Dexter Filkins has long been a skeptic and critic of the Iraq war, from his tenure at the New York Times to his current assignment at the New Yorker. Still, that hasn’t kept Filkins from reporting honestly on developments in the theater; in 2008, while at the NYT, he wrote extensively about the success of the surge just a few months before the presidential election. A month later, Filkins wrote again about the “literally unrecognizable” and peaceful Iraq produced by the surge. Six years later, Filkins was among the skeptics reminding people that the Iraqis’ insistence on negotiating the immunity clause for American troops was more of a welcome excuse for Obama to choose total withdrawal — and claim credit for it until this year — rather than the deal-breaker Obama now declares that it was.
Yesterday, Filkins told Hugh Hewitt that while one can argue whether the 2003 invasion was ill-advised, the total withdrawal in 2011 was the worst strategic mistake made by the US:
HH: And on that point, Dexter Filkins, you’re a very wide open critic of the Bush war, the never ending war, your first book. But buried in this article, not buried but in the middle of it, is a conversation with Mohammed Ghafar, a 28 year old soldier who said the army never functioned as well as he had hoped, and it grew much worse after 2011. He had respected the professionalism of the Americans, the training they offered, but, “Everything changed after the Americans left. The commanders steal everything, they sell it in the local market. It is true the absentee rate soared, the rations went bad.” In other words, America leaving in 2011 may have been the worst strategic decision of many bad strategic decisions over the last ten years.
DF: It’s hard to conclude otherwise, you know, because that little, that quote from that deserter that I talked to in Kirkuk, I mean, you can almost say the same thing for all of Iraq. We left, the United States left in 2011. We went to zero, and we left. I mean, we packed up and left. So when you drive around Baghdad now, there is not a trace that the United States was ever there, and I mean apart from the American weapons, but in terms of like American presence and projects and guidance, gone. And I think that we spent almost a decade there. We paid with a lot of lives and a lot of blood, and building, essentially, rebuilding the Iraqi state that we destroyed. And I don’t think it was ready. I mean, it just wasn’t ready to function on its own. And it couldn’t function without us. And actually, Ambassador Crocker, who was on your show, had a really good description of it. He said you know, we build ourselves into the hard drive of the place, and so we, the United States, were the honest broker. We were the only people that could sort of bring all the Iraqi factions together, and then we left. You know, and so the thing doesn’t work without us. And you can see that in Iraq at a micro level, like when I talked to that deserter, who said as soon as the Americans left, the commanders started stealing all the money and everybody left, and everything fell apart. Or you can see it at the macro level. I mean, that’s what’s happened to the Iraqi state.
It’s not the first time Filkins has reminded us about this. Last April, Filkins laid out the cost on the ground for leaving a power vacuum in Iraq:
“We used to restrain Maliki all the time,” Lieutenant General Michael Barbero, the deputy commander in Iraq until January, 2011, told me. “If Maliki was getting ready to send tanks to confront the Kurds, we would tell him and his officials, ‘We will physically block you from moving if you try to do that.’ ” Barbero was angry at the White House for not pushing harder for an agreement. “You just had this policy vacuum and this apathy,” he said. “Now we have no leverage in Iraq. Without any troops there, we’re just another group of guys.” There is no longer anyone who can serve as a referee, he said, adding, “Everything that has happened there was not just predictable—we predicted it.”
Indeed, months before the election, American diplomats in Iraq sent a rare dissenting cable to Washington, complaining that the U.S., with its combination of support and indifference, was encouraging Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies. “We thought we were creating a dictator,” one person who signed the memo told me.
Less than twenty-four hours after the last convoy of American fighters left, Maliki’s government ordered the arrest of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni Arab. Prosecutors accused Hashemi of having run a death squad that assassinated police officers and government officials. The practice was not uncommon at the time. “During the civil war, many political leaders in Iraq had death squads,” a former Western diplomat said. “Maliki started using the security forces to go after his rivals.” In moving against Hashemi, Maliki was signalling that he intended to depose his sectarian rivals.
Hashemi flew to the Kurdish region, in northern Iraq, where officials offered to protect him. Seven of his bodyguards were arrested, the first of sixty. Only a few days earlier, in a press conference at the White House to mark the end of the American war, President Obama had praised Maliki as “the elected leader of a sovereign, self-reliant, and democratic Iraq.” When Hashemi fled, American officials did not publicly protest. Three months later, he was convicted in absentia and sentenced to death; he remains in exile.
With the expulsion of Hashemi, Maliki began an aggressive campaign to crack down on dissent—especially Sunni dissent—and to centralize authority in his office. In the following months, he forced out a number of senior officials, notably Sinan al-Shabibi, the governor of the Central Bank, who had tried to stop him from diverting Iraq’s foreign reserves into the government’s operating budget. After the inconclusive 2010 election, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission was arrested. When the Integrity Commission uncovered a network in Maliki’s cabinet that was issuing government contracts to fake companies, he blocked the prosecutions; soon afterward, the commission’s director was replaced with a Maliki ally. In addition, Maliki created the Office of the Commander-in-Chief, which gave him personal control over the country’s million-man Army and police force, often requiring local commanders to report directly to him.
As Maliki gathered power, he set out to banish every trace of Sunni influence from the bureaucracy. One of the places he began was the Iraqi National Intelligence Service. The director was an imposing former general named Mohammed Shawani, a Sunni whose three sons had been tortured to death by Saddam’s men. In August, 2009, Shawani told me, he went to Maliki with an intelligence report that detailed insurgents’ plans for attacks on several government offices. The Prime Minister brushed off his warnings, he said. (Maliki denied this, saying, “It is impossible to believe Shawani.”) Two days later, a wave of car bombs struck the Finance Ministry, the Foreign Ministry, and other government targets, killing a hundred Iraqis and wounding more than five hundred. Shawani fled to the United States. “I knew I had to leave,” he told me. “I thought I was next.” In the following several months, according to Shawani and former American officials, Maliki purged the service of nearly all its Sunni agents and analysts, some five hundred in total. “It’s essentially a Shiite organization now,” Shawani said.
Now the US wants to woo the Sunnis back into a coalition with Baghdad, but without putting American troops back into position as a guarantor of access. Filkins wonders what the American strategy is for victory against ISIS in Iraq. If it’s just air power, Filkins says, it won’t work:
DF: Well, yeah. I mean, I think the trick there, or the trouble is we’re not there. You know, we’re not on the ground. And so we’ve kind of seen this movie before. And you just alluded to it. And you know, during the Iraq war, the American war in Iraq, al Qaeda became the strongest insurgent group. And al Qaeda’s just a precursor to ISIS. And in fact, it’s the very same people. It’s basically the guys we didn’t kill. And you know, the Iraqis didn’t like them, and they rebelled against them, and they rebelled against the harsh kind of medieval religion that they’re imposing on everybody. They were offended by their brutality. And what did they do? They went to the Americans, and they said look, we’ll tell you where they live, let’s make a deal. And that was one of the great turning points of the war. And I think that there’s a pretty good chance that’s going to happen again, because I just don’t think the Iraqis are going to buy it. But the problem is that the United States isn’t there anymore, and so you don’t have that kind of firepower to take care of these guys. And what have you got? I mean, you’ve got the Iraqi Army, which you know, we’ve seen what they’re like. I mean, they’re a joke. And so I think, and if you couple that with the hatred that the Sunni Arabs have for the Maliki government, it’s tough. So the plan, I think, the White House plan is just to do it from the sky. And they can kill a lot of people from the air. But in the end, I mean, what’s the end stage?
And we may be about to make the same mistake twice:
HH; Let me ask you, Dexter, you’ve spent a lot of time in Afghanistan as well. I had dinner last night with a Marine Corps major just back from Leatherneck, just finished his eight months there. He’s going home, he’s a reservist, and I don’t want to quote him. It’s just, I think we’re doing this again.
HH: We’re going to see a replay of the collapse in Afghanistan of what we’ve seen in Iraq. Do you agree with that?
DF: You know, I have spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. And I’m worried that you have essentially the same problem, which is a very fragile state in Afghanistan that basically we’ve built, and it doesn’t work that well, and it doesn’t work without us. And what that means, it doesn’t work without us, yes. You know, it’s just, and if we take the training wheels off, which is to say we leave, and we leave abruptly, I think we’re supposed to go to zero within a couple of years, yeah. I mean, I think there’s a great danger that you’re going to see something on the order of what’s happening now in Iraq.
Be sure to listen to it all.