Policy Papers

Exit strategies in counter-insurgency: Britain in Aden and the lessons for Afghanistan

Andrew Mumford |

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Executive Summary

  • The exit strategy enacted in Aden in 1967 by British armed forces shows the dangers of a highly politicised and hasty withdrawal from a complex counter-insurgency campaign.
  • The campaign in Aden marked the most distinct turning point in the conduct of British counter-insurgency since World War Two, ushering in a new phase in how counter-insurgency was planned, executed, and concluded.
  • Examining the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967 offers some useful insights for British forces today as they prepare to exit from Afghanistan, This process could help avoid the humiliation suffered by the British Army in 1967: troops being shot at until the last soldier boarded the final boat home.
  • The effect of politicising exit strategies from counter-insurgency wars reduces room for manoeuvre on the ground: instead of the ability to react to qualitative assessments of the security situation, troops must meet a pre-set timetable. This should be avoided in Afghanistan.


It sounds a familiar story: British troops attempting to win the 'hearts and minds' of a fractious tribal society amidst a vicious insurgency whilst awaiting a political decision to withdraw from an increasingly intractable war. The impending withdrawal of British forces from Afghanistan is not the first time the British Army has been required to react to domestic political pressure and insurgent activity by retreating from the heat of a virulent Middle Eastern uprising. The withdrawal from the counter-insurgency campaign in the South Arabian port of Aden in 1967 represents a prescient historical parallel for the International Security Assistance Force's (ISAF) scheduled departure from Afghanistan in 2014, and holds some vital insights regarding the planning and execution of exit strategies. Crucially, it reveals the drastic consequences of allowing political goals to dictate the speed and scale of an exit from a campaign without, or ignoring, military advice.

The Aden example also highlights how the British military had to deal with their dissatisfaction with the aptitude of domestic military forces and adapt their work accordingly. This frustration is echoed today in relation to the exit of ISAF, the NATO-led security mission established in 2001, a multinational force, the majority of which are American with a sizeable British contingent. This anxiety is primarily caused by the quality and quantity of their erstwhile allies in the Afghan National Army (ANA). Taliban infiltration of the ANA's ranks and the rise of so-called 'green on blue' incidents, where Afghan soldiers have turned their weapons on their ISAF mentors, have stoked concerns over the propriety of a withdrawal in 2014.

In essence, an exit strategy is devised by military commanders and political leaders in order to protect gains, stem losses, and manifest a lasting impression of the war as a whole. Exit strategies from counter-insurgency wars are particularly sensitive given the way in which such conflicts are fought ultimately to win the 'hearts and minds' of the local population in favour of an externally imposed model of governance and security set up. Consequently the timing of any exit is important. Mostly, such campaigns gradually handover responsibility and command to host-nation security forces and withdraw occupying troops incrementally. ISAF's American commanders adopted this model, in theory, for Afghanistan. In practice, the situation risks replicating the hasty and ill-conceived exit of the British from Aden in 1967.

The importance and relevance of the Aden case

As part of the wider British intervention in the civil war in South Arabia (modern-day Yemen) between 1962 and 1967, the campaign in Aden marked a turning point in British counter-insurgency policy since World War Two. This paper identifies four primary factors as to why British military operations in the Protectorate of Aden changed the rules of the asymmetric game of counter-insurgency, and how today's conflict in Afghanistan bears striking resemblances to it.

First, in the Aden campaign political priorities dominated military necessities (above and beyond the inherently political nature of counter-insurgency strategy). The political decision to publicly announce a withdrawal from Aden before the military objectives had been achieved denoted a profound shift in the political-military relationship. This had not been the case in Britain's colonial 'small wars' in Malaya, Kenya or Cyprus.

Second, counter-insurgency operations were politically motivated not only by events on the ground but also by unfulfilled vendettas amongst members of the British political elite. The spectre of Britain's 1956 humbling by Colonel Nasser during the Suez Crisis provided a strategic straightjacket for operations in Aden as hawks within Harold Macmillan's Cabinet became blinkered by a policy based more on vengeance than on pragmatic strategy. The so-called Aden Group, including Julian Amery, Duncan Sandys, and Peter Thorneycroft saw the protection of British political, military and economic interests in Aden as a critical means of stemming the influence of Nasser-inspired Arab nationalism in the region. For the Aden Group, the humiliation of Suez still smarted. Such wars of redemption (the post-9/11 invasion of Afghanistan could be seen in this light) risk sacrificing pragmatic strategic planning for emotionally charged conflicts which have arguably unrealistic endgames, leaving exit strategies dangerously narrow in their conception of what would constitute 'victory'.

Third, before the Aden campaign, the British army had not fought an insurgent group with such substantial supplies and overt solidarity from an external source. The permeation of Nasser's influence, munitions, and troops into South Arabia sculpted the political and military nature of the conflict. The constant stream of Egyptian arms to the insurgents ensured that a military victory for the British could not be guaranteed with the assurance it had in previous conflicts. Afghanistan's porous border with Pakistan, and the magnetic appeal of the insurgency for global jihadists, is a timely reminder of the impact of external support on the longevity and potency of an insurgency.

Fourth, never before had the international political dimension played such a significant part in shaping British thinking. The Suez crisis of 1956 ensured tighter scrutiny of British foreign policy actions. The international condemnation of the joint British, French and Israeli action in Egypt undermined American support for British military deployments. The pressure came to bear on the British military in Aden in the 1960s as the Americans placed diplomatic pressure on Whitehall to curtail its imperial ambitions. Indeed, according to Foreign Secretary Rab Butler, who met with Lyndon Johnson in April 1964, the President 'seemed to be determined to get us out of our base in Aden'. In addition, the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours in June 1967 impacted upon Nasser's ability and willingness to divert Egyptian military resources to unsettling the British presence in and around Aden (when the Six Day War began, one third of Egypt's military was deployed across South Arabia). In Aden then, as in Afghanistan now, international political factors are intrinsic to shaping responses to, and exits from, counter-insurgency wars. British involvement in Afghanistan must be placed firmly in its international context given the debate surrounding Britain's participation in an American-led global 'War on Terror', the contemporary relevance of the NATO alliance, and the wider implications of Britain's role in the world in the twentieth-first century.

British counter-insurgency in Aden and the withdrawal of troops

The port of Aden became a British possession in 1839 when the town was occupied and utilised as a trading post on the way to the Indian subcontinent by the East India Company. It was held as a Protectorate until 1 January 1963 when it merged with the Federation of Yemen (an agglomeration of sultanates, sheikdoms and tribal entities) to form the Federation of South Arabia (FSA). The strategic importance of Aden to the British was underlined in 1960 when it replaced Cyprus as the British Army's General Headquarters (GHQ) of Middle East Land Forces (MELF), in the wake of the National Organisation for Cypriot Fighters (EOKA) insurgent campaign on the island. Alongside London and Singapore (GHQ of Far East Land Forces, FARELF), Aden was one of the triumvirate of locations critical to Britain's global military presence.

It is important to place the campaign in the wider context of the Yemeni civil war. On 26 September 1962 a coup by a group of left-wing army officers, inspired by Nasser's ideals of Arab nationalism, overthrew the Imam of Yemen, Mohammed al-Badr, sparking an internecine conflict between the royalist FSA and the breakaway Yemen Arab Republic (YAR). Steeled by a desire to augment the capabilities of the pro-British royalists in the face of the Egyptian-backed republicans, the British Government authorised covert intervention. Yet it was not until 1963 that republican dissidents from the FSA initiated an insurgent campaign inside South Arabia itself. The urban campaign in Aden, initially instigated by the Egyptian-sponsored insurgent group the National Liberation Front (NLF), must be seen as a parallel yet distinct conflict to that being undertaken as part of the civil war. The key aim of the British counter-insurgency campaign was defeat of the NLF, involving the deployment of troops in Aden and the creation of an intelligence-gathering and interrogation network.

By 1964, however, with British hands tied in the covert campaign against the forces of the YAR in the rural hinterland of South Arabia, and a worsening situation in the urban campaign in Aden (due to a complex operational environment and the constant stream of Egyptian supplies to the insurgents), Whitehall sought a political escape from the impasse. A conference held in London in June 1964 brought together the Douglas-Home Government and tribal representatives of the Federation. It agreed that full independence would be granted to the FSA no later than 1968. Three months after this accord had been achieved the Conservatives left office, narrowly beaten by Harold Wilson's Labour Party in the general election. Initial Labour intentions to maintain a military base in Aden even after a large-scale withdrawal were abruptly halted with the sudden announcement in a February 1966 Defence White Paper that the Aden base would be abandoned, as would all British military commitments east of Suez. The plan to withdraw from Aden was brought forward to late 1967, marking a political acceptance of the impracticality of maintaining a large military base in a country in the midst of both a civil war and an insurgency. Decolonisation had rendered a major forward operating post in the Middle East anachronistic. Defence Secretary Denis Healey would later admit that the maintenance of the military base in Aden was 'out of all proportion to the gain', and defended the political decision to withdraw without defeating the insurgency by stating that 'all alternatives would have been worse' given the inability to find a constitutional compromise between the seemingly irreconcilable tribes of the Federation.

Many fingers have been pointed at the Wilson Government for its hasty abandonment of Aden. Yet such criticisms miss several crucial political points that are relevant to today's situation in Afghanistan. First, they overlook the depth of the currency crisis of the late 1960s. Its financial implications permeated all aspects of domestic and defence spending, rendering expensive overseas military campaigns unviable - the British military presence and operations east of Suez, including Aden, cost £35 million per year by 1966. The current global financial crisis will affect future British, and indeed American, military commitments around the world with both the Ministry of Defence and the Pentagon announcing budget and personnel cuts for the armed forces. In Aden and Afghanistan we can perhaps see the underlying influence of domestic austerity on the longevity of counter-insurgencies campaigns and a hastening of withdrawal.

Second, Wilson's management of the withdrawal from Aden mirrors previous examples, including in Malaya and Kenya, of the British withdrawing all troops before formally handing over the reins of political power. However, Wilson's decision to retreat from South Arabia in 1966 bucked the equally important trend in British counter-insurgency, namely that troops are withdrawn only when a politically acceptable post-occupation authority is in place and the military situation is under control, with the insurgent threat perceivably neutered and indigenous forces able to contain any remnants of the danger. Such a politically stage-managed process had occurred during the gradual decolonisation in Malaya and Kenya that brought an end to counter-insurgency campaigns there. Yet in a stark change of policy, Wilson's deliberations politicised the exit strategy from Aden, a counter-insurgency campaign on a scale not seen before. Domestic considerations, combined with an expedient desire to relieve Britain of expensive and seemingly prolonged duties in one of the last troublesome colonial campaigns, allowed the political to trump the military, decisively. All counter-insurgency has a political element, but previously these had been reconciled with or subordinated to military ends. Seemingly abandoned by their political masters, the military were forced into a humiliating retreat in Aden.

By June 1967 the British Army had passed responsibility for the security of the FSA interior to the South Arabian Army (SAA) in accordance with the imminent withdrawal. In a lawless atmosphere, the British retreated to form a defensive perimeter around Aden as troops became sitting targets for reprisal attacks by insurgents with near impunity. Fears over the dependability of the SAA were realised on the eve of the British withdrawal when the SAA declared allegiance to the NLF. The humiliating retreat of the British forces - conducted by the largest naval task force assembled by the British since the Suez invasion, totalling 24 ships - was compounded by the knowledge that the fundamental strategic goal of the Aden military mission, to secure the Protectorate for the FSA, had not been achieved. The indigenous army it had trained to support this mission had mutinied, and left the city in the hands of the insurgents. Wilson failed to see the strategic implications of the withdrawal when he recalls in his memoirs that the retreat from Aden was 'successfully accomplished... in good order with no loss of life.' The swift collapse of the FSA soon after the British departure sealed the ostensible failure of the British military mission - the first post-war counter-insurgency 'defeat' since Palestine.

Subjugated to political demands, and facing a well-supplied insurgent enemy, the British military were unable to fulfil the grand strategic mission they had set themselves. They left their royalist allies and the latter's poor military forces to eventually succumb to the NLF in the rural civil war. A republican victory led to the incarnation of the Marxist state of the Peoples Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in November 1970, over the corpse of the FSA. This represented a key moment in the Cold War in its Middle Eastern context. The PDRY became a haven for Palestinian and extreme Marxist European terrorist groups seeking a sanctuary, whilst Aden became a significant port for the Soviet and Chinese fleets who gained a naval foothold in the Gulf region. It also became a refuge for insurgents prosecuting an uprising in the neighbouring region of Dhofar against the British-trained forces of the Sultan of Oman. In short, the vacuum left by the British in South Arabia was filled by the political and paramilitary forces the British had spent five years covertly and overtly attempting to quash. The counter-insurgency strategy had not been fulfilled.

Implications for Afghanistan

Having created institutions without popular backing that did not command local consent in Aden or more widely across South Arabia, the British failed to offer the military and diplomatic support to nurture them to maturity. The transitional ISAF exit strategy for Afghanistan in part overcomes the raft of criticisms of the Afghan Government by insisting that withdrawal will not occur until post-Taliban Afghanistan is capable of governing itself via these newly imposed structures of national governance. This political resolve to support the emergence of a democratic Afghanistan by maintaining a Coalition Forces' presence runs the risk of a nationalist backlash at a prolonged foreign military occupation. The virulence of Taliban violence has severely tested this commitment and the ISAF response will set the tone of the full exit strategy. However, history has demonstrated that the longevity of an occupation enhances (although does not guarantee) the conditions for a successful exit strategy in counter-insurgency only if the indigenous population have been sufficiently placated by a stable security situation and tangible social and economic improvements. The people of Aden were not afforded this. The people of Helmand are still caught in a cycle of economic dependence on the province's plentiful poppy harvest, which provides 40% of the world's opium. Counter-narcotics measures are thus an integral element of British strategy (indeed Britain leads the nation-wide counter-narcotics strategy on behalf of ISAF) and will be a yardstick for measuring the legacy of the occupation.

A responsible exit strategy implies a duty of care towards the indigenous population who would be grievously neglected with a 'cut and run' approach. A hasty withdrawal would have a longer-term detrimental impact upon the counter-insurgent state's standing and authority in world affairs given the very public inability to reduce insurgent violence and the failure to protect to the civilian population. Soon after the British left Aden, their allies were quickly defeated in the ongoing power struggle, and a faction vehemently opposed to British interests grasped power in the post-occupation vacuum. Britain's political-military strategic aims lay in ruins. The prescience of this for the Coalition Forces' mission in Afghanistan is tangible: depart too soon and risk allowing an immature political structure to succumb to violent insurgent opposition; remain too long and risk enhancing that violent opposition as resentment multiplies.

The effectiveness of President Obama's 'surge' in 2009 in reducing the potency of the Taliban and developing Afghanistan's self-sufficiency, so that the country is capable of governing along newly imposed democratic lines and protecting itself with a newly trained and equipped military and police force, is yet to be fully realised. This commitment to an Afghan 'surge' has in large part avoided the pitfalls of a premature exit strategy as witnessed in Aden. However, it remains to be seen whether the timing of the exit strategy will allow Coalition Forces to leave Afghanistan with integrity. The Obama Administration is seeking is a latter-day 'peace with honour' in Afghanistan, as a prelude to complete withdrawal.

A major issue in debates about exit strategies is whether they should be publicly announced, laying out a clear timetable for withdrawal. In Aden, the dissemination of withdrawal plans emboldened the NLF insurgents who ratcheted up violent attacks strengthened by the knowledge that the British were leaving. In Afghanistan, the absence of a fully disclosed drawdown timetable, beyond the vague 2014 deadline, risks fuelling resentment at the occupation amongst the wider Afghan populace. The compromise would be a timetabled plan shared between the political and military leaders of the Coalition and Afghanistan. Indigenous leaders can then assure the Afghan public that a timetable is in place without having to fully divulge it, thus ameliorating some of their constituents' concerns and preventing insurgents from being able to send off Coalition Forces under a hail of gunfire.

With British troops expected to complete their departure from Afghanistan by the 2014 deadline declared at the November 2010 Lisbon summit of NATO leaders, the debate surrounding Coalition extraction from this protracted war will continue to engage with some of the same problems and possible solutions that faced policy makers in the mid-1960s. Although never attained in the Aden case, a successful exit strategy from Afghanistan for the Coalition will be predicated upon the political viability of the new government and the military credibility of the newly trained security forces. This stood out in the declaration released at the close of the Lisbon Summit which described ISAF's exit strategy as being 'conditions-based, not calendar-driven'. There are currently 9,500 British troops in Helmand. The vast majority of this contingent is likely to remain there until close to the deadline to carry out more stability operations and continue training Afghan National Army units. With this in mind, the British and American forces' major task is to help construct and execute such a strategy that, with an awakened historical consciousness, should alert them to the complexities of such a process in a way that the British failed to do in Aden over 40 years ago.

Further Reading

Stephen Harper, Last Sunset: What Happened in Aden, London: Collins, 1978

Peter Hinchcliffe, John T. Ducker and Maria Holt, Without Glory in Arabia: The British Retreat from Aden, London: IB Tauris, 2006

Clive Jones, Britain and the Yemen Civil War, 1962-65: Ministers, Mercenaries and Mandarins - Foreign Policy and the Limits of Covert Action, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2004

David Ledger, Shifting Sands: The British in South Arabia, London: Peninsular Publishing, 1983

Andrew Mumford, The Counter-Insurgency Myth: The British Experience of Irregular Warfare, Abingdon: Routledge, 2011

Julian Paget, Last Post: Aden, 1964-1967, London: Faber & Faber, 1969

Jonathan Walker, Aden Insurgency: The Savage War in South Arabia, 1962-67, Staplehurst: Spellmount, 2005

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