Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"The Sinews of War...

Still the cheapest element in modern warfare

... are infinite money," said Cicero. And time hasn't proved him wrong.

A few weeks ago I came up with a figure of over $2,800 a second for the cost of modern warfare. It was a rough calculation based on data published by the US government on its war expenditure in Iraq to date, divided by the number of days since the US invasion in March 2003. I said it was rough.

A far more sophisticated estimate, including many other costs, can be found in Joseph Stiglitz's and Linda Bilmes's new book The Three Trillion Dollar War. I haven't, and won't have time to read it, so this book review by Sam Leith for the Daily Telegraph is useful.

The sentence that caught my eye was this one:

The operating costs of the war in Iraq are now $12.5 billion a month; which rises to $16 billion if you include Afghanistan.

By my arithmetic that works out at $4,760 per second. No wonder then that a committee of British MPs has just announced that it expects the costs of Britain's engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan to double.

The question is how long the British taxpayer will indulge this level of expenditure (and lack of evidence of results) - particularly as the UK's economic prospects worsen.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Iraq today - Lawrence of Arabia's advice from yesterday

On February 18, 1921 T.E. Lawrence started work as an adviser to Winston Churchill, who had just been appointed Britain’s Colonial Secretary. With that job came responsibility for Iraq, the “ungrateful volcano” as Churchill dubbed the country, where the British had finally finished crushing a revolt against their rule.

Churchill knew that Iraq’s people were not the only people who opposed Britain’s three-year-old occupation. British taxpayers were outraged at the cost of Britain’s fractious colony; echoing their temper, the newspapers were demanding the withdrawal of British troops.

A keen student of the public mood, Churchill regarded the situation apprehensively. “I feel some misgivings”, he wrote, “about the political consequence to myself of taking on my shoulders the burden and the odium of the Mesopotamia entanglement.” Those words must reverberate with any of the presidential candidates today for, come January next year, they will find themselves in an uncannily similar position – stuck, as Churchill put it, with a baby, though he was “not the father”.

Churchill hoped that Lawrence could help extricate him from the mess in which he found himself. Lawrence understood insurgencies intimately because he had whipped up one himself, in Arabia against the Turks during the Great War. He knew more than anyone else alive about the Arabs, and guerrilla warfare. And eighty seven years on, his advice remains as resonant as ever.

As Lawrence vividly put it, “To make war on rebellion was messy and slow ... like eating soup with a knife.” So he would recognise the strategy behind the surge. He said that the Turks’ only answer to the uprising he had masterminded would have been to suffocate the area with troops – twenty for every four square miles was the figure he suggested.

Lawrence’s point was that it was beyond the Turks to provide so many men. The same fundamental problem confronts the far mightier United States today. A shortage of troops is why, in the north of Iraq, the US army has come to rely on the support of Sunni “awakening councils”, whose 80,000 vigilantes have dealt the insurgency a bitter blow.

But the Arabic word for awakening, al-nadha, carries important, political, connotations. It is used to refer to the rise of Arab nationalism a century ago and these “concerned citizens” are not simply interested in ending the violence that has blighted their lives. Suspicious of the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, they want to restore the dominance they have historically enjoyed. Like the Shia, almost all of them say they want Iraq to remain a unitary state – but only so long as it is run by them.

This distrust has ever been the case. As Lawrence put it bluntly, in Iraq the “tribes and towns are irreconcilable.” He therefore advocated splitting the country into two states: a tribal, sparsely populated Sunni north and more urbanised Shia south – areas, he said that “should be kept quite separate”. When it became clear that, because of oil, the British government was set on creating one state that joined the oilfields in the north to the Persian Gulf, Lawrence argued that Iraq would need to be “buttressed by the men and material resources of a great foreign Power.” Then, that power was Britain; today it is America.

“What is going to happen when our influence is removed?” wondered Lawrence’s colleague, Kinahan Cornwallis ,as the British tried to disentangle themselves from Iraq. He predicted: “They will all fly at each other’s throats until someone strong enough to dominate the country emerges or, alternatively, until we have to step in and intervene.”

According to Lawrence the Arabs believed “in persons, not in institutions”. His and Churchill’s solution was to put Feisal, his wartime comrade-in-arms, on the throne in Baghdad in August 1921 – giving what was still fundamentally a British government colony an Arab front-man. Feisal, a Sunni whose claim to be descended from Muhammad was widely recognised, appeared able to bridge the thirteen hundred year old rift between Sunni and Shia. And for a while he did. But even Feisal never really understood the country he had been parachuted in to rule. Shortly before his death in 1933 he described his subjects as “devoid of any patriotic idea …prone to anarchy and perpetually ready to rise against any government whatever.”

Whoever wins in November’s poll faces an awkward choice. For the surge to work more troops are needed, at a time when the American taxpayer may be ill-inclined to finance them; to leave now must make civil war more likely in a country that is fundamentally divided. One thing is certain: he or she will find it difficult to shrug off the “burden and odium” of Iraq.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Battlefields Trust

Courtesy of the Battlefields Trust, I'm next speaking in Norwich on 26 April at the Assembly House about my book, and the research and travel that led to it. You can find further details here.

I'm also speaking at:

The National Army Museum, Chelsea - 3 July
The TE Lawrence Society Symposium, Oxford - 28 September