By James Barr, the author of ‘Setting the Desert on Fire: TE Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916-18′ (THE GUARDIAN, 03/06/06):
As British troops went in to Iraq in March 2003, the Iraqi information minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, provided some unexpected entertainment at a time of great uncertainty. But some of his claims do not seem so risible now, one of them being: “We have drawn them into a quagmire and they will never get out of it.”Quagmire is the word. Unable to halt the country’s descent into a sectarian civil war, and yet reluctant to admit failure and leave a vacuum by withdrawing, we are faced with a terrible dilemma in Iraq today. The situation would be familiar to TE Lawrence, who described in 1920 how clumsy involvement in Iraq had left Britain “in a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour”.
Lawrence had shot to fame through his role in the Arab revolt, which began in the Hejaz in western Arabia 90 years ago on Monday. The uprising had been surreptitiously encouraged by the British. By sponsoring a revolt in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, they hoped to sow disarray throughout the Islamic world that would defuse the call to jihad issued by the Ottoman sultan to Muslims in India and Egypt at the beginning of the first world war.
The Turks were rapidly driven from Mecca but not Medina, which was directly linked by rail to their headquarters at Damascus. Just as George Bush and Tony Blair don’t want to pull out of Iraq for the admission of failure such a withdrawal would represent, the Turks were loth to leave Medina in 1916 and relinquish their leadership of the Muslim world, which they believed came with the possession of the holy city.
Lawrence was one of a handful of advisers dispatched to help the Bedu rebels. As he quickly realised, the Ottomans’ determination to cling on in Medina left them vulnerable to hit-and-run warfare. “This show is splendid,” he told a colleague, “you cannot imagine greater fun for us, greater fury and vexation for the Turks.” There was no shortage of guerrillas. The completion of the Hejaz railway from Damascus to Medina in 1908 had hurt the Bedu, who hired out camels and guides to travellers, and had sidelines in robbery and protection rackets. Like the economically dispossessed young men dying in the insurgency in Iraq today, the Bedu had little to lose from taking the abundant British gold on offer.
British and American troops in Iraq are vulnerable to similar tactics today. Richard Holmes’s new book, Dusty Warriors, provides a vivid example from 2004. Determined to engage with the people of Al Amarah, the British army kept a base inside the city. The base, under regular mortar attack, had to be supplied by armoured convoys, which were frequently ambushed. The British fired back, preserving access to their city-centre outpost, but at the cost of spiralling violence. The killing of one insurgent only moves others to take his place. And the “fury and vexation” caused by the insurgents’ almost unanswerable tactics seems to have triggered the alleged massacre in Haditha by US troops last November.
“To make war upon rebellion was messy and slow,” in Lawrence’s memorable phrase, “like eating soup with a knife.” His own estimate after the war was that the Turks would have needed 600,000 men to pacify the Hejaz. Today in Iraq, a similar-sized area, there are fewer than 200,000 coalition troops. Soon there will be even fewer. It seems Lawrence’s central message, that guerrillas are almost impossible to defeat, is finally beginning to sink in.