Niall Ferguson: What happens if we pull out of Iraq? Think Beirut - to the power of 10

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Niall Ferguson is Professor of History at Harvard University and a Fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.]

There is a wonderful Rudyard Kipling short story entitled On the City Walls, which can be read as a kind of metaphor for British rule in India - and perhaps for our apparent misrule in Iraq today.

The city in question - Lahore, thinly disguised - is seething with communal antagonism between numerous ethnic and religious groups, among them "Shias of the grimmest and most uncompromising persuasion". The role the British play is to intervene, as and when required, to prevent the occasional riot from turning into a full-scale bloodbath.

Of course, you may say, that is only how we British liked to think of ourselves - as altruistic keepers of the peace. In reality, so the anti-imperialist argument runs, it was we who deliberately fomented communal or ethnic divisions wherever we ruled.

I have never found this line of argument very persuasive. For one thing, the divisions (and the violence arising from them) long predated British rule. For another, the worst communal strife in the history of the sub-continent occurred only when it became clear that we were leaving.

Yet people love the notion of wicked imperialists, dividing so as to rule. Sure enough, in the wake of last week's dramatic events in Basra, the old accusations were soon being bandied about. In the words of Basra's governor, Mohammed al-Wa'eli, the British commander responsible for the rescue of two captive SAS men was guilty of "imperial arrogance". ...

A year ago it was possible to write about the potential for civil war in Iraq. Today that civil war is well under way, claiming hundreds of lives last week alone. The question is, are we still in a position to intervene effectively to prevent this civil war from spiralling out of control? Have we in fact ceased to be players and become mere spectators?

Staying on after the Iraqis elected their own government was never going to be easy; in my book Colossus, written just after the invasion, I suggested that any long-term US-UK military presence would have to be a kind of "organised hypocrisy". The parallel I drew was with the Victorian practice of "indirect rule", which meant giving local rulers the semblance of power but - especially when it came to questions of security - running their countries for them.

I assumed that, so long as there remained a significant US military presence in Iraq, the transfer of "full sovereignty" to a legitimate Iraqi government amounted to the same thing. In practice, the sovereignty of the Iraqi authorities would be limited at the discretion of American military commanders.

Instead, we have ended up with something closer to disorganised hypocrisy - more Lebanon in the 1980s than one of the Indian princely states in the 1880s. Too many Iraqis simply do not accept that our troops are playing a legitimate role in their country.

What has gone wrong? History suggests two answers. The first is that the coalition forces are simply too few to impose order. In 1920, when British forces quelled a major insurgency in Iraq, they numbered around 135,000. Coincidentally, that is very close to the number of American military personnel currently in Iraq.

The trouble is that the population of Iraq was just over 3 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 1 million troops would be needed. Reinforcements on that scale are, needless to say, inconceivable.

The second problem is qualitative rather than quantitative. The plain fact is that controlling disaffected urban populations is a great deal harder today than it was in Kipling's time. In On the City Walls, a British Assistant District Superintendent of Police - "a boy of 20" on horseback, armed with a "long dog-whip" and at the head of 30 constables - succeeds in containing a full-scale Muslim-Hindu riot until 500 regular troops have had time to get to the scene....

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