The United States and now also Europe, are increasingly forced to confront the challenge it faces in its interaction with the Islamic world. Of course this is not, a "war on terrorism" because terrorism is merely a tool that certain, not all, Islamic groups use to achieve their end result.
But while history does not repeat itself, the similarities between U.S. excursions into the middle East today, and the actions of Great Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, are remarkable and in context of our ‘History of Globalization’ I find it worthwhile to take this a bit further.
In East Africa, the U.N. and U.S. tried and failed to establish peace between warring clans in Somalia. The British fought the Mahdi in the Sudan during the 1880s and, and fought a twenty-year running battle against the "Mad Mullah" in Somalia during the early twentieth century.
The British spent over seven years fighting two wars in the Sudan and two decades fighting another in Somalia. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, Egyptian rulers began a territorial expansion south into the Sudan in an effort to control the source of the Nile River. When the British exerted direct control of Egypt in 1882, they utilized the tactic of divide and rule to control both the Arab Muslim north and the Black non-Muslim south, where Western missionaries launched a Christian proselytizing effort. The subsequent religious divide, combined with the pre-existing racial and ethnic divisions, have yet to be overcome.
In addition, a British puppet regime, attempted to stamp out the Sudanese slave trade. Slavery is sanctioned in the Koran and was a pillar of Sudan's nineteenth century as it was also more recently again as it was also more recently again.
While eliminating such a reprehensible practice was a morally positive cause, it was done without attempting to educate the Sudanese and with no attempt to fill the economic vacuum that resulted. An interesting comparison can be made to the current situation in Afghanistan today, where viable alternatives for impoverished farmers could be more of a priority in order to eradicate the country's huge opium trade.
In 1881, a man named Ahmad son of a boat builder in the Dongola province of northern Sudan, had a pious charisma, and proclaimed himself "Mahdi," meaning Guided One. The Mahdi preached that under the banner of jihad, he could "restore the golden age of the Prophet Muhammad.” Case study 1: Important also in light of the current developments in Iran today we cover this here.
Specific to the lands of Islam, the Mahdi claimed that he would ultimately destroy the corrupt governments of Egypt and the Arabian Peninsula. This message would be repeated by subsequent generations of jihadists. Case study 2: (including Osama Bin Laden today), covered extensively here.
With each victory, thousands of Muslims from throughout the Horn of Africa flocked to the Mahdi's banner. Regardless of this basest of mercenary motive for fighting, the Mahdi named his followers Ansar. This is the Arabic word for helper that the prophet Mohammad first gave to the earliest Muslim converts of Medina. Ansar is a name common among today's jihadists.
On November 5, 1883, British commander Hicks Pasha and his army of 10,000 Egyptian soldiers were massacred at the Battle of EI Obeid. The political backlash of this military defeat, combined with little prospect for political and economic gain, led the British to give up the
Sudan. Thus General Charles "Chinese" Gordon "Pasha" was sent up the Nile to evacuate the Egyptian officials, soldiers and their families who occupied Khartoum and the surrounding
garrisons. General Gordon despised the Egyptians, in his journal, he wrote, "A more contemptible soldier than the Egyptian never existed. Here we never count on them; they are held in supreme contempt, poor creatures. They never go out to fight; it would be perfectly iniquitous to make them." (A. Egmont Hake, The Journals of Major-General C. G. Gordon. C. B. at Kartoum, Boston, 1885, p. 55.)
The only tools Gordon had at his disposal were one British soldier, Lieutenant-Colonel J.D. Stewart, and a number of indigenous troops for whom Gordon maintained a nearly spiritual reputation as the savior of the Sudan.
He recommended that the former Sudanese slave dealer, Zebehr Pasha, be sent from Egypt to take the reins of power in the Sudan, and later wrote in his journal:
I cannot too much impress on you that this expedition will not encounter any enemy worth the name in any European sense of the word; the struggle is with the climate and destitution of the country. It is one of time and patience, and of small parties of determined men, backed by native allies, which are got by policy and money. A heavy lumbering column, however strong, is nowhere in this land. Parties of forty or sixty men, swiftly moving about, will do more than any column . . . Native allies above all things, at whatever cost. It is the country of the irregular, not the regular. If you move in mass you will find no end of difficulties; whereas, if you let detached parties dash out here and there, you will spread dismay in the Arab ranks. The time to attack is the dawn, or rather before it, but sixty men would put these Arabs to flight just before dawn, which one thousand could not accomplish in daylight. This was always (Zebehr's) tactics . . . It is this very same warfare we will have to exercise if ever we would oppose Russia in her advance on Afghanistan. (Hake, vol.4, p. 82-4. )
Gordon's insight proves interesting when we consider subsequent tactics in Afghanistan,of the Mujahidin in the 1980’s, plus US endeavors in Iraq today.
Gordon also wrote, "My belief is that the Mahdi business will be the end of slavery in the Soudan. The Arabs have invariably put their slaves in the front and armed them is it likely that those slaves will ever yield obedience to those masters as heretofore?" (Hake, p. 356.)
The British government's inability to make a decisive decision in countering the Mahdi would however cost them the life of Gordon and would lead to a humiliating exit from the Sudan. And maybe this episode demonstrates how it is often better to make a bad decision that can be adjusted at a later date, such as putting a questionable leader in power, rather than make no decision at all and allow the attacker to make it for you.
Ultimately, General Wolseley, a combat veteran, was dispatched with a British military expedition to rescue Gordon and his forces. Dooming the defenders from the outset, Wolseley chose to take the easiest, cheapest and safest way to Khartoum via the 1,600 mile route along the Nile as opposed to the faster 450 mile route via ship down the Red Sea, then inland to Khartoum. Meanwhile, in March of 1884, the vanguard ofthe Mahdi's army began forming around Khartoum. In his journal, Gordon wrote, "The people are all against us and what a power they have; they need not fight, but have merely to refuse to sell us their grain. The stomach governs the world, and it was the stomach which caused our misery from the beginning." Hake, 12-3.)
While striking at the heart of the enemy is necessary in ultimately winning any war, staying unpredictable during the conflict is an important ingredient to success in combat. In mid-October of 1884, as the Mahdi's forces closed around Khartoum, his forces ineffectively bombarded Gordon's positions with artillery. Gordon did not allow his men to respond in kind. Not only did this conserve ammunition, but also not causing random casualties on Mahdi-held territory led many af the Mahdi's forced conscripts to cross over to the British lines. Gordon wrote, "For my part, I hope they will all run away, for they are only dupes ninety-nine out of every hundred; it is the leaders who are the prime movers." (Hake, 174,216.)
In fact winning the support of the general population in any type of insurgency or counterinsurgency campaign is a must, plus intelligence is a key. As the Mahdi's forces grew around Khartoum, a man named Rudolf Baron von Slatin, an Austrian soldier of fortune converted to Islam, infiltrated the Mahdi's inner circle and was privy to several key pieces of information. For example behind the scenes, the supposedly pious Mahdi handpicked the prettiest captured slave girls, and kept them for his own sexual pleasure. This was one of several inconsistencies that led some of the Sudanese sheikhs to secretly support Gordon and the prospect of a less "fundamentalist" Sudan. Slatin attempted to inform Gordon of these feats, and there is a chance that General Gordon may have succeeded in arranging the Mahdi's assassination or hold the Mahdi at bay until Lord Wolseley's expedition arrived.
However Gordon refused to help Slatin escape from the Mahdi’s camp, "Politically and morally, it is better for us not to have anything to do with the apostate Europeans in the Arab camp. Treachery never succeeds, and, however matters may end, it is better to fall with clean hands, than to be mixed up with dubious acts and dubious men," so Gordon wrote in his diary. Thus to discard intelligence, would lead to the grisly death of Gordon and his men.
By mid-January, the Khartoum garrison's food stocks were depleted and they were forced to kill and eat dogs, donkeys and rats. Dysentery became rampant, and when in the early morning hours of January 26, 1885, the Mahdi sent tens of thousands of his forces over the weakly defended muddy ridge, his followers burst into the city. Based on the Qu'ran, the Mahdi in fact had promised those that fought could keep 80% of any booty they found. Slatin later described the scene as follows:
"Whoever was suspected of having concealed money was tortured until the secret was disclosed the unfortunate people were flogged until their flesh hung down in shreds from their bodies... Even women of an advanced age were tormented and the most sensitive parts of their bodies were subjected to a species of torture which it is impossible for me to describe here Young women and girls only were exempted from these abominable tortures, for no other reason than that such atrocities might interfere in some manner with the object for which they had been reserved. All such were put aside for the harem of the Mahdi, who, on the actual day of the conquest, made his selections, and turned over the rejected ones to his Khalifas and principal Emirs."
Gordon was decapitated and his body and head, after first being presented to the Mahdi, were mutilated and all, 6,000 of the garrison's soldiers and 4,000 of the city's 30,000 civilians were massacred. Women and girls were divided and distributed as slaves. For the “Mahdi”, the defeat of the British at Khartoum was only the beginning. He now laid plans to pursue jihad throughout the Muslim world, starting with Egypt to the North and Abyssinia, now known as Ethiopia, to the east.
When less than six months later, on June 22, 1885, the Mahdi died of typhus, plus in response to Italian and French intrigue in the region, in 1896, the British government decided to re-conquer the Sudan. But while colonial competition may have been the driving factor, British bankers with a substantial investment in Egypt just to the north, and the British public's desire for revenge over the catastrophic failure at Khartoum doubtlessly played their roles in the decision. Niall Ferguson, Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power, 2003 p. 264)
On the day of the ensuing Battle of Omdurman, wave upon wave of Muslim 'Dervishes' fell dead at the combined firepower of British artillery and Maxim machine guns. But most importantly, after the battle, commanding General Kitchener pursued the remnants of the Muslim-Dervish leadership for a year until they were completely destroyed.