HomeOpinionThe last Iraqi insurgency

The last Iraqi insurgency

By Niall Ferguson

FROM Ted Kennedy to the cover of Newsweek, we are being warned that Iraq has turned into a quagmire, George W Bush’s Vietnam. Learning from history is well and good, but such talk illus

trates the dangers of learning from the wrong history. To understand what is going on in Iraq today, Americans need to go back to 1920, not 1970. And they need to get over the American inhibition about learning from non-American history. President Bush, too, seems to miss the point.

“We’re not an imperial power,” he insisted in his press conference on Tuesday last week. Trouble is, what he is trying to do in Iraq – and what is going wrong – look uncannily familiar to anyone who knows some British imperial history. Iraq had the distinction of being one of our last and shortest-lived colonies. This isn’t ‘Nam II – it’s a rerun of the British experience of compromised colonisation. When Bush met Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday, the uninvited guest at the press conference – which touched not only on Iraq but also on Palestine, Cyprus and even Northern Ireland – was the ghost of empire past.

First, let’s dispense with Vietnam. In South Vietnam, the United States was propping up an existing government, whereas in Iraq it has attempted outright “regime change”, just as Britain did at the end of World War I by driving the Ottoman Turks out of the country. “Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators,” declared Gen Frederick Stanley Maude – a line that could equally well have come from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld this time last year. By the summer of 1920, however, the self-styled liberators faced a full-blown revolt.

A revolt against colonial rule is not the same as a war. Vietnam was a war. Although the American presence grew gradually, it reached a peak of nearly half a million troops by the end of the 1960s; altogether 3,4 million service personnel served in the southeast Asian theatre. By comparison, there are just 134 000 American troops in Iraq today – almost as many men as the British had in Iraq in 1920. Then as now, the enemy consisted of undisciplined militias. There were no regular army forces helping them the way the North Vietnamese supported the Vietcong.

What lessons can Americans learn from the revolt of 1920? The first is that this crisis was almost inevitable. The anti-British revolt began in May, six months after a referendum – in practice, a round of consultation with tribal leaders – on the country’s future and just after the announcement that Iraq would become a League of Nations “mandate” under British trusteeship rather than continue under colonial rule. In other words, neither consultation with Iraqis nor the promise of internationalisation sufficed to avert an uprising – a fact that should give pause to those, like Senator John Kerry, who push for a handover to the United Nations.

Then as now, the insurrection had religious origins and leaders, but it soon transcended the country’s ancient ethnic and sectarian divisions. The first anti-British demonstrations were in the mosques of Baghdad. But the violence quickly spread to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where British rule was denounced by Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Shirazi – perhaps the historical counterpart of today’s Shiite firebrand, Moktada al-Sadr. The revolt stretched as far north as the Kurdish city of Kirkuk and as far south as Samawah, where British forces were trapped (and where Japanese troops, facing a hostage crisis, were holed up last week).

Then, as now, the rebels systematically sought to disrupt the occupiers’ communications – then by attacking railways and telegraph lines, today by ambushing convoys. British troops and civilians were besieged, just as hostages are being held today. Then as now, much of the violence was more symbolic than strategically significant – British bodies were mutilated, much as American bodies were at Falluja. By August of 1920 the situation was so desperate that the general in charge appealed to London not only for reinforcements but also for chemical weapons (mustard gas bombs or shells), though these turned out to be unavailable.

And this brings us to the second lesson the United States needs to learn from the British experience. Putting this rebellion down will require severity. In 1920, the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the airforce, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops. And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2 000 dead and wounded.

Is the United States willing or able to strike back with comparable ruthlessness? Unlikely – if last week’s gambit of unconditional ceasefires is any indication. Washington seems intent on reining in the Marines and pinning all hope on the handover of power scheduled – apparently irrevocably – for June 30. This could prove a grave error.

For the third lesson of 1920 is that only by quelling disorder firmly and immediately will America be able to achieve its objective of an orderly handover of sovereignty. After all, a similar handover had always been implicit in the mandate system, but only after the revolt had been crushed did the British hasten to install the Hashemite prince Faisal as king.

In fact, this was imperial sleight of hand – Iraq did not become formally independent until 1932, and British troops remained there until 1955. Such an outcome is, of course, precisely what Washington should be aiming for today – American troops will have to keep order well after the nominal turnover of power, and they’ll need the support of a friendly yet effective Iraqi government. Right now, this outcome seems far from likely. What legitimacy will any Iraqi government have if the current unrest continues?

A quick withdrawal would doom Iraq to civil war or theocracy – probably both, in that order. The lessons of empire are not the kind of lessons Americans like to learn. It’s more comforting to go on denying that America is in the empire business. But the time has come to get real. Iraqis themselves will be the biggest losers if the United States cuts and runs.

Fear of the wrong quagmire could consign them to a terrible hell. – The New York Times.

* Niall Ferguson is professor of history at New York University and a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading