Many of today’s intransigent problems of the middle east have its origins in this time period. It is my thinking that a little knowledge about this time frame before the U.S. decided to invade Iraq in 2003, could have prevented the U.S. decision makers from repeating the same mistakes that western countries have been making in this part of the world for over a hundred years.
This is a quick ride down memory lane with the focus on Iraq...
I reviewed a research paper published in 2008, titled, “British Colonization of Iraq, 1918-1932” by Major Brian P. Sharp for military studies at the Marine Corps University. Of course, he underscores the importance of understanding a country’s background and culture before becoming entangled in their affairs.
“At the close of the First World War, the British were in possession of the three Turkish Provinces that make up modem Iraq: Basra, Mosul, and Baghdad. Much like today, each of the provinces possessed its own separate ethnic, cultural, and religious identity.”
“Basra was linked to Persia through trade and history. Baghdad (Iraq) looked to Palestine and Damascus for trade and cultural influence. The people of Mosul were not Arabs at all, but were Kurds of Euro-Persian decent and looked to the north for ethnic identity.”
“Unlike modern Iraq though, the social and economic environment was much different in 1918. The vast majority of Iraq had never been exposed to a central government, and had relied on tribes and sheiks for basic administration and rule of law.”
“These problems, as stated by Professor David Fromkin in “A Peace to End All Peace,” dominated the initial British occupying forces: Tensions between the diverse populations of the area seemed to pose greater problems, and the lawlessness of groups such as the Kurds and the Bedouin tribes seemed to pose greater threats. Incoherence, communal strife, and habitual disorder-rather than organized nationalism-were perceived as the challenge. When the three newly acquired provinces were viewed as parts, there were numerous ethnic and religious minorities throughout the region, to include Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian, and a sizable Jewish community in Baghdad.”
“For the Sunni and Shi’ites in Baghdad and the military offices in Syria, the salient political issue that emerged during the short period when the future of Iraq was decided (May, 1918 until November, 1929 when the first Iraqi government was established) was whether or not to work with the British.”
“In addition to the numerous difficulties of uniting the diverse populations into a single colony, the British method of governing their newly acquired territory caused confusion. The Foreign Office, responsible for promoting the interests of the British Empire abroad, and the Arab Bureau, a section within the Cairo Intelligence Bureau, argued for the creation of an Arab caliphate and a single colony consisting of the three former Ottoman provinces under indirect British control… The British administration in Baghdad disassembled the elected councils that had been established by the Ottomans and worked through local tribes and sheiks to solidify their control over the population.”
“Borrowing from their successes in India, the British chose to enforce order and justice based on Indian civil law codes, such as The Indian Tribal Civil and Criminal Disputes Regulation, which gave tribal Sheikhs the legal authority to collect taxes on behalf of the British and to settle all disputes between tribes and individuals. British law now assisted in controlling all aspects of life in the colony. Thus, by 1919, Britain had gained firm. control over the administration of its newly acquired territory…The British could now establish a ruling council within the new state of Iraq, “composed largely of British officials, with Iraqis in strictly subordinate positions…”
“The Mandate also called for a semi-autonomous state for areas which were Kurdish major areas, which the British granted the Kurds, but would later integrate the state into the colony. The British would not fully grant the Kurds their independence, and governed them from Baghdad for the duration of the occupation.”
“The leader of the civil administration in Baghdad was Sir Arnold Talbot Wilson, the First Civil Commissioner of the newly created colony of Iraq. An Army officer from India, and previously the deputy to the British Political Officer to the region during the First World War, Wilson was very familiar with the issues facing the Empire in the region. He strongly argued that the three provinces of Iraq were too different to be united under one flag and felt that the Kurds would never accept Arab rule. Prime Minster Lloyd George’s enthusiasm to retain Iraq as a single colony contradicted Wilson’s concerns about uniting the provinces, and forced him to establish British administrative control over the three provinces….”
“Wilson’s Oriental Secretary, Gertrude Bell, had great influence on British policy….She worked feverishly to construct the modem day boundaries of Iraq, and played a significant role at the Cairo Conference of 1921, in the forming of the modern day Iraq. Because of her affection for the Arab people, and her close affiliation with the political elite in Baghdad, she was well aware of the political currents running through the colony, more so than the High Commissioner.”
“Trusted by the Arabs, Bell was the first in the British administration to recognize that Arab nationalism had grown to the point where it could challenge British rule over the colony. In June, Arab politicians warned Bell that the British planned to create a single nation out of the three provinces, without consulting Arab or Kurdish leaders, would be met with substantial resistance from the population. Needless to say, the British pressed ahead with their plans.”
In 2005 UNC published a collection of Gertrude Bell’s letters which shed some light of events at that time.“ The letters demonstrate how what Miss Bell wrote in the 1920’s is eerily similar to today’s headlines.
“For example, in a 1922 letter to her father Bell describes Iraqi skirmishes with the Saudis on the southern border, and the difficulty of negotiating a border treaty after the Saudis had conquered a large swath of north-central Arabia.”
“Faisal had sent a camel corps to defend the border, and the “Akwan” or Muslim Brotherhood, as the Wahabis called themselves, fired on them from an airplane. Bell goes on to say, “Ibn Saud may, of course, repudiate this action of his followers; that’s the best that can happen, for otherwise we’re practically at war with them.” If one substitutes “al-Qaida” for “Akwan,” we are in familiar territory: the House of Saud claims to repudiate terrorism among the extremists within its borders, but has been slow to do anything about it.”
“In the early 1920s, after the British-held plebiscite and a general agreement among the leaders of the various factions in what was then known as Mesopotamia to unite and become a nation, a friend of Bell’s, a tribal sheik, said that all the pillars were standing for the formation of a new state and now what they needed was a roof. Shortly after that, Faisal, the protégé of Bell and T. E. Lawrence (better known as Lawrence of Arabia), was imported from Mecca to become the “roof.”
(In early 2004, David Ignatius wrote in the Washington Post about the offer extended to Prince Hassan of Jordan, the great nephew of Faisal, to mediate among Iraqi religions factions to bring them together and become a “provisional head of state.”)
“In her letters Bell reports that the people of Kirkuk (land of the Kurds) in the north are ready to give allegiance to Faisal, but those in Basra have come to her to plead with her government for a separate southern province within a confederation.”
“Her response: I am your Friend, but I am also a servant of the British government, and London says no to anything less than a unitary government….Ever the realist, in another letter she refers with disdain to the English newspapers that expected High Commissioner Sir Percy Cox to bring about a stable, modern state instantly. “He has only to say ‘Hey, presto’ for an Arab government to leap on to the stage, with another Athene springing from the forehead of Zeus. You may say if you like that Sir Percy will play the role of Zeus, but his Athene will find the stage encumbered by such trifles as the Shiah (sic) problem, the tribal problem and other matters, over which even a goddess might easily stumble.”
And in another letter, “One of the papers says, quite rightly, that we had promised an Arab government with British advisers, and had set up a British government with Arab advisers. That’s a perfectly fair statement.”“Bell describes and photographs a grand gathering in 1921 at Falluja of Sunni tribal leaders on camels greeting Faisal, and Faisal’s swearing allegiance to them, saying their enemies are his enemies and vowing solidarity. He is “a great Sunni among Sunnis,” Bell wrote to her father. (And now Falluja, as a center for Sunni insurgency, is in the headlines again.)
Retired 3 star General Dan Bolger
On November 10, 2014, The Guardian published an article by Spencer Ackerman on the three star retired General Dan Bolger. General Bolger wrote a November 2014 paper discussing the West’s lack of knowledge of the middle east, titled, “Why we lost.”
“Bolger, a senior officer responsible for training the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, includes himself in the roster of failed generals. “Here’s one I would offer that should be asked of every serving general and admiral: general, admiral, did we win? If we won, how are we doing now in the war against Isis? You just can’t get an answer to that question, and in fact, you don’t even hear it,” Bolger said. So if you can’t even say if you won or lost the stuff you just wrapped up, what the hell are you doing going into another one?”
“Anybody who does work in foreign countries will tell you, if you want long-term success, you have to understand that culture. We didn’t even come close. We knew enough to get by,” Bolger said.
“More controversially, Bolger laments that the US did not pull out of Afghanistan after ousting al-Qaida in late 2001 and out of Iraq after ousting Saddam in April 2003. Staying in each conflict as it deteriorated locked policymakers and officers into a pattern of escalation, with persistence substituting for success. No one in uniform of any influence argued for withdrawal, or even seriously considered it: the US military mantra of the age is to leave behind a division’s worth of advisers as insurance and expect them to resolve what a corps could not.”
“The objection, which proved contemporaneously persuasive, is that the US would leave a vacuum inviting greater dangerous instability. “It would be a mess, and you’d have the equivalent of Isis,” Bolger conceded. But guess what: we’re in that same mess right now after eight years, and we’re going to be in the same mess after 13 years in Afghanistan.” The difference is thousands of Americans dead; tens of thousands of Americans left with life-changing wounds; and untold hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans dead, injured, impoverished or radicalized.”
“Moreover, you’d be doing a real counterinsurgency, where they’d have to win it. That’s what the mistake is here: to think that we could go into these countries and stabilize their villages and fix their government, that’s incredible, unless you take a colonial or imperial attitude and say, ‘I’m going to be here for 100 years, this is the British Raj, I’m never leaving,’” he said.”
“Messengers who deliver reports that no one wants to face are rarely well received. It is a good bet that General Dan Bolger did not receive many Christmas cards in 2014 from his military associates after they read his dissertation on how the US military lost the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, how does the U.S. military declare victory, for example in Iraq, when after billions of dollars spent in addition to the loss of thousands of American soldiers and Iraqis lives over a decade, when Iraq is still does not operate as a well functioning and stable government where its peoples are safer than before the 2003 US invasion.
As per the New York Times article published on June 14, 2014 by Tim Arango states: “Gertrude Bell, who worked to stabilize Iraq after World War I, won hearts and minds but was unable to meld a mix of religious sects into a stable nation.”
He writes, “a picture of Gertrude Bell, the British diplomat and spy, still hangs on a wall in the Alwiya Club, the Baghdad clubhouse for the social elite that she established, and black-and-white photographs of her can be found in the collections of the city’s old families.
More than anyone else, she is credited with creating modern Iraq — drawing its borders, choosing its king — after the upheavals of World War I. She also died here, and her raised tomb surrounded by jasmine bushes in a British cemetery has been tended for decades by a man named Ali Mansour. “We love her around here,” Mr. Mansour said. “She brought Iraqis together.”
Mr. Arango argues that “today, though, her legacy, which has always been fragile, is at risk of being undone amid the renewed sectarian violence that has already seen Sunni militants effectively erase the border she drew between Iraq and Syria and raised the possibility of Iraq fracturing into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Seen through the experience of Iraq’s tumultuous recent past, the decisions made by Miss Bell, as she is still affectionately referred to by Iraqis, and others working for the British and French to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire collapsed nearly a century ago, hold cautionary lessons for those seeking to bring stability in the region now.”