Saul David: History warns us to withdraw

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

Share
Related Topics

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 And yet a further five years elapsed before all US troops were withdrawn from Vietnam.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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little