Saul David: History Warns Us to Withdraw

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dr Saul David is the author of many books, including
'Military Blunders' (Constable) and 'Victoria's Wars'
(Viking). His television series include 'Time
Commanders' for BBC2. He was educated at Ampleforth College and studied history at Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities (MA and Ph.D).]

President George W Bush's acknowledgement that the
current fighting in Iraq is comparable to the 1968 Tet
Offensive in the Vietnam War is an extraordinary
admission. "There's certainly a stepped-up level of
violence," he told ABC News, "and we're heading into an
election." It was, after all, the Tet Offensive that
helped to turn US public opinion against a war which
still exerts a powerful hold on American consciousness.
Bush, moreover, has for the first time conceded that
the Iraq war has a historical context. And he's
absolutely right. The refusal by the President and Tony
Blair to admit the failure of their Iraq policy by
ordering a speedy withdrawal is entirely consistent
with the history of similar foreign interventions.

Take Vietnam. The Tet Offensive was a military defeat
for the Vietcong, but so severe was the fighting and so
high the number of US casualties that many American
commentators predicted the beginning of the end. The
most influential was Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening
News, who told his viewers that the US was "mired in a
stalemate" and needed to get out. And yet a further
five years elapsed before all US troops were withdrawn
from Vietnam. Why? Because President Richard Nixon was
determined not to leave until his South Vietnamese
allies were strong enough to fight the war on their own
(a policy known as "Vietnamisation", and one not
dissimilar to the current building up of Iraqi security
forces). It never happened, but the US left anyway,
condemning the South Vietnamese army to eventual defeat
in 1975.

Not that the Americans have a monopoly on tardy troop
withdrawals after ill-judged wars. The unprovoked and
ultimately disastrous British invasion of Afghanistan
in 1839 was undertaken, like Iraq, with regime change
in mind: to replace a seemingly anti-British and
pro-Russian ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a pro-British
one, Shah Shuja. There, too, the plan was to withdraw
British bayonets as soon as the country was pacified.
It never happened, and tens of thousands of British,
Indian and Afghan lives were lost in the ensuing three
years of conventional and guerrilla war. The end
result: British troops finally withdrew with their
tails between their legs, having first blown-up Kabul's
magnificent covered bazaar, and Dost Mohammed resumed
his rule. Yet the lesson was not heeded, and three
times since Afghanistan has been invaded by foreign
troops: twice by the British and once by the Russians.
Now we're back again, ostensibly at the request of a
pro-Western Kabul government trying to find its feet.
And once again, as in Iraq, the very presence of
foreign troops is making the security situation worse.

It could be argued that British troops were withdrawn
too quickly from India in 1947, and that many Hindu,
Muslim and Sikh lives were lost as a result. And
certainly the removal of British garrisons from former
colonies in the 1950s and 1960s was largely well-timed
and violence free. Yet in Iraq, like Afghanistan, there
was ample warning from history. It was Britain, after
all, which effectively created modern Iraq when it
demanded a mandate over the former Ottoman provinces of
Basra, Baghdad and Mosul in the aftermath of the First
World War. This was partly because of Iraq's strategic
importance at the head of the Persian Gulf , but
chiefly because of oil: huge reserves had been
discovered in both Iraq and Persia (modern Iran).
Within months, angry at the imposition of direct
British rule, the Iraqis rebelled in Mosul and along
the Euphrates. Railways lines were cut, towns besieged
and British officers murdered. The British reacted
harshly, dispatching punitive expeditions to burn
villages and exact fines. They also used planes to bomb
and strafe strongholds. By the end of 1920 a shaky
peace had been restored, and by mid-1921 the throne of
Iraq had been offered to Emir Feisal, son of the sharif
of Mecca, who had fought with Lawrence of Arabia. But
Feisal proved less pliant than Britain had hoped, and
in 1932 Iraq joined the League of Nations as an
independent state. In 1958, Feisal's grandson was
ousted in a coup that established a republic. And there
Britain's interference in the internal affairs of Iraq
came to an end.

Until, that is, the 2003 invasion. Many have argued
that the US and Britain missed a golden opportunity to
oust Saddam Hussein in 1991. In truth, the decision not
to march on Baghdad after the liberation of Kuwait was
not only considered but correct. "We would have been
there in another day and a half," wrote General Sir
Peter de la Billiere, the British commander. "But in
pressing on to the Iraqi capital we would have moved
outside the remit of the United Nations authority,
within which we had worked so far. We would have split
the Coalition physically, since the Islamic forces
would not have come with us... The Americans, British
and French would have been presented as the foreign
invaders of Iraq... The whole of Desert Storm would
have been seen purely as an operation to further
Western interests in the Middle East."

There was also a realisation that toppling Saddam was
one thing, replacing him with a stable, pro-Western
regime quite another. "If our soldiers depose him, or
our special forces assassinate him," wrote the then US
Assistant Secretary of State, John zKelly, "we risk
losing American lives, bringing chaos and revolution to
the region, jeopardising the oil and, after all, his
successor could be even worse."

Nothing much had changed by 2003, which might explain
why it's now being suggested that former President
George Bush, who took the decision not to march on
Baghdad in 1991, is so determined to reverse his son's
disastrous Iraq policy. The omens from history suggest
he is right to do so.

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