Recent events in southern Iraq — in particular the “rescue” of two British SAS special forces officers in Basra — have highlighted how the US led occupation is losing its grip even in so called stable areas of the country.
These developments have also led to public splits emerging inside the establishment over the future of the British troops in the region.
BBC2’s Newsnight recently gave us an example of this. Viewers were treated to the surreal spectacle of General Sir Michael Rose and columnist Simon Jenkins debating the lessons of British colonialism with pro-war Labour MP Ann Clywd and neoconservative writer William Shawcross.
When ruling class figures such as these end up arguing in public, it is clear that the endgame in Iraq has already begun. Minds are turning to the tricky question of how to get out.
Much of the debate has focused on Britain’s own history of decolonisation. Britain usually left its colonies in a state of instability. Whether in India, Cyprus, or indeed anywhere else, the one thing occupations were not suited for was preventing massacres or civil wars.
The game is up
The likes of General Rose are by no stretch of the imagination anti-imperialist. But it is nevertheless true that they know a fair bit about the limits of sham democracies when confronted with insurgencies.
And on the basis of that experience they think the game is up, and they are increasingly prepared to say so — even if this is a debate which takes it for granted that something called “British interests” must be protected.
It’s therefore worthwhile to look at the last time a Labour government presided over a mess like this — the 1967 disengagement from Aden, now part of Yemen, in southern Arabia, in the days of prime minister Harold Wilson.
The dirty war in Aden has recently been the subject of reminiscing by various colonial butchers (retired) in the Daily Telegraph letters page. Reading through the accounts of their contemporaries, it’s easy to see why they felt that this was an appropriate occasion to share their memories.
One British army officer in Aden in 1967 describes the developing disaster in the following familiar terms:
“A major problem which was to recur throughout the campaign was the lack of any specific, reliable intelligence about the enemy — where they were, what their organisation was, what their aims and objectives might be, or indeed, who they were.”
Readers of British newspapers at the time were treated to a bewildering array of acronyms to describe the competing factions of the resistance in Aden, as well as tales of “foreign extremists” from Egypt and Yemen.
These militias, strangely, appeared set on killing British soldiers as well as each other, despite the fact that Britain had promised them independence as soon as the trouble had stopped.
What made it worse was that the security forces themselves appeared to be arming various organisations — and there were growing fears of clashes between the local police and militia and the British army.
Another British officer didn’t find this too surprising. “If I had been a young Arab I would have been a nationalist just like them,” he wrote. “The appeal is to run your own country. When these Arabs were sent on courses and met Arabs from Syria or Jordan or Iraq, they were regarded as imperialist stooges.”
Britain ruled the port of Aden from 1839 to 1967. It supported the trade route to India and was a military base from which guns could be sent to Egypt.
Between 1839 and 1954 Britain ran a kind of protection racket with local sheikhs and strong men in the desert hinterland, involving promises not to bomb their villages if they didn’t sign treaties with foreign powers or encroach on the colony proper.
Following the Second World War, the growing demand for oil from the Persian Gulf transformed Aden into a major port. By 1954 British Petroleum had been driven out of Iran by nationalists and opened a refinery in Aden.
Hub of imperialism
The British had being kicked out of Egypt by its radical leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. This transformed Aden into an important hub for British imperialism.
But the world was changing. Nasser had set the region alight with hopes of independence and development. In the small shops and bazaars, the face of Nasser appeared on every wall. Every radio seemed tuned to Cairo radio stations attacking British imperialism and the corrupt feudal elites that acted as British stooges.
Moreover, the expansion of industries associated with the refinery was sharpening existing social antagonisms within the colony. The British and their merchant allies faced Arab workers who were organised into the Aden Trade Union Congress (ATUC).
Caught between guerrilla attacks from Yemen and strikes and demonstrations in Aden, the British sought to merge Aden with the Federation of South Arabia. This was a cabal of corrupt sultans formed by the British to ward off Nasserism and keep the heat off the real regional rulers—themselves.
The result was a “shotgun marriage” between the sultans of the Federation and the merchants of Aden, achieved through a mixture of bribery and coercion. It was carried through Aden’s legislative assembly in September 1962 by just one vote, in the face of opposition from the majority of the population.
The very next day the reactionary ruler of Yemen was overthrown in a republican coup. Abdullah al-Asnag, the leader of ATUC, soon joined Yemen’s new republican government.
Workers, army officers, and youths flocked to fight the British-backed royalists.
By 1964 British policy seemed to be spiralling into disaster. It was in this situation that Harold Wilson’s Labour government came to power, promising to reverse the polcy. It was not to be.
Before the election the Labour Party had argued for a deal with Asnag. This was on the not unreasonable basis that ATUC represented the majority of the region’s population, while those who backed Britain did not.
Labour’s colonial secretary Anthony Greenwood was determined that the popular nationalist leaders ought to be given power and independence as quickly as possible. But this decision was overruled by Harold Wilson.
The reasons for this were bound up with Britain’s desire to keep good relations with the US, despite Britain’s failure to send troops to Vietnam.
US president Lyndon Johnson was prepared to accept this failure if Britain would take over its policeman role in the Middle East.
This shameless U-turn was dressed up with the same warmed over arguments we are hearing today. Suddenly it was remembered that promises had been made to the sultans, that there were risks if Britain’s “word” was seen to be worthless, and that carrying out Labour policy would send a “dangerous message” to those who would make this vital region a centre of instability.
System of alliances
Publicly there was talk of a compromise involving a unitary state in South Arabia giving the sultans the semblance of authority, but allowing the majority control through elections. The condition of this agreement, however, was the maintenance of a British military base in the region, with Aden staying inside a Western system of alliances.
This was a “compromise” which suited the new US masters of the region. While local notables and moderate nationalists negotiated with the British, fighters in Yemen — many of them workers from Aden — began a sustained guerrilla campaign against the British.
In a region where facade parliaments had been a vehicle for imperial power and feudal privileges, the British attempted to impose a solution that forced the population into an alliance against the forces of Arab nationalism. This was simply a recipe for civil war.
The insistence on a settlement that would suit British and American interests in the region was presented as “ensuring a stable transition” and all the rest of the rubbish we hear today.
There were two predictable results. The first was civil war and bloodshed. The second was the British scuttling out early in 1967 without any agreement.
And Aden is simply one, now largely forgotten, example of how these protracted negotiations about the nature of the post-colonial system function.
They are presented as attempts to prevent civil war, but the central concern is always with shaping the destiny of territories and whole regions in the interests of great powers.
From the Kurds of northern Iraq to the Arabs of Iran, the ethnic conflict now regularly treated as arguments for foreign intervention have their roots in the reordering of the world carried out by tardily retreating great powers.
As history is recycled, it is important to understand that these were bad arguments then — and they are bad arguments now.
John Game is researching labour history at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.