“We do not know our destiny. The Jordanian government might ask us to leave at any moment,” said Hana, a widow in her fifties. “There is no rest for a guest.”
The Coalition Provisional Authority, the US-British body that briefly ruled in Baghdad from May 2003 to June 2004, had grand ambitions for Iraq. The idea was to transform the country completely from what was basically a command economy (notwithstanding liberalization measures in the 1990s) into an open market and from a dictatorship into a liberal democracy. The radical nature of these plans and orders, coupled with the CPA’s swift dissolution, has led many to dismiss the body as a hasty and ill-conceived imperial experiment. Indeed it was — and a destructive one as well. But the CPA period still deserves serious examination. It was the only time when the US, in its capacity as occupier, was in charge of Iraq administratively and legally.
From 1990 to 2003, Iraq languished under comprehensive UN sanctions that prohibited foreign trade. When sanctions were finally lifted, many economists and pundits, as well as Iraqis themselves, hoped for a rapidly expanding economy, brisk reconstruction and a return to prosperity. They have been sorely disappointed.
American soldiers are gone from Iraq, along with much of Washington’s influence. The Obama administration, which came to office opposed to the entire enterprise but then tried, and failed, to extend the troop presence, professes still to play a leading part in what goes on. In reality, it looks more like a bemused bystander who hopes that, somehow, things will not abruptly fall to pieces.
“The Iraq war is largely about oil,” wrote Alan Greenspan in his memoir The Age of Turbulence (2007). “I’m saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows.” It may indeed be self-evident that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, as the former Federal Reserve chairman says, because of oil. But what does this proposition mean? The answer is not so obvious.
The concept of “culture” took on new life in US military strategy in 2006. At the time of the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, cultural knowledge and training played no role in US military calculations; it was simply not part of the vocabulary of war. Culture became an official element of the US military’s arsenal with the 2006 publication of Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, referred to colloquially as “the COIN manual.” Under the COIN rubric, cultural knowledge functions as a tactical asset for troops and military strategists.
It is argued that the celebrated Arab protest movements have changed the path of visual arts in the region. Headlines predict that art inspired by the uprisings will be freer and more critical. Artists have partaken in the displays of mass dissent, demonstrating in the streets and protesting further through their work. Inflated claims notwithstanding, and despite unfulfilled hopes, the protests have indeed directed welcome attention to art scenes in Arab cities. Change, many still hope, is finally possible.
Upheaval in Syria has given Kurdish groups new opportunities to advance their nationalist agendas while serving as proxies for neighboring states. In Turkey, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK has taken advantage of the rift between the regime of Bashar al-Asad and the Turkish government by turning to the former to help it launch its armed operations. In Iraq, after some delay, Kurdish elites have entered Syrian opposition politics as well, highlighting the ironies and internal tensions of their own position. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is keen to persuade Turkey, its key regional patron, that it can contain the PKK elements based in Iraqi territory and moderate Syrian Kurdish demands, while also assuring its Kurdish brethren that it will support their claims. And in Syria itself, Kurds have created the Kurdish National Council in parallel to the main opposition body, the Syrian National Council (SNC) — a reaction to the possibility that the SNC will morph into a successor regime led by Muslim Brothers under Turkish influence.
The Obama administration repeatedly declares that it is “on track” to withdraw all US military forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, in keeping with candidate Barack Obama’s signature promise to “end the war in Iraq.” But, even as the White House avows this intention, policymakers in Washington repeatedly express their hope that the Iraqi government will ask some US troops, perhaps 10,000 or more, to stay past December. In an ideal world, US strategists would like the Iraqis to decide to extend the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) signed in late 2008, which provides legal cover for the US military presence in post-invasion Iraq. A series of summertime developments in Iraq have now made it clear that no such straightforward extension is forthcoming.
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.
Reidar Visser, A Responsible End? The United States and the Iraqi Transition, 2005-2010 (Just World Books, 2010).
There are few keener students of contemporary Iraqi affairs than Reidar Visser. Since the spring of 2006, when he released a lengthy paper on the politics of Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Visser has enjoyed growing respect in Western academic and journalistic circles as a close observer of post-invasion Iraq with a talent for debunking the mainstream narrative.
Lasting from 1980 to 1988, the war between Iran and Iraq was the longest inter-state war of the twentieth century. Yet standard narratives of the war, or of Iranian and Iraqi political history, for that matter, barely discuss the war’s legacy for the structure of the two states in question or the war’s effects upon the exercise of political power.
The seeds of future war are sown even as parties fight and, depleted or on the verge of defeat, sue for peace. The outcome is rarely stable and may be barely tolerable to one side or the other. This rule holds true for the two belligerents no less than for their respective sponsors, keen to protect their strategic interests. Ambitions thwarted are merely delayed, not abandoned; new traumas incurred are entered into the ledger for the settlement of what is hoped one day will be the final bill.
Cynthia Enloe, Nimo’s War, Emma’s War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
War is usually presented as all about hard power and weaponry. In school, students are taught about generals, battlefields, advances in armaments and innovations in military strategy. The historical figures associated with wars whose pictures are featured in textbooks are overwhelmingly male. Women’s experiences are considered to be of secondary importance in understanding armed conflict.
The war in Iraq is over. Or so the government and most media outlets will claim on September 1, by which time thousands of US troops will have departed the land of two rivers for other assignments. With this phase of the drawdown, says President Barack Obama, "America's combat mission will end." The Pentagon is marking the occasion by changing the name of the Iraq deployment from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
Which American has done the most harm to Iraq in the twenty-first century? The competition is stiff, with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and L. Paul Bremer, among others, to choose from. But, given his game efforts to grab the spotlight, it seems churlish not to state the case for Vice President Joe Biden.
Joy Gordon, Invisible War: The United States and the Iraq Sanctions (Harvard, 2010).
Two weapons today threaten freedom in our world. One — the 100-megaton hydrogen bomb — requires vast resources of technology, effort and money. It is an ultimate weapon of civilized and scientific man. The other — a nail and a piece of wood buried in a rice paddy — is deceptively simple, the weapon of a peasant.
—Lt. Col. T. N. Greene, The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him (1962)
Counterinsurgency is another word for brotherly love.
—attributed to Edward Lansdale