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Home > News > Columnists > T V R Shenoy

Lessons from the past

June 19, 2003

War,' said Clemenceau, the French prime minister who led his nation to victory in World War I, 'is much too serious a matter to be left to soldiers.' In much the same spirit, his British counterpart Lloyd George thought that peace was too serious to be entrusted to diplomats alone. To the fury of his foreign office, he went to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 with several experts drawn from outside the ranks of the civil service. One of these was the young Arnold Toynbee, destined to become one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century.

Fifty years later, Toynbee wrote of a historic moment he witnessed, as the British prime minister was caught thinking aloud. 'Mesopotamia...yes...oil...irrigation...we must have Mesopotamia; Palestine...yes...the Holy Land...Zionism...we must have Palestine; Syria...h'm...what's there in Syria? Let the French have that.'

In a couple of minutes the seeds of much conflict had just been sowed by Lloyd George. Notoriously poor when it came to geography -- he didn't know whether New Zealand was to the east or the west of Australia -- he probably did not even realise what he was doing. And so it was that Palestine -- governed as part of Syria since Roman times -- was split off, while the separate Ottoman provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul were arbitrarily united.

Lloyd George, born into a highly religious Welsh community, had heard of the Holy Land of course even if he probably couldn't define its precise frontiers on a map. But Mesopotamia -- the nation now known as Iraq -- came into his view almost by accident. And that was the doing of the Government of India. In fact, were it not for Indian soldiers Iraq might never have come into being.

I hadn't quite realised that until the day when I visited Kut in Iraq. I saw two huge obelisks there next to a cemetery with inscriptions in English. One read: 'In memory of the brave Hindoos and Sikhs who laid down their lives for their King in the Great War.'

The other said: 'In memory of the brave Turks who laid down their lives for their country in the Great War'. (I asked my guide, a Ba'ath Party man, why there was no such memorial to the Iraqis who died in World War I. "It was a war between the Turks and the English empires. Both sides didn't concern themselves with us!" was the reply.)

British strategists were concerned that Turkish troops might cut off the flow of Persian oil. (It wasn't a major factor in the Arab world; in fact, the oil wells of Saudi Arabia date back only as recently as 1938.) In order to protect the waterways they decided to launch a pre-emptive strike on the Turkish possessions in Basra. The job was entrusted to the Indian Army because the British Army was fully occupied with the Germans in Europe. It would turn out to be one of the biggest disasters suffered by the British.

The move was initially successful, so much so that an overconfident British staff decided to sail up the river to Baghdad as well. General Townshend and his troops -- those 'brave Hindoos and Sikhs' -- were trapped in the town of Kut. After a four-month siege, Townshend surrendered. It was one of the greatest blows to British prestige in Asia, to be equalled only by the fall of Singapore to Japan in World War II.

And so it was that the long-ignored provinces of Basra, Baghdad, and Mosul were brought to the attention of the British public. If Indians had brought Iraq into the headlines, it would be oil that would keep the British in the country.

The British never did actually beat the Turkish forces in Iraq, but it didn't matter -- the three provinces were surrendered anyway at the Paris Peace Conference. Since colonialism was going out of fashion, Britain ruled through a 'mandate' obtained from a compliant League of Nations. I cannot help recalling this history today as the United States seeks to govern Iraq through a similar 'mandate' from the United Nations. But is history about to repeat itself in another way?

India has been requested to send a division to Iraq, a peacekeeping force. History suggests that Indian soldiers shouldn't act without a clear mission statement, nor operate under Western officers unfamiliar with Asian conditions. No, I am not really anticipating another surrender at Kut, but a protracted guerrilla warfare could be just as bad.

There may be important geostrategic reasons to send Indians to Iraq -- assuming we reach a consensus on the issue of course -- but 'generally to maintain the authority of our Flag in the Middle East,' the excuse offered in 1915 shouldn't be one. (There is, of course, the fact that Iraq has been generally pro-Indian rather than pro-Pakistani, and that Indian soldiers would get along far better with the average Iraqi than would their American or British counterparts.)

I am not against sending peace keepers to Iraq per se, but the reasons should be clear to one and all. Engineers and doctors and teachers to repair the shattered physical and economic fabric of the Iraqi state, to rebuild its water and sewage lines, its electric plants and its schools by all means, yes, these should be sent as soon as possible. But it won't harm anyone if we take a few days to ponder over the conditions under which Indian soldiers could operate should they go to Iraq.

T V R Shenoy

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