“Cowboys and Indians” in Iraq

In a May 24 op-ed in the New York Times, Niall Ferguson–a history professor at Harvard, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire–makes the case for a long-term US occupation of Iraq, drawing some instructive lessons from the experience of British imperialism before the American Century. The Brits, in Ferguson’s nostalgic view, were real old-fashioned undisguised and unapologetic imperialists, with no squeamishness about the burdens of colonial policing, and therefore were able to prevail over the Iraqi insurgents of the 1920s–and this, of course, is what the US must now emulate. The piece is tellingly entitled “Cowboys and Indians,” implicitly invoking the ugliest colonial conquest of America’s own past, although the text does not actually invoke the pacification of the American west (presumably because it is too obvious). Ferguson begins:

“I think that this could still fail.” Those words – uttered by a senior American officer in Baghdad last week – probably gave opponents of the war in Iraq, particularly those clamoring for a hasty exit, a bit of a kick. They should be careful what they wish for.

He then predicts disaster if the US leaves, and goes on to draw his comparison with the British experience in Iraq starting in the aftermath of World War I:

In 1917 British forces invaded Mesopotamia, got to Baghdad, overthrew its Ottoman rulers and sought – in the words of the general who led them, Sir Stanley Maude – to be its people’s “liberators.” The British presence in Iraq was legitimized by international law (it was designated a League of Nations mandate) and by a modicum of democracy (a referendum was held among local sheiks to confirm the creation of a British-style constitutional monarchy). Despite all this, in 1920 there was a full-scale insurgency against the continuing British military presence.

Some may object that warfare today is a very different matter from warfare 85 years ago. Yet the striking thing about the events of 1920 is how very like the events of our own time they were. The reality of what is sometimes called “asymmetric warfare” is how very symmetrical it really is: an insurgency is about leveling the military playing field, and exploiting the advantages of local knowledge to stage hit-and-run attacks against the occupiers, as well as anybody thought to be collaborating with them.

Indeed, if there is asymmetry it lies in the advantages enjoyed by the insurgents. The cost of training and equipping an American soldier is high; by contrast, life is tragically cheap among the young men of Baghdad and Falluja. Even if the insurgents lose 10 men for every 1 they kill, they are still winning, not least because the American side takes its losses so much harder.

How, then, did the British crush the insurgency of 1920? Three lessons stand out.

The first is that, unlike the American enterprise in Iraq today, they had enough men. In 1920, total British forces in Iraq numbered around 120,000, of whom around 34,000 were trained for actual fighting. During the insurgency, a further 15,000 men arrived as reinforcements.

Coincidentally, that is very close to the number of American military personnel now in Iraq (around 138,000). The trouble is that the population of Iraq was just over three million in 1920, whereas today it is around 24 million. Thus, back then the ratio of Iraqis to foreign forces was, at most, 23 to 1. Today it is around 174 to 1. To arrive at a ratio of 23 to 1 today, about one million American troops would be needed.

The United States also faces two other problems that the United Kingdom did not 85 years ago. The British were able to be ruthless: they used air raids and punitive expeditions to inflict harsh collective punishments on villages that supported the insurgents. The United States has not been above brutal methods on occasion in Iraq, yet humiliation and torture of prisoners have not yielded any significant benefits compared with what it has cost the country’s reputation.

(Does he really think the US isn’t being ruthless? Now there’s a scary thought…)

The Americans’ other problem has to do with timing and expectations. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said that American forces should aim to work to a “10-30-30” timetable: 10 days should suffice to topple a rogue regime, 30 days to establish order in its wake, and 30 more days to prepare for the next military undertaking. I am all in favor of a 10-30-30 timetable – provided the measurement is years, not days. For it may well take around 10 years to establish order in Iraq, 30 more to establish the rule of law, and quite possibly another 30 to create a stable democracy…

Once again, the contrast with the British experience is instructive. Although Iraq was formally granted its independence in 1932, there was still some form of British presence in the country until the late 1950’s.

He next turns his attention to the manpower problem:

What, then, of America’s own resources? Almost no one (least of all the Pentagon) wants to go back to the draft. So could today’s all-volunteer force somehow be expanded to double (at least) the troops available? That too seems unlikely. Indeed, the current system is already showing alarming signs of stress and strain as more and more is asked of the “weekend warriors” of the reserves and National Guard, who account for roughly two-fifths of the force in Iraq. In December, the Army National Guard acknowledged that it had fallen 30 percent below its recruiting goals in the preceding two months. Many members of the Individual Ready Reserve have been contesting the Army’s right to call them up.

How did the British address the manpower problem in 1920? By bringing in soldiers from India who accounted for more than 87 percent of troops in the counter-insurgency campaign. Perhaps, then, the greatest problem faced by the Anglophone empire of our own time is very simple: the United Kingdom had the Indian Army; the United States does not. Indeed, by a rich irony, the only significant auxiliary forces available to the Pentagon today are none other than … the British Army. But those troops are far too few to be analogous to the Sikhs, Mahrattas and Baluchis who fought so effectively in 1920.

No one should wish for an overhasty American withdrawal from Iraq. It would be the prelude to a bloodbath of ethnic cleansing and sectarian violence, with inevitable spillovers into and interventions from neighboring countries. Rather, it is time to acknowledge just how thinly stretched American forces in Iraq are and to address the problem: whether by finding new allies (send Condoleezza Rice to New Delhi?); radically expanding the accelerated citizenship program for immigrants who join the army; or lowering the (historically high) educational requirements demanded by military recruiters.

Yes, as that anonymous officer said, the Bush administration’s policy in Iraq could indeed still fail. But too few American liberals seem to grasp how high the price will be if it does. That is a point, unfortunately, that also eludes most of this country’s allies. Does it also elude the secretary of defense? If “10-30-30” are the numbers that concern him, I begin to fear that it does. The numbers that matter right now are 174 to 1. That is not only the ratio of Iraqis to American troops. It is starting to look alarmingly like the odds against American success.

As we have noted before, more and more voices in officialdom are speaking of a long-term US military occupation in Iraq. We have also argued that the anti-war forces need to grapple with the British experience in Iraq, and what it means for the current occupation.