The Accidental Counterinsurgent
A SWJ discussion with Emma Sky, the author of the just published book “The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq”, Public Affairs, 2015.
SWJ: What prepared you for this Gertrude Bell kind of journey, for the role of the accidental counterinsurgent operating in a field where 80% is about politics (as Galula would remind us), doing a job where you had to “be more of a missionary than a soldier” (as one officer said)?
Emma Sky: When I went out in Iraq, the first time in 2003, I was not at all read or versed in counterinsurgency. It was not something that I was interested in or thought about, I had never worked with militaries. My background was in development and I had spent a decade working in Israel and Palestine and when you work in development and conflict mediation, people are very much at the center of what you do. The way I framed things had more to do with how the environment shapes people’s behavior. I think we are all products of our environments. If you change the environment, people’s behavior will change. This is the background that I came with. Everybody you meet, how you treat them, will affect whether they are your friend or your enemy. This is generally my approach to life.
SWJ: If I understand well the book, my impression is that you are at the other side of the spectrum from Rory Stewart who is highly critical about COIN and grandiose nation-building schemes. But there are times when we may need to embrace nation-building or state building. In this sense what are some of the necessary lessons that we need to have in mind next time?
Emma Sky: I am not that different than Rory Stewart on this. Rory may be at the far end of the spectrum, but I am closer to him. I am not a believer in big nation building efforts. When we look to Iraq today there is nothing to be seen from a decade of our efforts. So you have to ask why. Why after spending billions of dollars is nothing to be seen from it? I think part of the problem is that we are looking for technical solutions to things that are inherently political. It is all about politics. You quoted Galula saying it is 80% politics. I would say it is 90-95% politics. The violence is an extension of politics. People use violence to achieve political ends. The main problem that we had is how we frame the situation and we framed it in terms of good guys/bad guys so good guys would be put in power and the bad guys would be excluded. In reality it is a power struggle between different groups. Probably civil war is a more accurate term than insurgency, because insurgency assumes that the government is legitimate. Civil war is more of a competition between a vast array of groups for power and resources. What we saw in Iraq was that those excluded from power tried to bring down the whole new order that we introduced and those that we empowered basically extracted the resources of the state for their own purposes, subverted the democratic institutions that we introduced and used the security forces that we trained and equipped to go after their political rivals. Our focus should be much more on peace agreements, mediating between the different groups, because if you don’t get that right all the technical assistance that you provide is worthless in the end. Look how much we spent training and equipping the Iraqi army and the first time they were really tested by the Islamic State they fled. This had to do with the leadership, the governance of the security forces, there was so much politicization, so much corruption, so much political interference that completely undermined the chain of command. So conducting more training, providing more equipment does not deal with the problem of the governance of the security forces. So the issues are mostly political. We had all these plans to develop ‘them’ as if they were the passive recipients of our benevolence - and we don’t pay enough attention to the politics. In Iraq and Afghanistan we could have done much more right from the beginning to broker inclusive peace agreements.
SWJ: There is a lot of discussion about ancient hatred in the Middle East these days. Is this concept explaining anything? There was a moment during the 1990s when the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and the successive ethnic wars were perceived through similar lenses. George Kennan himself used the metaphor during the 1990s to advise against a Western intervention in the Balkans.
Emma Sky: When you look to the history of a country like Iraq, most of their history people have lived together, peacefully, they haven’t gone through sectarian wars like we had in Europe. There was not a 30 years war as in Europe. When we arrived in Baghdad in 2003, 30% of the population was intermarried. We blame ‘ancient hatreds’ for the violence partly to absolve ourselves of any responsibility for what’s happened and partly out of ignorance. People don’t understand what is going on in the Middle East so it is easy to say that everything has to do with Sunni and Shia. It is a simplistic explanation. When you look at the conflict today, it has definitely become much more sectarian, so there is a new dynamic in the region. But the root causes have to do with power and the shifts in the balance of power which was caused by the Iraq war and the way in which we left Iraq which gave the impression that Iran was the victor, that Iran has driven America out of Iraq. Previously it was Iraq that acted as a bulwark against Iran’s expansion and without a strong Iraq, Iran is projecting its power through the region. Iran and the Gulf states have been supporting extreme sectarian actors, turning local grievances over poor governance into proxy wars against each other. That is what made the Middle East more sectarian and led to the break down of societies that coexisted for centuries.
SWJ: What should we learn from the initial CPA policies that set the scene for some of the biggest blunders that still haunt us today - the de-Baathification process and the disbanding of the Iraqi military?
Emma Sky: When you look at the initial invasion it was carried out according to the plans. But there weren’t plans for what should happen the day after. In the initial weeks there was a power vacuum. The Iraqi security forces weren’t recalled, there weren’t enough US soldiers to maintain security and for weeks and weeks there was widespread looting and lawlessness. Right from the beginning this environment allowed an opening for gangs and armed groups to form. One of the key lessons of course is not to allow a power vacuum because groups will fill the void very quickly. When you look at the initial weeks, way before de-Baathification and the disbanding of the military, the lawlessness became pervasive. It was very difficult to recover from that. De-Baathification was obviously far too widespread, went too deep and too many people were affected by it. What do you do with the former regime officials, not the foot soldiers but the high level people? Where do you draw the line? This is not an easy matter. There is always the question of justice and peace - and which should come first? How do you reconcile, how do you hold people that committed mass murder accountable? It is extraordinary what happened in South Africa where people could just admit their crimes but were not held to account - that was a very unique experience. In most places it has proven very difficult to deal with the senior members of former regimes.
SWJ: Do you see the post surge Iraqi state failure as a problem of leadership-a sectarian, parochial one, focused on a narrow agenda?
Emma Sky: There has been an absolute, massive failure of political leadership in Iraq. You can see that Iraqi elites behaved in ways which are predatory, they have stolen millions from the state, you can see the houses they have built for themselves abroad. There is a real absence of responsible leadership, of statesmen in Iraq, they have failed to come up with a vision for the nation, they have not agreed how Iraq should look, what should be the nature of the Iraqi state. The Constitution was done very quickly and pushed through and includes many contradictions so does not represent a consensus. When you take the example of South Africa, everyone expected the black community would take revenge on the whites in a civil war. That didn’t happen, in part because of the leadership of Nelson Mandela and also because of the leadership of de Klerk. They had a vision for the future of the country, of what was in the best interests of the people, they were not populists. They showed vision and leadership. In Iraq, regrettably there have not been leaders of that ilk. Politicians pursued their own interests -there was nobody who stood up as an Iraqi speaking for the whole of the country and in the best interest of all Iraqis. What we saw with these leaders was that they used sectarianism to mobilize support for themselves.
SWJ: COIN doctrine, both the British and US one, are state-centric and assume that the host-nation government is an ally. But as we’ve seen in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, the host nation elites themselves may be part of the problem. What can be done in such circumstances?
Emma Sky: It is a problem because the doctrine assumes the legitimacy of the regime and that those that who oppose it are not legitimate. You either have to think that the doctrine only applies to particular instances and not to civil war contexts or you have to adapt the doctrine. The tactics may often be the same – but the overall strategy is different. We can see in situations such as Iraq, that we can inadvertently help build up a regime that is kleptocratic and authoritarian. We can make the regime stronger and stronger which then makes it less willing to compromise with those who oppose it and so this makes it less likely to reach a political solution. We focused more on the capacity of the regime than on an inclusive political agreement. This is where you can see tactics working against strategy - and that can become problematic. Our indicators measure the strength of security forces – but not whether they come under legitimate civilian control or whether they are used for political purposes.
SWJ: It is necessary to try to answer to the tough/big questions. Why we didn’t win?
Emma Sky: The problem is at the highest level. It is a problem of national strategy. We don’t have a national strategy which defines the outcome we are trying to reach and how to use military means to achieve political ends. So I see the failure really being with the civilian leadership. Where the military makes the mistake is in saying “yes Sir I can succeed” rather than saying “Sir, with all due respect, with all the time and resources, there is not a security solution. What is the political outcome that you want us to contribute to?” The US and UK militaries are very professional. But in the absence of defined political goals, the reporting reverts to tactical military successes and troop numbers in-country. The military has got to understand not only the utility of force, but also the limitations of force. The civilian leadership needs to better define the political outcome that they want and how to use the different instruments of national power to achieve that.
SWJ: A quote from General Graeme Lamb captures well I think one of the lessons learned during the post 9/11 interventionism. He said quoting Clausewitz that “if war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means, then it is to politics it must return.” In this context, the responsibility of other instruments of national power – “all in” – to step in the phase where the politics has returned is crucial. “Their omission is self-defeating”. Do you see the other civilian branches of the government able/ready to work in a synchronized way in whole of government approach?
Emma Sky: There are limits to what external actors can do in foreign lands. There is no mythical cadre of civilians that can be parachuted into developing countries to ‘fix’ them. We try to apply technical solutions to what are inherently political problems. What we end up doing is working with particular elites and unintentionally encouraging kleptocracy, encouraging corruption. Yes we need to bring down the violence in order to reach a political solution. But it has to be about reaching a political solution. After 10 years we need to be humble. How do we do reach a political solution? We saw in Iraq during the surge that we had soldiers on the ground facilitating ceasefires, and mediating between different groups. We need to find a way of brokering agreements from the bottom level right up to the top level. We succeeded at the lowest levels during the surge - but we failed to broker an agreement at the national level.
SWJ: In the book there are myriads of examples of the ability of the Coalition forces to stabilize cities and provinces by dealing with the local leaders able to influence people. But the big problem seems to be always top-down, at the national level. During the surge we’ve seen a coherent synchronized framework with multiple lines of operations working toward providing political breathing space to Iraqi national elites. Was there any dedicated political strategy after the surge, including during the drawdown to pressure the Iraqi leadership to reconcile and make permanent the gains of the surge?
Emma Sky: The goal of the surge was to provide time and space for the Iraqi government to move forward on national reconciliation and public services delivery. In that goal is a big assumption: if the violence comes down, the Iraqi politicians would do the right thing. The goal of the surge was achieved creating the time and space, but the assumption was wrong. Iraqi politicians had not reached a basic consensus on the nature of the state and the distribution of power and resources and were using violence in their narrow interests. For them violence was an extension of politics. The surge achieved its goals. But afterwards Iraq needed continued US support to help broker an agreement among its leaders, to protect the political process and to build up institutions. But instead the US disengaged. Dealing with leaders in Iraq is very difficult. It is not just Maliki because he is a symptom of something broader than himself. The way the Iraqi state is set up, the system that we introduced in 2003 has got flaws. So there are some structural flaws about designing the state based on sect and ethnicity so ministries become personal fiefdoms of whoever gets hold of them. There is a structural issue there. The state was set up that way in order to ensure pluralism. But it ended up institutionalizing sectarianism. There is also a problem with the electoral system. It would be better if Iraq had an electoral system that is based on districts where people directly elect the representatives of their communities. The current system makes tensions in Iraq worse. There is also the problem of the economy where 95% comes from oil. So the government of Iraq does not live off the hard earned tax income that is taken from the people – it receives easy funds from oil rents. So again, this weakens the relationship between people and government. Maliki was paranoid and started to go after his rivals. But anybody filling the post of prime minister is faced with constraints. Until Iraq diversifies its economy away from oil, until they reach agreements on decentralization of power, until they change the electoral system, until all of these things have happened, the incentives keep pushing towards this competition at the center and centralization of power.
SWJ: How do you see the surge-change of tactics, of strategy, of mindset?
Emma Sky: I think the major impact of the surge was psychological. Prior to the surge, end of 2006 early 2007, the situation in Iraq was dire. All the emphasis was on let’s get the hell out. When the US decided to surge that sent a huge message that America is not defeated. Bush took the decision against the advice of many of his people. It showed great leadership. And there was great strategic communication from General Petraeus- “hard is not hopeless”; we can turn this around. The impact was huge. The tactics obviously changed. Instead of being all about going after the bad guys, it became about protecting the Iraqi people from bad guys. The operational plan was led by General Odierno. I think military guys are going to study that operational plan for years and years to come. But the most important aspect of the surge was psychological: the Sunnis were already turning against Al-Qaeda, it helped expand that; it helped the Iraqi people see that we were there to protect them from each other; it led to the Shia population no longer tolerating the militias; it led to Maliki going after the extremists, both Sunni and Shia. It created a virtuous cycle.
SWJ: Explain a bit about the Awakening. What did trigger the Awakening? How did the interaction with the surge play out?
Emma Sky: The Awakening initially was Iraqi led. The local Sunni community was getting furious at what Al-Qaeda was doing. Sunnis were losing the civil war. They realigned with the US to help them fight Al-Qaeda. But they saw the bigger enemy being the Iranian backed Shia militias. Soldiers such as Colonel Sean MacFarland responded positively to it and through the surge the Awakening spread well beyond Anbar.
SWJ: When did the transformation of Maliki happen?
Emma Sky: People have very different opinions of Maliki. The Iraqi elites were trying to remove Maliki in 2008. They tried to remove him through a vote of no confidence in parliament. The US intervened on a number of occasions to stop that from happening. The US found him useful and wanted to keep him in power. But Iraqi elites were worried that he was becoming too strong and too authoritarian. From a security perspective we were working quite well with Maliki. We started to realize that he had changed in the middle of 2009. But others say that he changed way before then. We started to get very worried when he didn’t accept the election results in 2010 when he started to accuse all these different groups of interfering with the election’ results. He believed in a massive conspiracy. But the White House only started to think that he was a problem in 2014.
SWJ: To me an alternative future for Iraq is possible when I see the local heroes in your story: Dr. Basima, Safa or Rafi. Tell us about their Iraq, about their vision of a post surge Iraq.
Emma Sky: The Kurds have wanted independence from Iraq for a long time. But until recently, the Arabs of Iraq wanted to stay together. The three characters that you mentioned had a similar vision of Iraq as a united country, with a sense of identity that was inclusive of all groups and with all being treated equally before the law. The situation now has changed. But there was an opportunity – and unfortunately we missed it.
SWJ: What are the conditions that gave rise to ISIL? To what extent is the rise correlated with the post surge sectarization of Maliki and the purge of the government of Sunni elements?
Emma Sky: There were a number of factors that set the conditions that allowed for ISIL (the Son of Al-Qaeda in Iraq) to emerge. ISIL is a symptom of a problem. The Iraq war - and the manner in which the US left Iraq - enabled the resurgence of Iran and changed the balance of power in the region. Geopolitical competition between Iran and Gulf states led to their support for extreme sectarian actors, turning local grievances over poor governance into regional proxy wars. At the same time, Maliki pursued discriminatory policies towards the Sunnis, pushing leaders out of the political process, arresting Sunnis, not integrating the Awakening members into the security forces, not keeping the pledges made to them, not responding to the protests. All of these things went on and on and the grievances built up. So his discriminatory behavior and the fact that he was backed by Iran, all created the environment where many Sunnis thought that ISIL was the lesser of two evils when compared with Maliki. ISIL was able to brand itself as the defender of the Sunnis against the Iranian-backed government of Maliki. ISIL feeds on a Sunni sense of disenfranchisement and grievance.
SWJ: How were you able to influence the transformation of Gen. Odierno?
Emma Sky: In 2003/2004 Odierno had the reputation for being highly kinetic. When he came back for his second tour he approached me and asked me to become his political adviser. That says a lot about him because you don’t get two people more opposite than him and me. We are totally opposite. He was somebody that realized during his first tour the limitations of military force and the need for different approaches. He had seen me working in Kirkuk and he had seen the influence I had on the brigade there. It is important for leaders to consider different ways of doing things – and bring in people from diverse backgrounds to help them. I learned a lot from working with the military – and found the experience highly rewarding.
Emma Sky is a Senior Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, where she lectures on the New Iraq and Middle East Politics. She served in Iraq from 2003-2004 as the representative of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Kirkuk, and from 2007-2010 as the political adviser to General Raymond T. Odierno, the current Chief of Staff of the Army. She is the author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq.