I have been asked a few times this week what I make of the situation in Iraq. As an analyst who worked in the southern tip of the Sunni triangle at the north end of Baghdad, and somebody who dealt extensively with the sectarian issues, working to uncover what is now known as the Islamic State of Iraq, I have to explain what happened.
But also my heart is heavy and I have been walking in grief over this for nearly a decade. Here's the thoughts which I feel compelled to share, and I hope that they can clarify for you what I believe has happened.
A short explanation of Iraq, 2004-2014
The Americans were unable to defeat in any significant measure the Sunni insurgency in 2005 and 2006 when I was there. Because the Bush administration was desperate for a political fix, they hired Petraeus to implement a special plan in 2007, as part of the "surge." At this point, 70% of the American public was of the opinion that going to Iraq was a mistake, and tensions with other countries in the region were high. Troop morale was low, and StopLoss (the backdoor draft) was the only way that the military was able to keep at acceptable numbers. The situation was desperate. In Iraq, we were losing a dozen soldiers a day to the insurgency -- quantitatively worse than anything that happened in fighting in Afghanistan in the last several years. Also, the Iraqi government was terribly corrupt, and the security forces were a shambles.
The success of Petraeus' "surge" was not sending in more troops to Iraq. The success of the surge was in literally paying off the Sunni insurgents. We gave them millions of dollars and helped them organize the Sunni militia groups, empowering them because we could not overpower them.
As a disabled veteran I receive about $850 per month. A Sunni militiaman in 2007 could receive about $600 per month, just to have name placed on the rolls by the local Shayk, payable by the US government and your tax dollars. This was the Bush administration's secret weapon to pacify the peace movement that was burning his butt politically. The Sunni insurgents used this time to train, to re-equip, to organize and to plan. The US military watched that happened, encouraged it. Wait till we're gone then, whatever.
The wrong narratives
Of course, the Peace movement started losing momentum as soon as Obama was elected, and the relative stability of US body counts was no longer a news item, so we started bickering about gays and health insurance. Now, veterans are feeling betrayed, "we fought to make that city safe! We're just gonna leave em' and let em' die!"
And the narrative is at a turning point. The Sunni militiamen are doing it right this time, taking no prisoners, and there is no stomach for any intervention. The Iranian government is so scared, they're ready to ask the US for help! The Kurds, the Turks, the Syrians, the Israelis are all freaking out. What are we to make of this?
Good pacifists will say that you reap what you sew, violence begets violence. That's still true, but it doesn't speak to the feelings of betrayal and loss that Iraq veterans are experiencing as the country implodes into chaos. It misses the nuance of the situation, and disengages the political truth. Leftists, centrists and rightists will engage in a blame-game: whose fault, Democrats or Republicans? Who's less effective, the "bomb em to dust" militarists or the "human security" cultural anthropologists who work with them? Did we "lose" the war? Was it "because of" the pacifists? Please, friends, do not let the narrative turn into the simplified Vietnam apologetic: "if only those damn hippies would have supported the troops..."
But the reality is, that this tragic middle east situation has been in the works for years. I myself have been mourning it for eight years now since I was made aware of it.
The hard truth
The hard truth of the situation is not that now we have left the savage hordes are going to revert to murdering each other. The hard truth is -- and this is something that needs to be minded most especially by comfortable center-left Americans as we go about our summer vacations -- that the US put this regional, genocidal conflict into motion in 2003 and 2004 while Paul Bremer was dictator of Iraq.
Because the US military was blinded by the Bush administration's ideology, the occupation paradigm was unable to handle the inevitable insurgency. And rather than stay and admit that we caused this, the occupation under Petraeus decided to stave it off for a few years till we could leave, in the process making it much, much worse. That is the narrative that won't be spoken in the media, and that is what you need to know to connect with the soldiers who left blood and tears in the Sunni Levant.
An Iraq Vet for Peace Responds
My friends, the men and women who left a decade of the best part of their lives in Iraq are hurting as Mosul, Tall Afar, Fallujah, Ramadi are burning. Reach out to them. Help them make sense of this. They are sensitive human beings, and they need listening, as I do.
There will someday be a chance to reconcile all the evil of the past. The events of this summer in Iraq will shatter the entire paradigm of smug satisfaction of militarists everywhere. They will be looking for new paradigms, and may even be open to the difficult truth of peace. Now is the time to begin reaching out to veterans, if you haven't already. Pacifist institutions need to jump on the opportunity now.
I am not the only Iraq veteran interested in peace, though I may have been on the early side of it. There are a million former analysts and interrogators and tankers and military policemen who need that truth now.
Thank you for your solidarity and support until the peace that surpasses understanding reigns.
Evan K.M. Knappenberger
Veterans for Peace Chapter 171, (president)
Charlottesville Center for Peace & Justice, (board member)
Eastern Mennonite University, (B.A. 2015)