Dispatches"Beyond Iraq"

“Beyond Iraq”
Editors: Gary Knight and Mort Rosenblum
Dispatches Corporation, 2008

Dispatches: Beyond Iraq is a hard-hitting look at the Iraq conflict and its impact on relations between the Middle East and the West. Part of the Dispatches series edited by Gary Knight and Mort Rosenblum, Beyond Iraq includes reports by Rod Nordland, Newsweek’s chief foreign correspondent, and Jamie Tarabay, an Australian-Lebanese reporter for National Public Radio. Each stage of conflict and collapse from 2003 – 2008 is documented by Yuri Kozyrev, contract photographer for TIME, making this the first comprehensive retrospective of his coverage. Also included in the volume is an essay by Remy Ourdan, an essay by Keith Richburg of The Washington Post, and a political cartoon panel by Jeff Danziger, capturing the anguish of young Americans stuck with an unwinnable war.


"America vs. al Qaeda: The Best Ally of My Enemy"Rémy Ourdan

Sultan, the Afghan, waited five weeks for this moment at his observation post on the Shomali Plains between the Panjshir Valley and Kabul.  He knew that al Qaeda jihadis, in the name of Allah the merciful, had smashed airplanes into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.  He was first stunned, then impressed, by the breadth of the attacks.  Then he settled in to wait.  Suddenly, a wave of B-52s struck Taliban positions; he saw with an Afghan warrior’s eyes the unimaginable sound and fury that Americans rained down 150 meters in front of him.  The ground trembled, and dust blotted out the sun.  Sultan was silent for a moment, his eyes wide, with a hashish cigarette forgotten between his fingers.  “I don’t know about Afghanistan’s future because it’s hard not to make war here,” he finally told me.  “But I know one thing: it is over for al Qaeda.  America has won.”

Ali, the Iraqi, had been waiting for three weeks.  In fact, he had waited since the first Gulf War.  He knew from the heavy bombing of Baghdad that U.S. forces hurrying through the desert would soon reach the capital.  Then he saw Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy’s Marine unit help a small crowd of Baghdadis pull down that statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square; the dreaded leader’s metal head was chiseled from its body to be dragged the length of Saadoun Street and then Hassan, the Hotel Palestine shoeshine boy, mounted it like a pony. I saw tears well in Ali’s eyes. “I don’t know about Iraq’s future, if there will be war between Sunnis and Shiites or with Iran,” he said, “but I know one thing: Saddam is finished, and America has won this war.”

After the shock of 9/11, at the dawn of the 21st century, Sultan the Afghan and Ali the Iraqi both believed the United States would win a lightning victory, durable and definitive.  Each supported the Americans in different circumstances but for similar reasons: a hope of freedom, contempt for oppression, and disgust at wars in their countries that had continued, off and on, for two decades. Sultan, a Tajik, joined the Afghan army to fight the fleeing Taliban. Ali, a Shiite, became an intelligence officer in what Washington called the “new Iraq.”

Seven years later, as George W. Bush prepares to leave office at the end of a decade in which nothing happened as planned, Sultan and Ali see how wrong they were.  Both were deceived, their hopes dashed.  America did not win its wars.  Al Qaeda is unvanquished.  And their homelands are ravaged battlefields.

Over the intervening years, the two men watched from separate vantage points a series of fatal errors in what Washington called a “global war on terror”:

– The occupation of Afghanistan.
After a legitimate war on al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, with Afghan units and U.S. Special Forces, Washington chose to occupy a nation of warlords, fighters, and fiercely independent peasants. No king had ever pretended to rule much beyond Kabul. Afghans beat back the Soviet Union in ten years of guerrilla war. If every occupation soon grows difficult for the occupied, some can be unbearable for the occupier.

– Condoning Al Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Washington allowed two of its main Islamic allies – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – to be the lungs of al Qaeda. Neither took early action against extremists’ religious, political, and financial support. Saudi Arabia is the world’s principal oil supplier.  Pakistan has the only Muslim nuclear bomb. Both fight terrorism yet tolerate a jihad spirit in their mosques and even their broader societies and secret services. If most of the 9/11 pilots were Saudis, the organizers were able to hide on Pakistani territory.

Pakistan, which helped create the Taliban movement, has been refuge to both Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. Pakistani secret services never cut their ties to jihadists and, despite false assurances to the Americans, allowed them to operate in Pakistan. While Mullah Omar’s forces rebuilt strength to attack again in Afghanistan, Taliban counterparts took up arms in Pakistan.

Today Afghan and Pakistani Talibans fight on both sides of the border, in both countries, and shelter al Qaeda fighters in their sanctuaries within Pakistan’s border tribal territories. American commanders, who were slow to realize this, are secretly conducting their own raids at a quickening pace against guerrilla bastions.

– Torture, humiliation, and denial of justice.
America set up its prison at Guantanamo and embarked resolutely on a systematic denial of justice. It refused to apply international rights of prisoners who, in a war fought in the name of liberty and democracy, it alone could have defended. At Guantanamo, torture was practiced in secret yet discussed ever more frequently, and cynically, in Washington. Torture was also used at U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, in CIA centers, and in allied countries where prisoners were secretly transferred. Innocent people suffered injuries and died. Many, eventually freed, joined the guerrillas. America waited years to bring suspects to trial, feeding beliefs that somehow the 9/11 calamity was a plot to increase its economic and political power and to combat Islam. U.S. leaders prevented their countrymen from understanding their enemy, with exaggerated threats to justify their abuse of civil liberties and personal freedoms.

– The invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein, though among the most murderous men on the planet, had no ties to al Qaeda and no longer had weapons of mass destruction. Many in the Middle East saw invasion as the start of a global war on Islam. Even if a vast majority of Iraqis were thrilled at first, occupation quickly changed attitudes.  America relied on firepower, persuaded that military strategy can replace political reality. It destroyed the Iraqi state and put nothing in its place.  This substantially boosted the terrorists’ strength. Al Qaeda seeks apocalypse across the world; America delivered it in Iraq.

– A series of outright lies.
The Bush administration lied to Americans and the world.  It invented proof of biological and chemical weapons and a link between Baghdad and al Qaeda although Saddam Hussein was no threat to U.S. security.  It lied about the war in terms of manpower needed and costs that, necessarily, would be diverted from pursuing al Qaeda.  It lied about respecting international conventions abroad and the loss of liberties at home.

– Unifying the battle against al Qaeda.
America failed in its goal to consolidate the general worldwide revulsion to al Qaeda that was felt just after 9/11. Since then, it has lost friends and made enemies. Beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington appeared as an unconditional ally of Israel against Palestine; it was seen widely as favoring occupation and colonization rather seeking a peaceful solution. In the Arab world, America turned from enlightened dialogue with intelligent secular Muslims in favor of ruthless dictators. Mistakes in the war against al Qaeda could delay effective victory by years, if not decades. Already, the damage caused amounts to significant defeat for the United States.

From Firdos Square to Fallujah

“War is cruelty,” William Tecumseh Sherman declared as Americans fought their own civil war, and Lt. Col. Bryan McCoy echoed his words in Firdos Square on that day Saddam fell, symbolically and actually: “The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over.” Advancing U.S. forces applied a tactic of brutal domination, killing a number of civilians in their advance on Baghdad.

Al Qaeda chiefs had hoped for such a windfall. The more brutal the advance, the easier it would be to recruit sympathizers. As he lit a celebratory cigar and watched gleeful Shiites topple the statue, McCoy sensed what would follow. “Between the status of hero or occupier, it is only a matter of time,” he told reporters.  “If we are to become American villains that will happen extremely fast.”

Bryan McCoy was right.  For an officer fresh from his base in California to foresee this immediately, and for it to happen despite a vast majority of Iraqis who hoped it was possible to remove Saddam yet avoid a war, the chain of events seems to have been inevitable. So then why send a McCoy, tens of thousands of McCoys, to Iraq or elsewhere with a culture of war to the sole motivation of revenge for 9/11 and the single strategy of firepower?

A perfect example of the capacity to create enemies needlessly, to become the American villain, came soon in a little known place west of Baghdad at the edge of the desert: Fallujah. After Saddam’s fall, with their “city of mosques” spared of damage, religious and tribal leaders began shaping a future. Conservative Sunnis, they took over from routed Baathists loyal to Saddam. Fallujah, traditional and rural, lived peacefully through its epic change. Then the 82nd Airborne Division arrived.

Charlie Company dug in at Al-Qaid School, its sentries posted on the roof to watch its perimeter. One day, townsfolk came to protest.  In their hearts, they wanted the Americans to go. They saw no reason for U.S. troops to occupy their city. But what they demanded was simpler.  It was the day their kids were supposed to go back to school. They wanted the Americans to camp somewhere else in town.

An absence of dialogue brought volleys of rock throwing. Farther along down along the street, at a respectable distance from American guns, someone fired a Kalashnikov. Was this provocation by Saddam partisans? Showing off by overexcited men? No one aimed at the school or American soldiers, as proven by the absence of impacts on the walls. Shots in the air, perhaps. But Charlie Company reposted.

Heavy machineguns cut down protesters; 17 dead and 75 wounded were counted that day. Shots hit surrounding homes, leaving women and children bleeding inside. Bursts of gunfire were aimed at ambulances and rescue vehicles, delaying help to the victims. One man was killed as he rushed to help a parent wounded in the garden.

Fallujah was in fury. Tribal and religious leaders met, expecting American officers to bring apologies and the traditional financial reparations paid by those who do not want enemies for life. The Americans did not come. Two days later, on April 30 just before dawn, unknown men threw three grenades into the U.S. base, wounding seven. The Iraqi resistance was born, three weeks to the day after victory was declared in Iraq. A month later, guerrillas attacked a convoy and killed their first American.

Fallujah remained the focal point. In March 2004, a year after the invasion, insurgents ambushed four American contractors working for Blackwater and hung their mutilated, burned bodies from a bridge. U.S. troops responded with an all-out assault. Tanks smashed homes as they roared down narrow streets. Artillery took a heavy toll. This collective punishment on civilians swelled the insurgents’ ranks. And U.S. forces had to retreat.

Soon after, Sheik Mahdi al-Sumaidai, spiritual guide of the Sunni insurgents, welcomed me at his mosque in Baghdad. He was triumphant, with sparkling eyes and princely in a white djellabah. “The battle of Fallujah proved, because a handful of mujahiddin held off so powerful an army, that victory comes not only from military force. Victory comes from Allah and the ardor of faith.”

Thanks to the 82nd Airborne, al Qaeda in Iraq infiltrated and then controlled Fallujah. The peaceable city of mosques that might have been a model of self- reliant transition for post-Saddam Iraq became the Mecca of holy warriors.

The questions are obvious: Why, once the Iraqi army was rapidly and completely conquered, choose to occupy cities and towns rather than pulling back to military bases? Why conquer a city that does not resist? How do civilian allies, or at least passive bystanders, become the enemy? Why in both Iraq and Afghanistan allow U.S. troops to shift from conquering liberators to occupiers who, whatever their intentions, would become so quickly hated? Why would America want to incarnate a permanent threat? And why, instead of hunting down only al Qaeda killers, try to dominate civilians who are not the enemy?

Fallujah was a turning point in the war. Afterwards, similar events were repeated, if often less spectacularly, just about everywhere across Iraq.

Six months after its humiliating defeat by the mujahaddin, after intensive reflection and subtle battle plans, the U.S. army retook Fallujah by destroying it. Overwhelming firepower produced victory, but at what price? How many new enemies were born in the ruins?

Jihadi combatants and al Qaeda leaders had to find other hiding places. But, since it is hardly possible to sack every city on earth where anti-American rebels might install, wouldn’t it have been better not to occupy Fallujah, not to fire on fathers of families, not to refuse dialogue with tribal chiefs?

And to justify the use of such lethal force by saying it is the nature of enemy does not convince a population that had lived fairly peaceably before the American occupation.  True, jihadis exerted terrifying oppression during their control, with arbitrary assassinations, kidnappings, and decapitations. But the question remains: What triggered this anti-occupation terror? How much of it traces back to those shots fired by Charlie Company from the roof of that school?

The Success of al Qaeda

Al Qaeda’s success is partly from the lure of Osama bin Laden’s apocalyptic message. Any such absolutist promise finds its enthusiastic partisans, true believers, and faithful followers. Perhaps 99 percent of the world’s population does not understand – may never understand – the seduction of this message. That does not diminish its reality.

Another reason is inequality. The gulfs widen more spectacularly each day between those who control power and wealth and those who are hungry, who know their children may starve, who see bread and rice grow scarce as they lose their tenuous grasp on nature, on water supply and energy.

Beyond its religious dimension, Bin Laden’s movement gains on the ideological ground abandoned by democracies. It speaks of the cleavage between rich and poor, the sharing natural wealth and sources of energy. It supports national struggles, like the creation of a Palestinian state. It intervenes in societal clashes, such as the reaction of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed by Danish cartoonists. Hardly any domain escapes the ideologues of jihad who publish long treatises on the state of the planet and commentaries on specific events.

But the main reason for al Qaeda’s success is the surprising way in which America deludes itself, from Guantanamo to Baghdad. This has clearly spurred membership in al Qaeda and other such extreme movements. If Fallujah fell quickly into the hands of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi after the first battle, it was because American mistakes swelled his ranks with tribal chiefs and local imams who habitually resist fiercely outside intrusion.

Since September 2001, thousands of young Muslims have joined jihadi ranks in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indonesians attacked tourists in Bali, reflecting hostility in the Muslim world. Then Moroccans assaulted trains in Madrid, and Britons with Pakistani roots attacked in London. Western Europe remained stable and peaceful throughout a long Cold War, adhering to tolerance that followed Nazi genocide. Now a growing number of young holy warrior threaten Europe.

Jihad is now a powerful rallying cry backed by a vision of “brothers” humiliated at Guantanamo, images of decimated families in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many young militants believe America has declared a global war against Islam, and they must join the ranks of the most murderous, most fanatical servants of Allah.

As Washington issues yet more optimistic communiqués from Iraq, jihad gains ground across the world. Pakistan is a cauldron of fresh Taliban activity and a sanctuary for al Qaeda. Armed movements in the Philippines, Algeria, Somalia, and West Africa have pledged their allegiance to al Qaeda. Others are drawn to radical Islam for religious and political purposes; to attract funds donated in mosques and al Qaeda networks; to follow a new mode – or for all three reasons at once.

Some countries are threatened by jihadis, such as Saudi Arabia, not only the leading oil producer but also Washington’s principal Middle East ally. Islamic groups could destabilize others, from Lebanon and Palestine to Egypt. In certain countries, extreme Islamist thought progresses not only in obscure mosques at the edge of slums but even among the elites in power and the armed forces.

Al Qaeda, of course, faces deep divides. A public schism pits Ayman al Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s ideologue, against Sayyid Imam al Sharif, known as Dr. Fadl, an early force behind jihad who called on the faithful to renounce the armed struggle. Zawahiri countered with a 358-page book, and polemic raged on Islamic Internet sites. But this religious-political quarrel barely touched a young generation of jihadis who are driven more by a hatred of the United States and Israel.

The extremists’ success owns much to modern times. In 21st century wars, images and testimony can be relayed quickly, if not simultaneously, across the planet. Al-Jazeera and other Arab networks have supplanted CNN in countries where Arabic is the main tongue. Unlike Western broadcasters, they are not shy about relaying clandestine pronouncements or giving airtime to radical preachers.

America’s enemies make abundant use of Internet technology. If they do not exactly win friends when they decapitate a hostage, they have revived the vocation of holy warrior with exultant appeals to combat. They show American excesses in Afghanistan and Iraq, sometimes secretly filming soldiers at checkpoints. And they carry vivid accounts of torture victims and the wounded.

The United States, certain of its power and its right to protect itself, is so sure of the legitimacy of its course that is has lost the ability to convince others. America no longer masters the discourse. History today is no longer written only by the conquerors and the powerful; it can be written by anyone and relayed to everyone.

The Best Ally of My Enemy

The success of al Qaeda owes much to the fact America gives the impression of having attacked the entire world. In fact, beyond eliminating Afghan sanctuaries in 2001, the fight against jihadis needed only a clandestine hunt for leaders coupled with transparent justice and a respect for human rights. At the end of 2001, al Qaeda had few true partisans. America made itself the best ally of its enemy.

No one contested the legitimacy of America’s offensive in Afghanistan. But the creation of Guantanamo and then the war in Iraq changed people’s minds and turned the world against Washington. Popularity fits badly with injustice.

Accounts by Afghans, Iraqis and others eventually freed from Guantanamo did not alter most of the world’s perception of al Qaeda’s criminal nature. But they gave a clear picture of the United States as an oppressor. While in Washington leaders debated whether the fight against al Qaeda might be compared to past struggles against Nazis and Communist regimes, elsewhere people saw America as the country that used its power to wage illegitimate war. It was a country that tortures, that crushes others.

As shown each day to the Arab world by the cameras of Al Jazeera, it is now a country whose soldiers are racists – astoundingly racist for a democratic nation of such mixed bloodlines –, who treat people like dogs at checkpoints, forcing them to lie prone in the dust with a boot on their necks, showing them with racist insults – “Fucking Afghans”, “Fucking Iraqis”, or “Fucking Arabs” It is an army that fires at civilians with impunity without having to justify itself, holds prisoners for months or years without trial.

The shocking images from Abu Ghraib – a hooded man attached to electric wires, naked men piled one atop the other – are burned into minds in the Muslims world and beyond. They will long outlast the smiles at the rout of the Taliban and the fall of Saddam Hussein.

America is severely handicapped by its war culture, that cult of Rambo-like lone heroes and sheer firepower, and a poor understanding of the wider world. Afghani and Iraqi insurgents had a legitimate right to defend a territory, a city, a village, a house. Washington planned to wage conventional war against terror but what resulted was anything but. Hit-and-run guerrilla warfare helped to restructure and fortify al Qaeda’s strength.

Legions of young people in poor countries have long seen America as the defender of a free world and a shining example of economic success. Many yearned to emigrate, cultivating an American dream: drinking Coke, watching Hollywood films, listening to pop singers.  Images from Guantanamo, and then Abu Ghraib, provoked unfathomable outrage among these youths just about everywhere. Cynical debate in Washington over torture triggered an anti-American wave that grew steadily more virulent.

America’s callous denial of justice provoked a sense of bitter betrayal. By showing the world defenseless prisoners who everyone knew – or suspected – that been tortured, Washington ravaged the picture that so many people had kept in their hearts. This was no longer the America that could defeat Nazism and Communism, keeping its ideals intact in the face of Hitler’s genocide and then a long, dirty Cold War. Whatever military victories this new America might win, it faced an incalculable double loss among these outraged millions: the war of image and, worse, the war of ideology.

Afghanistan, Iraq, and the rest of 21st-century Dar al-Islam – the “Muslim domain” – are neither the Germany nor Japan of 1945, occupied and then democratized after military defeat. Nor are they Eastern Europe of 1989, where communism signed its own death certificate and reached out to Western democracies.

Washington counted on an old prescription: war/destruction/victory/reconstruction/democracy. But such a panacea is hardly apt to every situation or moment in history. Al Qaeda in 2001 was no more than a handful of soldiers. Nothing justified the militarization of a “global war on terror” nor mass destructions of societies. Seven years after 9/11, it is al Qaeda that progresses and America that loses ground. The planet is now a vast field of ruined ideologies, contradictory politics, and divided communities. Peril increases. Trenches are dug.

This is different world for everyone: Afghans, Iraqis, Americans, holy warriors and anti-holy warriors, Europeans, Asians, Africans. America has lost its monopoly of power and its dominance over discourse, the reins by which it led the world after the fall of the Soviet empire. Violent “holy war” has won the hearts of many young Muslims whether they are in a madrasa in Pakistan or a mosque in the Gulf, whether they are Yemeni Bedouins or Somali warriors, imams in Jakarta or disinherited kids in Casablanca.

Osama bin Laden need hardly be disturbed by arrests in Pakistan of his lieutenants who organized 9/11. He can rejoice over the invasion of Iraq, the accounts from Guantanamo, Bagram and Abu Ghraib, the testimony of shattered Afghan and Iraqi families, the rise of intolerance and the rollback of liberties. For the leader of al Qaeda, the loss of few top men has been outweighed beyond his wildest dreams by the arrival of new fighters to defend his brand of faith.

The United States is in no position to win a definitive victory against Iraqi or Afghan guerrillas, let alone to impose its authority on a pacified world. In Iraq, it might temporarily win over rebellious factions by giving them hundreds of millions of dollars. It might attenuate civil war between Shias and Sunnis by forcing large population shifts and erecting walls around Baghdad neighborhoods. But that does not change long-term perceptions by the fresh enemies they made after 2001.

For America, the picture is grim. No one can contest its right, its duty, to fight al Qaeda in defense of its own security and liberty in general. Yet today any U.S. military action is widely seen as illegitimate. Americans are regarded as criminals by part of the world’s population, particularly in places where it is vital for them to win sympathy. Meantime, jihadism is in full growth as a value and a cause.  Martyrdom in the name of Allah, a determination to fight to the supreme sacrifice, is now common on new fields of battle.

America’s loss of authority is hardly limited to military action. Its unpopularity has advanced in Europe, Latin America, and Africa. A multi-polar world is taking shape. China and India advance. Europe is charting a new course, and Russia is raising its head.

But more worrisome than these shifting political and economic balances among powers are the harsh criticisms from young generations on all continents. Anti-Americanism has gone global. Ahmadinejad or Chavez, Iran or Venezuela, driven by opposing ideologies and the rising price of oil, might be dangerous for Washington because they represent regional threat. But the Ahmadinejads and Chavezes have always existed. The challenge today is more that the ideal of a certain “American dream” is vanishing, one day in a Senegalese village and the next in a slum of Manila.

A congressional report published this year recognizes that anti-Americanism has never been so virulent across the world. America’s might is not seen as self-defense but rather as a threat. Rather than a guarantee of stability, it is a source of chaos, violence and torture.

The overwhelming majority of these new adversaries and critics of the United States will not take up arms or wrap themselves in dynamite. But jihadism prospers in a global climate of anti-Americanism.

The incontestable force of America is that, despite the monumental errors of the Bush administration and damage done since 9/11, its political and economic strength, and its ability to fascinate, mean the situation is reversible. Seven years, in history, amounts to mere dust.

If America ends wars that are seen as territorial conquests to focus on a real fight against real terrorists, the jihadis weaken. If, parallel to its battle with al Qaeda, America takes up other causes – a committed defense of the values of tolerance, a diplomacy of peace, a willingness to share wealth, fights for education and against poverty – its enemies can only recede.

Jihadis, not anchored in any state and no territory to lose, can survive military setbacks. But when they cease to prosper in the hearts and souls of those who follow them in desperation, they will lose ground.

America’s iron fist must be accompanied by a gentler hand, which touches people like Sultan the Afghan and Ali the Iraqi. With the promise they believed in broken, both have turned to another by default. If Americans can extend this gentler hand, they will no longer be al Qaeda’s most effective ally but rather its worst, most implacable foe.