Friday, February 29, 2008

"an early version of Charlie Wilson's War"

The Seattle Times has reviewed Setting the Desert on Fire. You can read it here.

Friday, February 22, 2008

No way to win the battle for hearts and minds

This report from southern Afghanistan has been out for three days, and it provides powerful evidence that things are going badly there. The British, who are sending 16 Air Assault Brigade to Helmand in April just as the poppy harvest gets under way, are clearly gearing up for renewed hostilities in the spring. Although the Afghan winter is a harsh one, the lull that it imposes on the fighting in the region surely offers an opportunity for reconstruction work.

Instead as the report shows, there is still no improvement in electricity generation, and the locals are blaming the foreigners, and not the Taliban, for the lack of progress. The British do not seem to be winning the battle for hearts and minds vital to their success in this guerrilla war.

UPDATE: To add to Britain's problems in the south of Afghanistan, the Canadians have just announced that they will withdraw from Kandahar province, next-door, by 2011.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Is Lawrence my hero?

Not worshipping but following Lawrence:
the author near Mudawwarah in southern Jordan

Two more contrasting reviews, in the New York Sun and Wall Street Journal, which are both well worth a read, both agree on one point: T.E. Lawrence is my hero. Rubbish.

When I started out writing the book I was determined to be controversial, picking holes in Lawrence's story and finding flaws in the man himself. As his many biographers have already pointed out, there are plenty of them. In particular I wanted to highlight that he was one of several British advisers to the Arab guerrilla forces in the First World War, men like Stewart Newcombe, Herbert Garland and Henry Hornby, all now largely forgotten. Knowing that the man had a reputation for lying, I went about my research in a very particular way. I did all my other research before I finally turned to Lawrence's own, later, account of what had happened. I wanted to know the story from contemporary accounts before I read Lawrence's version of events.

The evidence I found surprised me. First was how the perception of Lawrence changed among his colleagues during the war. In 1916 he was described as a too-clever-by-half "bumptious young ass" who needed "kicking, and kicking hard at that". Subsequent events forced Lawrence's colleagues to change their view. By midway through 1917 they admitted his indispensability as an adviser to Feisal - a position he had singlehandedly carved out. Lawrence was of "inestimable value," commented one colleague, prompting another to wish that he could find other officers to act in similar roles with Feisal's older brothers. As he admitted: "Such men, however, are extremely difficult to get". Finally, as news of Lawrence's exploits spread, there was outright praise for him. According to the Conservative politician and arch-imperialist George Lloyd, Lawrence had "done wonderfully good work and will some day be able to write a unique book. Generally the kind of men capable of these adventures lack the pen and the wit to record them adequately. Luckily Lawrence is specially gifted in both."

Lawrence's ability to write a compelling book (like Churchill's after him) has inevitably guaranteed him a central role in the story that I tell in Setting the Desert on Fire. But these comments from his contemporaries at the time (and long before it was clear how famous he would become), which I unearthed in the archives in London and Durham, suggest that this prominence is not undeserved. Even Colonel Cyril Wilson, the man who had labelled Lawrence a "bumptious young ass" would, less than a year later, write what Lawrence described as a "very kind note" to praise him for his achievements. It was hard to avoid the conclusion, based on the evidence that Lawrence - the awkward, devious, mendacious intelligence officer - had won the respect of his peers. That was what inclined me to portray him in a positive light, while still, I hope, showing that he would have been hell at times to work with.

I reached another conclusion after examining the contemporary evidence. The book that Lawrence wrote, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, was largely accurate in its depiction of events, not least because it quoted extensively from his campaign notes. The emphasis was different, however, for by then Lawrence had realised that he faced a political battle to lobby "opinion formers" internationally that the Arabs deserved to be offered self-government. One of those he met, in Paris in 1919, was the US President, Woodrow Wilson. It was to make this case that he largely suppressed his wartime frustrations with the Arabs and instead put emphasis on their role in the First World War in the Middle East. Realising that the battle was for a favourable public perception of the Arabs, he had started doing this before the war was even over.

Few historians ever appreciate the reason why Lawrence's version of events does change over time, because they rely exclusively on Seven Pillars of Wisdom to tell the story of events that happened at least ten years before. And that inevitably leaves them open to allegations of favourable bias. I hope that the way that I went about researching Setting the Desert on Fire has made a book that provides a more nuanced analysis of why, eventually, he proved so popular a figure.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"Required reading" - New York Post

From yesterday's New York Post:

"Barr has uncovered previously closed archives in Europe on the revolt stirred up by Lawrence of Arabia and traveled the paths of that Middle East turmoil, which resonates in the region's politics today. This fast-paced history book, filled with saber-rattling sheiks, soldiers from Britain and France, spies and courtly diplomats, is a thriller."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

New reviews

Extracts from two new reviews of the Norton edition:

"a compact, scrupulously accurate chronicle ... utilizing previously unavailable archival material and seamlessly interweaving the military narrative with the political maneuvers of the British and French governments". "An excellent general history of a widely misunderstood struggle that largely defined the shape of the modern Middle East."

"A gripping tale ... Barr turns history into a drama, with bright writing and a fascinating cast of characters. ...His four years of searching archives in Europe and crossing the deserts of the Middle East allowed Barr to turn out a colourful slice of history."

Associated Press (see the full review reproduced here)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Extinguishing an insurgency

Firefighters traditionally use a triangular diagram to illustrate how they attack a blaze. At the three corners are the three vital ingredients of a fire: heat, fuel and air. Remove any one of these three and the fire dies out. It struck me recently that the same diagram can be applied to counter-insurgency. An insurgency depends on three key ingredients: insurgents - to do the fighting; weapons - for them to fight with; and sympathy from the local population in which they operate. Take away any of them and the insurgency begins to dwindle.

We can see how this is happening in northern Iraq. The number of insurgents is apparently ebbing. The Times yesterday reported the contents of two letters that had been seized in recent raids, and have now been made public by the US military. If true, they point to a crisis within the insurgents' ranks caused by infighting, defections, and a lack of volunteers. This last factor, claims General Petraeus, is due to countries barring young men from flying to the Syrian cities of Damascus and Aleppo on one-way tickets.

Petraeus rather grudgingly acknowledged that the fifty per cent fall in foreign militants entering Iraq was partly due to Syrian intervention, presumably along the notoriously porous Syria/Iraq border, and this may have had an effect on the constant supply of weapons that the insurgents need to fight their guerrilla war, particularly if you count suicide bombers as a weapon, since half of these were estimated recently to come via Syria. The weapons used by the insurgents have come from two sources: the disbanded Iraqi army (the glut of AK47s was so large after the 2003 invasion that the price dropped to as little as $10 a rifle) and from Iraq's neighbours, Syria and Iran, both of whom have had a strong interest in seeing the United States bogged down since they were identified as likely future targets of American action. If Syria is now making some effort to stop the insurgency, that is likely to help deny the insurgents the weapons they need. It is interesting that there has been noticeably less criticism of Syria of late.

Finally there is some evidence that sympathy for the insurgents is diminishing. Sympathy, as TE Lawrence noted, is critical to the success of any insurgency. Across Anbar province, previously the most dangerous area outside Baghdad, "Awakening Councils" of local Sunni tribesmen have been springing up, fuelled by US money, and determined to root out the guerrillas whose indiscriminate tactics have caused widespread revulsion. As the despairing tone of the letters displayed by the US military suggest, this is perhaps the most important development. Note though, from the BBC's two polls in March and September last year, that Sunni opposition to the US presence simultaneously increased during this period.

Monday, February 04, 2008

New and improved

Setting the Desert on Fire is published in the United States this month, over eighteen months after the British edition came out. "What took so long?", I keep being asked.

The short answer is that I rewrote great chunks of the book. The result is a tighter, punchier, more exciting read. T.E. Lawrence now arrives at the outset, and I have now explained more fully why he became involved in the Arab revolt. The diplomatic wrangling that surrounded his arrival in Arabia is now more clear. And, following the very positive feedback from readers of the UK edition, there's more for armchair travellers about my own journey through the region in Lawrence's footsteps, and more of the photographs that I took in the Middle East during my research.

Norton have done a fantastic job and the end result looks stunning. But then I'm biased. There have been a few early reviews so far. Publishers Weekly on November 26 last year described it as "exhaustively researched and vividly narrated." The review concluded: "Barr expertly navigates an intriguing landscape of shifting alliances and labyrinthine politics peopled with eccentric characters to demystify a fascinating legend." You can look here and here for more.