Monday, October 23, 2006

The Hijaz and Helmand

Exactly ninety years ago this month, a short, fair-haired young man with piercing blue eyes stepped off a launch onto the quayside at Jeddah on the eastern shore of the Red Sea. The port stood at the edge of the Hijaz, the formidable chain of serrated ochre mountains that hid Mecca and Medina, the holiest cities in the Muslim world. ‘The heat of Arabia’ he would later write, ‘came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless.’ Arabia would make him famous, for his name was TE Lawrence.

Lawrence had arrived in Arabia to rescue a tribal uprising, backed by Britain, that had expelled the Turks from Mecca but which had now run out of steam. The Turks looked set to retake the holy city and seemingly, the easiest way to stop that happening would have been to send the tribesmen British reinforcements. But British troops were scarce, and deploying them to such a sensitive area was deemed unwise. Lawrence was forced, through desperation, to consider other tactics. ‘The Hijaz war is one of dervishes against regular troops’, he quickly realised, ‘and we are on the side of the dervishes.’ This was revolutionary and provocative. One senior officer, a veteran professional soldier who with Kitchener in the Sudan had defeated the dervishes, called Lawrence ‘a bumptious young ass’ who ‘needed kicking, and kicking hard at that.’

But Lawrence had a point. A classic military manual of the era, Small Wars, contained a timeless warning for its readers: ‘Guerrilla warfare is what the regular armies always have to dread, and when this is directed by a leader with a genius for war, an effective campaign becomes well-nigh impossible.’

Lawrence was to prove this maxim right again. He advocated sending a handful of British advisers to direct the Bedu, armed with copious quantities of gold and dynamite. ‘This show is splendid’ he wrote a short time later to a colleague who was about to join him. ‘You cannot imagine greater fun for us, greater fury and vexation for the Turks’. It was frustrating, because as Lawrence commented after the war, ‘Many Turks on our front had no chance all the war to fire on us’.

Over the next two years Lawrence honed his unorthodox strategy, with results can still be seen today. Blown-up locomotives, half-sunk in the desert sand. Lonely stations pock-marked with bullet holes. Graves with jagged shards of rock for headstones. A handful of daring British officers and their Bedu helpers pinned down 11,000 Turkish soldiers,who never did re-enter Mecca. The Hijaz Railway never worked again and today its track has vanished altogether.

When Lawrence looked back on his own exploits afterwards, he believed that the Turks would have needed 600,000 men in all, at least twenty soldiers in fortified posts every four square miles, to have defeated the insurgency. That was the tactic that had beaten the Boers in southern Africa and the Mohmand tribesmen on the North-West Frontier. The British were not squeamish about how they subdued the Mohmands, great-grandfathers of the Taliban. The blockhouses they built at eight hundred yard intervals were linked by electric fences that, the local governor reported, had killed ‘two Mohmands, six dogs, seven jackals and one cat’.

Seven hundred miles to the south-west today, across the border in Afghanistan, British troops are again trying to deal with an insurgency. The heat and the landscape of Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, have strong similarities with the Hijaz, and the tactics the Taliban are now employing are eerily familiar. ‘They didn’t come out and fight anymore’, one young soldier said: ‘I didn’t have to fire a shot’. Yet in this dusty region, which is a quarter the size of the Hijaz, Britain has deployed barely 5,000 men in isolated pockets: nowhere near enough to achieve the security they were tasked with achieving, sent by a government that, like the Turks in Arabia ninety years ago, refuses to admit defeat.

As Lawrence proved, too few troops, defending too large an area is a vulnerable combination. The British army knows it. It has now started to withdraw troops from the isolated outposts it occupied around the province earlier this summer under pressure from the energetic local governor, Mohammed Daoud. Daoud’s strategy is the right one – there can be no significant reconstruction without a great improvement of security across the province – but the British government has not supplied the resources to sustain it. As a consequence, British soldiers have been too thinly spread and, just as the Turkish railway was an easy target for Lawrence, their own lifeline to the outside world – by helicopter – is very exposed to Taliban attack.

Britain’s prime minister, Tony Blair, has offered the troops in Helmand ‘whatever’ equipment they need. But by Lawrence’s calculation, it is thousands more men that are required, up and down the towns and villages of the Helmand river, to make conditions safe enough for aid work. Without those reinforcements, the reconstruction effort – designed to wean the local economy off opium production which, it is believed, helps fund Islamist terrorism – is doomed to fail. The situation is too dangerous for aid workers at the moment, and so far, just two bazaars have been rebuilt. Meanwhile an estimated 70,000 children cannot get an education because Taliban intimidation has closed their schools.

Security provides the foundation for reconstruction and reconstruction is crucial for winning the battle for hearts and minds which will defeat the Taliban. Here the forceful British tactics seen so far are not succeeding. ‘The British brought nothing but fighting’, complained the turbaned elders of one town. ‘Women have been killed. Children have been killed’, mourned one man in another. As Lawrence noted, his own success depended on ‘a friendly population, of which some two in the hundred were active, and the rest quietly sympathetic to the point of not betraying the movements of the minority.’ Much is made of Lawrence’s leadership. But the truth is that the alliances he formed were bought with gold.

Ninety years on, Lawrence’s advice is simple and still relevant. Many more men and much more money are both needed if the British are to have a hope of winning in Helmand.

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