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Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing: Thoughts on Landing in Iraq 12 Years Later it is hard

Friends Of Padre Steve’s World,

it is hard to believe that about this time a dozen years ago that I was landing in Iraq, for a tour of duty with American advisers to Iraqi Army and security forces in Al Anbar Province. To quote Charles Dickens “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” It was a tour of duty that would change me forever, I could have stayed there indefinitely, but my tour was limited to seven months. Nonetheless, I left a lot of me in Iraq, and brought a lot back.

It was an amazing tour of duty, full of danger every day, full of travel from the Syrian border to Fallujah and all places in between. I met many friends there, Americans and Iraqis alike. I returned with a severe case of PTSD as well as moral and spiritual injuries that have afflicted me since. I really understand T. E. Lawrence, better known by most as Lawrence Of Arabia who wrote:

“We were fond together because of the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds, the sunlight, and the hopes in which we worked. The morning freshness of the world-to-be intoxicated us. We were wrought up with ideas inexpressible and vaporous, but to be fought for. We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves: yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came out again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew. Youth could win, but had not learned to keep, and was pitiably weak against age. We stammered that we had worked for a new heaven and a new earth, and they thanked us kindly and made their peace.”

You see I went to war as a volunteer. I was eager to go, and as I said I would have remained longer. When I left I felt like I was abandoning my Americans and Iraqis. When I left, the Navy Chaplain who followed the one I served under deferred on having my replacement and in a sense abandoning those Americans and Iraqis that I was the only Chaplain serving. My replacement was sent to an Army team in Mosul.

I left Iraq questioning everything that I had went there believing: about the justness of the war, about my country’s leadership, the political party I had been a part of for three decades, and my faith as a Christian.

I have written much about my experience in Iraq and how even today I have a deep regard for the Iraqi people and their hopes for a better future. However, I wonder if what Lawrence wrote will be true:

“We had been hopelessly labouring to plough waste lands; to make nationality grow in a place full of the certainty of God… Among the tribes our creed could be only like the desert grass – a beautiful swift seeming of spring; which, after a day’s heat, fell dusty.” 

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In 2003 the United States invaded Iraq and made short work of that country’s military. Many Iraqis of all creeds looked upon the US and coalition forces as liberators but within a few months the illusion was over. Within weeks of the overthrow of Saddam, 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.

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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. He had much experience in Iraq but was sacked quickly by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for not conducting an immediate purge of members of the Baathist Party from key positions in the civil service or security forces, or implementing the agenda of the administration.

After Garner’s dismissal the CPA was 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 loss of friendship of the Iraqi people. They also gave a a bloodless strategic victory to Iraq’s traditional enemy and oppressor Iran, which became a dominant regional power without having to worry about their traditional Arab nemesis.

It was as if Bremer, the leaders of the Bush administration and their neoconservative allies knew nothing of history. If they did they decided to ignore it. Whether it was ignorance of history, or a wanton disregard for it, and the country we invaded it was immoral, unethical and probably criminal.

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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 destroyed the plans pragmatists in the Pentagon and State Department to incorporate the existing civil service, police and military forces in the newly free Iraq.  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 thus provided by Bremer a full arsenal of weapons to use against American forces; many of whom were now mobilized Reservists and National Guardsmen that were neither trained or equipped to fight an insurgency or in urban areas.

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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.”

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; as well as its own often heavy handed tactics in the months following the invasion.

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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 willfully wrong policy of the civil administration in Bagdad.”

It took dramatic efforts in blood and treasure to restore the some modicum of security in Iraq, something that was only accomplished when the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province turned against the Al Qaeda backed foreign fighters. 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.

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Unfortunately many of those that remained in power of the Shia 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 by 2013 that Iraq was again heading toward the abyss of civil war. Sunni protestors in Anbar and other provinces conducted frequent protests, sectarian violence spread, and an Al Qaeda affiliated group gained control of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. It took years for the Iraqis aided by the Kurds, and a renewed U.S. military presence to restore a precarious stability in Iraq, something that it seems the Trump administration is trying to destroy in its economic and political war against Iran. To me that seems like the President is pissing on the graves of every American and Iraqi who died supporting that operation, and I hate him for that. I am still loyal to my oath and the Constitution but I loathe him and have no respect for a man who used every opportunity he could to not serve in Vietnam and consistently has disrespected Vietnam veterans and other military personnel. He loves military technology, but he shows no respect for the soldier.

Syria

To the west in Syria a brutal civil war has been going on for  years. Like Iraq it pits Sunni against Shia, as well as Kurd and foreign fighters from a score of nations, some fighting as part of a Free Syria movement, others as part of the Al Qaeda coalition and others beside Syria’s government.

In 1920 Lawrence wrote of the 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.”

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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. The internal conflicts in Iraq and Syria threaten every country that borders them, and the instability has the potential of bringing on an regional war.

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That being said, many if not most Arabs in all of these lands simply desire to live in peace and enjoy some amount of freedom for themselves and future for their children. One has to remember that the freedom for which many are striving, and dying is for them, not for the United States or any other power.

Lawrence’s words and wisdom concerning the Arabs who rebelled against the Turkish Ottoman Empire are as true today as when he wrote them after the war:

“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.”

That is the case in many Arab countries today. One can only hope that in those countries as well as in Afghanistan where our troops are embroiled in a war that cannot end well, that somehow peace will come. I do hope that we will do better than we have over the past dozen years of conflict, or than the British or French did almost 100 years ago, but under the present administration I doubt it.

I have recovered much since my tour, but there are days when I feel as Lawrence did not long before his death, when he wrote a friend:

“You wonder what I am doing? Well, so do I, in truth. Days seem to dawn, suns to shine, evenings to follow, and then I sleep. What I have done, what I am doing, what I am going to do, puzzle and bewilder me. Have you ever been a leaf and fallen from your tree in autumn and been really puzzled about it? That’s the feeling.”

 

I fully understand, and in the final year of my active service, I must speak the truth, even when it is uncomfortable for me and others.

As for my Iraqi friends who still remain in danger, I say Inshallah, (إن شاء الله) God willing.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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Iraq 2014: A Disaster Long in the Making

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Map of the ISIL/ISIS Vision

“A Wahabi-like Moslem edition of Bolshevism is possible, and would harm us almost as much in Mesopotamia as in Persia…” T.E. Lawrence, Memorandum to Foreign Office 15 September 1919

As the British and French divided up the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the young Lieutenant Colonel, T.E. Lawrence wrote a warning to the British Foreign Office. He was quite concerned about what was happening and saw the dangers to the region inherent in the British and French division of it. Lawrence understood the religious and ethnic divisions of the region and saw the lack of wisdom in how both the British and French policies, which in order to prop up their gains used those divisions to establish ruling elites in Syria and Iraq, in each case pitting Sunni against Shia, Christian against Moslem and Kurd against Arab.

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Mosul Refugees

In spite of the efforts of the Europeans and later the Americans to prop up strongmen in the region, or in the case of Saddam Hussein, destroy his regime opening a Pandora’s Box of chaos that was only contained by a massive amount of U.S. Military power and an alliance with Iraqi Sunni tribesmen and their sheikhs during the “Anbar Awakening.” The Sunnis expected after they had helped the U.S. and the Iraqi Shia led Central Government to destroy the forces of Al Qaida Iraq, to be brought back into the government and given a reasonable amount of autonomy. Instead, when the U.S. departed in 2011 at the behest of the Shia government those Sunnis became persecuted and alienated. Now many of them are actively aiding, supporting or acquiescing to the forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) which also known by the name Islamic State of Iraq and the Shaams (ISIS). We forget the lesson that Lawrence learned about the Arabs who fought against the Turks in the First World War: “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.” The Iraqi Sunni who allied themselves with the U.S. military in Anabar in 2007 did so for the same reason, they wanted independence.

The American administration of Iraq was even more disastrous than that of the British following the First World War. Lawrence wrote of that occupation in words that could have well described the American efforts in 2003-2006.

“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.” T. E. Lawrence, ‘Mesopotamia’ By ex.-Lieut.-Col. T. E. Lawrence (Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford) Sunday Times, 22 August 1920

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ISIL Fighter in Tikrit

Unlike the loosely organized insurgents and militants of AQI and its allies, many of whom were foreign fighters; while there are still good numbers of foreign fighters, most of the ISIS forces are Syrian or Iraqi Sunni, connected by tribe, religion and culture to the land that they are fighting on. These units are well trained, organized as proper military units and have fought both savagely and effectively in Syria and Iraq. Many are led by former professional officers of the old Iraqi Army who when Saddam fell, were thrown out of the military and not even provided for with the smallest of pensions. To demonstrate how close some of these are one only has to read the reports out of Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, one of which quoted a tribal leader near Tikrit who said of the ISIL forces: “They came in hundreds to my town and said they are not here for blood or revenge but they seek reforms and to impose justice. They picked a retired general to run the town.”

The ISIL or ISIS fighters are strict Islamists and have been issuing decrees in Mosul regarding what citizens can and can’t do. Women are ordered to be completely veiled and covered if they go outside, which they are told that they should not do. People are being ordered to go to Mosques 5 times a day, sheikhs are being ordered not to cooperate with the government and the only people allowed to be armed are the militants. There are videos of ISIL fighters executing captured government officials.

Many of the Sunni Iraqi Nationalists, professional military officers who returned to the Army following the disastrous performance of it prior to 2007 also expected better treatment for their service. They too were not rewarded and it is possible that the collapse of Iraqi security forces could be in part due to the fact that these men hold grievances against the Baghdad regime of Maliki, which many view as a puppet to Iran, or as they call it “Persia.” Maliki claims that there was a conspiracy in the wholesale collapse of Iraqi forces in the north, and he may be right, but it is a problem that he created and made worse by his divisive policies and politics.

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The ISIL forces, though small are effective and efficient. In a sense they are a throwback, albeit a more hardened and ideological one to the Arabs that Lawrence advised and helped direct as they routed the Turkish Army in the Hajaz, Transjordan and Syria in 1917-1918. Lawrence wrote of that army:

“The Arab army, created in the field, grew from a mob of Bedouins into an organised and well-equipped body of troops. They captured thirty-five thousand Turks, disabled as many more, took a hundred and fifty guns, and a hundred thousand square miles of Ottoman territory.” From T. E. Lawrence, ‘France, Britain, and the Arabs’ by Col. T. E. Lawrence The Observer, 8 August 1920

What happens next I do not know. The ISIL forces have stated that: “Our final destination will be Baghdad; the decisive battle will be there…” I do not know if they have the ability to take and hold it, but they should be able to maintain their gains in Mosul and Tikrit. They have captured large numbers of armored HUMMVs as well as Iraqi military helicopters, including U.S. supplied UH-60 Blackhawk and MH-58 Kiowa at the Mosul airbase. To further complicate the situation the semi-autonomous Kurdish region seized the city of Kirkuk, which it considers its ancestral capitol. Those troops however are reportedly reading for a counter-attack on the ISIL forces absent any presence of regular Iraqi units.

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Kurdish Forces outside Kirkuk

The loss of all of these areas is a disaster to a unified Iraq and shows the incredible short-sightedness of the Bush administration to overthrow Saddam and leave a power vacuum in his place after disbanding the Iraqi military, police and civil service, the only institutions that had kept Iraq together.

If Maliki has any sense he will welcome moderate Iraqi Sunni nationalists back and actually give them the autonomy within Iraq that they were promised while the U.S. was still there, a policy that now Vice President Joseph Biden articulated as early as 2007. A policy that unfortunately was ignored by Maliki as he consolidated power as the U.S. withdrew from Iraq. However, it may be too late for this. The more probable thing that Maliki will do is to rely on Shi’ite militias or even the Iranians to buttress his regime. There are reports that Iranian Al Quds commandos may have been deployed to Iraq, something that may in the vacuum of outside support from other Arab states, the U.S, U.N. Or the international community widen the conflict significantly.
This will likely lead to a bloody stalemate and civil war, similar to what has been happening in Syria, that could last for years throwing the entire region into chaos.

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A Border no More… the berm between Iraq and Syria

ISIL has removed the border between the areas that it controls in Iraq and Syria. They have controlled most of the Euphrates valley in Anbar since last year, and now with the seizure of Mosul and Tikrit are in control of much of the Tigris river valley. Lawrence wrote in his essay The Changing East in 1920 that:

“The cultivated districts, Mesopotamia and Syria, have, however, language, race, and interests in common. Till to-day they have always been too vast to form a single country: they are divided, except for a narrow gangway in the north, by an irredeemable waste of flint and gravel: but petrol makes light of deserts, and space is shrinking to-day, when we travel one hundred miles an hour instead of five. The effect of roads, railways, air-ways and telegraph will be to draw these two provinces together, and teach them how like they are…”

In effect the ISIL forces are creating that Sunni dominated and quite possibly radicalized Wahabi state that Lawrence warned of in 1919. This could well be the end of the duplicitous and disastrous Sykes-Picot agreement which divided the Middle East irrespective of into its current form. Those who implemented that agreement sowed the wind, and now the region and the world are reaping the whirlwind.

It is interesting to recount Lawrence’s observations of the Arab peoples in the Changing East essay published in 1920 which I quoted above. Lawrence wrote:

“The fate of the Arabs is more difficult to prophesy… they have been a government twenty times since the dawn of history, and as often after achievement they have grown tired, and let it fall: but there is no record of any force except success capable of breaking them. The history of their waves of feeling is significant in that the reservoir of all ideas, the birth of all prophecies are shown in the deserts. These empty spaces irresistibly drive their inhabitants to a belief in the oneness and omnipotence of God, by the very contrast of the barrenness of nature, the lack of every distraction and superfluity in life. Arab movements begin in the desert, and usually travel up the shortest way into Syria – for it is remarkable that whereas all prophets go to the desert, yet none of them are ever desert-born. It is the Semitic townsman or villager who receives the revelation. For this reason, for what seemed to be the immemorial finger-sign of history, this present Arab movement, the craving for national independence and self-government, was started in the desert. It, too, took the traditional road to Damascus, the traditional first centre of new movements, and with the successful establishment of Feisal there the second phase was finished. This is not, however, the proper end of the Arab movement: the weight and importance of the Semitic states have always lain in Bagdad, for very sound reasons of economics and population. Syria is a poor country, small and mountainous, dry, lacking in minerals and in arable land. There is no probability that her native population will ever be very dense. Mesopotamia has big rivers, and a huge area of irrigable land. Her wealth in grain and cotton will be very great, and nature may have bestowed on her abundance of cheap fuel. Should that be the case, she will inevitably take the headship of the Arab world in the future, as so often in the past. Damascus may hold an interim pre-eminence: Bagdad must be the ultimate regent, with perhaps five times the population of Syria, and many times its wealth. Mesopotamia will be the master of the Middle East, and the power controlling its destinies will dominate all its neighbours.”

If the politicians, diplomats, businessmen and bankers or the West fail to comprehend this we will never understand or successfully deal with the Arabs of Syria and Mesopotamia. This is not going to get better anytime soon and poses a danger to the region and also the world economy as oil prices are already going up as the oil markets anticipate losing access to Iraq’s oil reserves. In a sense what happens in Iraq will likely make the situation in Syria look like child’s play and will have far more long lasting effects, not only for the region, but the world.

Actions have consequences, and the failure of people, leaders and governments to understand the complex nature of Iraq and Syria have brought the world to a crisis. Barbara Tuchman said it well: “Confronted by menace, or what is perceived as menace, governments will usually attempt to smash it, rarely examine it, understand it, define it.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Feet of Clay: The Common Flaw of the Best and Brightest

Charlene and Michel de Carvalho

General Allenby: [leafing through Lawrence’s dossier] “Undisciplined… unpunctual… untidy. Knowledge of music… knowledge of literature… knowledge of… knowledge of… you’re an interesting man there’s no doubt about it.” 

Character is a terrible thing to judge. Mostly because those doing the judging also suffer from flaws in their own character.  Yet somehow the temptation is for us to stand as judge, jury and character executioner on those that we find wanting. As a culture we like tearing down those that we at one time built up. It is a rather perverse proclivity that we have as human beings, especially if we can find some kind of religious justification for it.

I think that is part of the complexity of the human condition. As a historian I find that the most exalted heroes, men and women of often great courage both moral and physical, intellect, creativity, humanity and even compassion have feet of clay.

I find that I am attracted to those characters who find themselves off the beaten track. Visionaries often at odds with their superiors, institutions, and sometimes their faith and traditions. Men and women who discovered in themselves visions for what might be and pursued those visions, sometimes at the costs of their families, friends, and in quite a few cases their lives.

Throughout my studies I have been attracted to men as diverse as Peter the Apostle, Martin Luther, T.E. Lawrence, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Erwin Rommel, Admiral Horatio Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, John F Kennedy, Dwight D Eisenhower, Franklin Roosevelt, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Jackie Robinson, Teresa of Avila, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Emir Feisal Hussein of the Arab Revolt. All had flaws. Some involved fits of temper and violence, others sexual escapades, mistresses, affairs, greed avarice, and maybe some that stretched law and morality in their quest to achieve their goals. But all are considered great men and women.

Feet of clay. Who doesn’t have them? But them I think that I would rather have feet of clay than a heart of stone, an an unchallenged mind, or a lack of courage to do the right thing even if it does not directly benefit me.

Tonight I watched for the first time straight through the cinema classic Lawrence of Arabia. Peter O’Toole plays Lawrence in a most remarkable manner, showing his brilliance, courage, diplomatic ability and understanding of the Arabs with whom he served.

There are many people, leaders and others that we encounter in life or that we study. Even the best of the best are flawed and there is no such thing as a Saint who never sinned. But we love destroying them and their memory when to our “surprise” when we find that their hagiographers built them into an idol.

I am a great believer in redemption and the weight of the whole of a person’s life. Thus I try to put the flaws as they are called in perspective and their impact both positive and negative in history. Studying in this way gives me a greater perspective on what it is to be human and to place my own clay feet in appropriate perspective.

It was an interesting film to watch.

However, speaking of feet of clay I will probably be writing about the Baseball Writers who vote for the inductees for the Hall of Fame. Today for the first time in nearly 4 decades no players were selected for induction, mostly due to the steroid era. But that is a subject for another night.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Why the Libyans were able to Overthrow Gaddafi and what We can learn from It: A Lesson from the work of T E Lawrence

T E Lawrence

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them. Actually, also, under the very odd conditions of Arabia, your practical work will not be as good as, perhaps, you think it is.” T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence with Arab fighters at Aqaba and Emir Faisal Hussein (below)

The Libyan revolution succeeded in overthrowing Moammar Gaddafi and his 42 year tyranny because the West did not turn it into an American or NATO war. By limiting involvement to airpower, coastal interdiction and tiny numbers of advisers the United States and NATO avoided the costly trap of putting large numbers of troops on the ground.  Such action would have been counterproductive in Libya and in the Arab world. While the action certainly would have ridded the world of Gaddafi and his regime much more quickly it would have emasculated the Libyans who had taken up arms against Gaddafi by turning it into our war, a war which would have been seen by many Libyans and Arabs as just more Western Imperialism.  Critics can always find fault in any military operation but for once in the Post Cold War era the United States and NATO knew their limitations and that the revolution had to be the work of the Libyans themselves.

Lawrence and Hussein’s troops pass Ottoman prisoners at Damascus in 1918

T E Lawrence understood the Arab mind more than most westerners ever will.  Living with and helping lead the Arab tribes that revolted against the Ottoman Empireduring the First World War he learned the culture as well as came to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Arab tribes.  One thing that can be said is that most Americans like many of Lawrence’s counterparts in the British political leadership, military and diplomatic services is that far too few have taken the time to either understand or respect the Arabs. When I was in Iraq the senior Iraqi Officers that I met were amazed and impressed that I knew their history and culture because so few people did. When I mentioned their victory at Al Kut Amara, or their capture of the Al Faw peninsula at the end of the Iran-Iraq war they beamed with pride.

Ottoman troops in Mesopotamia 

One of the things that Lawrence understood was the profound sense of personal pride and honor which imbued the Bedouin.  He understood that the various Bedouin tribes had no love for the Ottoman Turks who treated them with distain.  He also understood that they needed to be the ones that defeated the Turks.

The campaign waged by Lawrence and the Bedouin confounded the Turks. Working with Emir Faisal the son of Sherif  Hussein of Mecca he convinced his force of Arab irregulars not to make a direct assault on the city of Medina which was heavily garrisoned by the Turks.  Instead he expanded the battlefield by exploiting the natural weakness of the Turks, the need for constant supply via the Hejaz Railway.  In doing so he tied up large numbers of Ottoman troops that could have been used against the forces of General Allenby that were waging a conventional campaign and which was very successful in defeating the Ottomans.

While Lawrence was a part of a much larger effort his work in helping the Arab revolt was of great importance to the success of the British efforts against the Ottomans.  Unfortunately the good will that Lawrence and others like him built did not last. The British and French governments did not respect treaties that supported Arab independence and instead dividing the region between them under the terms of the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement. They left an isolated and abandoned Hashamite kingdom in the Hejaz which was conquered by the Saudis to whom the British had shifted their support.

British prisoners at Kut al Amara

A few hundred miles away the British did not take advantage of indigenous Arab resentment of the Ottomans in Mesopotamia.  The British invaded Mesopotamiain 1914 expecting to defeat the Turks easily.  However the British did precious little to enlist the support or help the Iraqi Arabs.  The campaign was long and included the worst defeat of a British Army during the war at the Siege of Kut Al Amara in 1916 at the hands of a largely Iraqi Ottoman 6th Army.  Some 30,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed or died of disease and 13,000 captured many who did not survive captivity.  After the war Lawrence remarked “The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honor. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information.”

Faisal would go on to be elected as the new Kingdom of Syria by the Syrian National Congress in March of 1920 but kicked out by the French who enforced the Mandate of Syria in July.  In 1922 after the British brutally suppressed an Iraqi independence movement they appointed Faisal as the King of Iraq. When the British “gave” the Iraqis their independence in 1932 Faisal was the head of state.  He died in 1933 and the British maintained a tight grip on the country and put down another Iraqi nationalist revolt led by the Army in 1941.  The British would remain in Iraq until 1958 when a military coup which is known as the “14 July Revolution” overthrew the government and killed king Faisal II.

Libya Rebels

In Libya there was great temptation and political pressure for the United States to begin an early air campaign without significant support in the international community.  Some say that this caused more casualties and suffering for the Libyans, but it helped in the long run because Libyans saw it as their war to win even when NATO began its air campaign against Gaddafi.  The air campaign was a great help to the newly proclaimed National Transitional Council in Benghazi and probably saved them from being defeated but it was the courage of Libyans on the ground who sacrificed themselves against a better armed and trained force to retake the country.

The revolt restored the pride of an oppressed people, something that could not have taken place had the campaign been led by the United States and NATO with boots on the ground.  People forget that in 2003 the majority of Iraqis welcomed US forces as liberators.  This lasted until Paul Bremer unilaterally dissolved Iraqi military, police and civil servants that were actively helping us, turning them into enemies overnight.  The liberated Iraqis felt betrayed and dishonored by the United States just as they had been by the British following the First World War.  Bremer did this without ensuring that the Iraqi Army weapons depots were secure thereby providing Sunni and Shia insurgents with vast amounts of weapons.  These weapons were turned against American and coalition soldiers and even the UN and NGOs which were just beginning to helpIraqrebuild.  The result of Bremer’s was a protracted insurgency and civil which cost us nearly 4500 soldiers killed and over 32000 wounded and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed, wounded or displaced.  If one wants an answer as to why the Iraqis rose up against the United States occupation in late 2003 they need to look no farther than this. The Iraqis only want to be independent and saw the Bremer’s actions in the lens of their history with the British.

The author with Iraqi General Sabah Ramadi 2007

The decision of President Obama, French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Cameron to work through the UN and NATO was the correct one. It enabled the Libyans to overthrow Gaddafi and it kept our military involvement to a minimum.  While it cannot be a template for all future military operations in the Arab world as every Arab country is different it does have lessons for us. Libya was a perfect place to use this method. It had a population that wanted Gaddafi gone and were willing to die trying to overthrow him.  It had no huge urban population centers teaming with uneducated and poverty stricken people with little hope.  It has substantial oil wealth and an oil infrastructure which unlike Iraq was not destroyed during the war or in bad repair due to years of sanctions. It also enjoyed a key geographic location which made NATO air intervention much easier than almost anywhere in the Middle East because we did not need bases in Libya or its neighbors to run the operation. It was conducted from Europe and platforms at sea.   This is not possible in most other Arab countries. The task would be much more difficult if the target was Syria.

Now is the time to help the Libyans in rebuilding their country and letting them continue to regain their pride by letting them do as much as possible.  They won’t do it the way we would but that is okay. They will make mistakes but given time the people that shed their blood together to rid themselves of Gaddafi can work together to build a free country.  Those that go to Libya to assist the Libyans need to keep this in mind if they really want to see a strong, robust and successful Libyan democracy take hold.  Let’s also make sure that the good feelings that the Libyans have for us now remain by simply treating them as we would like to be treated.  Simply put we have to stop treating them as vassal states that we only value for their natural resources while we disrespect their people, history and culture.

As for the future it would be a wise investment to ensure that diplomatic, military and NGO personnel be trained and educated to understand and appreciate the Arabs and other cultures that are different than ours in the West.  The West has much to overcome in its relationship with the Arabs most of which is self inflicted. But we can try to start again.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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