Emma Sky on Iraq After the Surge

In this Foreign Affairs Focus Interview, Emma Sky, former advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq, discusses Iraqi politics and military strategy with Gideon Rose, Editor of Foreign Affairs.  This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below. 

Gideon Rose: It’s pretty much a consensus at this point that the coalition's initial post-invasion strategy for Iraq was a giant disaster, but there is still I think real debate about the surge, the changing course from 2006 -- late 2006 on featuring counterinsurgency and new kinds of approaches to Iraq.  The pro-surge case argues that this fundamentally changed the western approach to Iraq and it dramatically improved the situation, putting Iraq on a path to a fundamentally more benign, less conflictual future, which then got screwed up by an overly hasty and overly complete withdrawal, throwing things back into disaster where we are today.  The somewhat con-case says, "Well, the surge did well at tamping things down in the short-term, but it was always like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike.  It only worked in the short-term while we were there, and inevitably, whenever we left what, which we had to do at some point, things would have gone to hell in a hand basket, which they did."  The problem was not the withdrawal but the underlying realities which couldn’t be fixed.  Which of those two narratives do you buy?

Emma Sky:  I’m more with the former narrative.  I mean, when you look at Iraq in 2003, the way we went in, there was no plan for what came next.  We allowed the power vacuum to emerge, all these armed groups started coming forward, then the debathification, dissolving the military, a lot of people put outside the process started to go into armed groups and end up with the total collapse of the state.  There are some mistakes on initial years.  I think by the time we got to 2007 -- I think if you look at the period 2007 to 2009, that was only period in the whole war we actually had the right strategy, the right leadership, and the right resources.  During the surge, we changed our mindset, we changed our approach, and we sought -- the Iraqis also changed their mindset, changed what they were doing.  When you look from 2007 to 2009, all the indicators were in the right direction, the right trajectory, and the Iraqis felt -- and we felt that the worst was behind. In my mind, the biggest mistake made by the Obama administration was actually in 2010, not upholding the election results.  It's a very, very close election.  Very close election.  To everybody’s surprise, it was actually won by the party called Iraqia [ph] headed by Ayad Allawi, and this party was campaigning on a nonsectarian -- no to sectarian platform.  People want to get rid of religious parties, people want to put sectarians behind to build an Iraq for all Iraqis.  This party won two more votes than Nouri al-Maliki.  Maliki couldn’t believe the results.  All his advisors have told him that, "You're going to win.  You’re going to win big."  When the results came in, he was just in shock.  He blamed the international community for tampering with the results, he demanded a recount, he started to use debuffication to try and disqualify the Iraqian [ph] leaders, and this went on and on and on for months, and there was a big dispute within the US system which I described in the book, between those who wanted to uphold the election results and give the winning block, Iraqia, the right to have first go at trying to form the government, and those who said look, "Maliki, he’s our guy.  I belong to that former group that thought give the winning block the right to have first go in trying to form the government.  I didn’t think Ayad Allawi was going to be able to do it himself as Prime Minister, but I thought that negotiation was really important. 

Gideon Rose:  We give it to Maliki, walked away, and he then destroyed Iraq?

Emma Sky:  Well, this is kind of what happens.  This is when the Iranian steps in.  The Iranians -- they're influence had really gone down during the surge.  America was seen as the big player.  The Iranians saw this opportunity and they tried to get all the Shia together to support Maliki, but the Shia were coming together, but they would not going to have Maliki as prime minister.  In the end, the Iranians went to Lebanese Hezbollah and got Lebanese Hezbollah to pressure the Sadrist to support Maliki.  Maliki had really gone off to the Sadrists during the surge, and the Sadrists were like, "Over our dead body," but with Iranian pressure …

Gideon Rose:  Quite literally often.

Emma Sky:  Quite literally -- with Iranian pressure, with Lebanese Hezbollah helping out, they pressure the Sadrists and they said, "Look, support Maliki as prime minister, we will ensure no US troops will remain in Iraq after 2011."  That is what happened.  The Iranians brokered the deal, and the price was always going to be no US troops.  Maliki, second term, determined to go after all his rivals.  First of all, he goes off to the Iraqia leaders, accuses them of terrorism.  Then he started to round up masses of Sunni's, put them in jail.  All of these people being held not knowing why they were being held.  Sunni starts to feel more alienated, more grievances, which ends up in this mass protests across Iraq, demanding an end to this discrimination.  Unfortunately again, Maliki doesn't respond to those through negotiations.  He sends in the security forces and a few of the demonstrators are killed.  50 killed in Hawijah, and it just boils and boils and boils.

Gideon Rose:  We're not there to keep things in order, we're not pushing Maliki to be nicer, and at that point, then ISIS emerges and takes over the -- eventually, the Sunni areas who go with them because they're disgusted with the Maliki government.

Emma Sky:  Exactly.

Gideon Rose:  From you're telling -- and I know there are others who feel the same way you have -- so the three phases of western policy:  There's the bad phase right after the war up to the surge, there's the good phase, and then there's another bad phase.  What are the key things -- what were the key elements on the western policy side of the good phase? 

Emma Sky:  I think the challenge is always how to use military means to achieve political ends.  This is the real challenge, and we're not good at it at all.  I think in the 2007 to 2009, the way that's Iraq was framed was -- this is a power struggle between all of these different groups.  They're all competing for power and resources.  What we've got to do is create that ring, create that table where everybody can compete.  Initially, when we went in -- and I think it's the same at the end, we sort of thought of Iraqis in terms of good guys and bad guys.  The good guys, we will love.  The bad guys, we would crush.  Well, it turns out the bad guys trying to destroy everything that we're building up, and the circle of good guys …

Gideon Rose:  Weren't that good?

Emma Sky:  Weren't that good -- they use to state to extract all the resources that they can for themselves, they go off to their political rivals, they subvert the institutions, so …

Gideon Rose:  If we could have identified the good guys better, would that have been okay, or was the problem was that that entire way of thinking about it?

Emma Sky:  I don’t think the good guy, bad guy framework works.  It's more civil war context.  You've got all these different groups competing for power.  How to create a broader framework with that competition can be non-violent.  That is the challenge.  Trying to herd them to that table.

Gideon Rose: Is there any way real way to do that other than sort of some form of de facto colonialism and staying there forever, sitting on these people and having a presence over the long, long term indefinitely?

Emma Sky:  It’s a good question.  I think in 2010, if we'd actually brokered the formation of government, and inclusive formation -- if it was brokered by us and not by the Iranians, I think we would have seen Iraq’s trajectory continue in a positive direction.  It was not inevitable that everything would collapse.  It collapsed because the politics didn't work.  They don't get the politics right.  There's no -- you can't put a security solution.  We always come within our great nation-building that we're going come in and give technical solutions to things which are inherently political.  All the billions that we spent in Iraq, you can't see anything from it because you didn't get the politics right. 

Gideon Rose:  Why was western policy good in the middle but bad in the early and late stages?

Emma Sky:  I think at the beginning, you'd think how we got into Iraq war.  I mean, that was -- we were so misled.  Lots of ideological issues going on there, lots of -- it’s just -- it's well-known.  Whole weapons of mass destruction, is Bush Junior trying to get revenge for what happened to his father, all of those things played out.  You think people really did not have clue about Iraq.  When you get to the second Bush administration, part two, going into the surge, a lot have been learned from the mistakes.   

Emma Sky:  Then the Obama administration comes in, writes the new -- and it's all about ending the war, keeping up the domestic campaign pledges, we can end the war, end the war, end the war.  The messaging was on ending the war.  They used the word responsibly, but in the end, it just became, "Look, we're ending the war.  We're ending the war."  All the messaging, which was the domestic audience, was playing out in Iraq, "The Americans don’t care.  They’re not interested."

Gideon Rose:  If David Petraeus and Ryan Crocker and their new approach had been put in charge in Iraq in May 2003, if you have had the surge people in mentality in place right after the invasion, would you have had the spiral downward that you saw from 2003 through 2006?

Emma Sky:  Not to the same degree.  I think there was always going to be some violence in Iraq.  I think that was inevitable.  There were big mistakes that we made which caused a large sect of the population to feel excluded.  If we made different decision, less people would feel excluded, but we have to go through our learning curve, and Iraqis had to go through their learning curve.  It’s not like, "Here is the right solution.  We just did everything wrongly."  There’s always going to be that learning experience.

Gideon Rose:  There are some people who agree with everything you said and would -- that would say, "You know what, at this point now, there’s so much water under the bridge, better just to walk away or cut our losses, not throw good money and resources after bed."  Are you in that camp which is this is all past, or do you look at what's happening with ISIS in Iraq now and say, "No, we still can salvage this to some extent," and it's still worth being more involved in the kind of ways that you advocated in the past?

Emma Sky:  It's difficult.  I mean, we've become ISIS-obsessed, and I don't think that's helpful because ISIS is a symptom of a much broader problem in the Middle East.

Gideon Rose:  The lack of political order Iraq and Syria?

Emma Sky:  That's part of it, but it's also the change in the balance of power in the Middle East.  That is a result of the Iraq war.  We've left the state which is very weak, and we've enabled the rise of Iran.  The levels of sectarianism that are playing out today, this is something very, very new in the region.  If you look at the history of the region, it's characterized much more by peace among its peoples than it is by war. 

Gideon Rose:  You said that after the first -- run after the Second Gulf War, you felt almost guilty about western policy and wanted to tell the Iraqis, look there and do something to show that this wasn't all the bad kind of policy.  You look back now and you think of the western intervention -- has it actually been any net good? In other words, has it -- has what happened over the last 10 years, or 15 years, been so bad that it actually would’ve been better even just to the leave Saddam in power?

Emma Sky:  That's a question which I don’t know how to respond to.  I mean, you look at Saddam, he was a mass murderer.  One of the most awful people that the world has ever seen.  He mass murdered his people.  He was a cause of instability in the region.  What was the future?  Hand over to his sons?  Sooner or later, there would be some form of uprising in Iraq.  What we did -- and you can think of the terrible loss of life that's happened because of the intervention.  We lost of 4-1/2 thousand of our own soldiers, 150,000 Iraqis loss their lives.  When you look at Iraq today, despite all these terrible things that are happening, for the Kurds in Kurdistan, their lives are better.  The people in the South of Iraq, their lives have improved, and they do have hope of a better future.  There's parts of Iraq that their lives are just awful.  Massive displacement, massive numbers of refugees, and it's a humanitarian tragedy that is ongoing.

Gideon Rose:  What will Iraq look like a generation hence?

Emma Sky:  I don’t know one generation hence.  Two or three generations -- it depends whether you have elites that can really focus on reconciliation, can actually think of Iraq, how to build a national identity to which all components of society relate. 

Gideon Rose:  We don’t have those elites in America today.

Emma Sky:  If I held about a constitution in America today, very polarized.  When you look at Iraq's past and you think, "What's come out of this land?"  It's something amazing.  The first written law is where the Talmud was written, settled agriculture, all of this history -- Baghdad used to be culture capital of the world.  You can't erase that history.  No matter what ISIS blows up, that history is documented.  It's in the art galleries, it's in the annals, and that is something for future generations to be so inspired by.  Iraq, don’t give up on Iraq.

Gideon Rose:  Emma Sky, thank you very much.

Emma Sky:  Thank you.



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