hen trying to explain the current unrest in the Middle East, from Iraq to Syria to Yemen, American officials often resort to platitudes about Sunni and Shia Muslims fighting each other for “centuries” due to “ancient hatreds.” Not only is this claim historically inaccurate, but it also ignores the unintended consequences that the Iraq War more recently leashed on the region. That war—and the manner in which the United States left it behind in 2011—shifted the balance of power in the region in Iran’s favor. Regional competition, of which Iran’s tension with Saudi Arabia is the main but not only dimension, exacerbated existing fault-lines, with support for extreme sectarian actors, including the Islamic State, turning local grievances over poor governance into proxy wars.
Nothing that happened in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 was pre-ordained; different futures than the one unfolding today were possible. Recall that violence declined drastically during the 2007 U.S. troop surge, and that for the next couple of years both Iraq and the West felt that the country was going in the right direction. But the seeds of Iraq’s unravelling were sown in 2010, when the United States did not uphold the election results and failed to broker the formation of a new Iraqi government. As an adviser to the top U.S. general in Iraq, I was a witness.
“My greatest fear,” General Raymond Odierno, the then commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, told me in early 2010, “is that we stabilize Iraq, then hand it over to the Iranians in our rush to the exit.”
General O (as he is known), had recently watched the 2007 movie Charlie Wilson’s War, which recounts how U.S. interest in Afghanistan ceased once the mujahedeen defeated the Soviet Army in 1989 and drove them out. Now, he had a premonition that the same could happen in Iraq. “I’ve invested too much here,” he said, “to simply walk away and let that happen.”
I had first met Odierno in 2003, when he was the commanding general of the 4th Infantry Division responsible for the provinces of Salah al-Din, Diyala and Kirkuk in the early days of the Iraq War; I had been the representative in Kirkuk of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American-led transitional government that controlled Iraq after Hussein’s fall. Now, as his political adviser, I was helping General O ensure that the United States kept its focus on the mission in Iraq while drawing down U.S. forces.
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Odierno wanted U.S. engagement with Iraq to continue for years to come, but led by U.S. civilians, not the military. He believed that, in order to train Iraqi security forces and provide the psychological support needed to maintain a level of stability, 20,000 or so U.S. troops needed to stay in Iraq beyond 2011, when all American troops were scheduled to be withdrawn. But the real engagement, General O believed, should be from the other instruments of national power, led by the U.S. embassy.
Every time a congressional delegation visited us in Baghdad, General O put up a slide showing why the United States should continue to invest in Iraq through the Strategic Framework Agreement that the two countries had signed in 2008. General O knew that for the mission to succeed, there needed to be a political agreement between Iraqi leaders. Otherwise, all the security gains that the American troops had fought so hard for would not be sustainable. He took every opportunity to educate and communicate these complexities to the new Obama administration.
For six months, General O had tried hard to support the leadership of Chris Hill, the new American ambassador who had taken up his post in April 2009. But Odierno had begun to despair. It was clear that Hill, though a career diplomat, lacked regional experience and was miscast in the role in Baghdad. In fact, he had not wanted the job, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had persuaded him to take it; she admitted as much to General O, he told me, when he met her in early 2010 in Washington to discuss the dysfunction at the embassy. General O complained that Hill did not engage with Iraqis or with others in the diplomatic community—his only focus appeared to be monitoring the activities of the U.S. military.
It was frightening how a person could so poison a place. Hill brought with him a small cabal who were new to Iraq and marginalized all those with experience in the country. The highly knowledgeable and well-regarded Arabist Robert Ford had cut short his tour as ambassador to Algeria to return to Iraq for a third tour and turned down another ambassadorship to stay on in Iraq and serve as Hill’s deputy. But Hill appeared not to want Ford’s advice on political issues and pressured him to depart the post early in 2010. In his staff meetings, Hill made clear how much he disliked Iraq and Iraqis. Instead, he was focused on making the embassy “normal” like other U.S. embassies. That apparently meant having grass within the embassy compound. The initial attempts to plant seed had failed when birds ate it all, but eventually, great rolls of lawn turf were brought in—I had no idea from where—and took root. By the end of his tenure, there was grass on which the ambassador could play lacrosse.
The national elections took place on March 7, 2010, and went more smoothly than we had dared hope. After a month of competitive campaigning across the country and wide media coverage of the different candidates and parties, 62 percent of eligible Iraqis turned out to vote.
The author and Gen. Raymond Odiero in Iraq. | Courtesy of Emma Sky
The European Union and others had fielded hundreds of international poll-watchers alongside thousands of trained Iraqi election observers, while the United Nations provided the Iraqis with advice on technical matters related to elections. All this helped to sustain the credibility of the process. Insurgents sought to create a climate of fear by planting bombs in water bottles and blowing up a house, but the Iraqi security forces stood up to the test.
“We won the elections!” Rafi Issawi, the deputy prime minister, shouted excitedly to me on the phone. I could hear celebratory gunfire in the background. We had not expected Iraqiya—a coalition headed by the secular Shia Ayad Allawi and leaders of the Sunni community, and running on a non-sectarian platform—to do so well. The coalition had won 91 seats—two more than the incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition.
I accompanied General O and Hill to a meeting with Maliki the next day. Maliki, a Shia, had been prime minister since 2006. Americans and Iraqis alike initially viewed him as weak, but his reputation grew after he ordered military operations against Shia militias. Since then, Iraqi politicians had become increasingly fearful of his authoritarian tendencies. He had insisted on running separately in the election—as State of Law rather than joining a united Shia coalition as had happened in 2005—in large part because the Shia parties would not agree on him to lead the list. Nobody wanted a second Maliki premiership.
When Hill asked Maliki that day about his retirement plans, it was immediately apparent that he was not contemplating stepping down. Instead, he claimed there had been massive election fraud and that the Mujahideen al-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group locked away in eastern Iraq’s Diyala province, had used satellites to tamper with the computers used to tally the voting results—even though the computers were not connected to the Internet and thousands of election observers had monitored the voting. But Maliki’s advisers had told him he would win big with more than a hundred seats, so he demanded a recount. Maliki was becoming scary.
Emma Sky, senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, is author of The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, from which this article is adapted.