With the return of Great Power imperialism in something like its classic form, ghosts from the not-so-deep past are appearing.
In Libya today we see a revival of the means first used to achieve formal British domination over the energy-rich territory of the former Ottoman Empire.
During the First World War intelligence officers — most famously T.E. Lawrence — were used to infiltrate behind enemy lines, conduct reconnaissance, call in air support, liaise with, train, equip, fund (11 million pounds, mostly in gold) and organize Feisal’s irregular local rebel forces in the Hejaz into mobile combat units, and finally to set up puppet governments following the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Thus the Arab Bureau in Cairo directed the Arab Revolt for the British Empire. Feisal got the Iraqi throne, the RAF got bases in Basra and Mosul, Anglo-Persian got Abadan, and the Royal Navy controlled all waters between the Red Sea and the Bay of Bengal.
During the Second World War a similar task was entrusted to the Long-Range Patrol/Desert Group and the newly-formed SAS commando regiments.
These ranged across North Africa, crossing the border from Egypt to conduct reconnaissance of Italian bases before war was declared, reporting on and interrupting enemy traffic along the Mediterranean coast, assisting with sea landings, and conducting raids on airfields, harbours, railway lines, etc.
This week British and US newspapers have sketchily detailed the role of British SAS and French and Qatari special-operations forces, US intelligence agents and assorted mercenaries, in arming, training and directing the rebels in Libya, providing intelligence for air strikes, and organizing the assault on Tripoli.
Of course we have seen something similar before with the KLA and Northern Alliance proxies. But here historical echoes of strategies from the British and French imperial past are uncanny, as when twelve years ago German aircraft flew sorties over the Balkans.
In fact, even the propaganda niceties used for public consumption are familiar.
From today’s perspective, the agents of European colonialism and pre-Wilson diplomacy often seem blunt and (almost refreshingly) candid, scarcely bothering to shroud their strategic aims in blandishments like our Responsibility to Protect. But the British imperialists of one century ago were themselves attentive to appearances and PR.
In September 1916, they decided that landing a brigade at Rabigh, on the Red Sea near Mecca, would be a bad look, especially around the time of the Hajj. As they hastily trained and armed indigenous troops, and directed Sherifian assaults on Jeddah, Medina and nearby cities, British ships and aircraft supported the irregulars by destroying Turkish artillery, against which the rebels were helpless. The Royal Navy then landed Muslim troops from Egypt to help the locals take Mecca. (The French sent 1000 Algerians.)
Two years later, Allenby insisted that British and French forces linger outside Damascus, allowing the Hashemites to enter as liberators and hoist the Hejaz flag.
As described in the previous post, the diplomatic objectives of Great Powers are increasingly being pursued by special forces personnel. These elite non-conventional units are used not just for so-called stability operations (counterinsurgency and ‘peacekeeping’) but also to foment and facilitate the move, where this is desired, from political instability to armed uprising.
By militarizing a protest movement, regime change in a strategic location can be achieved; through a judiciously applied assassination programme, covert or not so much, a friendly government can be propped up, etc. This dual role is shown most clearly by astonishing growth in the reach of US Joint Special Operations Command.