Sunday, August 22, 2010

The "end" of the "Iraq war"

Is the USA's Iraq war over?

I remember it being declared over back in 2003. Yet American troops remained and continued to fight and be killed. Now 50,000 non-combat trainers remain in Iraq, not to mention the US Air Force, and low levels of disruptive violence continue. In part this is because no Iraqi government has emerged from the spring elections; the various interim ministers of diverse political parties are content to control their bailiwicks and extort income while providing no leadership towards solving the vast number of practical problems that afflict the population. Thus the expressed worry among some Iraqis that the US is leaving too fast. If full civil war breaks out, what will the US do, inititiate another Iraq war?

But let us accept for the moment that the current "Iraq war" is over, at least in some mystical sense. It deserves some reflection at this point. I found the following article by Patrick Graham brought the whole long process back into my mind in a useful if unpleasant way. If you are university student age, you may benefit more from this than I did, unless you are unusually plugged into the news.

Here are some of many good passages:

But when people say the war was a huge mistake, I think of Tariq, a driver I met at the Al Rashid Hotel, standing in the lobby a few days before the war saying, “If they don't bomb …” Those were the only words I heard spoken against Saddam but they said it all, courageously. No one who spent time in Saddam's Iraq could miss the shadow of the psychopath. But the charnel house it would become was another thing altogether. Tariq was shot a few weeks later coming to pick me up. He survived, but his friend Saleh, another driver and former Iraqi Air Force pilot who had survived the Iran-Iraq war, was killed while collecting journalists' laundry during the looting of the city. I haven't heard from Tariq in years.

When some argue that more U.S. troops would have made the project work, I think: A liberal hawk fantasy. I spent much of 2003 and 2004 in and around Fallujah and Ramadi, in what became the heartland of the insurgency where Americans had some of their biggest battles. I knew something about the muqawama, the resistance, and watched it start. The U.S. Army recruited its own enemies, driving around over-armed, caught up in force protection, killing way too many people. More American soldiers would most likely have meant more dead Iraqis and a worse insurgency even sooner. Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, the champion of a smaller, more agile American military, was probably right, in his weird way – fewer soldiers, more special forces for these kinds of wars. But even then, human nature has its limits, as we are discovering in Afghanistan.

Iraq has been an inkblot test for nearly a decade. A person's opinion on the place would tell you more about them than about Iraq. But each time it looked like somebody was right, that they understood it, the place morphed. We used to read Christopher Hitchens's cheerleading pieces in Vanity Fair to each other and laugh at his atonal confidence, so like a bad karaoke singer. I never saw him around Fallujah or anywhere else in Iraq, for that matter.

Iraq confounded those boosters when the invasion turned into occupation, insurgency, a civil war. And then confounded the critics when the Surge seemed to work. I always liked that stubbornness of Iraq – it never did what it was supposed to do, although the violent reality underlying its protean nature is beyond depressing.

The human meat grinder the country became argues against our better nature. Evidence for the harsher critics of Western optimists, for the St. Augustines and the Freuds. If you still believe in the project, its humanitarian hope, you didn't go to Iraq or, if you did, you didn't stay very long. In the end, the fighting was not so much about sectarian differences or ethnicity, although it was expressed that way. It was about the usual suspects: money and power. The various militias were like an auto-immune reaction, turning first on the foreign invader and then consuming the body politic to get what they could. There is a kind of calm now but it's really a standoff and no one seems able to reach out and govern. How many more were killed this week? Dozens, of course. But by now the only unexpected would be real peace. I saw some photos of the bloodshed and recognized the photographer's name from that night the missile landed on the market in Shula.


We foreigners in Iraq rarely understood much, certainly for those first few years. We missed the texture of the place and knew so little that we often didn't even realize how little we knew. So we were always good for a laugh as well as a few dollars. Most journalists flew blind, controlled by their drivers and translators if they were lucky, just as the White House was led around by its own overpaid fixers, such as political expatriate Ahmed Chalabi with his peculiar agenda.

At one point in the summer of 2003, one of America's more famous columnists, Thomas Friedman, came for a visit and was robbed as he left the country. In those days, The New York Times was reputed to have a mafia of Iraqi drivers who belonged to one of Baghdad's better-known criminal clans. Having survived Saddam, they found the bureau an easy mark. This wasn't unusual. At the Guardian house where I lived, we tried to fire our guards and were told by a translator, also their cousin, that we'd be killed if we did. It seemed typical of Iraq that we ended up being protected by the same men who threatened to kill us. Typical, too, that they were very genial about it.

So I wasn't surprised when an Iraqi friend who worked at The Times was convinced that his fellow drivers had organized the Friedman robbery (their leader, a cousin of our guards, had once threatened to kill an American friend of mine over a used car). In fact, that was the definition of a foreigner in Iraq – someone robbed by his own driver who then wrote about it, naively. Did Friedman tip the drivers afterward? Probably not. The “Ali Babas,” as he called the thieves in his finger-wagging column, had taken his cash. Well, not his cash. The money in Iraq never seemed to belong to anybody in particular. They would have been better off just dumping crates of U.S. dollars from B-52s. That would have been cheaper, anyhow.

This ignorance wasn't true of just journalists. For a long time, the U.S. military seemed to be on Fantasy Island, looking up at its own planes. After I published an article on the Iraqi insurgency in Harper's magazine, an American colonel involved in intelligence told me that he had handed it out to “everyone in the field.” The idea that the U.S. Army read Harper's to find out about its enemy still strikes me both as reassuringly open-minded and terrifyingly ignorant. What were they reading before the invasion?

The article really deserves to be read in full.

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