Niall Ferguson: Failure in Iraq Would Be Ghastly

Roundup: Historians' Take

Niall Ferguson, in the NYT (5-24-05):

[Niall Ferguson, a history professor at Harvard and a senior fellowthe Hoover Institution at Stanford, is the author of "Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire."]

I think that this could still fail." Those words - uttered by a senior American officer in Baghdad last week - probably gave opponents of the war in Iraq, particularly those clamoring for a hasty exit, a bit of a kick. They should be careful what they wish for.

For history strongly suggests that a hasty American withdrawal from Iraq would be a disaster. "If we let go of the insurgency," said another of the officers quoted anonymously last week, "then this country could fail and go back into civil war and chaos."

As many of the war's opponents seem to have forgotten, civil war and chaos tend to break out when American military interventions have been aborted. Think not only of Vietnam and Cambodia, but also of Lebanon in 1983 and Haiti in 1996. To talk glibly of "finding a way out of Iraq," as if it were just a matter of hailing a cab and heading for the Baghdad airport, is to underestimate the danger of a bloody internecine conflict among Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiites.

Instead of throwing up our hands in an irresponsible fit of despair, we need to learn not just from past disasters but also from historical victories over insurgencies. Indeed, of all the attempts in the past century by irregular indigenous forces to expel regular foreign forces, around a third have failed.

In 1917 British forces invaded Mesopotamia, got to Baghdad, overthrew its Ottoman rulers and sought - in the words of the general who led them, Sir Stanley Maude - to be its people's "liberators." The British presence in Iraq was legitimized by international law (it was designated a League of Nations mandate) and by a modicum of democracy (a referendum was held among local sheiks to confirm the creation of a British-style constitutional monarchy). Despite all this, in 1920 there was a full-scale insurgency against the continuing British military presence.

Some may object that warfare today is a very different matter from warfare 85 years ago. Yet the striking thing about the events of 1920 is how very like the events of our own time they were. The reality of what is sometimes called "asymmetric warfare" is how very symmetrical it really is: an insurgency is about leveling the military playing field, and exploiting the advantages of local knowledge to stage hit-and-run attacks against the occupiers, as well as anybody thought to be collaborating with them.

Indeed, if there is asymmetry it lies in the advantages enjoyed by the insurgents. The cost of training and equipping an American soldier is high; by contrast, life is tragically cheap among the young men of Baghdad and Falluja. Even if the insurgents lose 10 men for every 1 they kill, they are still winning, not least because the American side takes its losses so much harder.

How, then, did the British crush the insurgency of 1920? Three lessons stand out.

The first is that, unlike the American enterprise in Iraq today, they had enough men. In 1920, total British forces in Iraq numbered around 120,000, of whom around 34,000 were trained for actual fighting. During the insurgency, a further 15,000 men arrived as reinforcements.

Coincidentally, that is very close to the number of American military personnel now in Iraq (around 138,000). The trouble is that the population of Iraq was just over three million in 1920, whereas today it is around 24 million. Thus, back then the ratio of Iraqis to foreign forces was, at most, 23 to 1. Today it is around 174 to 1. To arrive at a ratio of 23 to 1 today, about one million American troops would be needed.

The United States also faces two other problems that the United Kingdom did not 85 years ago. The British were able to be ruthless: they used air raids and punitive expeditions to inflict harsh collective punishments on villages that supported the insurgents. The United States has not been above brutal methods on occasion in Iraq, yet humiliation and torture of prisoners have not yielded any significant benefits compared with what it has cost the country's reputation.

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Jules Tygiel - 5/27/2005

This is a wonderful piece of satire and the best anti-Iraq war piece that I have read in a long time. It is a satire, isn't it?