This MacLean’s cover story is probably the most clear-eyed and spin-free analysis of the situation in Iraq that I have ever read. It figures that you have to go to Canada to find writing this trenchant and penetrating about the mess we’ve made over there.
The American media on the whole would apparently rather rely on White House propaganda and DoD-sponsored Dog and Pony shows than to actually go to Iraq and realistically assess the situation.
It seemed to be typical of the recent over-hyped success of the Anbar Awakening that you would have to fly from Baghdad to Damascus, and then drive six hours back across the desert, to get only 40 minutes outside Baghdad in order to see it for yourself (you could go with the U.S. Army as well, but you learn mostly about Americans if you are with Americans and end up sounding like a visiting columnist for the New York Times).
Are you listening, Michael O’Hanlon?
The author, Patrick Graham, has been traveling to Iraq since well before the invasion and the picture he paints of a nation in chaos is unlike anything you have ever read from American bobbleheads about the war. It details the antecedents to the “Anbar Awakening”, which had nothing to do with the “surge” and everything to do with political expediency, and is still merely a loose coalition of enemies of each-other’s enemies.
The Sunnis who are cooperating with us in Anbar aren’t doing it because they love America and Americans (in fact, they hate us), but because they hate the Shia militias more than they hate us, and the sense is that they will go back to their previous role as anti-US insurgents as soon as they gain a military advantage against the Shia.
Ironically enough, this has placed the US military on friendly footing with the very Saddam loyalists we were trying to rout out in the early part of the invasion, because (mistakenly or not) now the US military sees itself as engaged in a quiet, dirty war with Iran.
It’s unclear whether the additional 30,000 troops that make up the surge have had much effect on the Anbar Awakening. But watching Gen. Petraeus, I was struck by how familiar his words sounded. The general talked like every Sunni I’ve ever met in Iraq—hell, he sounded a bit like Saddam. The old tyrant would have had one of his characteristic chest-heaving guffaws watching Petraeus as he intoned the old Baathist mantra about the dangers to Iraq: Iran, Iran, Iran…It seems that Petraeus and Bush have come to the same conclusion as Saddam: the main enemy is Iran, and you can’t govern Iraq without the Sunni Arab tribes, even as you encourage anti-Iranian nationalism among the Shia. This is what Saddam did during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and what Washington is trying to do now. One of the main problems with this strategy is that both the Sunni tribes and Shia nationalists are profoundly anti-American and don’t trust each other—a potential recipe for further disaster.
As most everyone knows now, the invasion was flawed from the beginning and US war planners completely neglected to bear in mind the complex realities of the tribal and ethnic tensions extant under the surface of calm imposed by the brutality of Saddam’s regime. The “thinkers” in favor of the invasion fell prey to a massive failure of the imagination and a cockiness bred by previous US successes in the Balkans:
We subsequently saw Iraq through a Yugoslav lens, but Iraq is not Yugoslavia. Instead, it has been balkanized by many of the journalists, intellectuals and diplomats who cut their teeth during the “invade and aid” strategies of the 1990s. Western journalists and intellectuals love a three-way civil war. It is a deeply satisfying morality play and makes everything simple—Bad Serbs, Good Bosnians, and Croats allied with the West. Or in Iraq’s case, Bad Sunnis, Good Shias, Kurdish allies. The easy trinitarian logic of the Balkans was applied to Iraq, even before the invasion, by advocates for the war on both the right and the left of the political spectrum.
But one of the most damning assertions of the article is that al-Qaeda in Iraq is largely an American invention.
The American role in the promotion of the terrorist organization is not some mad conspiracy theory, but a well-documented attempt by the U.S. government to demonize the insurgency and make it appear to be the central front in the war on terror. This was as great a mistake as disbanding the Iraqi army, which the U.S. did in May 2003, or perhaps even greater, since it led to the sectarian downward spiral that has destroyed the country.
But rather than come up with an intelligent counter-insurgency policy, reach out to traditional tribal social structures and try to understand why American soldiers were getting killed, U.S. military leaders did what Americans have gotten very good at doing in the last few years. They made up a story, which they repeated on the news for U.S. domestic consumption—and then started to believe themselves. In this story, evil foreign terrorists led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a chubby Jordanian freelance terrorist, were setting upon the popular U.S. Army. AMZ, as the U.S. Army jauntily called him, existed, but he was a minor figure unlikely to get much of a following on his own in Iraq.
He was a thoroughly marginal figure, but the more the US media obediently beat the drums about al-Zarqawi, the more disaffected Iraqis joined him, and his movement gained in strength and credibility. We made him a hero, and consequently added to our own growing throngs of enemies.
The article is long (six pages, which is about four pages more than even “serious” US periodicals seem to be willing to devote to the topic), but well worth it. That is, if you have the stomach for it.
Going back to Iraq is like sitting through a depressing Scheherazade, 10,001 Nights of Horror Stories. Everybody had them. Do you want to see a picture of someone’s 10-year-old boy, chopped up in pieces and put in a cooking pot because his parents couldn’t pay the Shia militia’s ransom? Here, look at the burns on my body, inflicted by the bodyguards of the Sunni politician who sold my eight-year-old son and me to al-Qaeda. Let me tell you about being kidnapped in Falluja by a gang that pretended to be al-Qaeda—they made me drink urine and had a fake beheading studio where they set up mock video executions to scare us into raising ransoms. As a friend of mine kept saying over and over—“Where do they get these people? What kind of a person does this? Where do they get them?”
Sadly, these stories are true, while so much that is said about Iraq is myth and delusion. As the famous American war correspondent Martha Gellhorn wrote about armed conflict, there is “the real war and the propaganda war.” During the congressional hearings about the surge, I kept thinking of Tattoo on Fantasy Island, half expecting Ambassador Crocker to tug on Gen. Petraeus’s sleeve and say, “Look, boss, da plane.” Smiles, everyone, smiles!
Sigh. Welcome to Fantasy Iraq-Land. It’s a place we should know more about, really. We broke it. Now we own it.
Or, perhaps more correctly, it owns us, and it will for generations to come.