Michael Ware was a war correspondent for TIME Magazine and CNN. He spent six years in Iraq.
fantasy – (noun) the faculty or activity of imagining things, esp things that are impossible or improbable.
A few of Kipling's words keep peeling like church bells in my head as I finally sit and ponder Derek Woolner's response to my Iraq war tenth anniversary piece:
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with wornout tools
Please understand I don't mean disrespect to Woolner. But his perspective on the insurgency is heinously flawed and, much like America's war leaders were, perversely dismissive of reports from the ground.
That said, I do agree wholeheartedly when Woolner says 'the early decisions of America's political leaders fundamentally weakened the post-invasion environment.' I cannot see many disputing that position. But it's when I feel he almost contradicts himself a paragraph later that I gagged. I find extraordinary his assertion that 'the US quickly became incapable of influencing the course of events.'
That thought flies directly in the face of something I heard so often from American battle commanders that it was akin to a self-evident truth: 'The enemy always gets a vote.' Sunni insurgents, militia leaders, even separatist Kurds (whose peshmerga I feel strongly bonded to after two months in their pre-invasion trenches) were able to affect, in large and small ways, the battlespace we had in Iraq. But for the corollary to be that, of all the actors in the conflict, it is the Americans – with over 100,000 troops, unchallenged air supremacy, and the most formidable weapons systems on the planet – who could not influence events simply doesn't gel.
Allow me to quickly indicate some further erroneous statements:
- Woolner asserts that 'Sunni insurgents had destroyed the UN headquarters in Baghdad'. Perhaps we differ on semantics alone, but insurgents had nothing to do with the UN bombing (inside the security perimeter, I witnessed the moment rescuers realised UN chief Sergio Vieira de Mello, a man I knew from Timor, had died of his wounds while still trapped). Rather than insurgents, it was actually the work of Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's Tawhid wal Jihad, later called Al Qaeda in Iraq, an organisation I would designate as ultra-militant Islamist in intent and terrorist in method. In the end this distinction between insurgent and terrorist would prove to be key to ending to the Sunni fight against the occupiers. So I don't think it's a small point.
- 'The Bush Administration...and their allies believed, almost with a passion, that the secularism of Saddam's Ba'ath Party would continue to guide Iraqi politics...' I'm not too sure about that one either. Yes, war planners had been deluded into thinking there was a secular democrat waiting to get out of every Iraqi. But to think it was a Ba'ath tradition of secularism strikes me as odd, particularly given, from the day I saw him arrive back in Iraq prior to the invasion, false US ally Ahmed Chalabi was pushing for de-Baathification by having a paper on the subject widely circulated among the press corps, a policy soon after enacted by proconsul Paul Bremer to disastrous effect.
- 'Contrary to Ware's illustration of the power of the Sunni insurgency, it instead demonstrated its irrelevance, for the UIA and KA again won control in the December 2005 elections, with al Fadhila returning the largest single bloc.' Given the country's Sunni comprise about 40% of the population – so never to rule in their own right – and that they in essence voted in disciplined blocs, I'm not certain how a UIA and KA combined majority illustrates anything other than maths. Coincidentally, that same irrelevant political potency among insurgent leaders is what helped so mightily to propel longtime CIA asset and true secularist (and my personal friend) Ayad Allawi to a by-the-numbers victory in the last national election.
- And 'in the Shi'ite south and Kurdish north sectarian control was established' is absolutely half-right. Having paid the IRGC 'administration fees' to cross illegally from Iran into Kurdistan months before the invasion, I came to know and love the Kurdish community in the north well. In both Kurdish domains – PUK and KDP – there's a feel of a one-party state. Purely secular. Anything but sectarian.
Look, I could nitpick further but I hope my concerns about the precision of Woolner's ditty have been made clear.
That just leaves the essence of Woolner's assault on my musings. Unless I'm mistaken, his position seems to be founded upon some unstated or implied sense of a political and military hegemony and predestination in US policy which I simply did not observe in the war's early years. I think such a premise – for what was essentially policy and tactics devised on the run – benefits from the luxury of distance.
And if, as charged, I've tripped down a fantastic rabbit hole of fake memory or diminished sight then I can tell you I'm not alone down here with the Queen of Hearts. Since Woolner's offering I've contacted former Green Beret Colonel Rick Welch to confirm I hadn't gone insane. Indeed, I now believe he's writing a book that deals with the insurgency we never had to have. Also, there's former Prime Minster Allawi, who once attempted a CIA-backed coup d'etat in the mid-1990s using mostly Sunni military officers in Iraq and from 2003 onwards persisted with efforts to return those same commanders and their men (the then-insurgency) back in to the fold. He too contends the invasion was sound but that the insurgency didn't have to be.
Agreeing with him is a great man Allawi introduced me to, another good mate, former Iraqi General Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani, a man with an incredible Hollywood-esque back-story: war hero, dissident, CIA asset and, commencing in mid-2004, the inaugural head of the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (the country's CIA equivalent). Before Fallujah, actually after Fallujah too, and in the years leading up to the tribal Awakening programme, he pressed to stop a guerrilla war he knew to be unnecessary and avoidable. He consistently acted as conduit, mediator and counsel for both the US and the Sunni commanders.
The decisions enacted by Bremer, particularly the disbandment of the Iraqi military, were not preconceived constructs elicited from DC. Rather they were stunning audibles (to use a Gridiron expression) made on the fly and to the great dismay of almost all else involved.
So, I maintain the 'fantasy' of my argument. Indeed I renew it with vigour. In a perfect world the West could have invaded, overthrown Saddam, prevented looting and left (let's say, for argument's sake) by the beginning of 2004. All without the 4000-plus deaths that followed President George W Bush's farcical May 2003 declaration of an end to hostilities. If only it had of been so.
Photo by Flickr user The US Army.