Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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February 19, 2003

From Cairo to Kabul in 200 Years: Seeing the Parallels for the War on Terror and the Coalition War on Iraq

Analysis. By Mark Kagan, GIS. On January 27-28, 2003, in the largest military action since Operation Anaconda in March 2002, US troops and aircraft and allied Afghan militia forces fought a large group of Afghan fighters aligned with former mujahedin commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The battle, in which at least 18 fighters were killed with no Coalition casualties, took place about 15 miles north of Spinboldak, the border crossing between Kandahar in Afghanistan and Quetta in Pakistan.

Most Western reports called the fighters “rebels”, but the Afghan fighters undoubtedly saw — and continue to see — themselves as mujahedin freedom fighters trying to retake the country from alien infidels and their puppet Government in Kabul.

The battle itself was a timely reminder during the gathering storm over Iraq which, despite the astonishingly rapid defeat of the Taliban Administration in Afghanistan and its Al-Qaida allies, Afghanistan may have been conquered by the US or its Afghan allies but it was by no means vanquished; even if the conquerors did not see themselves as conquerors but as liberators.

The distinction is not merely a semantic one, particularly as the United States considers the real possibility of what it calls “regime change” in another Muslim country which has itself been the subject of a dysfunctional ruling government. One can argue that the benefits of removing Saddam Hussein as ruler of Iraq would be worth the costs of the war it would take to accomplish that goal. One can certainly argue that Afghanistan is far better off now than when it was ruled by the Taliban. But, for the past two centuries, the Middle East and Central Asia have been offering case studies in the problems of clashing perceptions and unintended consequences which can be ignored  only at their peril by Western powers that choose to involve themselves in those regions.

In his classic 1962 book, The Blue Nile,1 Alan Moorehead vividly described the astonishingly rapid conquest of another backward Muslim country — Egypt — more than 200 years ago by the foremost military power of that age — France. Just as the United States and Western aid organizations are today trying to rebuild Afghanistan after 20 years of war, civil war and Taliban misrule, so did Napoleon Bonaparte and his army try to ingratiate themselves and reform Egypt after their defeat of its corrupt medieval Mameluke rulers in 1798.

“Bonaparte during these early days tried hard to make himself acceptable to his new subjects… Egyptians were appointed as governors of the provinces, each with a French commissioner to assist him… taxes were imposed on what was believed to be a fair and reasonable basis, and in the law courts and government offices an attempt was made to do away with the Mameluke system of corruption and bribery. Next, an elaborate scheme of public works was set on foot… troops were sent off to rescue a caravan of Mecca pilgrims who were being harassed by the Bedouin outside Cairo.”

Moorehead contended that the French attempted “nothing less than the regeneration of Egypt”, and the parallels to the US presence in Afghanistan today are striking, although there are — and were — significant differences between the French occupation of Egypt and the US presence in Afghanistan. Bonaparte and his savants, Moorehead observed,

“… were moved by the ardent revolutionary principle that all men wished to be free and to improve themselves, but this, as we have seen, was not necessarily the case in a country that had scarcely ever known either freedom or improvement. …what the French appeared to be offering [the Egyptians] was not freedom but a new sort of subservience, worse than the one they known before because it was alien and strange. … They had been getting on very well, they felt, as they were before. They had no need for new canals, new weights and measures, and new schools. Above all, they hated Christian interference in their private lives. … every move [Bonaparte’s] soldiers made was an affront to the [Muslim] way of life… It was perfectly true that the Mamelukes, in moments of violence, behaved infinitely more cruelly to the Egyptians than the French did. But this was not the point. The Mamelukes were the devil they knew, and Bonaparte was not.”

The Egypt of 200 years ago had been profoundly isolated not just from Europe for centuries but it had been an imperial backwater even when the ruling Ottoman Empire was at its peak in the 1400-1500s. The French invasion and the three-year occupation was a rude awakening in every sense of the phrase, whose profound impact is still being felt in Egypt — and the rest of the Middle East.

Geography — isolation and forbidding terrain — enabled Afghanistan to keep the outside world outside in a way that Egypt never could, although it was by no means unaffected by the 20th Century. And despite — or perhaps because of — the almost unceasing warfare of the past 20 years, most of Afghanistan’s people have remained deeply conservative, tribal and religious — in that order. The Taliban was able to take over most of the country and rule it not only by force of arms and because they brought some stability to what had been chaotic and lawless cities and towns; they succeeded because they also deeply tapped into those same fiercely conservative, tribal and religious elements of Afghan society.

Yet, there is no question that the overthrow of Taliban rule was welcomed by a population that was exhausted by war, poverty, corruption and misrule. Furthermore, even many deeply conservative and religious Afghanis found it difficult to adhere to religious “standards” that could be maintained only by those whose very fanaticism prevented them from seeing that most people could not and did not want “live up to” their standards.

Furthermore, there are significant differences between the presence of Americans and other Westerners in Afghanistan of today from the French who came to rule Egypt 200 years ago. There are certainly also significant differences between Egypt of that time and Afghanistan of today.

However, it is the similarities that should be noted if the missions of nation-building and permanently removing the Taliban from the scene are going to be ultimately successful. Otherwise, they will soon realize, like the French, that

“…the campaign which had opened so brilliantly had only just begun, and was about to enter a new phrase; in place of pitched battles which were short and victorious, they were faced with guerilla warfare which promised to be long and hard.”


1. Moorehead, Alan: The Blue Nile. London, 1962: Hamish Hamilton, Ltd.