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Most American war reporting stretches from the corridors of the Pentagon to embeds with the troops. It rarely offers a street-level view, and almost never the perspective of the civilians caught up in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. But that’s the forte of Nir Rosen, a scholar associated with New York University’s Center on Law and Security. His latest book, Aftermath, describes the impact of the war on families from Beirut to Baghdad to Afghanistan’s Pushtun belt, and offers some stinging criticism of America’s failure to take account of the human cost. I put six questions to Rosen:
1. On the war in Iraq, the wisdom of the Beltway pundits might be summed up this way: Bush’s efforts were floundering, then Petraeus saved the day with his surge, converting an ambiguous situation into an unqualified success. What’s the matter with this analysis?
Success isn’t a relevant concept. As I show in the book, the various events that have come to be called “the surge” actually started well before Petraeus took over the war in Iraq, although he did help support and institutionalize some of the changes. And the civil war and cleansing continued well into the surge. I recently visited many villages in Diyala that were totally destroyed in the civil war in the summer of 2007, six months into the surge. There was a peak of violence and then a relative decline in violence. This was the product of a slew of developments, starting with the fact that the Shiites won the civil war. The Sunnis, realizing they were losing (a process that began in 2006), shifted their strategy and attempted to reach an accommodation with the Americans. You have to throw in the Mahdi Army ceasefire, the growing anger Iraqis felt at the predations of their own self-defense militias (whether they were Al Qaeda or the Mahdi Army), the expulsion of millions of people from their homes and the creation of pure enclaves, a surge in the Iraqi Security Forces and the removal of many of their worst members, an increase in the number of American troops, the high number of fatalities from air strikes and kill missions (which struck intended targets and innocents alike and brutalized the civilian population), American counterinsurgency tactics such as walling off areas and living in neighborhoods in combat outposts, the decision by Prime Minister Al Maliki to crush Shiite militias. All of this brings us where we are today–daily bombings and assassinations, poor services, a corrupt, authoritarian regime, torture, misery and fear. But at least it’s better than 2006, right?
2. The New York Times reports that with the failure of efforts to form a government in Baghdad with broad Sunni-Shia support, Sunni leaders who had reconciled themselves to the Americans during the “Anbar Awakening” are now moving once more towards armed opposition. Do you share this analysis? Was it foreseeable? And what does it mean in terms of American claims of success in the Iraq War?
I strongly disagree with this analysis. It’s true that Sunni militiamen who switched sides in the civil war and decided to ally with the Americans now feel betrayed. They were expecting to fight Shiites when the Americans left and overthrow the government, or at least attain positions of power and influence. Instead many have been arrested or killed, others have been fired or given jobs they consider humiliating, such as in sanitation, while others have been incorporated into the security forces. I was critical of the Awakening phenomenon when it began. I thought that creating new militias would be catastrophic. But the Sunni militiamen miscalculated. They went from being underground guerilla fighters to public figures, their names, addresses, and biometric data known by the Americans and Iraqi Security Forces. They also proved unable to unite. Instead they have been emasculated and have gone from being powerful to being pathetic. They failed to translate the power they once had on the ground into political influence. Instead of contesting the system, they just want a piece of it. But they are powerless to do anything about it. Their leadership was decimated, and they have little support from the local population. Now Al Qaeda is picking them off slowly, slaughtering them or blowing them up here and there.
These days the Awakening leaders I knew are either dead, in exile, or asking me to help them get visas to the United States. Importantly, Sunnis are no longer under threat so there is no grass roots support for the Awakening militias either. There is no security vacuum in Iraq these days. The Iraqi Security Forces are pervasive and no longer perceived as sectarian death squads. So the former Sunni militiamen have been marginalized with little consequence. The occasional suicide bomber or car bomb that Sunni rejectionists can dispatch have no strategic impact on the situation in Iraq.
3. If America had never invaded Iraq and Saddam Hussein had held on to power there, would the situation be better or worse for the average Iraqi? Would America’s security posture be improved or harmed?
Many Iraqis are better off, many more are worse off. There is no mathematical calculation to determine that. In the book I show the terrible human cost in deaths at the hands of the occupation and terrorist groups or in the civil war, as well as the tens of thousands of families who had men imprisoned for years. Millions of people lost their homes and were forced to live as squatters or refugees. The region became more unstable, Al Qaeda increased in importance, sectarianism increased, violence spread. And Iraqis have a government that increasingly resembles Saddam’s regime, only it is more representative of the population and more Shiite in its identity.
As for America’s security posture, I don’t think the Middle East should be viewed through the prism of alleged American “interests.” And I don’t think imposing its will on weaker countries increases American security. Even the weak find ways to resist. America is more insecure when it creates more enemies it didn’t need to have and meddles with the internal affairs of other countries. Certainly the Middle East was more stable before the war. America’s security posture in the Middle East involves colonial and post-colonial relations. American influence there is embattled and changing. The war in Iraq may come to be seen as a turning point, part of a decline in American influence in the region. But there are other things happening at the same time. The Saudi regime is unsustainable and the Egyptian regime is disintegrating. These two countries are pillars of the American regional architecture. And the third pillar, Israel, is not viable in its current form as an increasingly rogue apartheid Jewish state. Finally, the American military is exhausted and losing its conventional skills after nearly ten years of occupation while the power of asymmetrical tactics against a conventional behemoth has been demonstrated.
The irrational American response after September 11 reduced the gap in power and influence between the United States and other regional or global actors. The neoconservative notion that we were at the end of history and the United States could maintain its triumph by any means necessary was proven to be folly. America’s excessive use of force actually weakened its position in the region. Had America paid attention to the people, it might have produced polices that were good for the region and not based on some misguided notion of America’s interests in the region. The United States will now seek to withdraw from the region while avoiding the impression that it has been defeated. But one of the tragedies of American engagement in the Middle East today is that its conduct is regularly driven by efforts not to do the right thing, but to avoid the appearance of defeat.
4. You evaluate in some detail the position of Muqtada al-Sadr and the “Sadr Current” in Iraq, and you’re one of very few American writers to explore them on the basis of first-hand research. Recent reports suggest that the Sadrists are likely to emerge as a part of the coalition government in Baghdad, but the conventional U.S. analysis has been that the Sadrists peaked early and were marginalized. What role do you see for them in Iraqi politics going forward?
The participation of the Sadrists in the new government should be welcomed. They are a genuinely popular movement and the only grassroots movement in Iraq. Marginalizing them pushed them to be spoilers and to use violence. The Sadrists represent Iraq’s revolutionary class that once supported communism, the poor and dispossessed Shiite masses, the subalterns. The Sadrists’ popularity suffered because of their militia’s excesses, but nobody else speaks for this class of Iraqis or helps them. The movement is led by the people, and when it ceases to be angry it loses their support. But as the Iraqi state has grown stronger and its Shiite identity has become solid, and as the American occupation is coming to an end, then of course many of the Sadrist causes have ceased to be important. In addition, Sadrists have been in the government for five years. It’s hard to be anti-establishment when you’re part of the establishment.
5. You describe a harrowing encounter with Taliban forces during a recent visit to the Pushtun heartland of Afghanistan. What does your experience suggest to you about the likely success of current efforts to engage Taliban leaders in a dialogue? Will elements of the Taliban be reconcilable to the Karzai government?
My experience showed me how diverse the groups fighting the Americans and their allies are. The men I met had diverse motives and only vague goals. They bickered among themselves. They were locals fighting for their villages, their country, their religion. They were very atomized. This means that there can be no mass defection, since leaders at the village level are so important, and there are thousands of them. This also leads to the rise of more radical young leaders. Some were willing to strike a deal with the government in Kabul. Many Taliban leaders are tired of fighting. They have grown older and are tired of life on the run, away from home. One problem with the idea of merely striking a deal with the Taliban is that it will perpetuate one of the greatest mistakes made since 2001, the lack of justice. Warlords were empowered by the Americans and this would be more of the same, the continued denial of justice to the Afghan people and continued impunity for human rights violations.
The arrival of Petraeus in Afghanistan has come with a return of the “kill or capture” approach to winning the war as well as the creation of more militias. In Afghanistan militias have a history of easily shifting alliances, and those who reconcile today can fight again tomorrow. Until now there has been no significant reconciliation or Taliban defection, and there is no reason to expect any. So far there have only been talks about talks, and the whole thing is overblown. Why should the Taliban negotiate when they are winning and time is on their side? Why should they negotiate with a weak and illegitimate Karzai? And why would a weak and illegitimate Karzai want to strike a deal with the powerful Taliban who have far more legitimacy than him in parts of the country? What would he gain? Also, while many Afghans may welcome an end to the fighting and the return of the Taliban, many despise and fear the Taliban. Reconciliation with the Taliban can lead many Afghans to embrace their own militias in self defense. The point is that there is no apparent solution to the mess the Americans have helped create.
6. You end your book with a punchy critique of the U.S. government and American media, which you say focus “too much on elite-level politics” and too little on the “people, the atmosphere of the ‘street,’ neighborhoods, villages and mosques.” How might a shift in attention have reshaped American engagement in its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan?
It is impossible to imagine an imperial power like the United States caring about “people,” even its own. The effect our wars and policies have on them are ignored. Perhaps if policy analysts and policy makers paid attention to the people in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere, they would rely less on English-speaking elites who are disconnected from the reality on the ground. They would then be better aware of what the people want, which movements are popular, and who has power. In Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other countries in the Muslim world, the people have obstructed American goals. If America had listened to the people, it might not have gone to war with the Muslim world after September 11. It might have learned that Al Qaeda was not a movement but a group of marginal individuals rejected by the mainstream and ignored by most Muslims. If it listened to the people, America might cease propping up hated dictatorships and calling them “moderate.” If it listened to the people, it might support democracy in the Middle East rather than compliant regimes that are proving brittle and will eventually crumble violently. But even if it didn’t listen to the people out of good intentions, it would have at least been a far more competent occupier, provoking less instability. But then again, if the American government listened to people, it might spend less of its resources on foreign wars and more on the welfare of its own people.
More from Scott Horton:
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Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.
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"She never thanked me, never looked at me—melted away into the miserable night, in the strangest manner I ever saw. I have seen many strange things, but not one that has left a deeper impression on my memory than the dull impassive way in which that worn-out heap of misery took that piece of money, and was lost."