Political pressure is mounting in Washington for a significant Iraq pullout by 2009. Under similar pressure, London withdrew from a much larger and older project in August 1947. Indeed, Ian Jack wrote in The Guardian, the British exited India “with a speed and directness that alarmed many Indians and with a purpose that stemmed in small part from America’s then anti-colonial pressure on a country that was broke and badly in America’s debt.”
While India is far from a perfect analogy with Iraq, in 1947 it offered some remarkably similar problems, Jack wrote. “Its politics had become lethally communalized–not Shia v Sunni, but Muslim v Hindu and Sikh. London attempted to preserve a one-nation India, but failed; by early 1947 there was still no form of Indian government to which power could be transferred. British troops in India, not counting British officers in the Indian Army, had dwindled from a prewar figure of 60,000 to no more than 12,000 two years after the second world war ended, and all of them were very anxious to come home. When Attlee’s Labor government took office in 1945, withdrawal from India was no longer a matter of if, but when.”
Discussions in the White House about setting a date to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq echo those on Downing Street in the mid-1940s. “In Downing Street on the last day of 1946, a cabinet meeting pondered the wisdom of announcing a precise date when, to quote from the record, ‘we had no assurance that there would by then be a representative authority to whom we could hand over power.’ Still, the cabinet felt that a precise date might knock a few heads together and that withdrawal could be dressed up so as not to ‘appear to be forced upon us by our weakness’ but instead the logical conclusion of policies pursued by successive British governments,” Jack wrote.
“The truth is that a blunt document written in September by Lord Wavell, the penultimate viceroy, had scared them. ‘In India one must either rule firmly or not at all,’ he wrote. ‘With a largely uneducated and excitable people, easily moved to violence, it is essential that agitation and incitement to unbridled riot should be stopped at once.’ Britain lacked the will and means for the long haul. Wavell said Britain needed to quit no later than spring 1948. In February 1947, the government earmarked June, and then appointed Wavell’s successor, Louis Mountbatten.”
Mountbatten set the partition of India into motion and similarly, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) has proposed it for Iraq.
“Mountbatten was a military nincompoop and one of stupendous vanity, with a boyish preoccupation with flags, medals, uniforms and orders of ceremony. But in India he and his cleverer wife, Edwina, charmed people, particularly India’s most significant politician, Jawaharlal Nehru. For their day and class, they were remarkably free of racial condescension. A combination of charm, bluster, rashness and perhaps ignorance achieved a political settlement within months, though it meant the partition of India,” Jack wrote.
“By 1947, Indian politicians on all sides had begun to see the idea of Pakistan as inevitable, though neither Britain nor the U.S. was particularly in favor of it. What may not have been inevitable was the slaughter that accompanied Pakistan’s creation and for which Mountbatten’s haste is sometimes held to blame; according to the historian Andrew Roberts, he should have been courtmartialled when he got back to London. Somewhere between 200,000 and 2 million people died.”
But slowness may only have postponed and aggravated the carnage, Jack wrote. As with the Shiites and Sunnis in today’s Iraq, Hindu-Muslim killings were an everyday event in British India—in 1946, 4,000 died in the Calcutta riots.
“Mountbatten had few British troops to call on, and probably even fewer willing to risk their lives in the cause of communal harmony. And most politicians wanted the British out as soon as possible. Nehru had said, ‘I would rather have every village in India go up in flames than keep a single British soldier in India a moment longer than necessary,’ ” Jack wrote.
Murder and mayhem in Iraq would likely accompany a swift exit by the United States. But would U.S. troops be slaughtered on their way out, as some have suggested? Maybe not.”The indubitable benefit, from a strictly British point of view, is that very few British soldiers died between the declaration of India’s independence and the last troop ship home—seven officers in one statistic,” Jack wrote.