Saul David: History warns us to withdraw

The Tet Offensive helped to turn US opinion against the Vietnam War

President George W Bush's acknowledgement that the current fighting in Iraq is comparable to the 1968 Tet Offensive in the Vietnam War is an extraordinary admission. "There's certainly a stepped-up level of violence," he told ABC News, "and we're heading into an election." It was, after all, the Tet Offensive that helped to turn US public opinion against a war which still exerts a powerful hold on American consciousness. Bush, moreover, has for the first time conceded that the Iraq war has a historical context. And he's absolutely right. The refusal by the President and Tony Blair to admit the failure of their Iraq policy by ordering a speedy withdrawal is entirely consistent with the history of similar foreign interventions.

Take Vietnam. The Tet Offensive was a military defeat for the Vietcong, but so severe was the fighting and so high the number of US casualties that many American commentators predicted the beginning of the end. The most influential was Walter Cronkite of CBS Evening News, who told his viewers that the US was "mired in a stalemate" and needed to get out. And yet a further five years elapsed before all US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam. Why? Because President Richard Nixon was determined not to leave until his South Vietnamese allies were strong enough to fight the war on their own (a policy known as "Vietnamisation", and one not dissimilar to the current building up of Iraqi security forces). It never happened, but the US left anyway, condemning the South Vietnamese army to eventual defeat in 1975.

Not that the Americans have a monopoly on tardy troop withdrawals after ill-judged wars. The unprovoked and ultimately disastrous British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 was undertaken, like Iraq, with regime change in mind: to replace a seemingly anti-British and pro-Russian ruler, Dost Mohammed, with a pro-British one, Shah Shuja. There, too, the plan was to withdraw British bayonets as soon as the country was pacified. It never happened, and tens of thousands of British, Indian and Afghan lives were lost in the ensuing three years of conventional and guerrilla war. The end result: British troops finally withdrew with their tails between their legs, having first blown-up Kabul's magnificent covered bazaar, and Dost Mohammed resumed his rule. Yet the lesson was not heeded, and three times since Afghanistan has been invaded by foreign troops: twice by the British and once by the Russians. Now we're back again, ostensibly at the request of a pro-Western Kabul government trying to find its feet. And once again, as in Iraq, the very presence of foreign troops is making the security situation worse.

It could be argued that British troops were withdrawn too quickly from India in 1947, and that many Hindu, Muslim and Sikh lives were lost as a result. And certainly the removal of British garrisons from former colonies in the 1950s and 1960s was largely well-timed and violence free. Yet in Iraq, like Afghanistan, there was ample warning from history. It was Britain, after all, which effectively created modern Iraq when it demanded a mandate over the former Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul in the aftermath of the First World War. This was partly because of Iraq's strategic importance at the head of the Persian Gulf , but chiefly because of oil: huge reserves had been discovered in both Iraq and Persia (modern Iran).

Within months, angry at the imposition of direct British rule, the Iraqis rebelled in Mosul and along the Euphrates. Railways lines were cut, towns besieged and British officers murdered. The British reacted harshly, dispatching punitive expeditions to burn villages and exact fines. They also used planes to bomb and strafe strongholds. By the end of 1920 a shaky peace had been restored, and by mid-1921 the throne of Iraq had been offered to Emir Feisal, son of the sharif of Mecca, who had fought with Lawrence of Arabia. But Feisal proved less pliant than Britain had hoped, and in 1932 Iraq joined the League of Nations as an independent state. In 1958, Feisal's grandson was ousted in a coup that established a republic. And there Britain's interference in the internal affairs of Iraq came to an end.

Until, that is, the 2003 invasion. Many have argued that the US and Britain missed a golden opportunity to oust Saddam Hussein in 1991. In truth, the decision not to march on Baghdad after the liberation of Kuwait was not only considered but correct. "We would have been there in another day and a half," wrote General Sir Peter de la Billiere, the British commander. "But in pressing on to the Iraqi capital we would have moved outside the remit of the United Nations authority, within which we had worked so far. We would have split the Coalition physically, since the Islamic forces would not have come with us... The Americans, British and French would have been presented as the foreign invaders of Iraq... The whole of Desert Storm would have been seen purely as an operation to further Western interests in the Middle East."

There was also a realisation that toppling Saddam was one thing, replacing him with a stable, pro-Western regime quite another. "If our soldiers depose him, or our special forces assassinate him," wrote the then US Assistant Secretary of State, John zKelly, "we risk losing American lives, bringing chaos and revolution to the region, jeopardising the oil and, after all, his successor could be even worse."

Nothing much had changed by 2003, which might explain why it's now being suggested that former President George Bush, who took the decision not to march on Baghdad in 1991, is so determined to reverse his son's disastrous Iraq policy. The omens from history suggest he is right to do so.

Dr Saul David is the author of many books, including 'Military Blunders' (Constable) and 'Victoria's Wars' (Viking). His television series include 'Time Commanders' for BBC2