Nir Rosen, is a fellow at NYU’s Center on Law and Security, and one of the best war reporters in the world. Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World is his account of the impact of US wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. In this interview he speaks to Glenn Greenwald of Salon about his book.
Glenn Greenwald: My guest today on Salon Radio is Nir Rosen who I think is unquestionably one of the best war journalists and commentators in the country probably in the world. He is a freelance writer photographer, film-maker, and he is currently a scholar associated with the New York University Center on Law and Security, and he has just written a book that I finished reading actually today entitled Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World. It’s really an amazing book. It describes the impact of multiple American wars on families and people in various countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and other countries where Nir has spent a great amount of time. I’m really excited to talk about this book. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to me today.
Nir Rosen: Thanks for reading the book.
GG: It was definitely my pleasure, and I mean that sincerely. One of the things that struck me about the book was, there’s a lot of factual analysis and reporting from what you’ve seen of the kind that one would expect, but also there are a lot of parts of the book I think are very personal in tone and perspective, and that’s clearly because you’ve spent so much time in war zones and places devastated by war in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world. Can you talk about just what your experiences have been, like where have you been over the last decade and more so what led you to start visiting these dangerous and war-torn places, and what drives you now to do that?
NR: Well I’ve been working as a journalist since April 2003, when the war in Iraq came to an end. I got to Baghdad April 13, 2003, and that was really the beginning of my career as a journalist. I was very curious; I knew—I was in DC at the time—I knew that we weren’t going to get the full story, we weren’t going to get the point of view of the Iraqi people. It was clear that the war was predicated on lies to the American people and the US Government and US military wouldn’t be able to understand or deal with the culture and politics of Iraq.
So I came with a real curiosity and a certain sense of anger as well, just for being lied to. I very quickly made a lot of friends in Baghdad. It was pretty easy to operate there in those days, very safe. Those friends introduced me to their friends and their relatives, and ended up meeting the nucleus of a network of contacts and friends that I rely on to this day. I just got back from Iraq a couple of months ago and I’m going again in a few weeks. I became very emotionally attached to the country, to the people, and their plight and struggle.
But I’ve also spent most of the last eight years in neighboring countries as well, and in particular Lebanon where I was living, I was able to witness first-hand the effects of Iraq in terms of instability and militias and Sunni/Shia violence. What motivates me in part is an anger at being lied to which I realize maybe late by some standards when I was a freshman in college that the government and the media so often deceive us, and then I was angry and the anger remains as a key motivating factor, and I think mistrust of authority whether it’s a militia leader or an American general is one of key motives and what inspires me to actually try to find out for myself what’s going on on the ground and avoid official statements and people in government offices we know are just going to give you propaganda, but they are so often treated as the main sources in the mainstream media.
GG: One of the topics that you convey really well in this book is how much of a gap there is between how American elites talk about our wars and the reality of those wars and the things that you actually see by being there and in an unembedded function, and there’s this interesting speech that I’ve written about a few times by Ashleigh Banfield, who at the time was an MSNBC war reporter who was sort of the rising star of the MSNBC and NBC news and she was relatively new to covering wars, and she had come back from Iraq and she gave this speech at Kansas State University and she talked about the huge disparity between how television conveys wars to the American people and the reality of wars and all the things that embedding does in terms of distortions and this sliver of reality that ends up being conveyed.
What do you think are the realities of American wars and occupations that end up getting the shortest shrift in terms of how elites talk about our wars and what the American citizenry ends up hearing about them?
NR: I suppose with the majority of what Americans get to see is the American point of view, or even a limited one at that, but the point of view of white people who speak English. Very few voices from the occupied side, from the other side, are permitted. Too often when American journalists actually visit a country, if they’re not going to focus on American elite or the American military, they end up focusing on local elites, people who speak English, the Ahmed Chalabi types, people who are sort of like us, they will serve you wine and talk about their favorite football team back when they were at university in the US, but not people who actually have any popularity or legitimacy on the ground.
It’s harder to meet those people—you have to deal with diarrhea and drinking dirty water sometimes and mixing with people who aren’t like you, they’re not going to serve you alcohol, they’re not going to speak English most of the time. It’s just inconvenient, and I think most journalists don’t want to put up with that kind of inconvenience when it’s much more convenient to be with American soldiers who are a lot more like you and in the evening you can go back to the chow hall and get a burger and chit chat with them, rather than putting up with the risks both gastrointestinal and more serious of actually reporting on people that they’re besieging in the occupation.
I guess one thing we miss is just the deep humiliation and disruption that results from a foreign occupation. Now, most American soldiers are familiar with the movie Red Dawn, so sometimes I try to use that as a way to get them to understand the other side, although I guess they’re these days probably too young to remember that movie. But even if the American soldiers aren’t necessarily killing innocent people or torturing them, it’s the mere presence, it’s so brutally disruptive, the checkpoints, the strangers going into your house, constantly having foreigners with guns pointed at you wherever you go, people telling you what to do who don’t speak your language. If they arrest one of the men in your house, you don’t know who to appeal to.
If you’re lost and scared, there are huge guys with helmets and vests and weapons who are shouting at you. And even if they were girl scouts, they have these immense vehicles and they go on the roads and are breaking irrigation pipes and accidentally running over your car or damaging it. It’s a constant disruption and humiliation and fear which I don’t think Americans have been able to appreciate. To us to perceive the American military is acting somewhat like cops on the beat or boy scouts whereas for locals it much a more painful and humiliating and scary experience.
GG: One of the realizations that the American military has had I guess in the last 10 years is this need to be more culturally sensitive to the local populations in the countries where we’re occupying, simply out of self-interest, and of course that’s part of the whole counter-insurgency doctrine and all of that. Just in general, and I want to ask you about the specific countries that you focus on in a minute, but just in general, how capable is the US military do you think of actually bridging these centuries-old or millennia-old religious and cultural nationalistic gaps that just create this huge divergence between Americans’ understanding of the world and the understanding of so many different kinds of people in that part of the world?
NR: I think the American military and to a large extent the American policy establishment, the State Department, are deeply challenged, they are unable to really deal with, to understand, comprehend, or translate with the cultures that they’re dealing with. The military, you can’t necessarily blame them, it’s not their fault, they’re recruited from a pool of people who aren’t exactly world travelers necessarily, and the mentality they inculcate is more of an engineering one, how many inputs do you need to get a certain output, what can you put into a chart, a PowerPoint presentation.
You can’t put a culture—these are organic and complex phenomena—into these PowerPoint charts in which they try to understand the world. There are no formulas for understanding human being and all the complex things that can motivate them. And I too often also found that Americans keep on going back to the same books, the same orientalist books which are used to justify empire, that Arabs only understand force, they are tribal, they are Bedouin. I’ve seen very little progress actually in the Americans’ ability to grasp the cultures in the Muslim world and they refer to a handful of academics who are far outside the mainstream of academics trying to understand the Middle East of Afghanistan, but who have been used to justify various wars and occupations.
So they still will talk about tribal societies and Bedouin societies as if they are some kind of cultural secrets, and if you just unlock these secrets, if it’s Pashtunwali in Afghanistan or Islamic code or Bedouin code, or Koranic society—you heard these weird terms often—if you just unlock these codes, you can understand the people and manipulate them and control them. Because the academics who actually would be useful for understanding these kinds of cultures would be the first to advocate against any kind of foreign occupation of course.
So I’ve been dismayed by their inability to understand the motivations behind the people that they’re dealing with. Time and again, for example, I see people in the American military insisting that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere are fighting for money. This is a mistake I’ve viewed happening over and over again. And neither I nor any of the journalists who are friends of mine who have met with insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan ever met anybody that was motivated by money.
But you often hear American soldiers talking about if you, as if it’s the Sopranos, they like to go back to Sopranos metaphor, as if the primary motivator for people fighting occupation is money and not what it really is, issues of dignity, of freedom, of nationalism, of ideology. It’s almost as if Americans aren’t able to understand those concepts and they think that Taliban are fighting for $10 a day. And I just have not seen that with the Shabab in Somalia, I haven’t seen that in Yemen, or Lebanon or in Afghanistan or in Iraq. They’re fighting for their communities.
But I guess if the Americans were able to understand that, then that would make us seem like we were the bad guys, and we don’t want to feel like we’re the bad guys, we don’t want to feel like we’re the British in Braveheart fighting locals who are nationalists and freedom fighters. So I guess we have to try to understand their motives as being more financial whereas in reality I think they’re much more deeply ideological and nationalistic.
GG: Let me ask you this—one more question before asking you about specific places—and that is the type of elite discourse. What always, honestly what always baffles me is that, I can understand how Americans who aren’t paying attention to politics full-time can end up not paying adequate attention to the impact that our invasions and bombings and occupations have because it actually takes a lot of work to go and read about it and hear about it and think about it, ’cause it’s not something that normally is included in standard media narratives.
But for people who actually pay attention to and work on foreign policy issues full-time as their profession, the foreign policy community, and related cliques, there’s almost a formal, but certainly an informal role that those kind of considerations are excluded from their discussions, so they’ll spend lots of time talking about whether prospective wars can be justified in terms of how they advance US interests. They’ll spend lots of time talking about which particular tactics can advance those strategies, but there’s no talk of whether specific American wars are justifiable in a legal sense, and there’s definitely no talk about whether they’re justifiable in an ethical or moral sense based on the harm that it will do to the people in those country who we’re invading. Even though you’re generally very independent and kind of unembedded, you also have a good familiarity with that world just because of how often in those places and talking about foreign policy.
What do you think it is that accounts for that extremely narrow suffocatingly narrow range of issues that they end up considering?
NR: I guess that the kind of description, the answer I can give is that they’re concerned only with what they perceive to be the interests of the US, and whatever can achieve those interests is legitimate. A purely American nationalism. And therefore anything is justified in terms of attaining perceived American interests. Well I would argue that even from a narrow American nationalistic or imperialistic point of view, they end up harming what’s in our best interests.
But I think there’s probably a much more deeper racism inherent in that too. Because we would care if the victims were white. We care much less when the victims are brown, or Muslim, or are perceived to be somehow inferior. International law and these legal constraints are perceived to be useful for the weak, but the powerful don’t need to refer to them, ’cause in the end, what are you going to do about it? There’s nobody who could challenge us. And there’s also a sense, a deep sense among people in the policy world, in the military, that we’re the good guys. It’s just taken for granted that what we’re doing must be right because we’re doing it. We’re the exceptional country, the essential nation, and our role, our intervention, our presence is a benign and beneficent thing.
I imagine that’s what it is because the policy makers aren’t, they don’t let you meet with them, they don’t seem necessarily evil, even though in the end the policies are very destructive and disruptive and harmful even to American interests. But they believe that they are doing the right thing, at least for the American people, and that what we want is in the end somehow good for the world.
I guess it’s striking when you think about Iraq today, here in the US, it’s perceived to be some kind of a success. There’s no guilt, there’s no hand-wringing, there’s no remorse, no lessons learned about the terrible destruction that we brought upon the society and the region. But alone, an inquiry into the legal issues, whether it was a war that was somehow justifiable in terms of international law. International law is something which, I mean, people just scoff at. In fact they to get to scoffing at it so much that I even scoff at it because it just doesn’t matter. It matters for weak countries. It’s a way for the strong to imprison the weak, to limit their freedom of action. The weak—small countries, non-state actors—certainly don’t believe that the powerful are restrained by international law.
GG: I just finished a book actually about how the rule of law is perverted in that exact way domestically, that is, that the rich are exempted from it and use it as a means of coercing and controlling the powerless and the poor, and I actually at one time did a report on drug legalization in Portugal, and went there and talked to policy officials, and they actually wanted to legalize drugs, not just decriminalize them, and I remember one of the drug policy officials said that there are treaties that ban them from legalizing, and he said that since we’re a small country, we actually have to abide by our treaty obligations, and I guess that’s pretty much, you know, how the world sees those.
So let me ask you about Iraq, because as you just said, there’s very little remorse on the part of the people who supported it or enabled it, and you said, these people, a lot of them anyway, don’t actually seem evil, and I guess that’s the banality of evil, that well-commented upon and well-observed. You’ve been there—people can look at statistics and see how many civilians were killed and see how many people were displaced externally and internally, the several million people who were.
But just describe in a kind of summary way what was done to that country. Obviously there are some people who are better off because under Saddam they were so repressed, but on the whole, talk about what was done to that the country as a result of our invasion.
NR: Well, our relationship with Iraq didn’t begin in 2003. You can’t—so I can’t begin there. It certainly began in the ’70s or before. Our distinctly negative one began in the ’80s, I guess. We support, along with our Gulf allies, the creation of an immense Iraqi military. That Iraqi military was much larger than the country could handle—hundreds of thousands of people—because we were supporting the Iraqi war against Iran of course. And many of those people who eventually demobilized or dismissed ended up joining the resistance or the insurgency. So we helped create a very militaristic Iraq which when it was done with Iran ended up looking towards Kuwait and aggressively trying to conquer Kuwait.
We of course devastated Iraq in 1991 Gulf War and brought Iraq to the level of the Stone Age and the sanctions era throughout the ’90s. Hundreds of thousands of children died, the middle class was destroyed, the government of Saddam became much much more powerful because people grew to depend on him much more. People became more religious. Congenital diseases and growth stunting and malnutrition and diarrhea, all these things became much more serious problems. So when we arrived in Iraq, it was already a society that was deeply weakened and destroyed and sick, and we had very much contributed to that. We also bombed the hell out of Iraq in 1998. So we can’t begin in 2003.
But, having said all that, what we did in 2003, right from the beginning, even if the invasion itself was wrong, had we invaded with hundreds of thousands of more troops the way American military planners would have wanted, at least we could have prevented the looting that occurred, and this massive and pervasive sense of lawlessness which took over, because there was just no security. If you got rid of the mayor and the police, the government in New York City, and the electricity, and put nothing in place to replace them, you’d very soon see self-defense militias forming, former policemen would sell their services out, or prey upon the people, you’d see Jewish militias fighting Puerto Rican militias and Upper East Side militias fighting East Harlem militias, and the Upper East Side militias wouldn’t do too well probably. Iraq wasn’t unique.
We removed the state and allowed militias to take over, and those militias in a sense remained in power. So from the beginning you had militia warfare, you had total destruction of the state infrastructure, a civil war which began in 2003, but grew more and more intense, kidnapping and rapes and serious crime being committed right from the beginning and anybody with any kind of money, middle class, doctor or whatever, their kid would be kidnapped for ransom.
So rampant criminality, which also led to people seeking protection by forming militias. The dominance over Iraqi society on the part of religious groups would have gotten much stronger in the ’90s thanks to the sanction devastating society and the flight of Iraqi liberals. Then of course we arrested tens and tens of thousands of Iraqi men, primarily men; the majority of them were never tried or sentenced, but they languished for years in American detention and in Iraqi detention where many were tortured and abused both in American detention and in Iraqi detention.
That left hundreds of thousands of people whose men and sons and husbands and fathers disappeared. Kids watching their fathers being taken away, the kids are screaming, daddy, daddy, and father’s desperate and he’s bleeding and being beaten and dragged away. So that’s hundreds of thousands of families horribly brutalized and traumatized and children who were urinating on themselves at night because they’re so scared, the Americans are coming and take them away too. And the women are left with nobody who can care for them and feed them, families devastated. Millions of refugees created. They are displaced either internally or abroad, living in poverty. People who may have been wealthy or middle class even.
Secular Iraqis, liberal Iraqis, educated Iraqis, now reduced to prostitution, having their kids sell cigarettes on the street, lives totally ruined when you’re 50 years old, you cannot begin again, especially in a country like Syria or Jordan where there’s already a poor economic environment and you don’t have access to any kind of employment. And their kids can’t go to school, so you now have a generation of children who haven’t gone to school for about the last five years.
Every family that I’ve met in Iraq, or Iraqi refugees as well, has been touched by kidnapping and murder and rape and displacements. You have half a million Iraqis today living inside Iraq who are homeless, squatting in illegal settlements, living in shacks made out of tin cans and cardboard—I saw a house made out of used air conditioners piled up on top of each other—living in massive pits of sewage, stinking of shit, flies all over the place. And, of course, let’s not forget you had hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, murdered, disappeared, tortured to death with power drills, with beheadings, their bodies found weeks later in garbage dumps. Hundreds and hundreds of villages in Iraq totally destroy in a civil war, like in Rwanda or Bosnia. Every house blown up. All that’s left is a pile of rubble and women’s shoes.
It’s a totally destroyed society, and militias may not have a real hold today the way they did in the past, but torture is routine and systematic now. If you get arrested, you get tortured. Corruption is rampant; it’s one of the most corrupt countries on Earth. Services are terrible, almost no electricity, dirty water, terrible malnutrition, kids not going to school. It’s just a destroyed, brutalized and beaten place where the worst kind of people have taken over. There’s no space for women—certainly it was better to be a woman under Saddam. Honor killings have increased. It’s just a real betrayal of the hopes that Iraqis had with the removal of Saddam.
GG: Now, this is pretty jarring, and that’s the kind of thing that your book so powerfully conveys, is that people know rationally some of that, maybe a lot of that, but to hear it laid out from somebody who’s seen it in a way that makes it clear how affected you’ve been, is very moving and valuable. So, let me ask you about the claim of the Surge and the success of the Surge and where things in Iraq are now. Talk about some of the myths that have been attached to the idea of the surge and its efficacy, and in 2010 in Iraq, are you optimistic that things have gotten better and will continue to get better, or not?
NR: It is really, really important for Americans to understand what happened in Iraq during the surge. Not necessarily because they care about Iraq—I think most don’t, at least some care about Afghanistan—we can’t understand what’s happening in Afghanistan with the Americans think they are doing in Afghanistan, what they’re trying to do, what they can and cannot do, without understanding what really happened in Iraq. There is the notion that the surge was a success in Iraq. Petraeus and the surge was a success in Iraq, so Petraeus and the surge will be a success in Afghanistan. Now, the surge, strictly speaking, was just an increase in troops by 30,000 people, which began in 2007.
But the surge has come to mean a lot more than that, and it now signifies a period from late 2006 until 2008 in which a complex synergy of primarily Iraqi dynamics interacting with some changes in what the Americans are doing ended up reducing violence from the terrible terrible levels of 2006-2007, to the just really, really bad levels of today. Even calling what you have in Iraq today a success is deeply offensive because violence in Iraq today is still worse than it is in Afghanistan; people are being blown up and assassinated every day. The government is brutal and ugly and torturous and corrupt.
But violence did go down. It went down primarily not because of the American surge, primarily you had a civil war and the Shias won. It wasn’t so much that the Americans defeated the Sunni Arab insurgency, it was that Shia militias brutalized the Sunni population. Shias were the majority, so they had that numerical superiority, and they had the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army working for them too, those were acting for the first three years basically as Shia death squads, and they had the American military on their side. So they brutalized the Sunni population until Sunni militiamen began to realize by summer 2006 that they had lost.
And that ended up translating itself into sort of a Sunni ceasefire, which began in some areas in 2006, that was known as the awakening phenomena, in which Sunni militiamen realized that they were better off allying with the Americans and hoping that they could regroup and fight the Shias eventually, because Sunnis were devastated. Al Qaeda, which had been a self-defense militia at one point, was becoming oppressive; Shia militia were killing them, Shia police, Shia armies, and the American military. Everybody was punishing Sunnis, and they were watching in 2006 American debates in the Senate where Democrats were calling for withdrawal. And Sunni friends of mine who had supported resisting the American occupation, were suddenly panicking, and they were saying if the Americans leave, we’re going to get wiped out. I mean they were staring at the brink of genocide basically.
I was meeting with Sunni resistance leaders in Iraq, in Syria, in Jordan, and they were telling me, we lost, we lost, we miscalculated in 2003 when we obeyed the fatwas of our clerics and boycotted the Iraqi state, and now it’s in the hands of Shias. I think that was basically true. It wasn’t so much General Petraeus who defeated the Sunni Arab insurgency as Black & Decker, and by that I mean power drills. In a sense, power drills were the hallmark of Iraqi militiamen, the signature way of killing somebody. If you found a body, and they had power drill marks on it, you knew that that guy was killed by Shia militiamen. If you found a body that was beheaded, you knew he was killed by Sunni militia. And it was just Shia brutality in the civil war, you just had more Shias, which basically eventually taught Sunnis their place in the new Iraq, in an inferior marginalized one.
And if Sunnis responded to the American surge by realizing that if they cut a deal with the Americans, the Americans might be in Iraq long enough that Sunnis wouldn’t be abandoned and betrayed and killed for revenge by al Qaeda, which had happened in the past when they had tried to make deals with the Americans. Now, you no longer had any more mixed areas to speak of in Iraq; Sunnis and Shias were separated.
GG: Including Baghdad? Are there…?
NR: Neighborhoods. For the most part, there were cleansed, Shia neighborhoods were cleansed of Sunnis, Sunni neighborhoods were cleansed of Shia. So you had less people to kill in that sense. Various neighborhoods that were sort of like zone of influence for a variety of warlords, Sunni and Shia warlords, and in 2007 Iraq resembles Somalia I thought, but there less people to kill because so many had already been killed and militias succeeded in cleansing their areas of potential victims, and so many people had fled outside of Baghdad or outside of Iraq.
And it almost more than the American surge itself, the American declaration of the surge from the Iraqi militiamen on Sunni and Shia side to reassess what was in their best interests, strategically. So as I said, Sunni militiamen realized that if they ally with the Americans, maybe they can eventually go after their Shia foes, and they won’t get wiped out, and were able to go after their al Qaeda foes, because there was a clash between the Sunni resistance community as well between the minority of guys that were al Qaeda and wanted jihad until judgment day, and wanted to use Iraq the way they used Afghanistan in the 1980s, a launching pad for endless war, and the mainstream Iraqi resistance guys who just wanted to control Iraq and make sure it was in the hands of Sunnis. They were more nationalistic and narrow in their interests. So better to ally with the Americans against their various enemies and get some protection and assistance.
It was a very strategic decision, the creating of these awakenings, not a mercenary decision. But Shia militiamen also had to reassess what was in their interests. They knew that the Americans were going to focus on Baghdad, because Baghdad was now in the hands of Shia militiamen. And from their point of view, it was better to lie low and wait out this American surge and they’ll back out on top afterwards. So you also had a Shia ceasefire. You had a Sunni ceasefire followed by a Shia ceasefire. After that Shia ceasefire you had a huge drop in violence, and that ceasefire occurred about eight months after the surge began.
The violence continued to peak and peak and peak during the surge, and it was only after the Shia ceasefire there was a huge drop in violence. But both of the militias miscalculated, because Prime Minister Maliki, who at first had been very close to the Shia militiamen, had been weak, and decided it was time to go after his Shia rivals. So he devastated the army, with help from the Americans, while the Sunni militiamen would never go back to being the rules. They were effective guerrilla fighters when they were underground, their identities were unknown, they were swimming among the Sunni masses.
But now the Sunni masses had been depopulated, basically, their neighborhoods were ghost towns, and these awakening guys, former insurgents, their identities were known. The Americans had all their biometric data and their addresses, so too the Iraqi police and the Iraqi army, so they could never go back to operating as effective insurgents. And as soon as the Americans handed authority over the awakening groups to the Iraqi state, they began arresting these guys and devastating them.
So now the Sunni militias were emaciated, the Shia militias were emaciated, and the Iraqi security forces, which had once been a party to the civil war, the Shia death squads, were basically cleansed of their worst elements, so they could fill that vacuum that had originally led to the existence of self-defense militias. It was diverse array of Iraqi factors that led to the relative decline in violence to the still terrible levels of today. The surge was meant to create an opening that would allow for political reconciliation. You had that decline in violence, but you never had a political reconciliation or any kind of just settlements of how Iraq was going to look in incorporation of Sunnis and others.
But, it turns out, that wasn’t even necessary. It looks like Prime Minister Maliki can be as authoritarian as he wants to be, and there is nothing anybody can do about it, because the Iraqi state is sort of returning to its authoritarian roots and he can be brutal, he can ignore the legitimate or illegitimate demand of Sunnis, and there’s not much they can do because they are just so weak.
GG: Right. So, obviously the irony is that at least judging by the propaganda prior to the invasion and even during the invasion, we were there to liberate the Iraqi people, and ultimately there was a realization that really the only solution to this horrendous violence that we had spawned and unleashed was really a return to the sort of strong leader model, which Iraq had of course prior to the invasion. Let me ask you this, which is, obviously things are horrendous in Iraq still, but what you just described, in the last couple minutes, is at least an improvement over the peak of the civil war atrocities in 2005, 2006 and into 2007, namely the militias had been weakened, there has been a more centralized power that’s emerged in a relatively less corrupt and brutal centralized police and army.
As bad as that is, can that serve as a model for improving things in Afghanistan? And just along those lines, a couple of questions about Afghanistan as well: is there the kind of prospect for reconciliation with the Taliban that happened with say the Sunnis even though the motives might be different, and is there even such a thing as the Taliban in some monolithic sense, where we can even talk about what the motives are and what the prospects are for reconciliation?
NR: I’ll answer the last question first. It’s ridiculous to talk about the Taliban, because it’s a pretty diverse movement. In fact, these days the Taliban isn’t necessarily composed only of Taliban, in that, strictly, Taliban just means student. Young men in madrasas with mullahs teaching them, who historically when they were fighting the British occupation, the Russians, or the Americans, would take up arms when foreigners invaded their country. But now a days it’s much more than the Taliban fighting the Americans, it’s farmers, it’s normal villagers. But, there are sort of large groups within that; certainly Mullah Omar and the original Taliban leadership are still very influential, and it is possible to negotiate with them, and in fact that’s the only way you’ll ever have any kind of improvement in the situation.
But going back to looking at Iraq, none of the factors that you had in Iraq which led to an eventual relative decline in violence exist in Afghanistan. The Americans accidentally created a civil war in Iraq, and it was the victory of one side in that civil war which was the main factor in the reduction of the violence. Sunnis in Iraq, Sunni Arabs, are 20% of the population, and they were brutalized and devastated until they were taught their place, taught that they were the losers in a new Iraq, to speak about it very callously.
Pashtuns dominate the Taliban. Pashtuns are the largest group in Afghanistan, 40%. And they do not feel like they are losing. They have every reason, the Taliban, to feel like they’re winning. They control 80% of the country now. Their control has been spreading and improving year after year after year. The American surge in Iraq led to a certain reassessments of what was in their best strategic interests on the part of Sunni and Shia militias. You’ve had successive American surges in Afghanistan since 2005, every year we’ve had a surge, and every year the violence gets worse and worse. The surges have not led to any improvement.
We’ve been using counter-insurgency in Afghanistan since 2006 at least, and you have no sign of improvement in any sector in Afghanistan. Now, the Iraqi security forces were actually very effective in 2006 and 2007, during the civil war. The were effective at killing Sunnis, but at least they were effective at something. The Afghan security forces are totally non-existent. The police are corrupt; they’re not doing drugs or stealing, but they’re not a party in any kind of civil war. They’re just being killed off by the Taliban. The Afghan army is a joke and never really fights. So you don’t have an Afghan partner who can brutalize the population, get them to be pacified the way Shia militiamen and Shia security forces were able to in Iraq.
And a key element in the improvement in Iraq was Maliki’s growth as a leader. He’s brutal, and in many ways he resembles a Shia Saddam, but he asserted himself and the Iraqi state became much stronger and now dominates Iraq, and nobody can overthrow it. And he went after the Shia militias. Crucially, he made a decision to wipe out the Mahdi army and he did that effectively, which even won him the grudging acceptance of many Sunnis. He’s credited with improving security somehow and with transcending narrow sectarianism.
And a key element of the American counter-insurgency theory is that you build the capacity of local governments so they can take over from you. Karzai is no Maliki. Even Maliki isn’t that great, but Karzai is no Maliki. He has no legitimacy, no credibility; every election we’ve had in Afghanistan has only led to greater chaos, greater violence, and disappointments and the lack of rule of law, and deepen the fissures in Afghanistan. He’s unable to assert his authority anywhere in the country, except through some patronage networks because of the money he gets from the Americans or the Iranians or drug deals.
So you don’t have a state you want to support; in effect, this is a predatory government which is hated. The last thing you want to do is build his capacity so he can further alienate people. The Taliban are an Afghan movement. They are Afghans fighting for local Afghan causes and reason with the support of communities throughout Afghanistan. We cannot fight a war against the Afghan people and defeat them. The US military thankfully isn’t that brutal, and I’m a huge critic of the US military, but it’s not the Israeli or the Russian military. They are not going to brutalize the Pashtun population sufficiently to teach them that insurgency is not going to work.
The only successful counter-insurgency in history perhaps is the British in Malaya, which the Americans often refer to in their books on counter-insurgency. But the British in Malaya took half a million ethnic Chinese and put them in concentration camps, and that worked because the insurgency in Malaya was dominated by ethnic Chinese, communists. We are not going to take millions and millions of Pashtuns and put them in concentration camps.
Iraq was also much easier in the sense that the battle was an urban one for the most part, and you could build these immense walls around different neighborhoods. It was very oppressive, it was like Palestine; it disrupted the social fabric, it made life hell, but it allowed you to control the people and control who went in and who went out of neighborhoods. You could conduct a census and determine who belonged. You could prevent arms and bombs from going in a neighborhood because you controlled the only entry and exit point to it. You could prevent militias from going into a neighborhood.
So once the Iraqi civil war had sufficiently devastated its population, the Americans came in there, kind of froze the gains of the civil war with these massive walls, in a way that reminded me of the way that the Dayton accords froze the Serbian gains in the Bosnian civil war. So you were able to control the population of Baghdad as an American occupier. Now Afghanistan is not an urban conflict. The center of gravity as they say of the insurgency is in the rural areas, where most of the people live. In the ’80s the Russians controlled the cities, the communists controlled the cities in Afghanistan. The Mujahideen controlled the countryside.
Likewise today the Americans may control the population centers, the Taliban control the countryside, and once you leave the cities, the few capitals of the provinces, you are in Taliban territory, and you have thousands and thousands of villages with no roads, impossible to even physically control these areas. The Americans ended up living with the people in Iraq, able to base themselves in communities. You cannot in Afghanistan do that.
So even from an American counter-insurgency point of view, it’s just much too challenging. They are living in bases remote from the population, they go out, they rumble along a road slowly for a couple of hours, shake hands with an elder in a village, drink tea with him, they feel like they’re Lawrence of Arabia or something, and then they rumble back to their military bases a couple of hours away in time for the chow hole to be opened to get a burger before going to play video games in their rooms.
Meanwhile, that night, the Taliban can knock on the door of the elder whose hand we shook, and remind him who his neighbor is, and who is watching him, and undermine any deal you’re going to strike with that guy. Another difference: Iraq, the conflict was fundamentally about controlling the state, because the main resource in Iraq is oil. Whoever controls the state controls the oil, and is rich. Afghanistan has not resources to speak of. In theory they have lithium, but they’re never going to it. The main resource in Afghanistan is American dollars. We, our presence, is fueling a conflict economy. It’s this corrosive presence, and everybody wants a piece of our money. The warlords in Afghanistan, even the Taliban, are getting our money.
In Iraq, our convoys were protected by private security companies like Blackwater. In Afghanistan, these convoys are protected by Afghan warlords. So it’s our money which is fueling warlordism and corruption in Afghanistan. And the warlords pay off the Taliban, it’s the Taliban that’s more effective and will allow them to operate in Taliban areas. So Taliban is getting American money as well. It’s a perfect storm of this conflict economy driven by American money which is flooding into a place that has no capacity to actually absorb it.
GG: So let me ask you this, and this is the last question, which is, one of the things that struck me, and obviously you’re a critic of the Iraq War from the start, and yet one of the things that you said, and I got this sense from what you wrote as well, when you talked about the fact that Sunnis were petrified that as the Democrats in Congress agitated or at least pretended to agitate for an end to the war, that that would leave them vulnerable to genocide at the hands of the Shia, and no matter what your view on the war is, that gives you cause for at least some pause before advocating withdrawal or certainly some ambivalence because even if you think we had no right to invade in the first place, once you invade and destroy the country it can create new obligations that you didn’t have before.
So, thinking about that principle in terms of Afghanistan, of course one of the things that people frequently argue is that even no matter what we’re doing there that isn’t right, that things are going poorly that make no sense, that leaving is not an option because if we leave we’re going to leave the country back in the hands of the Taliban, which is both a problem morally because of how oppressive and brutal they are, and also strategically because of the problems that it created for the United States the last time the Taliban controlled Afghanistan. What’s your view of that argument?
NR: I think that one way or the other the Taliban are gaining control of Afghanistan. That’s self-evident when you see even provinces in the north and the west are falling into Taliban hands, or at least the countryside is and the villages are, and that you have no Afghan state to speak of outside the cities. So the country is going in that direction anyway. But, obviously, you wouldn’t want your daughter to live under the Taliban rule, although in general I wouldn’t my daughter to live in any part of Afghanistan under anybody’s rule. It’s not like the culture is very liberal, and the Taliban are merely a manifestation of Afghan culture in many places. But, that’s not really our problem as Americans. Certainly our presence there is only fueling radicalism and conflict, but are the Taliban a threat to the US? Absolutely not.
They’re locals fighting for Afghanistan. And they’ve been pretty clear that they themselves have learned from the mistakes of their relationship that they had with bin Laden. They saw that it had been, the Taliban inherited bin Laden in Afghanistan and they took over much of the country and inherited him. But I think it’s pretty clear to most experts on the Taliban that they would not allow al Qaeda back into their country.
But even al Qaeda has changed. At the time of September 11, you had Arab legions in Afghanistan; it wasn’t just terrorists, there were Arab soldiers fighting in the Afghan civil war. And also Arabs going in for a variety of training. Those guys are totally devastated and decimated. Al Qaeda was destroyed in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002. So we basically won and achieved our goals in 2002. And al Qaeda has also learned from its mistakes, and they’re never going to go back to Afghanistan and set up bases, because if you think that these drone strikes are undermining al Qaeda leadership, it would be much easier for the Americans to go into a valley in Afghanistan where they suspect there is an al Qaeda base and just devastate it with B-52s.
In Pakistan the Americans have to be very delicate and discreet, with respect for Pakistani sensibility. Here everybody knows that they’re collaborating with us, but we have to use drone strikes. If al Qaeda were to set up bases, you know this is the American military, they will just carpet bomb the entire valley. So I don’t see why al Qaeda in Afghanistan is more dangerous than al Qaeda in Pakistan. All that we’ve really succeeded in doing in the last 10 years is pushing the problems of Afghanistan into Pakistan, where the real trouble is.
I mean, Pakistan has 80 or so nuclear weapons, 170 million people, and this long-standing conflict with India. But as a result of our invasion of Afghanistan, you now have a Pakistani Taliban, you now have al Qaeda in Pakistan, you now have drug networks from Afghanistan pushing to Pakistan, and our drone strikes on the border area are only pushing the Taliban and al Qaeda deeper into Pakistan, into Punjab and Sindh, into Karachi, so we are destabilizing Pakistan, a country which does actually matter in terms of international security, out of some twisted perverse idea that Afghanistan matters and is somehow a threat.
No, I don’t think if the Taliban took over in Afghanistan again, I don’t think Mullah Omar would come back, and I also don’t think that they would invite al Qaeda back, because they would clearly be against their best interests. We’ve seen an evolution in the way that the Taliban think as well, in how they have learned from their mistakes. And finally, I guess I don’t think al Qaeda is that big of a deal in the first place. A couple of hundred angry guys, not very sophisticated, who used their A team on September 11 and killed 3000 people in the US. Terrible, but that’s been their only success in the last 10 years. So I think it’s insane to go to war in several countries and invest billions and billions of dollars all for what I think is really a pretty minimal threat to the greatest empire the world has ever seen.
GG: Well, Nir, this has been really fascinating, which is why it’s gone on for several of the time or more than I anticipated, and it’s a very good reflection of why the book is really so informative and gripping as well, and I don’t use those adjectives easily. I mean, it really is a great book and I definitely appreciate your taking the time to talk to me. I think a lot of people are going to get a lot out of it.
NR: Thanks a lot.