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On Memorial Day: How the US Lost its "Battle of Aqaba" to the Coronavirus

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From Informed Comment


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On July 6, 1917, Auda Abu Tayy led his Howeitat tribesmen in a successful attack on the Ottoman port of Aqaba in what is now Jordan but was then the Ottoman Empire. The Arabs of the Hejaz or Western Arabia and the Transjordan had allied with the British to revolt against their Ottoman government in return for a promise from London to support them in achieving an independent Arab state after the war.

Britain went to war with the Ottomans because the latter allied with Austria and Germany against Russia (Istanbul was way more afraid of the Russians than any other Power, especially after the Russian drive on Istanbul in 1877-78).

Auda was advised by a British intelligence officer and former archeologist, T. E. Lawrence, who later rather exaggerated the importance of his own role in the Arab uprising. At Aqaba, Lawrence did not distinguish himself when he accidentally shot his own camel in the back of the head and was nearly killed.

So why did the 300-man-strong Ottoman garrison at Aqaba fall so easily to Auda's irregulars?

The Ottomans had set their artillery in concrete pylons and pointed them out to the Gulf of Aqaba, from which they feared a naval assault. They therefore could not wheel the big guns around and fire at the attacking Bedouin. They just couldn't imagine that a threat to the garrison and the port would come from inside Ottoman territory.

It is sort of the way the US invested big-time in the "Global War on Terror."

In the meantime, a thin strip of RNA was gunning for us and would establish itself to the rear of our military front lines. Had we spent trillions on coronavirus vaccines, on a single-payer health care system and on the network of country health departments across the country, we would not be in our present straits.

As of last year this time, 6,967 U.S. servicemen and women had died during Global War on Terror and Overseas Contingency Operation actions. The Congressional Research Service writes, "Some 52,802 had been wounded. Approximately 62% (36,885) of all war-related incidents that resulted in U.S. military casualties have occurred during operations in Iraq."

The rest of 2019 and the first five months of 2020 added to the grim totals. In 2019, 17 US soldiers and Marines were killed in Afghanistan and 180 were wounded. This, in a war that began in 2001 and is still going on with no signs of a US victory.

There are now less than 10,000 US service personnel in Afghanistan, with the number expected to decline to 8,600 by July. This is down from as many as 13,000 on January 1. And, the Trump administration is now pledged to be out entirely by next year this time. Such plans have been made before and been reversed at the last minute. No president wants to preside over the return of the Taliban to power in Kabul, with all the memories of the September 11, 2001 attacks that would evoke. And it just is not clear that the joint government of Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah could survive long with no US troops in theater. The Taliban control 10 percent of the country and have a presence in half the provinces.

The Pushtun Taliban, however, did not carry out the 9/11 attacks; Arab al-Qaeda did, and it isn't clear that Usama Bin Laden let his hosts know what he had planned. So an equation of the two would be a mistake. The Taliban, and many al-Qaeda, were furious with Bin Laden for bringing down on them the full wrath of the American superpower. Taliban rule would be horrible for the people of Afghanistan and especially the women and the Shiite Hazara (for the latter it might be close to genocidal). But Taliban rule would not necessarily equal a security threat to New York. The whole premise of the war in Afghanistan, America's longest, that it was part of a Global War on Terror or absolutely necessary to US security was and is false. Afghanistan is weak country and one of the poorest in the world and does not pose a realistic threat to the US.

Why did the US stay after overturning the Taliban in 2001-2002? Surely Bush wanted to extend the US sphere of influence into oil- and gas- rich Central Asia, and perhaps then secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to encircle the Russian Federation to ensure it did not reemerge as a peer rival to the US.

Those goals had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, and were merely imperial overstretch. Bush even pledged to rebuild and modernize Afghanistan, adding on one realistic goal to another.

As for Iraq, another US serviceman died in 2019 after the Congressional report and then seven so far in 2020.

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Juan Cole is an American academic and commentator on the modern Middle East and South Asia.  He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Since 2002, he has written a weblog, Informed Comment (more...)
 

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