Afghanistan’s election: Some reflections

Back in 2004-05, Pres. Bush and his people were trying to ‘re-brand’ America’s overseas military adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq as being part of a campaign to bring the wonderful fruits of democracy to various peoples around the world. At the tip of a cruise missile, no less… Oh my goodness how tragic and wrongheaded every single step along this way has been…
Thus we had the sudden emergence of the phenomenon of the ‘purple finger’. Images of those people emerging from voting booths with their purple-stained digits were flashed around the world. (And one purple digiteer even got to attend Bush’s State of the Union Address in January 2006, I seem to recall. ‘Our’ achievement there…)
Today, the people of Afghanistan went to the polls for their second nationwide election since the U.S.-led invasion of their country in 2001. I’ve been following the reporting from there via Twitter’s #Afghan10 hashtag. Canadian journo Naheed Mustafa tweeted “I’m not convinced it’s all worth it for 40% turnout and little legitimacy.” She linked to this piece of serious-looking reporting from the ever-professional folks at McClatchy.
Mustafa is quite right to take seriously the legitimacy angle, since that above all is what the U.S. government seeks to gain from a ‘successful’ holding of the election. Of course, Afghanistan’s 30 million people probably have different meta-goals… which quite likely would include there– as in other war-torn countries– the goal that election result in the formation of a stable and accountable national government that can lead a successful process of internal reconciliation while rapidly building up its ability to deliver basic services to the Afghan people.
Right. I imagine many Afghan citizens have had the opportunity to see what has happened in Iraq since the (technically more or less ‘successful’) holding of the nationwide election there back in early March.
In Iraq, the four large political blocs have still not been able to come to agreement on forming their new government, more than six months later. And in the absence of any new governing authority having emerged, the caretaker government of PM Nouri al-Maliki is still limping along. The security situation continues to be terrible, with large-scale suicide bombings still happening every couple of weeks. And the delivery of other basic services like clean water, electricity, banking services, etc etc, continues to be performed at levels considerably worse than what Iraq’s people enjoyed back in the 1970s.
A technically ‘successful’ election guarantees nothing in terms of quality of governance; and therefore nothing in terms of people actually being able to enjoy the basic rights of citizenship.
… Ah, but here in the U.S., Pres. Obama has been continuing to trumpet the arguments that what has been happening in both Iraq and Afghanistan somehow represent the “progress” that he promised and that he still hopes to embody. regarding Iraq, he has been careful not to engage in the kind of jejune “Mission Accomplished” triumphalism that Pres. Bush used to revel in. But still, as the August 31 deadline for the “end of U.S. combat operations” in Iraq went by, Obama did his best to describe that milestone– which was not actually such a real milestone at all– as marking something that the U.S. had indeed ‘accomplished.’ Um, well, the timetable leading toward a complete withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq is one that was agreed between the Bush administration and PM Maliki’s government in Iraq back in November 2008. So if Obama is saying that he has been trying to stick to the U.S.’s promises in that regard (well, more or less), than is that really anything to trumpet as an “accomplishment”? Shouldn’t nations and governments be expected as a matter of course to live up their international commitments?
I believe Obama could and should have done a lot more to remind people in the U.S. and overseas that it was a national (and Republican-initiated) commitment he was living up to in Iraq. And he still could and should be doing a lot more to engage all the international community– including, of course, all six of Iraq’s neighbors– in a joint effort to underline the value of Iraq’s territorial unity and independence, and to offer all support for the speedy formation of a stable and empowered national government there.
And then there is Afghanistan, which is currently much more “Obama’s war” than Iraq is or ever has been. After all, Obama supported the original U.S. invasion of Afghanistan (as he did not, of Iraq); and he was also, last winter, the president who made the solemn decision to undertake a new surge of American forces there.
Today, the WaPo had a very significant piece of reporting by Karen DeYoung, in which she just about confirmed what I have been arguing for 10 months now, namely that the whole “strategy” according to which Obama had decided to undertake the Afghan surge was one directed much more at U.S. domestic audiences than at making any actual, definable strategic gains on the ground in Afghanistan.
DeYoung wrote:

    Despite discouraging news from Afghanistan and growing doubts in Congress and among the American public, the Obama administration has concluded that its war strategy is sound and that a December review, once seen as a pivotal moment, is unlikely to yield any major changes.
    This resolve arises amid a flurry of reports from outside experts and former officials who are convinced that the administration’s path in Afghanistan is unsustainable and its objectives are unclear. Lawmakers from both parties are insisting that they be given a bigger say in assessing the war’s trajectory.
    The White House calculus is that the strategy retains enough public and political support to weather any near-term objections. Officials do not expect real pressure for progress and a more precise definition of goals to build until next year, with the approach of a July deadline President Obama has set for decisions on troop withdrawals and the beginning of the 2012 electoral season…

Well, the way I read that, the only “strategy” the people in the White House are really concerned about is the one that has to do with domestic considerations… They just want things in Afghanistan to not look too bad until they are able– as per the announced timetable next year– to start pulling the American forces home… with that part of the timetable tied tightly to the beginning of the U.S. electoral season…
How solipsistic can a country and a (democratically elected) government become? There seems to be literally no limit.
Finally, of course, I cannot leave this short reflection on U.S. policies and the push toward purple fingerism in distant countries under the sway of the U.S. without some quick reference to what happened in Egypt and Palestine after the U.S. had successfully lobbied– back in 2005 and early 2006– for the holding of ‘democratic’ elections in both countries. In Egypt, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood did considerably better than the U.S. had expected, and Pres. Mubarak thereafter moved back into his traditionally repressive mode with no further U.S. intervention in the matter… And after Hamas won the free and fair elections in Palestine in January 2006… Well, I guess I don’t have to remind many JWN readers about what happened there.

The Iraqi skeleton in America’s closet

In popular English-language parlance, a “skeleton in the closet” is a dirty family secret that everyone likes to keep hidden.
We here in the United States have many skeletons in the closet of our country’s history. One of the most tragic is the conflict and bloodshed that continue in Iraq, seven-and-a-half years after Pres. Bush’s completely unjustified decision to invade and occupy the country.
Back in 2002 and early 2003, I was one of only a small number of commentators in the U.S. media who argued strongly that Bush should not launch the invasion towards which he was so clearly heading, and that the casus belli he was preparing, based on Saddam Hussein’s alleged possession of WMDs had no foundation anywhere near strong enough to justify the terrible privations that any war would bring.
Today, those privations still continue. Today in Baghdad, 46 were killed in a series of coordinated car-bomb attacks, bringing to over 97,000 the number of Iraqi civilians who have confirmedly been killed in the political inferno the country has become since March 2003.
The U.S., which has been the occupying power under international law and in fact the strongest military/security presence in the country since March 2003, has to bear over-all responsibility for those deaths.
The invasion and occupation were, I repeat, unjustified. They were also acts of choice by Pres. Bush, the result of a decision he took under strong pressure from several parties including, notably, the strongly pro-Israeli networks that were dug well into the U.S. Congress and the Defense Department at that time.
Now, those same networks are still influential in the U.S. Congress, where their shrill calls for further escalation and the possible launching of a military action (= war) against Iran still receive a ready hearing from many Members.
Fortunately, they are not as influential in the Robert Gates Pentagon as they were in the Donald Rumsfeld Pentagon. So we still have some hope we may avert an outright military attack against Iran.
But the situation in Iraq certainly still deserves our strong concern.
Regular readers of Reidar Visser’s great blog Iraq and Gulf Analysis have been following there the notable failure of the leaders of Iraq’s electoral lists to put together a coalition that can do anything to govern the country. That, though it is now nearly six months since they were elected. Hidden near the bottom of this (PDF) excellent little security round-up for Iraq, prepared by the NGO Coordination Committee for Iraq (NCCI) is a footnote stating that “many Iraqi politicians have left the country for the time being. Many politicians plan to return once a new government is in place and their security can be guaranteed.”
(Right now, Reidar is near completion on pulling together a book for Just World Books, based on his blog posts from the past five years. It should be available for sale in mid-November.)
Next Tuesday, Pres. Obama is going to make what is being previewed as a “big” speech about Iraq, timed to coordinate with the current (still very partial) drawdown of U.S. forces from the country.
The way VP Biden and others have been talking recently, they’ve been describing the drawdown as Obama “delivering” on a promise he made to the American people about undertaking this drawdown by the end of this month.
In fact, the drawdown is an even more incomplete delivery on the promise the U.S. government under Pres. Bush made, back in late November 2008, to “hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis”, to end U.S. engagement in combat operations, and to pull U.S. forces out of all Iraqi cities by the end of June 2009— preparatory to a complete pullout of all U.S. forces from the country by the end of 2011.
But Obama’s whole policy in Iraq– like his policy in Afghanistan– has shown zero signs of any serious strategic thinking, or the kinds of strategically informed actions that are so desperately needed to stanch the bloodshed and give the country’s 30 million people some hope of rebuilding their society.
The only sign of any serious strategic engagement in bringing together the heads of Iraq’s electoral lists and– as is also necessary– the representatives of the country’s large and in some cases very nervous neighbors is one reportedly being undertaken by Syria.
Sami Moubayed of The Forward (Damascus), wrote today that there is much talk of Syria launching a “Taif-like” initiative to try to find common ground between the relevat internal and external actors in Iraq.
He adds:

    Reportedly, the “Syrian Taif” is backed by strong players in the neighborhood, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and stands unopposed by the Barack Obama administration, which is very worried over the political vacuum in Baghdad.
    To date, nothing official has been released regarding a Syrian Taif, but such a conference seems all the more logical as scores of Iraqi politicians, from every end of the political spectrum, have been visiting Damascus in recent months for talks with top Syrian officials.
    To date, ex-prime minister Iyad Allawi, who controls 91 seats in the newly elected parliament, has paid two visits to Damascus, and so has Ammar Hakim of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), whose bloc has a total of 70 seats, and Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who commands 40 of the 70 seats held by the National Iraqi Alliance (NIA)…
    The only Iraqi heavyweight still expected to make the Damascus visit is incumbent Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who controls 89 seats in parliament, and whose relations with Syria were strained in the summer of 2009.

Definitely worth watching. Syria of course is in a pivotal position since it currently enjoys good relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as decent relations with Jordan (and it has its own long border with Iraq; a large population of Iraqi refugees, and longstanding ties to many of Iraq’s current leaders.)
I wish the best for the Syrian government or any other party that can help to bring the terrible bloodshed within Iraq to an end, and to help Iraq’s leaders form the stable government that their people so desperately need.
But that still does not wash away the shame and intense grief I feel regarding the very destructive policies my own government has pursued against the Iraqi people for the past 19 years. There is no way any American could describe what our country has done there as any kind of “victory”.

Post-combat birth defects in Fallujah population

I didn’t have time to blog this when the BBC first reported it last Wednesday. But the report that found that the rate of birth defects in Fallujah since the U.S. military’s April 2004 assault against it has been higher than that in post-bombing Hiroshima is one that no U.S. citizen should ignore.
Patrick Cockburn had a lot more details about the study underlying the BBC report, in Saturday’s Independent, here.
He writes,

    Iraqi doctors in Fallujah have complained since 2005 of being overwhelmed by the number of babies with serious birth defects, ranging from a girl born with two heads to paralysis of the lower limbs. They said they were also seeing far more cancers than they did before the battle for Fallujah between US troops and insurgents.
    Their claims have been supported by a survey showing a four-fold increase in all cancers and a 12-fold increase in childhood cancer in under-14s. Infant mortality in the city is more than four times higher than in neighbouring Jordan and eight times higher than in Kuwait.
    … The study, entitled “Cancer, Infant Mortality and Birth Sex-Ratio in Fallujah, Iraq 2005-2009”, is by Dr Busby, Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi, and concludes that anecdotal evidence of a sharp rise in cancer and congenital birth defects is correct. Infant mortality was found to be 80 per 1,000 births compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and 9.7 in Kuwait. The report says that the types of cancer are “similar to that in the Hiroshima survivors who were exposed to ionising radiation from the bomb and uranium in the fallout”.
    Researchers found a 38-fold increase in leukaemia, a ten-fold increase in female breast cancer and significant increases in lymphoma and brain tumours in adults. At Hiroshima survivors showed a 17-fold increase in leukaemia, but in Fallujah Dr Busby says what is striking is not only the greater prevalence of cancer but the speed with which it was affecting people…

The study was published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. You can download the PDF here.

On war

I have been meaning for a while now to blog some of my thoughts on the nature of, and prospects for, our country’s continuing military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq…. That intention was rekindled by reading the latest issue of Middle East Report, which has some good articles on the subject– as well as a good piece on Washington’s political interventions in Iraqi politics by none other than Reidar Visser.
Regarding U.S. military doctrine, and the whole issue of Gen. Petraeus having been rushed in to take over from McChrystal in Afghanistan, I’ve been thinking for a while that we really need to do a thorough re-examination of this whole “doctrine” of “counter-insurgency” (COIN), of which, of course, Petraeus was one of the principal authors. In this issue of MER, Rochelle Davis, Laleh Khalili, and B.D. Hopkins all have good articles on various aspects of ‘COIN’, and Steve Niva has a good piece on the ‘lessons’ from Israel’s failure to win the 33-day war against Hizbullah in Lebanon in 2006. You can read the whole text of Davis’s and Khalili’s pieces there, free.
My own emerging thoughts are that the entire “doctrine” of COIN may well be most appropriately thought of as a huge, elaborate Potemkin village, designed mainly to bamboozle the U.S. public into thinking our brave men and women in uniform are actually able to do something of some value in those distant battlefields, and that they will “achieve” something of value there before– as will inevitably happen– financial constraints at home and the constraints of the hugely intractable facts on the ground in those distant places will force a U.S. withdrawal “redeployment” from them. (As I wrote in Boston Review, last December.)
Maybe we should start calling it (Potem-)COIN.
… And in a very important and related development, Gen. Ray Odierno, the guy who’s in charge of all the U.S. forces in Iraq, told the AP on Tuesday that,

    U.N. peacekeeping forces may need to replace departing U.S. troops in the nation’s oil-rich north if a simmering feud between Arabs and minority Kurds continues through 2011.

That is not a direct quotation from Odierno, but the version reported by AP’s Lara Jakes. She also commented,

    A U.N. force might offer both the Iraqi leadership and President Barack Obama a politically palatable alternative to an ongoing U.S. presence to prevent ethnic tensions from descending into war. Although occasional bombings by Sunni extremists on Shiite targets grab the headlines, many observers believe the Kurdish-Arab dispute is the most powerful fault line in Iraq today.

To which, all I can say is two things: (1) Yes! Make this a role and challenge for an invigorated UN– a body in which all the nations of the world, including Iraq’s neighbors, are represented; but (2) How tragic that it has taken Washington and the U.S. military so many long years to get this far towards the idea that it might indeed not be the U.S. alone and its chosen lackeys inside Iraq who determine the future of that severely war- and occupation-battered country.
Of course, it would have been far, far better if the U.S. had never invaded Iraq at all. But Bush and Cheney were determined to do so, and did. Then, relatively soon after the invasion/occupation I started arguing– e.g. here in Kansas in May 2004 (scroll down to the comment from my dear, subsequently deceased, friend Misty Gerner), and doubtless also earlier– that the best way to deal with the tough challenges the U.S. faced in running the occupation would be to hand the whole basket of big questions involved over to the U.N.
But of course they didn’t take my advice. 3,000-plus U.S. service-members have been killed in Iraq since then, and many scores of thousands wounded. And more than 100,000 Iraqis probably lost their lives in the waves of sectarian violence that erupted in 2006 and 2007– stoked in good part by Washington’s blatant policy of emphasizing sectarian and ethnic differences in a sustained attempt to suppress adherence to any continuing form of (pan-)Iraqi nationalist feeling.
… And all for what? Because the powers that be in Washington did not want to admit that they needed to share decision-making power in Iraq with the U.N.
So now here’s Ray Odierno in July 2010 saying, Oh yes, and maybe now we need the U.N. in Iraq.
Staggeringly tragic. Much, much more to write about here.
But I have a huge bundle of things I need to do for my business in the days ahead. Stay tuned…

2m2ba #4: Killings and cover-ups

Jerome Starkey of the London Times published a great piece of reporting yesterday about an incident in Afghanistan’s Paktia province on February 12 when U.S. Special forces gunned down two pregnant women, a teenage girl, a police officer and his brother in their home– and then “dug bullets out of their victims’ bodies in the bloody aftermath of a botched night raid, then washed the wounds with alcohol before lying to their superiors about what happened… ”
Glenn Greenwald has an excellent follow-up today in which he gives extensive details of how successful the cover-up was. Well, it was especially successful in that the military concocted a cover-up story–as shown in this NATO press release from the time– and then most of the US MSM just swallowed that whole story completely and regurgitated it without trying to do any independent reporting.
The NATO cover-up story was particularly odious because it blamed the U.S.’s opponents for the killings and quoted NATO/ISAF’s Canadian spokesman as saying,

    “ISAF continually works with our Afghan partners to fight criminals and terrorists who do not care about the life of civilians.”

He should resign.
Greenwald noted that the only independent reporting that came out at the time was performed by AP and by Pajhwok Afghan News, an independent news agency created in Afghanistan to enable war reporting by Afghans.
Late on Sunday night, the U.S. military command in Kabul finally admitted that its forces had, in fact, killed the women during the nighttime raid.
This news comes out at the same time that Wikileaks, yesterday, published some extremely disturbing footage, shot from a U.S. attack helicopter in Baghdad in July 2007, that shows the chopper’s gunners gunning down a group of around 7-8 people who appear to be relaxedly standing and walking in a street. The group included two TV cameramen for Reuters. It seems the troops on the chopper thought the cameras were weapons– but no-one shown o the video looks as though they’re in any kind of combat stance.
Reuters has been trying since 2007 to get the military to release the video. Wikileaks does not say how it got it.
On the video, the U.S. troops later fire at a van that comes to pick up a wounded survivor from the assault. Then, as U.S. ground troops arrive, one of their voices on the intercom is laughing about having driven over a body.
All these revelations that keep coming out about the strong propensity of U.S. (and Israeli) troops to engage in excessive violence, and the propensity of their respective high commands to cover up that fact, underline a couple of important lessons:

    1. Armed conflict is always violent, and extremely damaging to anyone who is in the war zone. No matter how often they tell us about “pinpoint accuracy”, “smart weapons”, and so on, the vast majority of the violence involved in armed conflict is brutal and anything but “pinpoint”.
    2. Armed conflict always also brutalizes those sent out to engage in it. And it brutalizes people more and more over time, as acts that earlier are seen as taboo or “exceptional” progressively become more and more routine. Time was, in Israel, the military would rigorously investigate the cause of every death-in-conflict of a Palestinian. Then it stopped doing that. Then it started acting as if extrajudicial executions could be considered as “just routine”…

Using violence to try to resolve differences is outrageous, and barbaric. All of us who live in countries that claim to respect human life and human liberties should renounce it. Guess what, we do now have international institutions that, if further strengthened, could help us resolve all the world’s big conflicts without recourse to war.

2m2ba #3: Iraq’s governance conundrum

Reidar Visser has a superb post today that tries to skewer an idea apparently now making the rounds re Iraq’s coalition-formation challenge: Namely, why not have a wall-to-wall coalition of all the parties rule the country?
He describes such a governance formula as, “particularly unattractive and potentially destructive for Iraq as a state”, and says it,

    would mean a sorry return to Iraq of 2003 and the “governing council” that was put in place by Paul Bremer back then. Its hallmarks will be indecision, incompetence and corruption – the inevitable characteristics of a government that has no single vision or unity of purpose, and basically has been thrown together with the aim of letting as many people as possible prey on the resources of the state in the hope that this will keep them from fighting with each other instead.

There’s a good discussion under the main post. At the end of it, Visser tells us that,

    The result is supposed to come out at a press conference tomorrow (Wed) in Najaf. That’s according to Salah al-Ubaydi. We’ll see if they are better than IHEC in sticking to their self-imposed timelines!

Allawi’s bloc comes first in Iraqi election

Reidar Visser has his usual, extremely helpful commentary on the news from Baghdad, here. Bottom line, there: To Maliki’s surprise, his State of Law Alliance got only 89 seats to the 91 won by Allawi’s Iraqiyya.
Given that the parliament now has 325 seats, these two leaders will have to jockey hard to reach the simple majority (or preferably, something significantly better than a simple majority) that is required to govern… Which is why the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), with 70 seats, the Kurdistan Alliance (= KDP + PUK) with 43, and even perhaps some of the non-KA Kurds, the ‘minorities’, and Tawaffuq will have a chance at playing kingmaker.
As we see in Israel, it is not always the largest party that is able to make a coalition. As we see in Israel, too, (and saw in Iraq in 2006) there is always a chance of blocs that went into the election unified breaking up during the post-election coalition-forming period. (And the Iraqi supreme court has just expressly ruled that this is permissible.)
Visser points to the importance of the first elections that will occur: those for House Speaker and President. He downplays the importance of the presidency; and it’s true it will be less than it has been. But during the coalition-forming process the Head of State can play a key role through the decision of which bloc-leader to ask first to try to assemble a governing coalition. (Hey, that might even happen in the U.K. this time, if neither major party wins a clear victory: Then at last, 58 years into her monarchy, Queen Elizabeth will have a curcial role to play!)
Viseer gives this schedule of what should happen next in Iraq:

    if certification [of the election and its results] takes place around 1 April, a meeting of the new parliament must be held within 15 April, a new president must be elected within 15 May, a PM nominee must be identified by 1 June, and a new cabinet must be presented for approval by parliament before 1 July. The psychological deadline is likely to be the start of Ramadan around 10 August and the scheduled completion of withdrawal of US combat troops by 31 August.

H’mmm. It might well take longer than that. But I know that the folks in the Pentagon are extremely eager that nothing be allowed to delay the scheduled drawdown of the U.S. troop presence. So I see a fairly large possibility of Washington working intently behind the scenes to try to get big neighbors Iran and Saudi Arabia to cooperate in finding a way for the government-formation to go smoothly in Baghdad. I expect Tehran will cooperate in this venture– up to a point. Not so sure about the Saudis, but there probably are conditions under which a deal can be worked out. Maybe other big powers– in the region and the world– will also cooperate in trying to make this work. But throughout this whole election process, you’ve had this palpable sense of U.S. power in the region shrinking. Interesting. I guess the Kurds will have to look elsewhere, very fast, for some new form of patronage .
And talking of the Kurds, look at those results from Nineveh and Kirkuk. In Nineveh, the KA only got 8 out of the 34 seats (with maybe 3 allies from the ‘minorities’ there? maybe fewer than three?) In Kirkuk, the KA split it 6-6 with Iraqiyya. It certainly doesn’t looks as though the KRG will be getting bigger any time soon.

Bush’s invasion of Iraq, seven years on

    My thanks to AP for having compiled and published these (most likely conservative) figures today:

March 31, 2003: 90,000.
October 2007: 170,000 at peak of troop buildup.
March 1, 2010: Just over 96,000.
Number of countries that participated in “Coalition for the Immediate Disarmament of Iraq” at the start of the war: 31, including the United States.
As of August 2009, all non-U.S. coalition members had withdrawn from Iraq.
Number of U.S. private contractors in Iraq as of August, 2008: 190,000.
Confirmed U.S. military deaths as of March 19, 2010: at least 4,385.

Continue reading “Bush’s invasion of Iraq, seven years on”

Deborah Amos’s ‘Eclipse of the Sunnis’

Yesterday I went to a book talk that National Public Radio’s Deborah Amos gave about her new book Eclipse of the Sunnis; Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East. She’s an engaging person and a smart reporter who’s been working in the Middle East for many years now.
The talk was ways too short for my taste! In the course of of it, she explained that when she started the book, she had intended for it to be about Iraqi exiles, in general; but then it transmuted itself into a book that’s more about “the eclipse of the Sunnis.” She also noted that the title arouses very different reactions from western and Arabic audiences, with the latter being quite shocked by it while most westerners see nothing shocking in it at all.
Well, I’ve read a couple of chapters now, and I don’t really think the title is perfect. Not least because there is– as she had told us at the talk– one whole chapter there about the Christian Iraqis who make up roughly 15% of the exiles, though only 3 % of the national population.
The book seems to have been reported mainly from Syria and Jordan.
In her talk yesterday, Amos stressed that the exile from Iraq has been particularly harsh for many or most Iraqi exiles because back home they had mostly been people with good educations, and a fair or high degree of financial and professional standing. So the loss of that sense of security– and the fact that, for many of these families, they now find the children are getting far worse educations than their parents, or no education at all, and that so little help has been given them– has in any cases made the come-down particularly hard to bear.
These refugees do not, she said, fit most people’s stereotypical idea of what a ‘refugee’ looks like. And she added that this was really the first time this had ever happened to such a huge swathe of the middle- and upper-middle class of a country.
Actually, I’m not so sure about that latter point… It was also, after all, what happened to just about the whole of the middle- and upper-middle-class of Palestine during the nakba of 1947-49.
There’s another parallel in these two situations, too– though she gives this fact no acknowledgment. In the Introduction she writes,

    Iraqis are tied to their homeland through technology… There is no model for this middle-class exodus in the Arab world. In chat rooms and on cellphones, web cameras, and blogs, a larger Iraq exists. The community of exiles is in daily contact waiting for word from home that it is time to come back. The rest of the region is waiting, too.

Well, I’m not sure how many Palestinian homes Amos has been into recently. But the Palestinian diaspora is significantly more far-flung (and more populous) than the Iraqi diaspora… Moreover, at this point, every single Palestinian family, except for a few families that all have citizenship in Israel, has close family members distributed among five or six different countries or jurisdictions. And they all try to keep in good touch with each other, and with relatives back “home”, using Skype and blogs and every other electronic means at their disposal. Indeed, the distribution of this new(-ish) technology among Palestinian refugees has done more than just keep the sense of national belonging intact; I think it has also been working to create an entirely new kind of sense of national belonging. Maybe, even of a “virtual Palestine”, that is in no way removed from the concerns of the terrestrial one.
Just like the Iraqi refugees.
But I think that’s a quibble. As far as I can see, Amos has written a book that sensitively portrays the deep sadness of the exiles and the very many challenges they face. She also seems honest about the degree of responsibility our country must bear for their fate.
On p. xv she writes:

    This new exodus was not the narrative that the Bush administration wanted to project, or acknowledge, and remained invisible for much of the world. The U.S. security plan known as the surge was an American success story, but it was a sideshow for those forced out of hoes and neighborhoods in a power struggle that used displacement and exile as a weapon. More Iraqis left the country in 2007 than in 2006, the year that the surge got underway. The international Organization for Migration… was tracking widespread displacements in 2007; the movement inside the country had increased by a factor of 20. Thirty thousand additional U.S. troops, spread out across Baghdad, brought no return of the exiles… on the ground the Sunni-Shiite divide was still steeped in blood.

In her talk yesterday, which was hosted by the Women’s Foreign Policy Group here in DC, Amos said that her understanding is that most Iraqi exiles are watching the results of the recent elections carefully, and that if Allawi does well they will have more reason to consider returning home than if anyone else wins. His Iraqiyya bloc is the only one with any significant Sunni members in it.
She noted that candidates who’d earlier risen to prominence with the (U.S.-funded) Sunni “Awakening” groups were doing really badly.
(Also doing badly, according to Visser, has been Ali Faisal al-Lami, the executive director of the Debaathification commission. That should make many of the exiles happy!)
Anyway, though I disagree a little with some of the judgments Amos makes in her book, all-in-all I think it’s a really excellent and important volume. Everyone here in the U.S. who might want (and perhaps understandably so) to forget as much as they can about the Bush years and all the really terrible decisions Pres. Bush made– including the decision to invade Iraq– needs to remember that those decisions had far greater, and graver, consequences on the people of Iraq than they have had on our people. Deborah Amos does a great job of taking us into the lives, concerns, and essential humanity of some of the millions of Iraqis displaced from their homes as a result of our country’s invasion.

Continue reading “Deborah Amos’s ‘Eclipse of the Sunnis’”

Iraq count delayed– and indeterminate?

It is now more than eleven days since the polls closed in Iraq’s March 7 election, and we still have no final answer. The latest information on the election commission’s website tells us that 89% of the total vote has now been counted. How long will that last 11% take?
The long-drawn-out process by which the votes have been tallied, checked, and provisional vote-counts released has led to swings in expectations– as of now, it seems that Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiyya bloc is ahead by a hair– and a growing drumbeat of concern about the integrity of the counting process. Today, some supporters of PM Nouri al-Maliki were reported by Reuters as complaining about vote fraud. Over at the BBC, meanwhile, Allawi was judiciously saying only that “there are irregularities that must be clarified”, though Stephen Sackur was– in a highly irresponsible way– trying to push him into making outright allegations of vote fraud.

Continue reading “Iraq count delayed– and indeterminate?”