Enmeshed in insurgency: Britain's protracted retreats from Iraq and Afghanistan

Huw Bennett

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4 Citations (SciVal)


Ten years of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan have produced little in Britain's national interest. This article examines the political objectives set in these wars and the reasons why they have proved elusive. The core foreign policy aim was to sustain Britain's position as a great power by assuming responsibility for global order. Alliances with the United States and NATO would be the diplomatic tool for pursuing this aim. These alliances brought obligations, in the shape of agreed common threats. Rogue regimes with weapons of mass destruction and international terrorists harboured in failed states were deemed the primary threats to British security. Military means were therefore used in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack them. Whether Tony Blair's vision of global order ever made sense is debatable, and it attracted scepticism from the outset. The article argues experience in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that a strategy to eliminate terrorism (the WMD threat turned out never to have existed) by expeditionary counterinsurgency could only fail. Therefore the attention lavished on operational-level performance by most studies is misplaced, because no amount of warfighting excellence could make up for strategic incoherence. Finally, the article proposes the more important question arising from the last ten years is why the UK pursued a futile strategy for so long. The difficulties associated with interpreting events, a malfunctioning strategic apparatus, weak political oversight, and bureaucratic self-interest are posited as the most significant explanations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)501-521
Number of pages20
JournalSmall Wars and Insurgencies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014


  • Iraq
  • Afghanistan
  • counterinsurgency
  • British strategy


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