Iyad Allawi, the not terribly popular interim premier of post-Saddam Iraq, is in a position to form a government again because he won over the Sunni Arabs residing north and west of Baghdad in the March 7 elections. The vote, while it did not “shove political sectarianism in Iraq toward the grave,” as Allawi would have it, rekindled the hopes of many that “nationalist” sentiment has asserted itself over communal loyalty.
It is cheeky of Allawi to claim this mantle, for as interim premier he quickened the march toward the sectarian civil war that was nearly the death of Iraq. Following the precedent of his US patrons, he presided over a cabinet composed according to sectarian-ethnic quotas rather than merit. Worse, according to the veteran Middle East hand Mark Perry, he stymied efforts by US military officers to achieve detente in the so-called Sunni triangle.
The “Sunni triangle” was, of course, the centre of the various insurgencies roiling the country from the summer of 2003 onward. In his new book, Talking to Terrorists, Perry documents how enterprising civil affairs officers, in league with pragmatists in the Pentagon, were engaged in tense but promising talks with men they called “Iraqi patriots” in the insurgencies as early as mid-2004. The aim of the talks, as later, was to turn the Sunni Arab tribes and ex-Baathist guerrilla commanders against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Had the parley proceeded, and the Anbar awakening occurred earlier, the Sunni Arabs might not have boycotted the 2005 elections, sectarian Shiites might not have seized the Interior Ministry, some of al-Qaeda’s bloodiest depredations might have been averted and civil strife in Iraq might have been considerably less. In the words of Perry’s source, Col. John Coleman, the point man for the talks, “we could have saved a lot of American lives” — and, clearly, even more Iraqi ones.
But when Allawi got wind of the contacts, he feared his US patrons were switching clients. He phoned Condoleezza Rice, the US national security adviser, and the next thing Coleman knew, he was declared persona non grata in Jordan, where he was to meet his Iraqi counterparts.
As Perry demonstrates, this incident was rooted in the Bush administration’s purblind insistence that the insurgents were “dead-enders” or “anti-Iraqi forces” who could not be spoken to. In Washington, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz scribbled “They are Nazis!” on one memorandum mooting the concept, an equation echoed by L Paul Bremer, the boot-clad proconsul in Baghdad. If Perry is to be believed, Donald Rumsfeld was an early doubter of the conventional wisdom, public machismo notwithstanding, but was shouted down by Wolfowitz. This attempt at rehabilitating Rumsfeld’s reputation, driven perhaps by the agendas of Perry’s Pentagon sources, rings untrue: Who was the boss, anyway?
The opening chapters of Talking to Terrorists, which detail the US-insurgent contacts, are fascinating and original. Picking up threads from his 2008 series in the Asia Times, Perry proves definitively that US line officers in Iraq were far better judges of the strategic picture than their superiors in Baghdad and Washington, understanding that the heavy-handed campaigns in the “Sunni triangle” were deepening the rebellion and aggravating inter-communal tensions. Long before General David Petraeus became a household name, ground commanders had reached out to local sheikhs to forge alliances against radical Islamist fighters. As Perry tells it, the turning point in the war was not the “surge” of 2007, but an air raid on July 23, 2005, when Cobra attack helicopters swooped in to annihilate an al-Qaeda band arrayed against “Iraqi patriots” near the Syrian border. The Cobras were summoned via a Texan businessman who had stayed in touch with the insurgents after Rice shut down the quasi-official channel. “The real gamble in Iraq was not in deploying more troops to kill terrorists,” Perry concludes, it was “in sending Marines to talk to them.”
To label rebels and resistance fighters “terrorists” is a tried-and-true conceit of would-be conquerors. In the post-September 11 world, of course, the rhetorical power of this obfuscating label has been considerably enhanced. Countering it is very difficult, but Perry has made a valiant effort. The rest of his book concerns the two Middle Eastern organizations that, after al-Qaeda, are most likely to be called “terrorist” in the West: Hamas and Hizballah. In-depth conversations with operatives from both groups have led Perry to believe that these parties are national in scope and flexible in political practice. He reports, for example, on a discussion with Hamas leaders about suicide bombings and other operations that target civilians. Hamas’s responses convinced one of his western colleagues that they are “hard-headed — albeit brutal — political actors who carefully choose their tactics and attempt to manage the effects of their actions. Just as we do.”
These findings will be unsurprising to readers versed in Middle East affairs, but to the popular audience that Perry seeks, they are a revelation. Better-informed readers will want to skim the later sections and skip the saccharine travelogue at the end, to concentrate on the rich new evidence of the ideological rigidity, incompetence and crass infighting that doomed Iraq to the inferno.