Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New America Foundation who has
written extensively on American policy in Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent more
than two years in Iraq reporting on the American occupation, the relationship
between Americans and Iraqis, the development of postwar Iraqi religious and
political movements, interethnic and sectarian relations, and the Iraqi civil
war. His reporting and research also focused on the origins and development of
Islamist resistance, insurgency, and terrorist organizations. He has also
reported from Somalia, where he investigated Islamist movements; Jordan, where
he investigated the origins and future of the Zarqawi movement; and Pakistan,
where he investigated the madrassas and pro-Taliban movements.
Question: Is the "surge" working as Bush
claims or is the sudden lull in the violence due to other factors like
demographic changes in Baghdad?
Nir Rosen: I think that even calling it a surge is
misleading. A surge is fast; this took months. It was more like an ooze. The US
barely increased the troop numbers. It mostly just forced beleaguered American
soldiers to stay longer. At the same time, the US doubled their enemies
because, now, they're not just fighting the Sunni militias but the Shiite Mahdi
No, I don't think the surge worked. Objectively speaking,
the violence is down in Baghdad, but that's mainly due to the failure of the US
to establish security. That's not success.
Sure, less people are being killed but that's because there
are less people to kill.
The violence in Iraq was not senseless or crazy, it was
logical and teleological. Shiite militias were trying to remove Sunnis from Baghdad
and other parts of the country, while Sunni militias were trying to remove
Shiites, Kurds and Christians from their areas. This has been a great success.
So you have millions of refugees and millions more internally displaced, not to
mention hundreds of thousands dead. There are just less people to kill.
Moreover, the militias have consolidated their control over
some areas. The US never thought that Muqtada al Sadr would order his Mahdi
Army to halt operations (against Sunnis, rival Shiites and Americans) so that
he could put his house in order and remove unruly militiamen. And, the US never
expected that Sunnis would see that they were losing the civil war so they
might as well work with the Americans to prepare for the next battle.
More importantly, violence fluctuates during a civil war, so
people try to maintain as much normalcy in their lives as possible. It's the
same in Sarajevo, Beirut or Baghdad -- people marry, party, go to school when
they can -- and hide at home or fight when they must.
The euphoria we see in the American media reminds me of the
other so-called milestones that came and went while the overall trend in Iraq
stayed the same. Now Iraq doesn't exist anymore. That's the most important
thing to remember. There is no Iraq. There is no Iraqi government and none of
the underlying causes for the violence have been addressed, such as the
mutually exclusive aspirations of the rival factions and communities in Iraq.
Question: Are we likely to see a "Phase 2"
in the Iraq war? In other words, will we see the Shia eventually turn their
guns on US occupation forces once they're confident that the Ba'athist-led
resistance has been defeated and has no chance of regaining power?
Nir Rosen: Shiite militias have been fighting the
Americans on and off since 2004 but there's been a steady increase in the past
couple of years. That's not just because the Americans saw the Mahdi army as
one of the main obstacles to fulfilling their objectives in Iraq, but also
because Iraq's Shiites -- especially the Mahdi army -- are very skeptical of US
motives. They view the Americans as the main obstacle to achieving their goals
in Iraq. Ever since Zalmay Khalilzad took over as ambassador; Iraq's Shiites
have worried that the Americans would turn on them and throw their support
behind the Sunnis. That's easy to understand given that Khalilzad's mandate was
to get the Sunnis on board for the constitutional referendum. (Khalilzad is
also a Sunni himself)
But, yes, to answer your question; we could see a
"Phase 2" if the Americans try to stay in Iraq longer or, of course,
if the US attacks Iran. Then you'll see more Shiite attacks on the Americans.
Question: Hundreds of Iraqi scientists, professors,
intellectuals and other professionals have been killed during the war. Also,
there seems to have been a plan to target Iraq's cultural icons -- museums,
monuments, mosques, palaces etc. Do you think that there was a deliberate
effort to destroy the symbols of Iraqi identity -- to wipe the slate clean --
so that the society could be rebuilt according to a neoliberal, "free
Nir Rosen: There certainly was no plan on the part of
the occupying forces. In fact, that's the main reason that things have gone so
horribly wrong in Iraq; there was no plan for anything; good or bad.
The looting was not "deliberate" American policy.
It was simply incompetence. The destruction of Iraq's cultural icons was
incompetence, also -- as well as stupidity, ignorance and criminal neglect.
I don't believe that there was really any deliberate malice
in the American policy; regardless of the malice with which it may have been
implemented by the troops on the ground. The destruction of much of Iraq was
the result of Islamic and sectarian militias -- both Sunni and Shiite --
seeking to wipe out hated symbols. The Americans didn't know enough about Iraq
to intentionally execute such a plan even if it did exist. And, I don't think
Question: The media rarely mentions the 4 million
refugees created by the Iraq war. What do you think the long-term effects of
this humanitarian crisis will be?
Nir Rosen: Well, the smartest Iraqis -- the best
educated, the professionals, the middle and upper classes -- have all left or
been killed. So the society is destroyed. So there is no hope for a
non-sectarian Iraq now.
The refugees are getting poorer and more embittered. Their
children cannot get an education and their resources are limited. Look at the
Palestinian refugee crisis. In 1948 you had about 800,000 Palestinians expelled
from their homes and driven into Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the
Middle East. Over time, they were politicized, mobilized and militarized. The
militias they formed to liberate their homeland were manipulated by the
governments in the region and they became embroiled in regional conflicts,
internal conflicts and, tragically, conflicts with each other. They were
massacred in Lebanon and Jordan. And, contributed to instability in those
Now you have camps in Lebanon producing jihadists who go to
fight in Iraq or who fight the Lebanese Army. And this is all from a population
of just 800,000 mostly rural, religiously-homogeneous (Sunni) refugees.
Now, you have 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, a million
in Jordan and many more in other parts of the Middle East. The Sunnis and
Shiites already have ties to the militias. They are often better educated,
urban, and have accumulated some material wealth. These refugees are
increasingly sectarian and are presently living in countries with a delicate
sectarian balance and very fragile regimes. Many of the refugees will probably
link up with Islamic groups and threaten the regimes of Syria and Jordan.
They're also likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
They're also bound to face greater persecution as they
"wear out their welcome" and put a strain on the country's resources.
They'll probably form into militias and either try go home
or attempt to overthrow the regimes in the region. Borders will change and
governments will fall. A new generation of fighters will emerge and there'll be
more attacks on Americans.
Question: You have compared Iraq to Mogadishu. Could
Nir Rosen: Somalia hasn't had a government since
1991. I've been to Mogadishu twice. Its ruled by warlords who control their own
fiefdoms. Those who have money can live reasonably well. That's what it's like
in Iraq now -- a bunch of independent city-states ruled by various militias --
including the American militia and British militias.
Of course, Somalia is not very important beyond the Horn of
Africa. It's bordered by the sea, Kenya and Ethiopia. There's no chance of the
fighting in Somalia spreading into a regional war. Iraq is much more dangerous
in that respect.
Question: Is the immediate withdrawal of all US
troops really the best option for Iraq?
Nir Rosen: It really doesn't matter whether the
Americans stay or leave. There are no good options for Iraq; no solutions. The
best we can hope for is that the conflict won't spread. The best thing we can
say about the American occupation is that it may soften the transition for the
ultimate break up of Iraq into smaller fragments. A couple of years ago, I said
that the Americans should leave to prevent a civil war and to allow the (Sunni)
rejectionists to join the government once the occupation ended. Turns out, I
was right; but, obviously, it's too late now. The civil war has already been
fought and won in many places, mainly by the Shiite militias.
The Americans are still the occupying force, which means
that they must continue to repress people that didn't want them there in the
first place. But, then, if you were to ask a Sunni in Baghdad today what would
happen if the Americans picked up and left, he'd probably tell you that the
remaining Sunnis would be massacred. So, there's no "right answer" to
your question about immediate withdrawal.
Question: November was the third anniversary of the
US siege of Falluja. Could you explain what happened in Falluja and what it
means to Iraqis and the people in the Middle East?
Nir Rosen: Falluja was a poor industrial town known
only for its kabob which Iraqis stopped to get on the way to picnic at lake
Habbaniya. There were no attacks on the Americans from Falluja during the
combat-phase of the US invasion. When Saddam's regime fell, the Fallujans began
administering their own affairs until the Americans arrived. The US military
leaders saw the Sunnis as the "bad guys," so they treated them
harshly. At first, the Fallujans ignored the rough treatment because the tribal
leaders leaders wanted to give the Americans a chance.
Then there was a incident, in April 2003, where US troops
fired on a peaceful demonstration and killed over a dozen unarmed civilians.
This, more than anything else, radicalized the people and turned them against the
In the spring of 2004, four (Blackwater) American security
contractors were killed in Falluja. Their bodies were burned and dismembered by
an angry crowd. It was an insult to America's pride. In retaliation, the
military launched a massive attack which destroyed much of the city and killed
hundreds of civilians. The US justified the siege by saying that it was an
attack on foreign fighters that (they claimed) were hiding out in terrorist
strongholds. In truth, the townspeople were just fighting to defend their
homes, their city, their country and their religion against a foreign occupier.
Some Shiite militiamen actually fought with the Sunnis as a sign of solidarity.
In late 2004, the Americans completely destroyed Falluja
forcing tens of thousands of Sunnis to seek refuge in western Baghdad. This is
when the sectarian clashes between the Sunnis and Shiites actually began. The
hostilities between the two groups escalated into civil war.
Falluja has now become a symbol throughout the Muslim world
of the growing resistance to American oppression.
Question: The political turmoil in Lebanon continues
even though the war with Israel has been over for more than a year. Tensions
are escalating because of the upcoming presidential elections which are being
closely monitored by France, Israel and the United States. Do you see
Hezbollah's role in the political process as basically constructive or
destructive? Is Hezbollah really a "terrorist organization" as the
Bush administration claims or a legitimate resistance militia that is necessary
for deterring future Israeli attacks?
Nir Rosen: Hizballah is not a terrorist organization.
It is a widely popular and legitimate political and resistance movement. It has
protected Lebanon's sovereignty and resisted American and Israeli plans for a
New Middle East. It's also among the most democratic of Lebanon's political
movements and one of the few groups with a message of social justice and anti
imperialism. The Bush administration is telling its proxies in the Lebanese
government not to compromise on the selection of the next president. This is
pushing Lebanon towards another civil war, which appears to be the plan. The US
also started civil wars in Iraq, Gaza and Somalia.
Question: The humanitarian situation in Somalia is
steadily worsening. The UN reports that nearly 500,000 Somalis have fled
Mogadishu and are living in makeshift tent cities with little food or water.
The resistance -- backed by the former government -- the Islamic Courts Union,
is gaining strength and fighting has broken out in 70 percent of the
neighborhoods in Mogadishu. Why is the US backing the invading Ethiopian army?
Is Somalia now facing another bloody decades-long war or is there hope that the
warring parties can resolve their differences?
Nir Rosen: After a decade and a half without a
government and the endless fighting of clan-based militias; clan leaders
decided to establish the Islamic Courts (Somalis are moderate Shaafi Muslims)
to police their own people and to prevent their men provoking new conflicts.
Islam was the only force powerful enough to unite the Somalis; and it worked.
There have only been a half-dozen or so al Qaida suspects
who have -- at one time or another -- entered or exited through Somalia. But
the Islamic Courts is not an al Qaida organization. Still, US policy in the
Muslim world is predicated on the "War on Terror," so there's an
effort to undermine any successful Islamic model, whether it's Hamas in Gaza,
or Hizballah in Lebanon.
The US backed the brutal Somali warlords and created a
counter-terrorism coalition which the Somalis saw as anti-Islamic. The Islamic
Court militias organized a popular uprising that overthrew the warlords and
restored peace and stability to much of Somalia for the first time in more than
a decade. The streets were safe again, and exiled Somali businessmen returned
home to help rebuild.
I was there during this time.
The Americans and Ethiopians would not tolerate the new
arrangement. The Bush administration sees al Qaeda everywhere. So, they joined
forces with the Ethiopians because Ethiopia's proxies were overthrown in
Mogadishu and because they feel threatened by Somali nationalism. With the help
of the US, the Ethiopian army deposed the Islamic Courts and radicalized the
population in the process. Now Somalia is more violent than ever and
jihadi-type groups are beginning to emerge where none had previously existed.
Question: The US-led war in Afghanistan is not going
well. The countryside is controlled by the warlords, the drug trade is
flourishing, and America's man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, has little power beyond
the capital. The Taliban has regrouped and is methodically capturing city after
city in the south. Their base of support, among disenchanted Pashtuns,
continues to grow. How important is it for the US to succeed in Afghanistan?
Would failure threaten the future of NATO or the Transatlantic Alliance?
Nir Rosen: Although the US has lost in Afghanistan;
what really matters is Pakistan. That's where the Taliban and al Qaeda are
actually located. No, I'm NOT saying that the US should take the war into
Pakistan. The US has already done enough damage. But as long as America
oppresses and alienates Muslims, they will continue to fight back.
Question: The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli
sanctions for more than a year. Despite the harsh treatment -- the lack of
food, water and medical supplies (as well as the soaring unemployment and the
random attacks in civilian areas) -- there have been no retaliatory suicide
attacks on Israeli civilians or IDF soldiers. Isn't this proof that Hamas is
serious about abandoning the armed struggle and joining the political process?
Should Israel negotiate directly with the "democratically elected"
Hamas or continue its present strategy of shoring up Mahmoud Abbas and the PA?
Nir Rosen: Hamas won democratic elections that were
widely recognized as free and fair; that is, as free and as fair as you can
expect when Israel and America are backing one side while trying to shackle the
other. Israel and the US never accepted the election results. That's because
Hamas refuses to capitulate. Also, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim
Brotherhood which is active in Egypt and Jordan and both those countries fear
an example of a Muslim brothers in government, and they fear an example of a
movement successfully defying the Americans and Israelis, so they backed Fatah.
Everyone fears that these Islamic groups will become a successful model of
resistance to American imperialism and hegemony. The regional dictators are
especially afraid of these groups, so they work with the Americans to keep the
pressure on their political rivals. Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah collaborates with the
US and Israel to undermine Hamas and force the government to collapse. Although
they have failed so far; the US and Israel continue to support the same Fatah
gangs that attempted the coup to oust Hamas. The plan backfired, and Hamas
gunmen managed to drive Fatah out of Gaza after a number of violent skirmishes.
Israel should stop secretly supporting Fatah and adopt the
"One State" solution. It should grant Palestinians and other non-Jews
equal rights, abandon Zionism, allow Palestinian refugees to return, compensate
them, and dismantle the settlements. If Israel doesn't voluntarily adopt the
One State solution and work for a peaceful transition, (like South Africa),
then eventually it will face expulsion by the non-Jewish majority in Greater
Palestine, just like the French colonists in Algeria.
This is not a question of being "pro" or
"anti" Israel; that's irrelevant when predicting the future, and for
any rational observer of the region it's clear that Israel is not a viable
state in the Middle East as long as it is Zionist.
Question: The US military is seriously
over-stretched. Still, many political analysts believe that Bush will order an
aerial assault on Iran. Do you think the US will carry out a
"Lebanon-type" attack on Iran; bombing roads, bridges, factories,
government buildings, oil depots, Army bases, munitions dumps, airports and
nuclear sites? Will Iran retaliate or simply lend their support to resistance
fighters in Afghanistan and Iraq?
Nir Rosen: I think it's quite likely that Bush will
attack Iran; not because he has a good reason to, but because Jesus or God told
him to and because Iran is part of the front-line resistance (along with
Hizballah, Syria and Hamas) to American hegemony in the region. Bush believes
nobody will have the balls to go after the Iranians after him. He believes that
history will vindicate him and he'll be looked up to as a hero, like Reagan.
There is also a racist element in this. Bush thinks that
Iran is a culture based on honor and shame. He believes that if you humiliate
the Iranian regime, then the people will rise up and overthrow it. Of course,
in reality, when you bomb a country the people end up hating you and rally
around the regime. Just look at the reaction of the Serbs after the bombing by
NATO, or the Americans after September 11.
Iran is more stable than Iraq and has a stronger military.
Also, the US is very vulnerable in the region -- both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
America's allies are even more vulnerable. An attack on Iran could ignite a
regional war that would spiral out of control. Nothing good would come of it.
The Bush administration needs to negotiate with Iran and
pressure Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Question: Bush's war on terror now extends from the
southern border of Somalia to the northern tip of Afghanistan -- from Africa,
through the Middle East into Central Asia. The US has not yet proven -- in any
of these conflicts -- that it can enforce its will through military means
alone. In fact, in every case, the military appears to be losing ground. And
it's not just the military that's bogged down either. Back in the United States,
the economy is rapidly deteriorating. The dollar is falling, the housing market
is collapsing, consumer spending is shrinking, and the country's largest
investment banks are bogged down with over $200 billion in mortgage-backed
debt. Given the current state of the military and the economy, do you see any
way that the Bush administration can prevail in the "war on terror"
or is US power in a state of irreversible decline?
Nir Rosen: Terror is a tactic; so you can't go to war
with it in the first place. You can only go to war with people or nations. To
many people it seems like the US is at war with Muslims. This is just
radicalizing more people and eroding America's power and influence in the
world. But, then, maybe that's not such a bad thing.
Nir Rosen's book on postwar Iraq, "In the Belly of
the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq," was published
by Free Press in 2006.
Whitney lives in Washington state. He can be reached at email@example.com.