How to Build Nations

The story of Emma Sky, newly told in her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, is a fascinating one. An opponent of the war in Iraq – someone, in fact, who had proposed serving as a human shield in the first Gulf War – does not generally end up in effect administering a province, as Sky found herself doing very soon after her arrival in the country in 2003. But this is what she did. And more than that, she spent much of the following seven years in Iraq, working closely with the very American military she and many like-minded individuals opposed so vigorously before the war began.

To rewind a little, it is essential to understand the personal elements behind all of this. Sky initially came to Iraq with the expectation of staying for mere months; and more than that, she had come, she writes, to apologise profusely to the Iraqi people for what was befalling their country. But very soon, having witnessed at first hand the good work the Coalition was attempting to do, and recognising the sincere and noble quest to rebuilt Iraq for what it was, she stayed on. Sky quickly became directly associated with the US military (despite being a British citizen) and would serve as a political advisor to American potentiaries including Raymond Odierno and David Petraeus.

Sky’s book is saturated, more than anything else, with a genuine feeling for and love of Iraq and its peoples. This appreciation is communicated in the affectionate nature of her prose when she describes the personages and personalities of the country’s various religious and ethnic groups; in the way she describes her journeys beyond the Green Zone in search of real Iraqis and genuine interactions with them; and perhaps most of all in the generous and sensuous descriptions she provides of the scents, sights, and customs which give the country its character and provide such fascination for foreigners.

And there is a great reserve of emotion impressed into the pages of Sky’s book. The opening chapters of The Unravelling can claim to be, in their own way, heart-wrenching. Contrary to a latter-day reinterpretation of events, Sky relates how she and other representatives of the Coalition truly were greeted with flowers (‘Kurds turned out in great numbers to greet us with flowers and kisses, holding up placards thanking the US and the UK for liberating the Kurdish lands’); and victims of Saddam’s brutality loudly declared their satisfaction with his overthrow. It is a thoroughly poignant reminder that such things were not an invention, and the sentiment expressed – both by those who advocated for the war and who were liberated by it – was not based on nothing.

With this and other events proving emotive justification to carry on, much of the rest of the narrative consists of the realities of administering a newly-liberated nation, including dramatic descriptions of military activity (Sky and Odierno seemed to be forever traversing the country to inspect the progress of this work), all the personal jeopardy associated with working in a warzone, and illuminating descriptions of the dynamics of creating (and to some extent imposing) a new system of bureaucracy and ultimately government with which to rebuilt an entire nation.

What Sky has to say about office politics – the divisions between certain Iraqi politicians, for example, who occupied different offices and sought to promote favoured causes and even sectarian interests – is particularly valuable. Such things, however, were not simply the preserve of the Iraqis; far from it, in fact. And much of Sky’s most effective writing deals with the obstinacy of certain sections of the military to changes in strategy she and others saw as essential; the sorts of operational failures which made reconciliation seem impossible; and the sometimes bitter personal battles within the Coalition which made an already trying environment even more difficult to negotiate.

There were, however, moments of tremendous optimism among those working towards the goal of a united, democratic and free Iraq. After the Sahwa (‘Awakening’), which saw Sunni tribes organise against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State, things began to look up; the Surge of 2007, which increased the number of US troops in the country, also helped, in Sky’s view, to stabilise matters. There was, as she communicates with pathos and sincerity, a genuine sense that the worst was over, and that Iraq could look forward to a future characterised by peace, stability and prosperity.

This, as we now know, is not what happened; in fact, the situation is worse now than it has been in years, despite the apparent gains built up during that time. The Islamic State still controls a great proportion of Iraqi territory and Iranian-backed Shia militias are increasingly seen by many as doing little more than the same with a different sectarian spin on things.

What, then, went wrong? What changed to mean that the Iraq created after the Surge could not continue in that vein, drawing down violence and bringing people together within the framework of a developing nation-state?

The question of responsibility (if that is the correct term) for the ‘missed opportunities’ which Sky identifies in her subtitle cannot be evaded. She sums up the competing claims with deftness at the beginning of the book:

Iraqis blame the US for destroying their country; and Americans blame Iraqis for not making use of the opportunity given to them. Politicians try to use the situation in Iraq for political advantage, without much consideration of Iraqis themselves: Democrats blame Republicans for invading Iraq in the first place and Republicans blame Democrats for not leaving troops there. The US military blames US government civilians for not doing enough; and the latter blames the former for trying to do too much.

There is also a rather droll coda which follows this litany: ‘Brits blame Tony Blair’. But the fact is that, aside from the British diplomats and functionaries who pepper these pages, British influence on the military portions of the narrative appears almost negligible. In this sense the responsibility for the failure of post-Saddam reconstruction must lie largely within two parties: the Iraqis themselves and the Americans. And although George W. Bush has been largely blamed for the iniquities of the Iraq situation, it was the Obama administration to whom the responsibility for reconstructing Iraq eventually fell.

According to Sky, this failure is almost entirely the fault of the latter in both cases – what she calls ‘the American tribe’ and the presidency of Barack Obama, for whom the war appeared to be little more than a route to achieving domestic political aims. The first mistake in this calculation was the over-zealous application of programmes designed to remove the remnants of any Saddam-inspired regime from power; de-Baathification, as it became known, rendered thousands of highly trained professions unemployed and left much of Iraqi society without essential figures who may have proved useful in rebuilding the nation from the ground up. The military suffered, as did professions like education and governmental administration. After all, since the Baath Party had been in power from 1968 to 2003 – and Saddam himself had served as president for nearly 25 years – it was difficult to find many in positions of authority who had not been in some way connected to the party. (Many, indeed, only joined to get ahead in terms of their careers or wanted to boost their prospects in ways only the official imprimatur could attain; it was not fair – and nor was it sensible – to exclude many of these people from the necessary work of rebuilding the country.) Things later improved on this front, with exemptions widened and rules bent, but the fundamental disenfranchisement of the programme continued to grate, as well as providing a potentially large and willing recruitment pool for Sunni extremist groups.

With the coming to power of Nouri al-Maliki, many Americans thought they had found the perfect leader to guide Iraq into the post-war age. He seemed strong – the sort of man who could be trusted to bring Iraq’s disputatious factions together under the umbrella of nationhood. Ignoring his increasingly authoritarian tendencies, and what Sky paints as an alarming streak of personal paranoia, American politicians simply allowed him to run the show, administering much of the defence of the country personally, intimidating political rivals, and using the confusion brought about after closely-fought elections to remain in power. One of Sky’s interlocutors catches the mood this created – especially among Sunnis – very well. ‘The US appeared’, he said, ‘to be strengthening Maliki’s regime rather than the Iraqi state’.

At the same time, other actors – both local and international – made their own strategies to affect the political future of Iraq. An especially strong fear was that of Iranian infiltration. On this subject one incident in particular deserves repetition at length.

Qasim Suleimani, the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps[,] sent a message to [General] Petraeus telling him that he was responsible for Iran’s policy in Iraq and proposing they meet. Petraeus declined. He told me the only thing Iran really cared about was the survival of its regime. Its al-Quds Force bribed politicians, armed militias, created organizations such as Hezbollah, trained fighters, and assassinated and intimidated opposition, pushing everyone towards greater violence. “How does one negotiate with folks like that?” he asked me. “They’ll pocket what we give them, bide their time and come back more lethal.”

Another aside illustrates the double game played by Iranian strategists: ‘Iran, it appeared, had been supporting all sides in the fighting’.

Later, when Sky returned to Iraq after a significant absence to see the country as a tourist, she was confronted with the crystallisation of more sectarian attitudes, which often manifested themselves in the suggestion that Iran and the United States were secretly allying against the Sunni population. ‘One Sheikh burst out, “Why can’t you just bomb Iran and get it over with!” He said the Arab street believed there was a secret deal between the US and Iran.’

Such a description could easily characterise the thinking of many Sunnis in Syria today; and the perceived alignment of Iran and the US has served as a thoroughly effective recruitment tool for ISIS. And the Syrian example is not an entirely incomparable one. Some of Sky’s recent writings have focused on that country, an example of which is a recent piece in The Guardian. Sky writes, ‘One of the main lessons we should draw from Iraq is that there is no military solution to the war in Syria, but military actions can help shape the political environment and create room for greater diplomatic action.’

As such, ‘The UK should join the air campaign to degrade Isis and provide air cover to local forces fighting Isis.’ Local forces – in Syria as in the Iraqi Awakening – may well be fundamental to orchestrating the eventual defeat of the Islamic State.

There is great value in learning the lessons not only of history but of the very recent past. The situation in Iraq – which encompassed initial success and jubilation, unforeseen difficulty, recovery of expectation, and ultimate collapse – could well prove to be vital in this regard. But it is essential that the wrong lessons are not taken from this oft-repeated (and little understood) example. As Sky writes in her Guardian piece, ‘Peace does not come through passivity. It requires action’.

It is worth ending on a similar note, with a longer excerpt from that article about exactly how Western liberal states can learn the crucial lessons of Iraq.

The choice is stark. If we, and our allies, do not work to promote the sort of world we want to live in, non-state actors and states hostile to our interests will fill the vacuum left by the withdrawal of western powers. And we will be left to wonder how the post-world war commitment to peace, which we fought so hard to create, unravelled.

In Syria and surrounding countries (including, sadly, Iraq itself) this is already happening. This will require more than simply learning the lessons of history; it is indispensible to navigating a world of increasing complexity and terrifying possibility.