Publication date: 20 March 2023
For many in the West, especially the US, Iraq didn’t really exist before 2003. Perhaps a dim recollection of armed conflict with Iran many years before, Desert Storm, and some issue with chemical weapons. But Iraq has a past, recent and ancient. And I have a past in it.
My first visit was in July 1978, driving overland from Jordan to begin a two-year assignment at the United States Interest Section of the embassy of Belgium. Iraq had broken diplomatic relations with the US during the 1967 war with Israel and, alone among major Arab states, had not resumed them. Those two years had left me with an indelible impression of the savagery of the Saddam Hussein regime against its own people. It was, as an Iraqi writer put it, a ‘republic of fear’. It also left me with the conviction that we understood very little about Saddam’s decision-making. I left Iraq in August 1980, just a month before Saddam launched the Iran–Iraq war. I did not see it coming. None of us in the US government did.
It was almost 20 years before I was back, in 1998, as the US diplomatic representative on a special UN weapons inspection team. Much had changed since 1980, none of it for the better. Saddam had since invaded two countries, Iran and Kuwait. In 1990 he precipitated a devastating US-led military intervention to expel him from lands he had conquered in Kuwait. He had used chemical weapons against Iran and against his Kurdish population. He had murdered tens of thousands of his own people in the aftermath of the expulsion of his forces from Kuwait. Baghdad, like the rest of the country, was in a state of disrepair and dilapidation, reflecting the impact of UN sanctions and the government’s economic mismanagement.
There was one constant: fear. This time, fear had a name: Abid Hamid Mahmud, Saddam’s personal secretary and the former head of the Special Security Organization, the most ruthless of the many elements Saddam used to control and terrorize his population. Mahmud sought me out twice to say the US and Iraq should put their differences aside to focus on common enemies like Iran, and to show me the house of a Saddam relative who had defected and then returned, only to be torn apart by a mob sent by Mahmud. Looking at the ashen faces of my military escorts, hardened veterans of the wars with Iran and Kuwait, I knew I was in the presence of evil.
Three years later, just before 9/11, I began the toughest job of my career: an assignment to Washington as deputy assistant secretary for Near East affairs, with specific responsibility for Iraq. The bureaucratic wars within the US government were intense. The debate after 9/11, during the build-up to the 2003 invasion, was not whether the US policy on Iraq should be regime change; President Bill Clinton had established US policy when he signed the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998. Instead, whether to do so via a massive US military attack was the question up for discussion. Some of us saw that as a hugely risky commitment whose consequences could not be predicted, let alone shaped. Some proponents saw this as less a policy debate but more a matter of moral righteousness. Opposition was apostasy. The levels above me at the State Department never took a clear position, for or against. That made life at the working level uniquely awful.
No one doubted that we could overthrow Saddam by military force very quickly. But then what? For the so-called neoconservatives, there was no issue. Once the tyrant’s boot had been removed from the neck of the Iraqi people, they would naturally tend towards truth, light and democracy – led by émigré politicians like Ahmad Chalabi. I did not know what post-invasion Iraq would look like, but I knew it wouldn’t be that. We had no coherent plan for what would happen after hostilities ceased. I also knew that once the war was on, I would be the one headed to the front, not the true believers in Washington who showed no interest in going somewhere dirty, difficult and dangerous. I had the language, area knowledge and direct experience in Iraq. It would be me.
When those orders came in April 2003, it was almost a relief – at least I was out of Washington. I joined the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) as the head of governance. Translated, that meant an effort to facilitate some form of Iraqi governing structure. In July that structure literally took the stage in Baghdad, in the form of a 25-member Iraqi Governing Council. That moment was the culmination of weeks of effort on my part to identify and assess individual abilities, power relationships, regional attitudes and political orientation. One example: thirteen of the 25 members were Shia. They reflected a wide spectrum of beliefs, from Islamist to secular to atheist (the head of the Iraq Communist Party). Why 13? Iraq had a Shia majority. In choosing the political, ethnic and sectarian make-up of the governing council, I was guided in part by the British experience after the First World War. Attempting to manage their Iraq mandate on the cheap, the British had preserved the Ottoman structures of civilian and military authority. These, of course, were dominated by Sunnis. The Grand Ayatollah of the time issued an anti-British fatwa, sparking a Shia revolt that took the British a decade to put down.
It was not an element of history I wished to repeat. It was clear from the outset that for Iraq’s three principal communities, Arab Shia, Arab Sunnis and Kurds, it would not be possible to devise structures all three would support. We could count on the Kurds – they didn’t have a choice. And if it came to violent opposition, a Shia rebellion would be worse than one from the Sunnis. In Lebanon, I had experienced at first hand the damage Iranian-backed Hezbollah could do. This would be several orders of magnitude greater. Did I think that distributing political power along ethnic and sectarian lines was a good idea? I had spent six years in Lebanon, three of them as US ambassador. I knew it wasn’t. But there wasn’t another choice. Saddam had completely deconstructed Iraqi society. There were no political parties, organizations or societies outside the Ba’ath Party structures. Even tribal hierarchies had been dismantled. When the Ba’ath Party came down, everything came down. It was a situation that demonstrates an axiom of Middle East diplomacy: it is rarely a choice between good options and bad; it is between bad options and worse. The one hope I had was that, unlike Lebanon, Iraq had no history of sectarian strife. But as they say, hope makes poor policy.
One element of the governing council’s formation gave me real hope. On stage that day in July, there was only one person who was not Iraqi. It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t Paul Bremer, the head of the CPA. It was Sergio de Mello, the special representative of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Sergio and I had been friends and colleagues since the early 1980s in Lebanon, where he was the political adviser to the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) and I was political counsellor at the US embassy in Beirut. His presence gave the governing council international legitimacy, a huge step in the process of creating a newly independent Iraq. A month later he was dead, killed in the bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad along with 21 others. With him died an activist UN role in Iraq. It was the first major operation by Al-Qaeda in Iraq.
I stepped away from Iraq and the Middle East for several years, serving as ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007. There was nothing easy about Pakistan, but it was a welcome change. Still, Iraq has a way of pulling those it has touched back into its orbit. In the autumn of 2006, President George W. Bush asked me to return to Iraq as ambassador. It was the worst of times. Sunni–Shia tensions had exploded into a sectarian civil war. The president had doubled down on his Iraq gamble, ordering a surge of US forces and a change of military and civilian commanders. General David Petraeus and I were the new team.
A civil–military surge
When the announcement was made, General Petraeus was at Fort Leavenworth in the US and I was in Islamabad, Pakistan. We connected by secure phone and quickly concluded that tight coordination between us was critical. There was no guarantee of success if we worked closely together; if we did not, there was a certainty of failure. To that end, we formed a Joint Strategy Assessment Team (JSAT), co-chaired by a military officer and a civilian, Colonel (later Lieutenant General) H. R. McMaster and David Pearce (later Ambassador) respectively. Military and civilian personnel were paired throughout the JSAT chain of command. They were tasked with preparing an assessment of our predecessors’ campaign plan and recommendations for our own. But the structure was its own message: every aspect of our mission would be joint. The team was up and running before either of us arrived in Baghdad. Civilian–military cooperation was critical to our efforts in Iraq and remains so today in a world often characterized by complex, messy political–military conflicts. Unfortunately, there is still no field manual on the institutionalization of civilian–military cooperation, and coordination remains personality-dependent.
The tumult of my two years as ambassador to Iraq would take volumes to describe. I certainly had ample opportunity during that time to think back about the concerns I had raised prior to the policy decision to invade Iraq in 2003. That was precisely the point: at the time, I had had no idea what would follow our overthrow of the Saddam regime, and that had scared me. It should have scared all of us. In no way could I claim to have foreseen how events would subsequently unfold, nor had I identified other options for ending Saddam’s reign of terror in Iraq and in the region. I had only known that we would be setting in motion forces that we could neither identify nor shape. Consequences not of the third or fourth order, but of the 30th and 40th.
Distilled to its simplest form, the first big lesson of the US experience in Iraq is therefore to be careful what you get into. It was not so much that we did not have adequate plans for the way forward after hostilities had ceased (we didn’t), but that the weight of the unknown was so great that such plans were impossible.
The surge, under the inspired leadership of General Petraeus and General Raymond Odierno, did bring security to much of the population, starting in the second half of 2007. As violence lessened, political leaders had more space to manoeuvre. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, for example, was able to provide a $250 million supplemental budget to the Sunni province of Anbar, a hotbed of Al-Qaeda violence. This concrete support from a Shia-led government was a significant factor in turning the population against Al-Qaeda. And as Iraq’s Shia saw their erstwhile Sunni enemies now fighting a common foe, they no longer felt dependent on Shia militia to protect them. In turn, this produced a political climate in which Maliki in April 2008 could launch large-scale military operations against militias supported by Iran – from Baghdad south to Basra – and prevail. After so much viciousness, a virtuous cycle was in motion.
The Awakening, or Sahwa, was brilliantly conceived and executed. The one significant error, perhaps, was that it was our conception and execution, especially on the critical issue of salaries. We paid them. It should have been Maliki from the start. He never overcame his suspicion of something that had been created outside his control. But if we had gone to Maliki at the beginning, it would certainly have delayed the initiative and might have resulted in conditions and stipulations that could have caused the entire project to fail. The main point here, I think, is that ‘if only’ thinking doesn’t really work in the Iraqi context – if only we had done this and not that, all would have been well. The incredible complexities of post-invasion Iraq meant that there were no clear good choices and that the law of unintended consequences was in full force. And yet, it almost worked. My last visit outside Baghdad was in Ramadi in February 2009. The atmosphere was so calm that Ahmad Abu Risha, the leader of the Sahwa after the assassination of his brother, and I could take a stroll through the bustling market, sipping tea and chatting with shopkeepers.
This brings me to the second great lesson of Iraq, as simple as the first: be careful what you get out of. The consequences of disengagement can be even greater than those of engagement, especially if the means is military force. Once you’re in, you’re in. You cannot ‘uninvade’ or rewind the film. Lasting political change takes time and patience; but strategic patience is something America is not particularly good at. Iraq wasn’t the first place where our strategic patience was tested and found to fail, nor was it the last. Perhaps by design, we failed to get an achievable agreement on the long-term presence of US forces in Iraq, and all US forces were withdrawn by the end of 2011. You don’t end a war by pulling your forces off the battlefield. You simply cede the space to your enemies, in this case, Islamic State in the west and Iran in the east.
It’s simple: careful in, careful out. In Iraq we were neither.