From Lawrence to the Taliban

3 mins read
T.E. Lawrence

The aim of Operation Moshtarak in February 2010 was to capture the city of Marjah in Afghanistan’s war-torn Helmand province. Fifteen thousand troops, mainly American, British, and Afghan, were to take on between 400 and 1,000 Taliban insurgents holed up in a city of 80,000 people.

Western commanders talked confidently of a ‘new model war’. An Afghan administration and police force would move into Marjah immediately behind the soldiers. Engineers were on hand to maintain power and water supplies. ‘We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in,’ explained US General Stanley McChrystal. There would be no cut and run: territory recaptured from the insurgents at such great effort was to be retained.

But as the offensive unfolded over succeeding weeks, reported Taliban casualties were few. And Marjah turned out not to exist. Faithfully reported by global news media, it was in fact invented by US military officials. ‘This is all a war of perceptions,’ explained McChrystal. As The Washington Post reported on 22 February, the decision to launch the offensive was largely intended to impress US public opinion with the effectiveness of military action in Afghanistan by showing it could win a ‘large and loud victory’.

Marjah was invented because a military operation has to have a clear-cut goal to be deemed a victory. A phantom city was needed because the enemy is a phantom. A task force is assembled and motors into bandit-country. If it is too small, it risks annihilation. If it is too big, it finds itself punching the air. For one of the golden rules of guerrilla warfare is that you only stand and fight if you are certain to win. So the invaders of Afghanistan find themselves waging a war against an enemy who is never there.

Lawrence was a young officer who had spent the first two years of the First World War in the intelligence department in Cairo, a position he owed to his fluent Arabic and his detailed knowledge of Syria, both acquired while working as an archaeologist in the Middle East. On a diplomatic mission to the Hijaz region of western-central Arabia towards the end of 1916, he had formed a personal relationship with Prince Feisal, the commander of one of the Arab forces now ranged in revolt against Ottoman rule. Feisal asked that Lawrence should be permanently attached to his service as a British liaison officer. Lawrence’s superiors agreed.

The Ottoman Empire, though much reduced, still controlled a vast territory stretching from a tongue of land in south-eastern Europe all the way to the Caucasus, the Tigris, the Yemen, and the Suez Canal. Plunging into the world war, this ramshackle traditional empire, though fighting a war on four fronts, against the Russians in the Caucasus and the British in Gallipoli, Sinai, and Mesopotamia, had proved a much tougher opponent than its enemies predicted.

Not the least of concerns to both the Russians and the British, the rulers of large Muslim populations, was the Ottoman Sultan’s call to jihad against the empire’s enemies. The Arab Revolt, led by the Emir of Mecca, a descendant of the Prophet and protector of the Muslim holy places, had been encouraged by secret British diplomacy as a source of both military and ideological support for the Allied cause. But after momentary success, the revolt stalled.

Lawrence, newly arrived in the Hijaz, was witness to this looming disaster. His response was to turn conventional military thinking on its head and create a new theory of modern guerrilla warfare. What if the Arabs ignored the Turks? What if they simply marched away from them into the desert, constituted themselves as a ‘silent threat’ and waged a ‘war of detachment’?

This they did. In fact, even before Lawrence had worked it out exactly, they had made a start by marching 200 miles north – away from the Turks threatening them around Medina – and establishing a new base at Wejh. They then staged a series of camel-mounted raids on the Hijaz Railway that the Turks had no choice but to defend.

On close inspection of Lawrence’s articles and post-war treatises, one can identify 15 distinct principles of guerrilla warfare Viewed as a whole, they are extraordinary in many ways.

First, they invert many of the cardinal principles of conventional military theory, like concentration of force, and the centrality of pitched battle to destroy the enemy’s main forces and will to fight. In this sense, they are the work of a brilliant maverick, an unconventional intellectual who had not even undergone the routine military training given to volunteer wartime officers (though he probably learnt something as a member of the Oxford University Officers Training Corps), and who, in consequence, seems to have found it easy to think ‘outside the box’.

Second, they draw on the traditional tactics of the ‘eastern way of war’ – as embodied in Bedouin tribal raiding – yet elevate this into a strategy for what would later be called a ‘national liberation struggle’. The Arab leaders themselves, by contrast, were committed to building state structures in keeping with their aspiration to modern nationhood. So their emphasis was on creating a regular army, not on guerrilla warfare. Again, just as Lawrence was not hidebound by British military tradition, nor was he constrained by Arab political ambition.

For further details on Lawrence’s 15 Principals, and what it is that makes the guerrilla so powerful an enemy, read the full unabridged article by Dr. Neil Falkner in issue 1 of Military Times.

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