Nir Rosen, Aftermath (Nation Books, 2010).
In addition to numberless tales of human misery, the post-September 11 US wars in the greater Middle East have produced a veritable library of war reporter’s books. Most of them are formulaic and eminently forgettable, but a few are valuable chronicles that considerably improve the state of knowledge about the traumatic ruptures that war has wrought in the societies caught in the crossfire. Nir Rosen’s Aftermath falls in the latter category.
Rosen has made a name for himself, particularly on the left, but also in mainstream policy and media circles, with his fearless and thoroughly unsentimental reporting from Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. Starting out with the Asia Times, he has graduated to progressively more prestigious publications, from the highbrow Boston Review to the New York Times Magazine to the New Yorker and Harper’s. His stock in trade has been to embed, as it were, with the various insurgents, rebels, bandits, militiamen and neighborhood thugs trading fire with the US military and its local allies on the ground. Unlike other left-leaning journalists who have taken this tack (or said they have), he has not lapsed into romance with his subjects or channeled their wishful thinking. Where Robert Fisk, for example, assured his readers that Iraq could not possibly have a civil war under US occupation, Rosen saw the mayhem coming as early as March 2004. Similarly, Rosen has unsparingly portrayed the communal hatreds, revanchist phobias, vengeful obsessions and other unattractive motives that have driven much of the violence in Iraq and elsewhere in the age of the war on terror. He has never conjured a pan-Iraqi intifada or otherwise pretended that Iraq is Palestine. To the contrary, many of his progressive readers will be startled, and perhaps appalled, by his even-handed assessment of the walls that the US military erected in Baghdad. At the same time, Rosen has relentlessly punctured the balloons of US officialdom and its courtiers in the press corps — keeping the fact of foreign occupation center stage in explaining why Iraqis and Afghans fight and why Washington’s project of the moment, whatever it may be, cannot succeed. And he has been willing to admit substantial error of his own.
These qualities are on full display in Aftermath, a restless, bumpy ride through Iraq, before, during and after the “surge,” Lebanon during the post-2006 power struggles between Hizballah and its opponents, and Obama-era Afghanistan, as well as the refuges of displaced Iraqis in Jordan and Egypt. Weighing in at 557 pages of text, Aftermath is not light or easy reading. Like his articles, Rosen’s book jets across the page, leaving a puffy trail of names and dates — remote villages, bombings, police captains, air raids, Islamist cells — then pausing almost at random for paragraphs of expository refueling. The disorganization and tremendous detail can have a numbing effect, and an editor should have imposed much more discipline, but the overall effect is strangely evocative of the war zones that Rosen is writing about. More than his occasional scared personal asides, the full-throttle roar of the narrative succeeds in conveying how chaotic and frightening these battlefields really are.
Those with the stamina, meanwhile, will find several insights of note to reward them for their adventure. The chapters with the most staying power are those that lay out an alternative history of the “surge,” the 2007 deployment of thousands of additional US troops to Iraq in an attempt to reverse the momentum of the civil war. Students of the Iraq war may profit from reading Rosen’s book alongside Thomas Ricks’ The Gamble (2009), which established the hegemonic narrative crediting the decline in violent incidents in Iraq to the counterinsurgency strategy adopted by the US military under Gen. David Petraeus. Rosen, again, may surprise his leftist audience with the extent to which he agrees that the surge worked. In several of the war-scarred locales that he revisits after a tour in Lebanon, he finds that, indeed, the increase in US troop strength and the modified tactics preached by Petraeus helped to ratchet down the level of strife. Rosen reports, however, a great deal of dissent within the military about why the surge succeeded. As documented more extensively (yet more concisely) by Mark Perry in Talking to Terrorists (2010), field commanders began trying to form alliances of convenience with insurgent chiefs against the extremist al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia years before Petraeus made such “key leader engagement” official policy. In the words of Col. Gian Gentile, a critic of the counterinsurgency devotees in the burgeoning warrior-scholar literature, “what made the fundamental difference in [my area of operations] was the coopting of our former enemies,” rather than the supposedly kinder and gentler methods of warfare. Not to mention a lot of good, old-fashioned brute force, Rosen adds: In 2007, the US dropped more bombs in the “Baghdad belts” encircling the capital than in any previous year of the war. In any case, Rosen concedes that he was wrong (as was this magazine) to predict that more troops would simply mean more violence over the long haul.
Rosen makes a compelling case that the main reasons for the waning of the fighting were nevertheless external to Petraeus’ staff meetings or his disciples’ practices on the ground. First was the decision of ex-Baathist and tribal insurgent commanders to train their guns on al-Qaeda, coupled with the realization that they had badly lost their battle with the militias and Ministry of Interior death squads affiliated with the Shi‘i Islamist parties ascendant in the post-invasion government. Their interests were better served, they calculated, by enlisting as Sons of Iraq to wipe out al-Qaeda with US air support and, later, join the government’s security forces. The engine of the civil war idled, with the Shi‘i militias, on the other side, realizing that they had won. Through fine-grained reporting on individual neighborhoods, Rosen shows that this epiphany led the Shi‘i side to assume a more professional posture itself. The cruelest and most sectarian police commanders and the wildest units of the Mahdi Army were no longer needed. Aftermath offers the best account to date of the tajmid (freeze) on military operations declared by Muqtada al-Sadr on August 29, 2007, which Rosen identifies as the “most important factor” in the reduction of violence. Feeling more secure in his rule, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had turned on the Sadrists; with al-Qaeda diminished, middle-class Shi‘a felt more comfortable expressing their distaste for the Mahdi Army’s uncouth brand of sectarianism. Sadr went into seclusion in Iran, returning only in early 2011.
One of the interesting analytical points blurred by the book’s breakneck pace is that the Iraqi civil war “was a victory of the slum over the city, or the periphery over the center.” The case in point is the domination of the Shi‘i ranks by the Mahdi Army and its offshoots, composed of poor, marginally employed residents of Baghdad’s eastern slums and Iraq’s neglected rural south. Rosen reprises this point in the section on the surge, noting that Sadr is as much a creature of the rise of the downtrodden Shi‘a as he is a leader of it. When Sadr froze the Mahdi Army’s activities, Rosen heard many Sadrist fighters say, “Muqtada is a soldier, and we have relieved him of his duty.” The question left unexplored by the book is whether the tajmid was a lasting victory of the city over the slum or an interlude in a thorough transformation of Baghdad that, as Peter Harling has shown, is continuous with decades of rural Shi‘i in-migration and striving for upward mobility.
If Aftermath has a thesis, it is that post-September 11 US interventions in the Middle East, chiefly the invasion of Iraq, spread a virulent type of sectarianism among Muslims across the region. The baseness of the sentiments is captured in the phrase used by unlettered Iraqis to describe the civil war period — “when the Sunnis and Shi‘a happened.” The inflammatory statements of Sunni rulers and clerics deserve much of the blame for the dissemination of the antipathy, but, as Rosen demonstrates, the hard-edged feelings were carried physically to countries like Jordan and Lebanon by salafis returning home from the fight with the United States in Iraq. The chapter on Lebanon, another completely original contribution of the book, is deeply disquieting. Rosen sits at length with young salafis, many of whom hail from the impoverished majority-Sunni district of ‘Akkar in the north, who disparage their Shi‘i countrymen in the ugliest sectarian terms and denounce Hizballah as hizb al-shaytan (party of the devil). The salafi cleric Da‘i al-Islam al-Shahhal, thought to be a Saudi mouthpiece, tells Rosen that he wishes Hizballah’s “divine victory” over Israel in 2006 had never happened. “Iran is exporting the Islamic Revolution” to Lebanon through the agency of Hizballah, he says, echoing the assertions used by the Bush administration and its Sunni Arab allies to justify the Israeli bombardment and invasion.
The crises in Iraq and Lebanon have abated, but Rosen is almost certainly right that the sectarianism awakened therein, and the social dislocation it has produced, will be the prime enduring legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the associated initiatives. One fears, moreover, that he is right in predicting, in the book’s final chapters, a grim close to the US war in Afghanistan. Rather magnanimously, given his great personal bravery in getting the story right, Rosen takes few shots at the pack of American journalists who have so gullibly gotten it wrong for so many years. But the shots he does take hit hard. He notes, for instance, that broadcast interviewers persist in asking him if the death and destruction he has recorded will, in the end, be “worth it.” To that insipid question, Rosen can only shake his head: “I never know what to say.”