Article first published in the New York Review of Books on 31 May 2007.
The following text is based on Stewart’s dialogue about Iraq with audience members, after his discussion with broadcast journalist Dan Harris, at the Asia Society in New York on April 20, 2007.
Woman in audience: I wanted to know since you were in Afghanistan in 2002, and then had left and gone to Iraq in 2003–2004, what made you want to go back and live there?
Rory Stewart: The experience that I had in Iraq was a disillusioning one. Originally I supported the invasion because I had served in Indonesia, the Balkans, and Afghanistan and I thought Iraq could be more stable and humane than it had been under Saddam. I realized in Iraq that I had been wrong. I was working for the British government as coalition deputy governor of the southern provinces of Maysan and Dhi Qar and I had by April 2004 $10 million a month delivered to me in vacuum-sealed packets which we were supposed to be dispensing in order to get programs going. And almost none of the programs caught the imagination of the local population; and then I was facing hundreds of people demonstrating outside my office day after day, saying, “What has the coalition ever done for us?” And we restored 240 out of 400 schools; we restored all the clinics and hospitals; but nobody seemed interested or remotely engaged with the process.
There were only two projects we did that I thought had some kind of impact: one of them was the restoration of the bazaar in al-Amara, the capital of Maysan province, and the other was the creation of a carpentry school for street children in Nasiriyah. The carpentry school took two hundred children and had them go through a pretty good training course in carpentry and then found them jobs. It was the one project where suddenly we had the Iraqi police chief and the Iraqi mayor of Nasiriyah visiting it, and Iraqi television stations and al-Jazeera covering it, and people seemed gripped by it.
So coming to Afghanistan again in 2005, I saw that a quarter of the historic city of Kabul was due to be demolished again. They had resurrected the 1976 East German master plan under which it was to be flattened and replaced with East German–style concrete blocks. And I discovered that people like Ustad Abdul Hadi, who had been among the most famous craftsmen in the country, were selling fruit in the marketplace, the historic buildings were collapsing, and the garbage was seven feet deep in the street. Afghans wanted jobs, incomes, and a renewed sense of national identity. I sensed that restoring the traditional commercial center of the city and creating a crafts center that would make furniture, ceramics, and textiles would not only be good for the economy but would also catch imaginations. I could not undertake this kind of project in Baghdad. Those are some of the things that came together to make me do it. But thank you for the question.
Moderator: Does the carpentry school still exist in Nasiriyah?
The carpentry school in Nasiriyah does not still exist, unfortunately. The funding stopped. It ran out of money.
Woman in audience: I would like to ask, what would you do in Iraq now?
What would I do in Iraq now? I am not an expert, but I believe that the time has come to withdraw, that our presence is infantilizing the Iraqi political system. That we’re like an inadequate antibiotic. We are sufficiently strong to have turned what might have been a conventional civil war into a highly unconventional neighborhood conflict. But we’re not strong enough to eliminate it entirely. At the same time I fear that, without intending to, we have discredited democracy in the eyes of many Iraqis. We have created a situation in which many Iraqis now feel that the only way to keep security is to bring back a strongman. They are extremely skeptical of our programs and suggestions for development.
I think that Iraqi politicians are considerably more competent, canny, and capable of compromise than we acknowledge. Iraqi nationalism, in my view, can trump the Shiite–Sunni divisions. Our continuing presence is encouraging Iraqi politicians to play hard-ball with each other. Were we to leave, they would be weaker and under more pressure to compromise. In our relations with the Iraqis we often blocked negotiations with Moqtada al-Sadr or Sunni insurgency leaders, or the offer of troop withdrawals and amnesties for former Baathists and insurgents, among others. Yet these will probably be elements in any kind of settlement.
And therefore, my belief—and I emphasize this is my belief, not a certainty—is that were we to withdraw, things would improve. I say belief because that may not be the case. I can’t predict the future. Iraq and its neighbors and its internal forces are extremely difficult to understand. In a single province in Iraq fifty-four new political parties emerged after three months following the invasion. And even Iraqis struggle to distinguish between the parties called the Islamic Call Movement, the Islamic Call Tendency, and the Islamic Call Muslim Party. All the parties that call themselves Hezbollah or Hamas have nothing to do with their namesakes on the other side of Arabia.
So I cannot guarantee that the situation will improve following a withdrawal. In some countries, civil wars do indeed continue for a very long time. Whatever government emerges after our departure is likely to be Islamist and authoritarian. People talk sometimes too easily about choosing between lesser evils. In this case the choices may be genuinely evil. But I am certain that our presence is not improving things. Despite some claims to the contrary, there is not a single indicator of significant, overall improvement I know of over the last four years, neither in electricity, nor in education, nor in police training, nor in the military. You might be able to achieve a temporary blitz, a temporary numerical drop in the number of security incidents, through deploying 20,000 troops into Baghdad, but this is not sustainable. There is no evidence I have seen that either the Iraqi police or army is prepared to take over our role, so long as we stay. In this situation there is simply no point hanging around. It would seem to me that starting to leave tomorrow, as opposed to in two years’ time or six years’ time, would make no difference; the situation would be the same. And there cannot be a justification for continuing, day by day, to kill Iraqis and to have our own soldiers killed in this kind of war.
Moderator: What about the danger that the civil war, or whatever you want to call it, escalates to the point that the general public in the United States and Great Britain says it’s unacceptable, we have to go back? Or it escalates into a larger regional war with the Sunni powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, seeing their brethren being massacred and decide that they need to invade, and Iran invades in turn?
This is a very difficult question and there are three different elements to it. One of them is the question about public perception; one is a humanitarian question; and one is a question about national security.
Concerning the national security question, which could involve the invasion by Iran and neighboring countries, I’m pretty convinced that our experience in Iraq is sufficient to dissuade any neighboring country from wishing to attempt a military occupation in the country. But they may attempt to destabilize Iraq with covert operations. As for the humanitarian issue you raise and the public perception of it, well that is of course a possibility. And we would need to look at what needed to be done. But an intervention in Iraq for humanitarian reasons and in order to stop the civil war would differ significantly from the situation we’re in at the moment. We’re not perceived on the ground as a neutral peacekeeping force there to stop a civil war. We’re perceived by many people as a foreign military occupation. A lot of the popularity and power of the various forces of insurgency comes from people’s ability to present themselves as fighting for Islam and Iraq against that foreign military occupation, and this makes it almost impossible for us to sustain security or deliver economic development.
Were we to return, we would have to return on very different terms, and this is where my concern about us as an inadequate antibiotic comes in. Our great advantage in Bosnia was that we entered a situation where a civil war was already happening. And it was a civil war between reasonably identifiable groups in which our conventional military troops were able to have an impact. So, in summary, we could bomb the Bosnian Serb artillery positions in the hills around Sarajevo. In Iraq there will not be artillery positions; there will not be tanks; there will not be uniformed troops that it’s possible for us to clearly identify and fight. A situation has emerged in which plainclothes militia groups, neighborhood by neighborhood, are killing each other, and I’m not convinced that we have the capacity to deal with that.
The problems in Iraq are now so deep, complex, and intractable that they cannot be solved by surges or new tactics. They can only be solved by Iraqi political leadership and Iraqi political processes. We can provide diplomatic and economic support. We can continue to protect ourselves against terrorist attacks on our home soil through intelligence and special forces operations in Iraq. But we cannot win through an indefinite blanket occupation because we lack the will, the resources, the legitimacy, and also the consent necessary to play such a role. My instinct is that Iraqis can overcome their problems and create a functioning nation. But even if I’m wrong, I believe that what good we can do we have done. We should leave now.