Counterinsurgency in Crisis

Counterinsurgency in Crisis:
Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare
David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell
New York: Columbia University Press, 2013

$23.49 (paperback)
$29.64 (hardcover)
$28.99 (Kindle)



The British military–long considered the masters of counterinsurgency–encountered significant problems in Iraq and Afghanistan when confronted with insurgent violence. In their effort to apply the principles and doctrines of past campaigns, they failed to prevent Basra and Helmand from descending into lawlessness, criminality, and violence.

By juxtaposing the deterioration of these situations against Britain’s celebrated legacy of counterinsurgency, this investigation identifies both the contributions and limitations of traditional tactics in such settings, exposing a disconcerting gap between ambitions and resources, intent and commitment. Building upon this detailed account of the Basra and Helmand campaigns, this volume conducts an unprecedented assessment of British military institutional adaptation in response to operations gone awry. In calling attention to the enduring effectiveness of insurgent methods and the threat posed by under-governed spaces, Ucko and Egnell underscore the need for military organizations to acquire new skills for meeting the likely irregular challenges of future wars.

Back to Top


“A sobering indictment of the British performance in Iraq and Afghanistan. It provides shrewd analysis – the best yet – of what went wrong and why, and the lessons that must be learnt. Essential reading for policymakers, strategists and practitioners, both military and civilian.” — Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, British Army, retired

“Impeccably researched and elegantly written, Counterinsurgency in Crisis is important because what the United Kingdom and its allies learn from experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq is likely to be as important as the outcomes of those wars. Indeed, if we are to prepare well for future conflict, Ucko and Egnell warn, we must not let false interpretations dominate historical memory. Counterinsurgency in Crisis is at once a work of military history, intellectual history, and historiography. It is highly recommended for students, academics, diplomats, and military leaders.” —H.R. McMaster, author Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam

“In this critical and important study, Ucko and Egnell challenge the British Army’s record at counterinsurgency. They demonstrate the need for a more careful reading of history and for a clear-eyed assessment of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. An essential read for those seeking to learn lessons from Britain’s recent small wars.”—Professor Theo Farrell, Head of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London

“This excellent book reveals Britain’s strategic, operational and tactical missteps in Iraq and Afghanistan. It charts the failure to institutionalise lessons from our counter-insurgency past and, worse still, how false complacency stifled adaptation mid-campaign. Whatever we call them, wars among the people are here to stay: we ignore the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan at our peril – yet the indications are that post-2014 the British may do just that, returning to the state of unpreparedness and strategic atrophy that caused near-disaster in two campaigns. This valuable book is recommended to anyone who cares for the future of the British armed forces or the UK’s place in world.”—Colonel Richard Iron, British Army, retired

“A balanced and clear-sighted evaluation of the problems that affected British Army Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.”—M.L.R. Smith, Kings College London

Back to Top


“By publishing in 2013, the authors — the estimable David H. Ucko and Robert Egnell — free themselves from the temptations of a polemical approach to influence events on the ground; they rather deploy a dispassionate, analytical style that will serve to influence the debate over the longer term, as this admirable book deserves to do”.
Emile Simpson, Best Defense, 22 October 2013

Counterinsurgency in Crisis revient “sur les interventions extérieures britanniques de la dernière décennie, en particulier l’Irak et l’Afghanistan, et dressent un bilan peu flatteur de la performance de nos alliés, qui est même franchement inquiétant si l’on considère que le Royaume-Uni est censé disposer avec la France de l’une des deux meilleures armées européennes et constitue un modèle implicite dans certains milieux de la défense”.
Olivier Schmitt,  War Studies Publications, 23 October 2013

“This is a serious, sober, and objective scholarly analysis of British strategic and operational performance… Because of its solid scholarship and the issues it raises, Counterinsurgency in Crisis is highly commended to readers on both sides of the Atlantic interested in strategic studies, military effectiveness, and military history”.
Frank Hoffman, War on the Rocks, 4 November 2013.

“Critical yet balanced, this book provides the best overall assessment of the British campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan currently in print. In his foreword, Colin S Gray warns that ‘it is not a comfortable read.’ Nonetheless, it is an essential one'”.
Theo Farrell, RUSI Journal 159, no. 1, 17 March 2014.

“David Ucko and Robert Egnell have provided a long overdue account of British counterinsurgency efforts during Iraq and Afghanistan… Counterinsurgency in Crisis is not only a valuable read for anyone interested in the application of counterinsurgency, but especially for anyone interested in military adaptation and organizational learning”.
Stefan Schilling, Defence Studies 14, no 4., 6 November 2014.

Back to Top


Excerpts: Maneuver Captains Career Course students heard from a pair of counterinsurgency experts Thursday, as authors David Ucko and Robert Egnell spoke as part of the Combat Leader Speaker Program. Ucko and Egnell are the authors of Counterinsurgency in Crisis, a book that examines the challenges the British military faced in Iraq and Afghanistan during the last 12 years when confronted with insurgent violence. The book also addresses the need for military organizations to meet future challenges in new ways.

  • Video footage from visit to US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare – Fort Benning, GA, USA, 30 January 2014

The US Army’s Maneuver Center of Excellence hosted Robert Egnell and me to participate in the Combat Leader Speaker Forum, where we briefed future commanders on the crisis of counterinsurgency and future options for intervention. The video of the briefing, QnA and 1-on-1 interviews are now available, courtesy of Fort Benning Television.

Dr. David Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell featured by Combat Leader Speaker Program from Fort Benning Television on Vimeo.


Dr. David Ucko's and Dr. Robert Egnell's Question & Answer session at Combat Leadership Speaker Program from Fort Benning Television on Vimeo.


Dr. David Ucko and Dr. Robert Egnell Interview from Fort Benning Television on Vimeo.


  • Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare – International Institute for Strategic Studies-US Office, 13 November 2013

The US office of the International Institute for Strategic Studies hosted a book launch for Counterinsurgency in Crisis. Dr Robert Egnell and I spoke about the crisis of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and strategic options the future. Dr Tom Mahnken acted as a discussant for the proceedings.  The entire event was taped and is now available to view on Youtube:

  • Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Britain and the Challenges of Modern Warfare – Global Security Podcast, Johns Hopkins University, 24 October 2013

I sat down with Mark Stout, Global Security Studies Program Director, to talk about my recent book and the strategic context of counterinsurgency. The result, a podcast recorded by the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, touches upon the British campaign in Basra, the relevance of counterinsurgency principles to modern warfare and the relation between counterinsurgency and the campaign plan.

  • Learning from Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency, an interview with Octavian Manea Small Wars Journal, 8 October 2013

Octavian Manea has made a name for himself interviewing some of the leading thinkers and practitioners of counterinsurgency. Last month, he sat down with Robert Egnell and me to discuss our book, Counterinsurgency in Crisis. The transcript of the interview can be found on the Small Wars Journal.

  • War on the Rocks Video Podcast: Counterinsurgency in Crisis: Lessons from Afghanistan and Strategic Options for the Future – War on the Rocks & College of International Security Affairs, 15 January 2014.

Back to Top


Introductory chapter

Table of contents

Back to Top