Review Allawi, Ali, The Occupation of Iraq, Winning The War, Losing The Peace, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007
Initially, the dominant narrative about the 2003 invasion of Iraq came from the Americans and the British. As time passed, Iraqis were able to add their voice to what happened to their country. One of the most prominent was Ali Allawi. He had an interesting background as he was involved in exile opposition politics in the 1990s. Then, after the overthrow of Saddam, he served in the 2004 interim government and then the 2005 Jaafari administration. That insider perspective was what made his The Occupation of Iraq, Winning The War, Losing The Peace a standout book about post-Saddam Iraq. Allawi’s main thesis was that Iraq was a lesson in unintended consequences. The United States invaded a country which it took no time to study and never seriously planned for. The result was unleashing a firestorm of forces that were completely out of control of the Americans. The new Iraqi elite that took power was little better as they provided no national vision for the new Iraq, something that had been a problem since Iraq was formed after World War I. Allawi therefore believed that Iraq was an unmitigated disaster.
Allawi’s book can be broken up into three broad sections. The first was the pre-war period, the second was the U.S. occupation, and finally the Iraqi governments of Prime Ministers Iyad Allawi, Ibrahim al-Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki. He goes through the major events of each one of these times, which is generally well known. What’s important about the book is Allawi’s insights into each one.
The Occupation of Iraq starts with a history of the country since so many Americans were completely ignorant of the nation they were about to go to war with. That was true of not only the general public, which was understandable, but also amongst all the top officials that advocated for war, which was inexcusable. Allawi believed that Iraq was always a delicate nation divided between different ethnosectarian communities, the Sunnis, the Shiites and the Kurds. The problem for the government was how could these three groups equitably interact, which was never determined. The fact that Iraq gave way to military governments and then the Baath dictatorship meant that these differences were suppressed, while Sunnis ruled under the belief that their standards were the “true” Iraq. Opposition to the regime solidified around Shiite Islamists in the 1990s, some of which began advocating for Shiite identity politics. Allawi in fact wrote a paper advocating for it. That’s the reason why his history is all about ethnosectarianism. He barely mentions the Communist Party, which was the largest in the country from the monarchy to the start of the Baath government. That would have disrupted his idea that Iraq was always about communities, because the communists not only drew members from all the three major groups but was driven by ideology. At the same time, the Bush administration had no concept of how Iraqi society or politics worked. There were neoconservatives for example that believed that Shiites would disrupt the entire Middle East, which was dominated by Sunnis and would not only back liberalism in a new post-Saddam Iraq, but would be natural allies for the United States since they would be thankful that it removed the dictatorship. After the invasion, the Americans would also accept the views of people like Allawi that Iraq was all about identity and institutionalized ethnosectarianism in the government through quotas for the top positions divided up amongst the three major groups, which would cause more divisions than a new national conception for the country.
American ignorance of Iraq occurred both before and after the 2003 invasion which led to a series of tragic mistakes which doomed the U.S. occupation of the country. First, the Bush administration made completely unrealistic postwar plans believing that it would be short and easy. That did not include any ideas on how to create a new Iraqi government. That led to instant chaos as U.S. and Coalition forces set up some new local administrations while others were seized by a variety of groups including Islamists like the Sadrists. The U.S. authorities the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) and Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) first believed that the Iraqis would be able to make their own government, and then reversed course and wanted to dictate everything. They would both make huge promises to Iraqis like making services better than they were before, which could never be accomplished which undermined their standing. Finally, Iraqis took advantage of the ignorance of the Americans taking advantage of the new system to enrich themselves creating a new level of nepotism and corruption not seen before in the country. This is all conventional wisdom now, but when Allawi was putting the book together in 2006 the Bush administration was still talking about its success in Iraq, and that it was heading towards victory. Widespread criticism of the U.S. was just beginning in the press and in Congress. Allawi was not only one of the first to write about this, but he was an Iraqi with a book in English with the gravitas and standing that the West would listen to.
The CPA lasted much longer than the ORHA and came in for most of Allawi’s criticisms. According to him they made four fatal decisions. First, he supported deBaathification but thought the CPA did a horrible job at it, leaving some of the worst actors in the government. Second, disbanding the military which was seen as a national group by most was considered an affront. Then when the U.S. decided to build a new one they wanted a small and weak one that would not be a threat its neighbors, which was the exact opposite of what the Shiite majority wanted. It wanted a strong army that would be under its control. Third, the CPA didn’t dismantle how the Baath ran the state. The CPA kept the main parts of the government, and how it was organized and run, which was all created by the former regime. Allawi wanted a wholesale destruction of the old system, which would mean taking apart all the institutions that he believed were inept, mismanaged and corrupt. Last, he called the U.S. reconstruction effort amateur, incompetent and wasteful. Again, the CPA had no knowledge of the country which meant many of the projects it decided upon were wrong. The U.S. for example favored large development projects which neither presented jobs to Iraqis nor could they be maintained after a decade worth of sanctions that had cut them off from the latest developments in administration, engineering and technology. To Allawi the main reason for these failures was the Americans refusal to talk to the Iraqis and consult with them about what they wanted. Paul Bremer who ran the CPA acted like a viceroy who believed he knew what was best for the country. That started with the pre-war planning that was also not based upon any understanding of Iraq and its needs. The wanton disregard of the people the U.S. was ruling is something that is still overlooked. Americans tend to only think about themselves and even when they are supposed to be assisting another country they see everything in their terms.
Allawi thought the Iraqi governments were little better than the Americans. First, there was no national vision. Instead there were Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish politicians that only cared about their own empowerment and enrichment. Iraqi leaders were also just as unrealistic as their U.S. counterparts. They would regularly make huge promises like the ORHA and CPA that could never be accomplished. The Allawi and Jaafari governments for instance were only temporary, lasting for a few months and yet they claimed they would boost production of things like electricity and oil derivatives that never happened and embittered the public. The Iraqi administrations also went in dramatic swings in opposite directions like the ORHA and CPA. Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi for instance wanted to bring back Baathists and former soldiers, reverse deBaathification, and opposed Islamists and Iran because Allawi was a former Baathist, believed that the old forces could help establish security in the face of the growing insurgency, and thought that the Shiite Islamists were under the control of Iran, Iraq’s traditional foe, which had been vilified by Saddam. The Jaafari government wanted to reverse everything Allawi did and ensure Shiite Islamist control over the administration and security forces. Both, especially the first government were also completely corrupt as ministers were basically run like fiefdoms with little accountability. They were packed with relatives, cronies, and people with few qualifications with many of them stealing as much as they could. Most of Allawi’s defense budget disappeared in a series of corrupt deals. The Iraqi government was also dysfunctional. Foreign advisers would come up with plans that were made into policy which the bureaucracy either didn’t understand or disagreed with and would never be implement. Finally, the Jaafari government presided over a constitutional process that was far too quick, lasting only a few months, and was not about a national compact to help create a new Iraq, but rather based upon a series of rushed political deals. It therefore created more divisions as the majority of Sunnis voted against it. Some of this was apparent at the time. American officials and the military for instance, constantly complained about the Iraqi government’s inability to meet benchmarks and obligations. Much of this was superficial however. Allawi provided a much more in depth view of the root of these problems. The U.S. for example would regularly praise the Iraqi government’s plans as signs that they were stepping up to their responsibilities. The Americans and international organizations like the United Nations and World Bank still to this day give elaborate consultations and assistance to the Iraqi government. In both cases there was rarely if ever any acknowledgement that little comes of these acts because the government simply doesn’t work The Bush administration also treated each government as an important step in the establishment of Iraqi democracy. The narrative was that this was all a march towards progress with no real analysis until after the fact.
The one figure Allawi had praise for was Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Interestingly Alawi presents the ayatollah as interested solely in sectarian politics at first. He demanded the U.S. hold elections so that the Shiite majority could assume power. He then was instrumental in forming the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that collected together all the major Shiite parties and leaders except Allawi who said no to the list. There was a suggestion from one Shiite politician that a grand coalition should be created that represented the three major groups. Sistani rejected that fearing that it would dilute Shiite power. When the UIA was finally put together there were some Sunni candidates, but that was for window dressing. The Ayatollah also put his full standing behind the list actively campaigning for it. Afterward, Sistani called for the government to consider Sunni needs, and he became increasingly critical of how the government was failing, but in the two elections in 2005 he was only interested in empowering his community not a national vision. Allawi was supportive of Sistani’s position, because the author had a sectarian view as well as shown in his historical section and his own past where he argued for a new Shiite politics.
In the end, Allawi said that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was one of the worst mistakes in recent history. The Americans went in with no idea what they were getting into unleashing all kinds of forces that divided Iraq and undermined its ability to effectively rule itself. That was a result of a mix of hubris and ignorance that was never really remedied. The Iraqis were little better in the book’s view as many of the leadership were unqualified, incompetent, corrupt and only concerned with themselves and their party rather than the country as a whole. The Occupation of Iraq was important because not only did it give a fresh view of this period from 2003-2006, but many of the problems still exist. The Americans for instance, still try to tell the Iraqis what they should be doing in things like developing their military, rather than really consulting with them. The government is still dysfunctional and lacks a national vision meant to bring together all the different groups. While that’s true, part of Allawi’s fault is that he has a sectarian view of Iraq and thinks that the division between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds has existed since the creation of the country. There was a period of history when ideology was the driving force however like Pan-Arabism, Arab nationalism, socialism and especially communism, which would show there are other directions the country could take. That means the future could be different, but Allawi doesn’t seem to believe in that.