Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Imperial Myopia: Some Lessons from Two Invasions of Iraq

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Imperial Myopia: Some Lessons from Two Invasions of Iraq

Article excerpt

This article tries to chart some of the parallels between the British Mesopotamia Campaign in the First World War and the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Both campaigns were justified by faulty or contrived intelligence; both were launched with little consideration of the future potential needs of the liberated/occupied territory; and both were characterized by a lack of planning and clear objectives. However, in spite of their obvious paternalism, several military and civilian members of the British-Indian expedition had a fair understanding of the Middle East, Arabic, Islam, tribal society, and so on; this sort of expertise was almost completely absent both among those planning, and among those running, the US invasion of 2003.

While I am not entirely convinced that later generations can learn lessons from the experience of earlier ones, I am reasonably sure that few historical actors have spent very much time considering whether or how far they might in fact be able to learn such lessons from what might seem to be at least roughly comparable situations. Hardly any, it can only be imagined, could have been quite as cavalier - in this as in so many other areas - as the Bush Administration, in its ill-conceived and inadequately thought out invasion of Iraq in March 2003. In many ways, the blunders and errors of judgement, whose consequences resonate so loudly, today are eerily reminiscent of the failings of the British Mesopotamia Campaign in 1914-1917, although the very much more primitive communications and other technological inadequacies meant that the mistakes of the earlier campaign were perhaps more excusable, or more understandable, than the more recent ones of the American invasion.

In what follows I will try to draw what I hope are some not too far-fetched parallels between the British invasion and occupation of Mesopotamia during the First World War and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its aftermath. Very briefly, basing its actions largely on what turned out to be unfounded reports of Ottoman troops massing in lower Iraq, the Military Department of the Government of India despatched Indian Expeditionary Force (IEF) 'D,' to the Gulf on October 16, 1914. The Allies declared war on the Ottoman Empire on November 5, and IEF 'D' landed at Fao three days later. The scope of the holding operation that the force originally had been charged with carrying out soon became dramatically enlarged; Basra was taken early in December, and after the arrival of reinforcements the force proceeded slowly towards central Iraq. By October 1915 it had reached 'Aziziya, some 50 miles from Baghdad. At this point more Ottoman troops actually materialized, and British troops were obliged to retreat, first to Ctesiphon and finally to Kut, where they endured the bitter hardships of a five-month siege and ultimate surrender. As a result of this reversal, and as news of the appalling deficiencies of supply and medical provisions in Mesopotamia gradually reached London, the Military Department of the Government of India was relieved of its command. On February 3, 1916, IEF 'D' became the Mesopotamia Expeditionary Force (MEF), and the War Office took full charge of operations. Eventually, more substantial reinforcements were despatched; British forces entered Baghdad on March 10, 1917, and their commander's zealousness ensured the capture of Mosul some three days after the Armistice of Mudros (the end of hostilities between the Allies and the Ottomans) on October 30, 1918.

In the course of the negotiations at the Paris peace conference, the governance of Lebanon and Syria was assigned to France, and that of Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan to Britain. The entry of the United States into the war in the autumn of 1917 ensured that the "straightforward" colonization or imperial absorption of conquered territories would no longer be possible; hence, the former Ottoman provinces became mandates, under the ultimate supervision of the Permanent Mandates Commission of the newly established League of Nations. …

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