Emma Sky recently published a book The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq about her time serving in Iraq under the Coalition Provisional Authority, during the Surge, and then while the United States was drawing down its forces for the 2011 withdrawal. What follows is an interview with Sky about her time in Iraq and what she thought about U.S. policies and Iraqi politicians.
1. You served three tours in Iraq starting in 2003, but you were opposed to the war. Can you explain why you were against the invasion, the personal struggle that posed for you while you were in Iraq, and how it shaped your general approach to working there?
Like most people in the UK and Europe, I was opposed to the war. I did not see any connection between 9/11 and Iraq. I feared the consequences in the region of another humiliating defeat of an Arab country. But I saw no contradiction in volunteering to help Iraq get back on its feet post-invasion. I had spent a decade working in Israel/Palestine and had developed skills in conflict mediation, capacity building, and institutional development which I thought could be useful.
2. You were contacted in 2003 to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). It seems like everyone that worked for it has a story. Can you explain how the CPA hired you, and how they greeted you when you first arrived in Iraq?
The UK’s Foreign Office asked for volunteers to go out to Iraq to administer the country for three months until it was handed back to the Iraqis. CPA was a US-UK led effort, set up from scratch on the hoof. Most of the Brits who deployed were civil servants. I was employed by the British Council who agreed to second me for three months to the Foreign Office. I did not receive a briefing beforehand. I was assured I would be met in Basra and that all would become clear. But no one was expecting me when I reached Basra so I flew the next day to Baghdad and made my way to the Republican Palace which was the headquarters of the CPA. There I discovered my name was on a list of volunteers. I was told to go look for a position in the north, so I went to Mosul, then to Irbil, and then to Kirkuk which is where I stayed.
3. During your assignment in Kirkuk you and Colonel William Mayville the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade decided to empower Iraqis. Did you come up with that policy on your own or did it come from the CPA, and what did that say about how the organization tried to run the country?
Very little guidance came from CPA to the provinces in the initial months other than debaathification and dissolving the military. CPA was fully absorbed trying to cope with the day to day crises in Baghdad. It had almost no bandwidth for the provinces. In Kirkuk, we were left to our own devices. The main power struggle causing instability in Kirkuk was over whether the province should be annexed to Kurdistan or remain connected to Baghdad. We sought to get Iraqis running the province while at the same time mediating between the different groups and encouraging them to work together.
4. CPA head Paul Bremer originally had a multi-year plan to develop Iraq’s government and reform its economy. He was forced to change that plan by Washington that wanted a speedy transfer of sovereignty back to the Iraqis. Do you think either plan the long term or short term had a chance to work, and what does it say about the ability of the United States to rebuild foreign countries?
It was not clear from the outset how long CPA would be in existence. There were strong differences within the US system. Rumsfeld, who was put in charge of the post-war phase, did not believe in nation building. Some Americans wanted to put Ahmed Chalabi in charge and hand over immediately to the Iraqis. Bremer did not believe there were any credible Iraqi leaders to hand over to. Neither the short-term nor the long-term plan were developed by or with Iraqis. They were US plans to develop ‘them’. Some will argue that we succeeded in Japan and Germany – and just needed to dedicate the time and resources to succeed in Iraq. But those were different circumstances and different times. I do not believe that in this day and age you can parachute foreigners in to ‘fix’ other people’s countries. The impetus has to come from within the country itself. We can advise, we can share comparative experience - but we should not impose.
5. After the CPA was disbanded in 2004 you went back home, but were called back to Iraq to serve during the Surge. One program you were involved with was the U.S. attempt to split the insurgency via the Sahwa. That faced a lot of opposition from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the reconciliation commission he created. During that time and after the Surge there were plenty of stories about Maliki refusing to deal with the Sahwa, and then arresting them and refusing to pay them even after he had agreed to integrate them into the government. Why was Maliki so opposed to the Sahwa and was the United States ever able to gain any leeway with him over it?
Initially, Maliki was concerned that the US was helping to build up a large Sunni army which would turn on the Shia. The US hired over a hundred thousand ‘sons of Iraq’ on its payroll – and the numbers kept increasing every time the government was briefed. Maliki tended to regard all Sunnis as Baathists/terrorists/al-Qaeda and did not differentiate between them in the way we had learned to do. Those in his reconciliation committee tended to be non-exiles and from mixed families. They were more open to reaching out to the sahwa and insurgent leaders to get them to work alongside the government. Progress was made during the second half of 2007. We pushed the Iraqi government to absorb the sons of Iraq into the security forces and public sector jobs. Some of the resistance was bureaucratic – they did not have the capacity to handle all the contracts. Some was political. Why should Sunnis, who may have been involved in the insurgency, be given priority for jobs over others? But in the following years we began to notice that sons of Iraq leaders were being arrested, killed or fleeing the country – and this often strained our relationship with Maliki.
6. The United States had a similar program to try to work with the Shiite militias such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the breakaway group Asaib Ahl Al-Haq. This has relevance today as many Iraqis are asking why the U.S. worked with former insurgents during the Sahwa program why can’t they work with the Hashd al-Shaabi today who are made up of many Shiite armed groups that opposed the U.S. occupation. How did the talks go with these Shiite parties and does it open up any opportunities for cooperation with them now?
The sons of Iraq program provided an honorable exit for Sunnis out of the insurgency, and helped create a place for them in the ‘new’ Iraq. The Sunnis found common cause with the US in fighting al-Qaeda; and looked to the US for protection from the Shia militias. With the Shia militias, however, there was no common narrative to bring them and the US together. They feared the US was aligning against them and saw the US as an obstacle to their consolidation of power. Today, the Sunnis are once again critical to defeating ISIS. However, the Shia militias are opposed to providing the Sunnis with the means to fight ISIS out of fear that they will turn those weapons against the Shia. The Shia militias are stronger than the state, and some are backed by Iran. Shia militias can help protect key population centers such as Baghdad and Karbala, and contain the advance of ISIS. But it is only Sunnis who can truly defeat ISIS.
7. Nouri al-Maliki lost the premiership in 2014 after the fall of Mosul. Before that he served as prime minister for eight years and took on seemingly almost every political party from the Iraqi Accordance Front to Iraqiya to the Sadrists to the Kurds. What did you think about his rule, and why was he so successful in taking on all these different groups and still stay in power?
Maliki changed during his rule. At the beginning, we were worried he was too weak. But he grew into power. As the violence came down, he began to consolidate his rule. The rents from oil provided him with vast patronage which he used to buy support. He sought to defeat his rivals rather than win them over. He collected ‘files’ on politicians to intimidate them. By 2008, Iraqi politicians were becoming increasingly fearful of his increasing authoritarianism. On a number of occasions they maneuvered to pass a vote of no confidence against him in Parliament. But each time, the US pressured them not to take this course of action arguing that Iraq was too unstable at the time to cope with a change in leadership and that such a decision should be taken through national elections.
8. In 2010 General Odierno wanted the U.S. to not pick winners, but protect the election process. The Obama administration ended up going against that stance. Why do you think the White House decided to back Maliki and what kind of impact did that have?
In the initial months after the 2010 elections, the White House did little while Maliki made every attempt to change the election results, demanding a recount, using debaathification to disqualify Iraqiya candidates and annul their votes, and pressuring the judiciary to provide an ambiguous ruling on the definition of the winner of the elections. The White House then determined that the quickest and easiest route to forming the government was to maintain the status quo, and to pressure and persuade the other groups to support a second Maliki term. They convinced themselves that Maliki was the only possible leader of Iraq, and that he would agree to a follow-on security agreement to maintain a contingent of US forces in Iraq after 2011. The impact of this decision was to undermine the political process and the belief that change can come about through politics rather than violence. Also, as both the US and Iran supported keeping Maliki in power, it led to conspiracy theories of a secret agreement between the two countries. The decision to try to keep Maliki in power led to a decline in US influence which had been on a high during the surge. In the end, it was the Iranians who succeeded in guaranteeing Maliki a second term and he moved much closer to them. Rather than moving forward national reconciliation and strengthening the state, Maliki focused on consolidating power, subverting state institutions, and destroying his rivals.
9. President Obama only had one real foreign policy position when he was elected in 2008, which was to end the Iraq War. What kind of affect did that have back in Baghdad?
By the time Obama became President, the violence in Iraq had dramatically declined. Iraqi forces were out in front, with US forces in support. Their confidence was increasingly growing. Americans and Iraqis felt that the country was on the right track and all the indicators were positive.
The challenge for the US was to transition the nature of the relationship with Iraq from a military led-one to a civilian one. Unfortunately, this did not happen. The US did not invest sufficiently in the Strategic Framework Agreement which was supposed to govern the strategic partnership between the US and Iraq. And the constant refrain for the domestic US audience of ending the war created the impression in the region that the US was abandoning Iraq.
10. You spent a large part of your recent life working in Iraq for the Americans. What kind of lessons learned did you come away with about the power of the United States to successfully intervene in the Middle East and rebuild a country?
Firstly, nothing that happened in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was pre-ordained. There were different potential futures for the country. There were hopes of a world without Saddam Hussein; and missed opportunities to create a better order. There were unintended consequences of action, as well as non-action: Bush’s efforts to impose democracy; Obama’s detachment. We need to learn the limitations of external actors in foreign lands – as well as where we can have influence.
Secondly, it's all about ‘their’ politics, their power struggles. Those we excluded from power sought to bring down the new order; those that we empowered sought to use the country’s resources for their own interests, to subvert the nascent democratic institutions, and to use the security forces we trained and equipped to intimidate their rivals. Iraqis accuse Americans of destroying their country - yet fail to acknowledge their own contributions to Iraq’s unraveling. But there was more we could have done to broker an inclusive agreement among the elites and to create a better balance in Iraq – and in the region.
Thirdly, our civilian leadership needs to be more realistic in the goals it sets and the assumptions it makes; and to better develop an overall strategy which sees military means as a tool to achieve political outcomes – and not as an end in itself.