The period from around 2003 till the present - at least in terms of UK defence - has been dominated by the so called "COIN Wars" (COunter-INsurgency) in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fighting has been bloody and bitter. It has cost many hundreds of British fatalities and that's even before we get into the issue of suicides among post-tour service personnel. Thousands more have been left with a variety of lasting wounds, ranging from superficial scars to lost limbs and deep mental traumas.
This has been the human legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, alongside the widely distributed images of coffins draped in British flags being carried off of aeroplanes and then driven solemnly through the streets of towns such as Royal Wotton Basset. The financial cost has also been enormous, with some estimates putting the cost of Afghanistan alone at around £40 billion by the time we withdraw.
Against this back drop, public appetite for future COIN wars seems slim. And thus the prevailing attitude among those with an interest in military matters seems to be that Britain will never again fight such a war, or at the very least not in the near future.
My contention today is that this might prove to be wishful thinking. Indeed, if we find ourselves unprepared, it might in fact be very dangerous thinking.
The main reason I believe this to be wishful thinking is the simple fact that nobody starts a COIN war intentionally. I very much doubt that when Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush sat down to discuss either Afghanistan or Iraq that they thought even one of these would blow up into the fearsome conflicts that they ultimately became.
That for me is the real problem. You don't choose a COIN war, it chooses you.
By its very definition a Counter-Insurgency campaign is a response to an insurgency. The insurgents are the ones who decide when and where the war will begin. They often get to decide how the war will be fought as well. The only real choice that exists for the potential COIN actor is whether to fight the insurgency or not. But even that is often taken out of their hands.
America became embroiled in Vietnam not because propping up the South Vietnamese regime seemed like a noble thing to do, but because it felt it had no other choice. The growing threat of communism meant that an intervention in South Vietnam was as much about proving American willingness to fight "the red spread" as it was about protecting the people of South Vietnam from the insurgents.
America didn't really have much of a choice about whether to get involved or not and once involved it did what it felt it had to in order to win, which ultimately meant American boots on the ground. Not a popular policy by any means, and certainly one that was difficult to explain to the American public, but one that in a sense it was backed into.
This reflects similar situations faced by Britain in both Malaysia in the 50's and then Oman in the 60's. Propping up the respective regimes out of altruistic kindness was not really on the cards. It was mostly about business. There was an identified advantage to Britain in fighting the insurgents in both cases and it was this that primarily drove British actions. The interest in fighting the IRA in Northern Ireland was pretty obvious and requires little deep analysis.
The case for fighting the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan may be a little harder to pin down in terms that make sense to the casual observer, but suffice to say that the British government saw an interest that required action and as such action was taken.
The common thread running through all these, a thread that goes back to the Boer war and beyond, is that the governments hand is often forced when it comes to fighting insurgencies. To sit idly by and do nothing while an insurgent force gathers strength and gradually presses home its agenda is to invite disaster. There is seldom any other choice but to take military action.
On that basis I find it odd that people are so quick to dismiss the possibility of the UK becoming involved in another COIN war. If it does happen then history tells us that we wont have much of a choice in the matter. It's likely to occur in a region of the world where we have a vested interest, however tenuous that interest may seem to some. Predicting where such a campaign might happen is likely a thankless (and largely pointless) task.
Whether the public supports it or not will be largely irrelevant. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 there were many protests in London, with the largest rally estimated to have drawn almost a million people. Even 1.5% of the entire population marching in outrage is not enough to prevent a commons vote in favour of military action, if the commons believes the cause to be important and/or just. Labours re-election after the war also proved that it need not be a barrier to political success either.
The confluence of these factors means that - at least in my opinion - we are at no less a risk of getting involved in a COIN war now than we were in 2001 when the Taliban was toppled, or in 2003 when Saddam was knocked from his perch. Just because the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been costly does not, I would venture, make another COIN war less likely. It just makes one less desirable.
Despite the naysaying and assurances that we've seen the back of "boots on the ground", I fear that we are only kidding ourselves if we think we've seen an end to the potential spectre of another COIN war. My only hope is that when the next one comes around we'll be ready to apply the lessons so bloodily learned in the last decade and that we'll have the right equipment in place from day one.
*Just as an aside, I'd like to thank regular readers for sticking with this blog during a bit of a down period. I'm fairly certain that my schedule will clear up from this point onwards, at least till the new year, which leaves more time for posting. Again, many thanks. Spread the love!
** Also, a note to whoever manages Bloggers spell check. "Learned" is a real word in the English language. Please stop flagging it as an error.