control of Basra. As the Sadrist Jaysh al-Mahdi militia (the Mahdi Army) got stronger, so the British came under increasing levels of attack. Where the government was successful was in keeping knowledge of what was going on from people back home. Its news management was much more successful than any other aspect of the war. The systematic rolling back of women’s rights across the south by the Islamist militias, for example, went largely unreported.

The first Sadrist revolt that began in April 2004 saw the British military coming into serious conflict with the United States. There was heavy fighting in Maysan province, where one regiment came under attack 658 times over a seven-month period, but the Americans were very unhappy with what they regarded as British reluctance to take decisive action against the Sadrists in Basra. The CPA actually demanded the removal of the British commander in the south and the British ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department to receive an official reprimand for British weakness. One senior British officer described the Americans as “a group of Martians” and considered that the British were “treated no differently to the Portuguese”.38 As far as the British military were concerned, the Americans had deliberately provoked the Sadrist revolt and, rather than attempting to crush the Jaysh al-Mahdi, they intended to come to an arrangement as quickly as possible. While they were certainly right about the Americans provoking the revolt, they were completely wrong in thinking that they could make an arrangement with them. The Sadrists were nationalists who wanted the British out. As they got stronger they stepped up their attacks until the British were to all intents and purposes pinned in their bases, under siege, coming under ferocious attack whenever they ventured outside.

When General Richard Shirreff took command in early 2006, he found that security was non-existent. He only had some 200 troops available for patrolling Basra, a city of 1.3 million people. His forces were heavily outnumbered by the militia who could by and large count on the support of the police. Shirreff determined on one last effort to defeat the militia, Operation Sinbad. He requested and was promised US troops to assist in the operation, but was then ordered by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) not to accept any American help. In order to concentrate all the available British troops in Basra, he pulled out of the other southern provinces, with the MoD claiming that this was because Iraqi forces were strong enough to take over. At the Abu Naji base in Maysan, which was evacuated on 24 August 2006, the Iraqi army were only told the British were pulling out hours before the event because they were regarded as completely unreliable. As soon as the British had gone the base was destroyed by crowds of Iraqis, celebrating their victory. This fiasco was “spun” as “mission accomplished”.

Operation Sinbad lasted from the end of October 2006 until mid-February the following year. With some 3,000 troops available, the British tried to clear the militia from the city. The whole exercise was completely futile as the British did not have the strength to hold any of the areas they cleared. After heavy fighting the militia would pull out, and then return as soon as the British had left. Indeed, by January 2007, the British base at Basra Palace was the most heavily attacked target in Iraq. When Operation Sinbad finally came to an end 45 British soldiers were dead and 350 had been wounded, many seriously, and the army was no more in control of the city than it had been on day one. As soon as the Operation ended, the government withdrew another 1,500 troops. Despite this, Shirreff’s ­replacement, General George Shaw, continued to lecture the Americans on how to do counter-insurgency, provoking considerable derision.39 Militia attacks were stepped up in the aftermath of Operation Sinbad so that by July a British soldier was being killed every three days and the British casualty rate in Basra was higher than the American casualty rate in Baghdad. Desperate to avoid further casualties, the British negotiated an agreement with the Jaysh al-Mahdi whereby they would release the 70-odd militia prisoners they held in return for an unmolested withdrawal from all their bases in the city to Basra airport. On 4 September, under militia protection, the British pulled out of Basra Palace. Once the last of the prisoners had been released, attacks on Basra airport began.

British humiliation was complete. At a time when the United States was mounting its “surge” with General Petraeus supposedly putting into practice British counter-insurgency methods, the British were driven out of Basra. It is worth making the point here that the “surge” was in reality only a holding operation, intended to create the conditions for a US withdrawal, rather than presaging a long-term counter-insurgency commitment that would have lasted years. Its short-term success was less a result of the despatch of US troop reinforcements than of the Sunni “Awakening”, a revolt against Al Qaeda, which saw over 100,000 Sunni militia taken onto the US payroll. Another factor that is generally played down was the activities of the mini “Phoenix Operation” run by the Joint Special Operations Command under General Stanley McChrystal.40 And to complete British humiliation in March 2008, the Iraqi army with US assistance occupied Basra and defeated the militia, while the few thousand remaining British troops were, according to one rather unkind US military commentator, “hiding in the airport”.41

Return to Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the Taliban had inevitably returned. What is astonishing is that even during the Basra debacle the New Labour government volunteered to put troops into Afghanistan and to undertake the pacification of Helmand province, the centre of opium production in the country. As far as the politicians were concerned, Iraq was a lost cause because of the ­unpopularity of the war, but Afghanistan could still be sold as “the good war”. Here the government could demonstrate its usefulness to the Americans. In Afghanistan they would get it right. For the generals, the ­commitment was all about avoiding cuts and if possible actually expanding the army’s budget at the expense of the real enemy, the navy. It seems clear that the army deliberately took on a mission that it knew it did not have the resources to complete successfully, only to find that once again the government was only prepared to resource a token commitment. The result was to be disaster, one from which the British army has not yet recovered.

The original plan in 2006 was for British troops to establish a secure base at Camp Bastion and to focus on the two main towns, Lashkar Gah and Gereshk, establishing a “security triangle” where “good governance” could be implanted and development work got under way. The British commander, Brigadier Ed Butler, thought the task would require 14,000 troops, but only 3,300 were deployed. This was certainly inadequate for even the cautious plan that was originally in place, but this plan was immediately abandoned. The provincial governor insisted that British troops be deployed to a number of towns in the north of the province to protect against the resurgent Taliban. The result was that small British detachments were established in “platoon houses” in a number of centres, Musa Qala, Now Zad, Sangin and elsewhere, spread over 600 square miles.42

They quickly found themselves under siege. There were not enough troops to establish any sort of control over the surrounding areas and instead the various garrisons found themselves fighting for their lives. To keep these outposts supplied and to evacuate casualties, the British had only 8 Chinook helicopters, although even these were never all available because of maintenance. The troops had been sent in to protect corrupt local officials and police, men who were often clearly criminals, and who often only wanted a British presence to help them take control of the local opium trade. In Sangin, the police chief was a known child rapist, hated by the local people, and at Now Zad the police fired on British troops when they first arrived to give themselves time to move their opium stocks somewhere safe.43

To protect themselves in these platoon houses, the troops relied on firepower, using artillery and aerial bombardment to hold off the Taliban and avoid being overrun. The very places they were meant to be protecting, they destroyed, with the local people either fleeing for their lives or being killed. As Butler himself admitted: “We were killing a lot of ­ordinary Afghans, we were levelling a lot of Now Zad and Musa Qala and elsewhere”.44 The fighting was heaviest at Sangin, but the crisis point came at Musa Qala where the Chinooks were particularly vulnerable. Butler was warned that under no circumstances must he lose a Chinook, because such a catastrophe might turn public opinion against the whole war. The only way to avoid this was to evacuate Musa Qala. The British negotiated a truce with the Taliban that came into effect on 12 September 2006 and an agreement was reached that both sides would evacuate the town. The British were due to pull out on 17 October, but incredibly did not have sufficient transport available. The local elders hired jingly trucks to evacuate the British, who left with Taliban fighters in the crowd watching. The Americans were bitterly critical of this deal and effectively sabotaged it with an air attack which violated its terms and led to the Taliban taking the town over. The ferocity of the fighting, the civilian deaths that the British were inflicting and the humiliation at Musa Qala were all successfully kept from people back in Britain by New Labour news management.

The Taliban themselves had suffered very heavy losses in their attempts to overrun the “platoon houses”. They turned to an increasing reliance on Improvised Exploding Devices (IEDs), to inflict casualties and wear the British down. New Labour responded to these developments by emphasising the importance of the war. It was being fought to bring “good governance” and prosperity to Afghanistan, in support of women’s rights and because the terrorist threat was as serious as the threat that had been posed by the Third Reich. Even so, the government knew that the war was unpopular, but counted on this unpopularity being neutralised by popular support for “our boys”. They were, however, worried that if too many of “our boys” were killed, then the passive opposition to the war might turn into active opposition, into a popular demand to bring the troops home.

With casualties rising and troop morale falling, the foreign secretary, David Miliband, privately asked the Americans to offer to take over responsibility for Helmand. It would have been too humiliating to have made a formal request for help so the Americans offered help without one to save the face of their closest ally.45 As far as the Americans were concerned, however, the British had been defeated in Helmand, just as they had been defeated in Basra. By 2010 there were some 20,000 US troops in Helmand.

Frank Ledwidge provides the best assessment of the British achievement in Helmand:

Britain’s efforts have resulted in the “stabilization” (ie the temporary pacification) of three of the 14 districts that make up the province of Helmand, just one of the 34 provinces in a country with a population that is half that of the UK. In terms of overall political significance, this might be the equivalent of three large market towns in rural Lincolnshire… After three years of British presence, the province was the most savage combat zone in the world…it was only the intervention of a powerful force of US marines that brought some level of control to the situation.46

In many ways, what is most shameful is that all the expenditure of money and lives in Afghanistan, the British soldiers killed and maimed and the Afghans they in turn killed and maimed, all this was in support of a narco-state run by gangsters. Afghanistan under Karzai was one of the most corrupt countries in the world, with its leaders engaged in the systematic pillage of international aid funds and in drug trafficking. Every post in the state administration was for sale, from ministers down to policemen, with the expectation that their initial outlay would be recouped and more by bribery and extortion. The most expensive posts were inevitably in counter-narcotics with some costing $200,000 a year. The whole government was, as General Petraeus called it, “a criminal syndicate”.47 One researcher working for NATO described Afghanistan under Karzai as a “mafia state” and a “mafia racket” and that even “by the standards of mafia rule, the post-2002 Afghanistan system comes up short”. In 2011, $4.6 billion, the equivalent of the country’s budget that year, left the country, carried out in suitcases and boxes, to be invested in property in Bahrain, London and elsewhere.48 The nature of the regime could not have been demonstrated more clearly than by the massive level of electoral fraud that “won” Karzai the August 2009 presidential election. The costs of sustaining such a regime in power indefinitely were just too great to be borne even by the United States. The counter-insurgency strategy championed by Petraeus was never put into effect. Instead the US mounted a holding operation while they got out of the country, just as they had in Iraq.

Future wars?

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have done considerable damage to the credibility of the British army. While public opinion is still very much behind “our boys”, the credibility of the British High Command with both British politicians and the Americans has never been lower. There will be no rush to commit British troops to war against ISIS not least because there is no expectation that they will actually be able to win and a very real fear that they would suffer another humiliating defeat. This will never be publicly admitted, but it means that it will be some time before any British government puts significant numbers of troops on the ground in a foreign war. Under Blair, the government essentially surrendered strategic decision-making to the United States, allowing the Americans to decide where British troops were to be deployed, who they were to fight and under what conditions. No British government would have ever got involved in Iraq and Afghanistan of its own volition; instead they got involved in the confident expectation that the US would inevitably triumph. Both British capitalism and the New Labour government would benefit from being intimately associated with the world’s only superpower exercising its global dominion. This was not to be.

What of the British army itself in the aftermath of its humiliation in Basra and Helmand? While these campaigns were always misconceived, the particularly humiliating nature of the army’s failure was very much a result of lack of resources, both material resources and soldiers. The British army volunteered itself for commitments in southern Iraq and Helmand that the New Labour government had no intention of resourcing. There were never enough troops. In effect, the government was resourcing a token commitment while the army was embroiling itself in serious fighting. The inevitable disastrous outcomes discredited both the politicians and the generals.

While both the New Labour and the coalition governments sometimes chose to characterise Islamist terrorism as an existential threat, this was only empty rhetoric. As the supposed terrorist threat has grown more menacing with the rise of ISIS, the coalition carried through cuts in spending on the army that seriously compromised its ability to even pose as a partner in any future US adventures in the Middle East or elsewhere. The expenditure on Trident is, of course, sacrosanct because of the diplomatic utility of nuclear weapons, but the army has no such utility. From a strength of 102,000 in 2010, the army had been reduced to 94,000 in 2014. As the Daily Telegraph helpfully pointed out, this means that our once proud nation of warriors now has considerably more hairdressers than soldiers!49 Military weakness has reduced the British state to what has been described as “a kind of armed voyeurism”.50 By 2020 the intention is to reduce army strength to 82,000 men and women, with some “experts” warning that even this is over-optimistic given recruitment problems and the likely economic situation. This reduction is predicated on a determination that there will be no more Iraq or Afghanistan-style ­adventures in the foreseeable future regardless of the “special relationship”. Such has been the practical impact of defeat in Basra and Helmand. Instead the British military posture today remains broadly congruent with that of the United States, ruling out large-scale troop deployments, in favour of the limited use of special forces, aerial ­bombardment and assassination by drone, all in support of proxy armies.


1: Mumford, 2012, p1.

2: Anderson, 2005; Elkins, 2005.

3: Bennett, 2013, p268.

4: See Smith and Jones, 2013. They argue that “running parallel to a record of prevailing in the small wars it chose to fight, Britain has an equally well-established tradition of cutting-and-running in wars where it did not” (p456).

5: Osburn, 1930, pp40, 217-218.

6: Smith, 1992, p71.

7: Hughes, 2010, pp1-17.

8: See Thompson, 1966, and Clutterbuck, 1967.

9: Bennett, 2009, pp432-433.

10: Bayly and Harper, 2007, p455.

11: French, 2011, p123.

12: Mumford, 2009, p641.

13: Walton, 2013, pp245-246.

14: Klose, 2013, p142.

15: Elkins, 2005, p67.

16: Bennett, 2013, p216.

17: Bennett, 2013, p24.

18: Anderson, 2005, p200.

19: Elkins, 2005, p234.

20: Elkins, 2005, p283.

21: Best, 1979, p183.

22: Chappell, 2011, pp506-507.

23: In 1966 Henderson went to run the police force in Bahrain where he remained in charge for the next 30 years. He became known as “the Butcher of Bahrain” for, among other things, claims that he had been complicit in the ransacking of villages, the sadistic sexual abuse of Shia prisoners and the use of power drills to “maim them”—Merrill, 2015.

24: Alam, 2007, p41.

25: Smith and Neuman, 2005, p423.

26: Powell, 2008, p46.

27: Ramsay, 2009, pp89-90.

28: See Harkin and Ingram, 2004.

29: See Newsinger, 2015, chapter 7.

30: Mercille, 2012.

31: Shimko, 2010. According to Keith Shimko the 1991 war was so one sided that American men in the war zone were statistically safer than American men back home (p77).

32: Galbraith, 2006, pp102-104.

33: Ricks, 2007, pp161-163.

34: According to one study, from 2003 to 2007 the US government paid private companies $85 billion for work in Iraq: “the US military’s reliance on contractors is complete or very nearly complete”. Most of this was for logistical support which would once have been done by soldiers, but there was an increasing use of private contractors in war fighting roles. Most famously, even interrogation at Abu Ghraib had been privatised! As for the British, private security firms provided protection for the British Embassy in Iraq and diplomatic staff, between May 2003 and August 2006, to the tune of £127 million—see Kinsey, 2009,
pp49, 166. Another recent study describes Iraq as an “experiment in the use of private contractors in warfare” with the ratio between contractors and military personnel “ballooning” from
one contractor for every ten soldiers in 2003 to 12 contractors to 10 soldiers in 2013. This was “an entirely new phenomenon”—see Varin, 2015, p111.

35: Nagl, 2002.

36: US Army and Marine Corps, 2007.

37: Betz and Cormack, 2009, p322.

38: Gilligan, 2009.

39: Ledwidge, 2011, p47.

40: For the Phoenix Operation in Vietnam see Valentine, 1990. And for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) see Scahill, 2012.

41: Ricks, 2009, p277.

42: Porter, 2009.

43: Fergusson, 2009, pp358-359.

44: Gall, 2012, p120.

45: Chandrasekaran, 2012, p214.

46: Ledwidge, 2013, p217.

47: Chayes, 2015, p135.

48: Felbab-Brown, 2012, p82.

49: Shute and Oliver, 2014.

50: Toynbee and Walker, 2015, p254.


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