Varieties of imperial decline: from the Rif to Iraq


Although few direct parallels exist between the Bush regime’s debacle in Iraq and events following the Spanish catastrophe at Anoual in their Moroccan colonial war in 1921, some clearly do. The cruelty and ferocity are similar, as are the use of mercenaries, indiscriminate aerial bombardment of civilians, the use of chemical weapons, and the effort to rely on local troops and police to pacify revolt and reduce US casualties. The manipulation of national chauvinism in both cases to support these colonialist aggressions is also striking.

The Rif independence campaign led between 1920 and 1927 by Emir Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi was just one instance of global resistance to colonial domination before and after Versailles and the end of the 1914-18 war. Resistance flared from Ireland to Iraq to India, from Algeria to Syria to Indo-China, and from Java to the Congo. Sandino’s war against the US marines in Nicaragua began in 1926. Revolt in China against Chiang Kai Shek’s pro-imperialist regime lasted from 1925 through 1926. The period between the two world wars was marked by repeated outbreaks of such resistance – invariably repressed with ruthless barbarity by the colonial powers and their allies among local elites.

Various reasons prompt attention to Abd el-Krim’s campaign. Its albeit temporary success was a devastating setback for the colonial powers, offering a threatening example to the colonial status quo in North Africa. It required unprecedented force to suppress it. The sequel in the relevant imperial centre was dictatorship and crisis leading to the Spanish Civil War.

Domestic political conditions in the US have some unhappy echoes of 1920s Spain. Among them, one can discern a discredited head of state and an incompetent executive, a pathetically ineffectual legislature, deep underlying economic problems and an unpopular, expensive foreign colonial war. The context of the French-Spanish Rif War and its sequel offers bleak antecedents for international relations given the contemporary decline in the power of the United States and its European and Pacific allies.

Anoual and its context The impetus for French and Spanish dominion over Morocco came with the 1906 Treaty of Algeciras, part of that era’s crude imperialist game of swap between Britain, France, Germany and the other colonial powers. In 1907, French troops occupied Casablanca. A Berber uprising in 1911 led France to move into the Moroccan interior and later to declare Morocco a French “Protectorate” in 1912, the same year Italy imposed dominion over Libya. Spain bagged control of the northern coastal Rif region and of the tiny pocket of Tarfaya/Ifni. The status of Tangier was dubious until, in 1923, it was made a tripartite international port controlled by Britain, France and Spain. In his earlier career, Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi had worked with the Spanish colonial authorities until his imprisonment in 1917 for criticising Spanish designs on the Rif, for its mineral resources, which before then had remained outside the sphere of direct colonial rule. In 1919, el-Krim returned physically to his native region around Ajdir and morally to the salafiyyah inspired ideas of national and cultural renaissance of his student days in Fez. From that time on, he worked to organize resistance in the Rif to Spanish colonial dominion.

 Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi with Spanish journalist Luis de Oteyza in the summer of 1922. Photograph by Alfonso Sanchez Portelo

While el-Krim and his supporters organized their forces, over in the west of its Moroccan territories Spain’s General Berenguer was successfully working out how to defeat the guerrilla warfare his army faced there. Despite its success, his cautious policy was despised by King Alfonso and Berenguer’s fellow generals. One of these, General Sylvestre, was given command of military operations in the Rif. Ignoring Berenguer’s painstaking tactics, Sylvestre bypassed the line of command and in June 1921, with King Alfonso’s approval, mounted a poorly planned advance into the Rif .

Out on a limb and tactically inexperienced, a contingent of his troops was massacred at Abarran, prior to a Berber attack on Sylvestre’s line at Sidi Dris. By July 21st, el-Krim’s forces numbered around four thousand. They overran an outpost at Iguerriben killing nearly 300 Spanish troops and then attacked Sylvestre’s main force of over 4000 troops at Anoual. Ordered to retreat, the demoralised and poorly led Spanish forces were massacred.

The whole Spanish line of communications back to the coastal town of Melilla collapsed in disorder. The slaughter lasted from July 21st to August 6th when the final Spanish outpost at Monte Arruit surrendered, only to be killed for the most part, barring a few hundred who were taken prisoner. El-Krim’s forces, augmented by local tribes along the way, killed over 12,000 Spanish troops. Some estimates put the figure as high as 19,000. Spain’s defeat at Anoual was epoch-making.

Youssef Girard observes, “For Spain, Anoual was one of the most grievous defeats in its history. The Spanish troops had not just suffered a defeat but had lost face to an enemy judged to be technically and racially inferior. In a world marked by racist and ethnocentric prejudice, Anoual was a symbol : it was that of the victory of people of colour over a nation of whites ; it was the effacement of the Cross by the Crescent ; it was the revenge of the Orient over the West.” (1)

The sequel

The immediate sequel to Anoual in Spain was the resignation of the Allende-Salazar government. A series of unstable coalitions governed for the remainder of 1921 until 1923, with opinion on the war split largely between between abandonistas and africanistas. On September 13th 1923, General Primo de Rivera, supported by the king, declared a military dictatorship. In 1924 he took command of the war in Morocco. By then el-Krim had declared an autonomous Rif Republic. Despite his former abandonista tendencies, de Rivera proceeded to carry out military operations against the people of the Rif.

During an initial strategic withdrawal to shorten his lines of communication and concentrate forces, de Rivera suffered another defeat by el-Krim’s army almost as bad as Anoual in terms of losses. El-Krim’s army fell on the withdrawing Spanish forces inflicting around 14,000 casualties, although far fewer deaths than at Anoual. But the Rif forces’ success only stimulated France to act more supportively towards Spain.

The French-Spanish offensive

French commander Marshal Lyautey had already established an effective blockade of the Rif from the territories under his control. El-Krim was forced into an offensive south towards Fez against the French. His success and the losses his army inflicted on the French forced Marshal Lyautey to resign. Lyautey’s replacement was Petain, victor of Verdun and future leader of the fascist Vichy régime.

The Moroccan king, afraid of the threat to his own position posed by el-Krim, refused to fight. Instead, the monarchy collaborated with the colonial powers in their war on the Rif. (Its successors have used similar aggression against the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in the western Sahara. Morocco invaded Western Sahara in 1976, bombing fleeing refugees with napalm. Today it applies systematic repression against Western Sahara’s occupied population.)

In September 1925, a French-Spanish amphibious operation with close air support succeeded in landing troops in the heart of the Rif territory at the port of Alhucemas. The total number of troops in the Spanish and French armies facing el-Krim’s limited forces was at least 250,000 and perhaps as many as 500,000 backed up by dozens of squadrons of military aircraft and naval forces enforcing a coastal blockade. By May 1926, the Spanish army from the north had joined up with the French army from the south.

The French-Spanish counter-offensive in the Rif did not discriminate between civilians and combatants. Losses among the Berber population have been reckoned at around half a million just for the years 1925 and 1926. Villages were subject to artillery and aerial bombardment both by conventional munitions and by poison gases including mustard gas, following the example of the British in Iraq in 1919. The overwhelming offensive by Spain backed by Europe’s strongest military power, France, forced el-Krim to negotiate. By 1927 active resistance in the Rif was effectively over. Spain had secured its colony.

El-Krim surrendered to the French and was exiled to the French island territory of Reunión. The Rif has perhaps never recovered from the vicious subjugation of 1925-26. Its current abnormally high incidence of cancer could well result from the indiscriminate use of poison gas during those years, just as Iraq’s children will suffer for decades to come from the effects of depleted uranium. Abd el-Krim finally escaped from captivity in 1946, seeking refuge in Cairo. He continued to work actively for the independence of the Maghreb and lived to see Algerian independence. Morocco’s king refused to let him return to Morocco even after the country’s independence in 1956. Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi died in 1963 in Egypt where President Nasser organised his funeral honours.

Fascinating – so what?

It may be the case that history teaches nothing except that people learn nothing from history. Santayana believed peoples who forget their history are condemned to relive it. In any case, events seem to survive somewhere between interpretation and remembrance as well as through their immediate physical and economic aftermath. It is hard to contemplate the aggression against Iraq and the genocide against the Palestinians without wondering about the relevance of previous imperialist wars against Muslim countries. The resourceful, ferocious and determined asymmetrical campaign of Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi against the vastly more numerous and better equipped conscript and mercenary forces of France and Spain is relevant to the war on Iraq and the pending attack on Iran.

Despite overwhelming air superiority and the indiscriminate use of chemical weapons, the subjugation of a hostile population requires huge numbers of infantry. Since such numbers can only be secured via a military draft, colonial wars by modern democracies cannot be “won” in the conventional sense. Despite this, the United States government has chosen to abandon the façades of democracy and prepare for an endless series of colonial wars. The Bush regime’s pursuit of that alternative vindicates its critics who argue that two main objectives of the Iraq war were the enrichment of Bush regime corporate cronies and a deliberate wrecking operation on democracy in the United States.

By failing to defend international humanitarian and human rights norms developed out of the horrific experiences of the last two hundred years, the European and Pacific allies of the United States are effectively colluding in the current reprise of colonialist era barbarism. Events in Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and elsewhere confirm this trend. An attack on Iran will signal a categorical return to the worst days of colonialism and the definitive abandonment of what remains of the international system based on the UN Charter and the principle of self-determination of peoples.

The Rif experience also has a message for ostensibly progressive governments collaborating in the occupation of Haiti, like those of Evo Morales in Bolivia and Ignacio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil. During the Spanish Civil War, el-Krim, then still a French prisoner on the island of Reunión, appealed to Largo Caballero, socialist leader of Spain’s Popular Front government. Along with other people’s calls for Moroccan independence, he asked Caballero to intercede with Leon Blum, socialist Prime Minister of France for his release. Caballero refused all these pleas. Had he not, the loyalty of Franco’s crucially important Moorish troops might well have been undermined and the Civil War in Spain taken a different course. Like their imperialist predecessors, the current governments of the United States, Europe and their Pacific allies, do not reward such collusion. For them, it is a welcome sign of weakness.

Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi himself insisted he harboured no hatred towards Spain or its people, that his resistance was aimed at the colonialist policies of the Spanish government. He wrote, “The Rif isn’t fighting the Spanish and holds no hatred towards the Spanish people. The Rif is fighting that arrogant imperialism that wants to strip it of its liberty using the moral and material sacrifices of the noble Spanish people……people of the Rif fight against the Spanish military who try to abuse their rights, and at the same time hold their doors open to receive unarmed Spanish people such as technicians, business people, industrialists, farmers and workers.” (2)

This is the voice of common humanity that has been heard over and over again in the annals of resistance to colonialism. It is heard again now from representatives of resistance to contemporary imperialism. United States governments and their allies and the complacent peoples who elect them will continue to plunge both their own countries and the victims of their colonial-era copycat aggression into further disasters until that voice is taken to heart.

One returns again to Steiner’s paradox of Bluebeard’s Castle, a paradox consistently noted earlier over centuries by many anti-colonialist writers : utter barbarity coexists readily with advanced cultural achievement. The spiralling genocide in Palestine and US threats to use nuclear weapons against Iran are the latest colonialist outrages in a long history of criminal barbarism inflicted by countries that preen themselves on democratic processes many of which in reality are mostly nugatory, rendered trifling by the power of corporate elites. The story of the Rif Republic is just one of innumerable episodes in that bitterly shameful history worth revisiting and remembering.

toni solo is an activist based in Central America – see toni.tortillaconsal.com

Notes 1. “L’Emir Abd el-Krim el-Khattabi : figure musulmane de la résistance à la colonisation” Part One, Youssef Girard, www.oumma.com, March 29th 2007 2. See Note 6 in the above article by Youssef Girard.

Thanks to Agustin Velloso for criticism and advice on this article.

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