Teuscher on Mumford, 'Counterinsurgency Wars and the Anglo-American Alliance: The Special Relationship on the Rocks'

Andrew Mumford
Carson Teuscher

Andrew Mumford. Counterinsurgency Wars and the Anglo-American Alliance: The Special Relationship on the Rocks. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2017. 248 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62616-492-5.

Reviewed by Carson Teuscher (The Ohio State University) Published on H-War (August, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=56041

Counterinsurgencies strain the hardiest of alliances, no matter how longstanding—or in the case of Andrew Mumford’s 2017 book—how “special” they might be. In Counterinsurgency Wars and the Anglo-American Alliance, Mumford, professor of war studies at the University of Nottingham, traces the development of the Anglo-American alliance through its major counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns over the past seven decades. In ten comprehensive chapters, Mumford demonstrates how the alliance’s irregular wars often fueled deep currents of frustration, mistrust, and resentment between Anglo-American leaders. Using a variety of oral histories, diplomatic correspondence, memoranda, memoirs, official reports, meeting minutes, and other primary sources from British and American archives, Mumford argues that beneath a “thin layer of ‘specialness’” in areas of mutual strategic self-interest, each nations’ respective counterinsurgencies generated tension and strain that continue to affect the Anglo-American alliance today—findings that problematize public statements of unity and cohesion often used to frame US-UK relations since 1945 (p. 2).

After unpacking the origins, evolution, and conceptual validity of the special relationship in the introduction, the book’s first two chapters contour the geopolitical, military, and cultural dynamics shaping post-1945 Anglo-American relations and the allies’ contrasting military approaches to COIN. Charting Britain’s imperial decline against the United States’ contrasting ascent to global superpower status, Mumford stresses how each nation’s political responses to their ally’s counterinsurgencies constrained the degree of military reciprocity within the alliance.

In the book’s subsequent case studies, Mumford charts Britain’s efforts to quash colonial insurgencies in Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus, present-day Yemen, and Northern Ireland before turning to America’s war in Vietnam and Anglo-American collaboration in Iraq and Afghanistan during the war on terror. Britain’s vaster experience combating insurgencies during the era of decolonization explains the book’s emphasis on British operations. Through each chapter, Mumford shows how Anglo-American political support fluctuated as both powers wrestled with countervailing international and domestic pressures affecting their respective COIN campaigns.

One of the book’s major strengths is how it presents these pressures as inherently entangled rather than unidirectional or isolated. As Mumford makes clear, regional exigencies frequently motivated Anglo-American behavior. During the Malayan Emergency, for example, as he shows, American fears of communism—arising as much from fractious domestic politics as from geopolitical realities—convinced leaders in Washington to eschew their traditional anti-imperialist rhetoric in support of British COIN operations. British imperialism, they calculated, was the lesser of two evils; so long as it prevented regional power vacuums, it served Americans’ broader strategic agenda by forestalling communist expansionism. International strategic calculation motivated the Eisenhower administration to authorize covert peace talks in Cyprus in a bid to conserve the favorable foothold of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the Mediterranean at Britain’s expense. Additionally, Britain’s retreat from South Arabia fueled Anglo-American antagonism as both nations developed divergent views over the region’s strategic significance. In Vietnam, Britain’s desire to maintain its waning international influence motivated the establishment of an ineffective advisory mission during the Kennedy administration, only for the British to “disassociate” themselves as American engagement intensified throughout the 1960s—much to Lyndon Johnson’s ire (p. 134). Such examples reinforce the strong—even selfish—tendency for Anglo-American leaders to adopt political and military positions bolstering their own geopolitical influence at the others’ expense.

More often than not, however, “national level concerns trumped international” ones with regard to Anglo-American COIN operations (p. 28). Throughout the book, domestic political pressures complicated inter-alliance harmony and influenced the degree to which one side could support the other. For example, ethnic diasporas in the United States sympathetic to anti-British insurgents often wielded enough political power to constrain American diplomatic and military support. This was most evident during the counterinsurgencies in Palestine and Northern Ireland, where Jewish and Irish American religious organizations, lobby groups, political elites, and electoral blocs applied political pressure—occasionally even sending money, arms, and ammunition—to support their countrymen’s cause. While Mumford has more to say about American domestic pressures than British ones, complementing the actions of politicians in London and Washington with those of the constituencies who elected them adds a valuable social dimension to traditional studies on the special relationship—an area certainly warranting additional study.

The ubiquity of irregular warfare on the global stage since 1945 justifies Mumford’s decision to recast Anglo-American relations through the understudied lens of the alliance’s COIN conflicts. It is worth reiterating that Mumford’s chosen COIN operations were arguably the worst-case scenario for alliance cooperation; if studied in isolation, Mumford’s work presents a more pessimistic interpretation of Anglo-American relations than one might find elsewhere. Still, readers interested in the special relationship, alliances, COIN, and military history writ large will undoubtedly gain much from Mumford’s chosen case studies. With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan looming large in our collective memory, the final two chapters of Counterinsurgency Wars and the Anglo-American Alliance serve as a powerful reminder that the recent deterioration of US-UK operational cohesion is nothing new. Whether one agrees with Mumford’s ultimate claim that the special relationship amounts to little more than a “mythological Churchillian construct” or not, the history of the alliance’s COIN campaigns certainly suggest an enduring pattern of “friction, faction, and frustration” that will complicate any notions of a perpetual or static Anglo-American alliance (pp. 199–200).

Citation: Carson Teuscher. Review of Mumford, Andrew, Counterinsurgency Wars and the Anglo-American Alliance: The Special Relationship on the Rocks. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2021. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=56041

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Has anyone noticed how since 1945, problems arising beyond the US and Europe with stable govts., have taken place in main, within those areas and geopollitical locations once occupied and claimed by the Colonial Powers from Europe over these past 200 to 300 years ?

WWII signaled an end to the Age of Colonialization, just as this collapse by the War and its consequences resulted in Colonial area experiencing their freedoms from rule by European Powers for the first time. 1945 marked an end to abilities of Europeans to retain their overseas Empires. This collapse played out during last half to the 20th Century, providing many chances for world-wide Communism to move against Democratic Govts., formed a baseline to those efforts thru exploiting Anti-Imperialism and Anti-Colonialist political movements and rehtoric as ideology.

It was the loss of these territories which has vexed American Military practice and history as US rejection of Colonialism historically, challenged to establish freedom and anti-communist expansions thruout former peoples and lands of the Colonial Empires.

One of the fortunate aspects of being a history teacher overseas is the institutions often expect you to teach a class or two in areas other than your primary background. For me, when I was in Mongolia for two-years consecutively and teaching, one of the areas for which I was immediately responsible was to teach the concept of State Formation. I studied a lot and very rapidly for that class as you can imagine and in the process it hardened a lot of what I had perceived through routine study of the Middle East.
In State Formation studies a consistent theme is that State Formation is a long process, it is often a process which can take one to two hundred years and is, by its very nature, a process of conflict, wherein oppositional groups and social pressures are often pressing against one another in pursuit of finding the optimal combination of contemporary forms of government legitimacy to conform to. I am not surprised that Middle East countries are still largely finding their way through the process of emerging from post-colonial societies into ones where colonialism is more in the rear view mirror and they must deal with their more recent past. I am especially not surprised given that they are attempting to meld Western democratic principles which are dependent on both Christian and post-Christian, Enlightenment principles and reconcile those with a religion that also serves as a world system or a religion which is all pervasive and encompasses governmental structure and use of force directives within its teachings and forms a major source and constant well of jurisprudence. In many instances the two forces are so oppositional that additional stress is built into the system and you have the outbreak of civil conflict. This is why I advocate for local systems to follow their natural, regional structural historical frameworks, with caveats that create opportunity for human rights and for principles that we might recognize as democratic. If we can accept at least semi-democratic authority structures we may see a much more peaceful, settled State Formation process.
The above is why I did not embrace the Arab Spring and why I was also cynical that it would really take root and effectively grow. The Middle East has historically, since ancient Sumer and Akkad, been built around strong, authoritarian regimes with strong militaries and with imperial designs. This trend did not abate and did not change in the post-World War One era in which Sheikh Hussein wanted to establish what would have been an Arab empire throughout the carved up remains of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. To change what had brought effectively long periods of stability and peace (we are reading hundreds of years of history in paragraphs) is something of a pipe dream and an attempt to change mentalities that do not necessarily need changing. Arab Socialism and Arab Communism uniquely blended the authoritarianism that was pre-existent and gave it a new focus and drive to move against a specific object. It did represent a significant aspect of Middle East State Formation as they were ones of many different ideologies adopted and attempted to use to bring the Arabs together or help justify their division. We have seen how the Middle East has worn an ideology, tried it out, it brings chaos and destruction, and then it appears to slowly but surely abandon it for a whole new one. Incidentally, as the Middle East has abandoned both Arab Socialism and Communist as wide-ranging ideologies, still pockets exist, the amount of regional terrorism has reduced and we have seen the reduction of cellular terrorism and the advent of the paramilitary, militia par excellence.
I am not sure that I can write succinctly on how to apply State Formation theory to the conducting of Counter insurgency operations but the more we know about its causes and linkages I do think we can operate on a basis of understanding the limits of our ability to totally affect and change the outcome or end the conflict in total terms. The military can address the immediate security and restorative need while the policymakers and diplomats can work out the State Formation aspect to bring both under control at one time.

The basic mistake was to conflate nationalism with communism. The 2nd was to assume that all domestic left leaning groups took directives from Moscow. It was the alienation and rejection of many anticolonial nationalists by the US that pushed them into Soviet (and Chinese) arms.
The US has always favored stability through expediency with total disregard for local grievances. Local elites (which had previously cooperated with the Japanese) were reinstated to power and grass-root anti-Japanese resistance movements were brushed aside. The French were supported in their attempt to regain Indochina. Truman allowed US politics -heavily influenced by the Nationalist Chinese lobby- to maneuver his foreign policy. The what-if’s are so many that it is mind-boggling.