Iraq and the Middle East 2013: Lessons from T. E. Lawrence


The Author with Advisors and Bedouin on the Iraqi Syrian Border

I left Iraq just under five years ago and in the process left part of me in that long suffering country.  I have written much about my experience there and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future.

In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many, if not most Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. The US military personnel and leaders who were working with Iraqi officials, both military and civilian to get the country back on its feet were replaced by the Bush administration.


False Hopes in 2003, believing that US Forces were Liberators 

In their place a new entity, the Coalition Provisional Authority was created and staffed. The first administrator of the entity was retired Army Lieutenant General Jay Garner, who had much experience in Iraq but was replaced quickly for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Ba’athist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces.  Led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, a man who had no experience in the Arab world, much less in Iraq. Bremer and his staff, most of who had little experience or knowledge of the country created conditions that directly led the the Iraq insurgency, the sacrifice of thousands of American and allied lives and the friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran to become a dominant regional power without having to worry about the Iraqi threat.



rumsfeld-bremerL Paul Bremer (r) with SECDEF Donald Rumsfeld

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neo-conservative allies knew nothing of history. T.E. Lawrence wrote of the British incursion into Turkish Mesopotamia in 1915, managed by the British Indian Office:

“By brute force it marched then into Basra. The enemy troops in Irak were nearly all Arabs in the unenviable predicament of having to fight on behalf of their secular oppressors against a people long envisaged as liberators, but who obstinately refused to play the part.”

The actions of the CPA laid waste pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department who hoped that existing civil service, police and military forces would be retained and individuals with significant ties to the regime of Saddam removed. Instead Bremer dissolved the Iraqi military, police and civil service within days of his arrival. Since the military invasion had been accomplished with minimal forces most Iraqi weapon sites, arsenals and bases were looted once their Iraqi guardians were banished and left their posts. The embryonic insurgency was in effect given a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces, many of who were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

The reaction of the Iraqi Arabs to US occupation should have been anticipated. Lawrence wrote in 1920 a letter that could have easily been written in 2004:

“It is not astonishing that their patience has broken down after two years. The Government we have set up is English in fashion, and is conducted in the English language. So it has 450 British executive officers running it, and not a single responsible Mesopotamian. In Turkish days 70 per cent of the executive civil service was local. Our 80,000 troops there are occupied in police duties, not in guarding the frontiers. They are holding down the people.”


Rebuilding an Army

The actions of Bremer’s incompetent leadership team led to a tragic insurgency that need not have taken place. The now unnumbered US forces had to fight an insurgency while attempting to re-create an army, security forces and civil service from the wreckage created by Bremer’s mistakes and its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion. Nearly 4500 US troops would die and over 30,000 more wounded in the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, wounded or died of disease during the war.  Lawrence wrote about the British administration of Iraq words that could well have been written about Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority: “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 Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to rebuilt that was only beaten back after the US acted to conduct a surge in conjunction with the revolt of the Sunni of Anbar Province against foreign fighters who had become a dominant force in the insurgency. The surge under the command of General David Petreus achieved the desired result. It gave the Iraqis a chance to stabilize their government and increase their own security forces. Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shi’ite sect refused to  share power in meaningful ways with Iraq’s Sunni and Kurds leading to a political crisis. The US military mission ended in December 2011 and since then Iraq security forces and civil authorities, often divided by tribal or sectarian loyalties have struggled to maintain order. The result is that in 2013 that Iraq is again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conduct frequent protests as sectarian violence spreads. Many Iraqis of all sects have mixed feelings about the American invasion and the bloody aftermath and fear the future.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the continuing British intervention and occupation of Iraq: “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 Bagdad communiqués 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.”

His words have a sadly familiar tone. The US invasion of Iraq did have a different outcome than we imagined. The Arab Spring erupted and the consequences of it will be far reaching and effect much of the Middle East and the world. However, Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are something that we in the West need to heed today.


British Troops entering Baghdad

“The Arabs rebelled against the Turks during the war not because the Turk Government was notably bad, but because they wanted independence. They did not risk their lives in battle to change masters, to become British subjects or French citizens, but to win a show of their own.”


Grave of a British Soldier in Habbaniyah Iraq

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries and in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well that we will do better.


Padre Steve+


Filed under Foreign Policy, History, iraq,afghanistan, middle east, national security

2 responses to “Iraq and the Middle East 2013: Lessons from T. E. Lawrence

  1. I’ve never understood why (once we had made the highly debatable decision to invade Iraq) the fighting forces weren’t boosted by large numbers of combat engineers. We should’ve made an active effort to rebuild both Iraq and Afghanistan (or build, in the latter’s case) the infrastructure torn up by war. I’ve never found a good reason why we didn’t roll out the engineers, except maybe for “we didn’t think about it”, which isn’t a good reason either.
    (Yep, I’m behind again, trying to catch up. See ya soon!)

  2. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padre Steve's World…Musings of a Passionately Progressive Moderate and commented:

    Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
    Today has been a day of travel to Washington DC where tomorrow I will be delivering the invocation at and participating in a panel discussion at the Military Officer’s Association of America “Warrior Family Symposium.” Since so much of why I am here is due to my time in Iraq and its after effects, and since we are faced with another difficult choice of what to do in that country, as well as Syria, to deal with the very real threat of the Islamic State, or ISIS, I thought a short reminder of how we got to this point would be in order, and no it is not all Obama’s fault.
    I have a lot of personal investment in Iraq and the Middle East, as well as investment in the lives of those who served there.
    Unlike your typical pundit, preacher or politician, this actually matters to me.
    This is a post from January 2013, but it is still relevant.
    So have a great night,
    Padre Steve+

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