The British victory in the First World War, although much more costly, was analogous to the US victory in the Cold War--especially because both involved a collapse of authority in the territory of the old Russian Empire. The British in the early 1920s took advantage of that collapse and the concurrent end of the Ottoman empire to move into the Middle East, adding mandates in Palestine, Jordan and Iraq to their existing occupation of Egypt. (All this has been described in detail in a newly popular book, David Fromkin's The Peace to End All Peace.) Previously they had both defended the Ottoman Empire against Russian encroachment and tried to encourage reform within it, but the Ottomans' decision to enter the First World War put all their vast territories up for grabs. The British thought they could set up client states all over the region and realize their dream of a solid bloc of British-controlled territory from the Suez canal all the way to India.
Paradoxically, however, the British after 1918 were eagerly demobilizing the unprecedented draftee army they had raised to beat Germany and cutting their military spending. They still had the Indian Army to help police the empire, but as veterans of centuries of imperial rule, they knew that they could not put enough boots on the ground to rule these vast territories. They decided to rule on new technology, especially on air power, to pacify remote regions. If a tribe revolted, machine-gunning a village or two from the air, they thought, would do the trick. They relied on such tactics both in Iraq and on the Northwest frontier between India (what is now Pakistan) and Afghanistan--then as now, a constant source of trouble. I first discovered this aspect of interwar British policy when I started working on my dissertation 35 years ago. Reading British cabinet papers from the early 1930s, I discovered a controversy over proposals to abolish aerial bombing at the 1932 Geneva disarmament conference. The idea was popular in British opinion, but the Colonial Office and the War Office immediately protested that such a step would make it impossible to deal effectively with Iraq (by then theoretically independent) and Afghanistan. The Foreign Office decided to propose a compromise: to insert the words "in Europe" into the proposal to abolish bombing. They were delighted when the other major powers, including the United States, agreed. (In the end, after Hitler took power, the disarmament conference ended in failure.)
The United States and its allies now find themselves in the same dilemma in the same regions, and we are adopting variants of the same tactics. The problem is particularly severe in Afghanistan, where we have far fewer troops than in Iraq. NATO seems to be customarily responding to Taliban attacks with air strikes on villages where the Taliban is believed to be based. Time reports that 6,000 Afghans have died in the last year, 1500 of them civilians. Other estimates counted 90 civilian deaths in the last week and several hundred this year. President Karzai has publicly complained about this. Air strikes, which have become much mor accurate, are a constant temptation for the United States because they are so easy to carry out and require so few people, but they are only effective in the long run if we can be certain they are hitting insurgents. Such certainty is extremely difficult to achieve without some one on the ground.
In Iraq we seen to be relying more upon patrols and raids by soldiers, but air strikes are occurring there, too. A couple of days ago, the BBC carried a story about a June 22 helicopter strike that US authorities claimed had killed 17 insurgents in an Iraqi village. The villages say that it actually killed 11 local village guards who were trying to keep insurgents out of the village and who, when the attack occurred in the middle of the night, were helping the Iraqi army raid a house. It is not clear that air power, in situations like these, can kill more real enemies than innocents, and thus, that it can do anything to establish lasting peace.
Another parallel involving Iraq comes from an extraordinary letter that the legendary T. E. Lawrence, one of the main instigators of the Arab revolt against the Turks, published in the Times on August 8, 1920. I quote in full:
The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are to-day not far from a disaster.
The sins of commission are those of the British civil authorities in Mesopotamia (especially of three 'colonels') who were given a free hand by London. They are controlled from no Department of State, but from the empty space which divides the Foreign Office from te India Office. They availed themselves of the necessary discretion of war-time to carry over their dangerous independence into times of peace. They contest every suggestion of real self- government sent them from home. A recent proclamation about autonomy circulated with unction from Baghdad was drafted and published out there in a hurry, to forestall a more liberal statement in preparation in London, 'Self-determination papers' favourable to England were extorted in Mesopotamia in 1919 by official pressure, by aeroplane demonstrations, by deportations to India.
The Cabinet cannot disclaim all responsibility. They receive little more news than the public: they should have insisted on more, and better. They have sent draft after draft of reinforcements, without enquiry. When conditions became too bad to endure longer, they decided to send out as High commissioner the original author of the present system, with a conciliatory message to the Arabs that his heart and policy have completely changed.*
Yet our published policy has not changed, and does not need changing. It is that there has been a deplorable contrast between our profession and our practice. We said we went to Mesopotamia to defeat Turkey. We said we stayed to deliver the Arabs from the oppression of the Turkish Government, and to make available for the world its resources of corn and oil. We spent nearly a million men and nearly a thousand million of money to these ends. This year we are spending ninety-two thousand men and fifty millions of money on the same objects. (Note: The British had about 2/3 the number of men in Iraq that we have today. The population of Iraq is more than ten times greater than it was then.)
Our government is worse than the old Turkish system. They kept fourteen thousand local conscripts embodied, and killed a yearly average of two hundred Arabs in maintaining peace. We keep ninety thousand men, with aeroplanes, armoured cars, gunboats, and armoured trains. We have killed about ten thousand Arabs in this rising this summer. We cannot hope to maintain such an average: it is a poor country, sparsely peopled; but Abd el Hamid would applaud his masters, if he saw us working. We are told the object of the rising was political, we are not told what the local people want. It may be what the Cabinet has promised them. A Minister in the House of Lords said that we must have so many troops because the local people will not enlist. On Friday the Government announce the death of some local levies defending their British officers, and say that the services of these men have not yet been sufficiently recognized because they are too few (adding the characteristic Baghdad touch that they are men of bad character). There are seven thousand of them, just half the old Turkish force of occupation. Properly officered and distributed, they would relieve half our army there. Cromer controlled Egypt's six million people with five thousand British troops; Colonel Wilson fails to control Mesopotamia's three million people with ninety thousand troops.
We have not reached the limit of our military commitments. Four weeks ago the staff in Mesopotamia drew up a memorandum asking for four more divisions. I believe it was forwarded to the War Office, which has now sent three brigades from India. If the North-West Frontier cannot be further denuded, where is the balance to come from? Meanwhile, our unfortunate troops, Indian and British, under hard conditions of climate and supply, are policing an immense area, paying dearly every day in lives for the wilfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Baghdad. General Dyer was relieved of his command in India for a much smaller error, but the responsibility in this case is not on the Army, which has acted only at the request of the civil authorities. The War Office has made every effort to reduce our forces, but the decisions of the Cabinet have been against them.
The Government in Baghdad have been hanging Arabs in that town for political offences, which they call rebellion. The Arabs are not at war with us. Are these illegal executions to provoke the Arabs to reprisals on the three hundred British prisoners they hold? And, if so, is it that their punishment may be more severe, or is it to persuade our other troops to fight to the last?
We say we are in Mesopotamia to develop it for the benefit of the world. All experts say that the labour supply is the ruling factor in its development. How far will the killing of ten thousand villagers and townspeople this summer hinder the production of wheat, cotton, and oil? How long will we permit millions of pounds, thousands of Imperial troops, and tens of thousands of Arabs to be sacrificed on behalf of colonial administration which can benefit nobody but its administrators?
Eventually the British reduced, and then gave up, their imperial role in Iraq, giving way to a succession of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes that developed a middle class of a few million people. Most of them have fled Iraq during the last six years. When the US has concluded that it, too, must give up, some kind of reconstruction may begin. More importantly, we may begin making foreign policy based upon what is, rather than what we would like to see.