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The True Story of the Iraqi Civil War

The fundamental fallacy at the heart of our current (and dangerously dwindling) conversation about Iraq is that we are policing a civil war. This is the premise of Democratic calls for withdrawal as much as Republican demands for further entrenchment. The term “civil war” distorts the reality of ongoing resistance to American occupation. It proclaims that the problem is not us—not our consistent failure or, God forbid, our desire to stay in Iraq—but that untamable beast of a country, which continually invents new ways to prevent us from leaving. But, as Iraq’s own past shows, this is a treacherous semantic path to nowhere.

With the vocabulary of the five-year-old war shifting almost as often as our reason for having launched it, promoting the impression that things have “progressed,” it is easy enough to mistake today’s “ethnosectarian” civil war for a new development, different from what we called the “insurgency” before the elections that brought al-Maliki to power. But the American presence remains central in the suffering and death of Iraqi civilians. For instance, last week’s news of Iranian criticism of the “indiscriminate bombardment of Iraqi residential areas by the U.S. occupying forces” was headlined in the New York Times as a complaint about “Strikes on Shiites”—despite the fact that Sunnis from Anbar joined the fight in Sadr City. The real story here is that Iraqis are in conflict with the American-backed Iraqi state. The primary dynamic in Iraq is not the sectarian one but garden variety resistance to occupation—albeit prosecuted by groups drawing on various linguistic, religious, and, indeed, “ethnosectarian” allegiances. After all, what else can they do?  In countries of great diversity, like Iraq no less than the United States, the state more or less constitutes national public space. If the state fails, individuals must cobble together makeshift “publics” from fragments—even reinvented fragments—of their identity. Iraq is suffering from a failure of the state not the nation.

This is not the first time that Iraqi resistance has been self-servingly misunderstood by an occupying force. After World War I, when the British “liberated” the region from Turkish rule, they similarly dismissed insurrection as proof of the failure of Iraqi national solidarity, its susceptibility to outside manipulation and ethno-religious sentiment. Such a reading, then as now, denies the insurgency any political content, reconfiguring it as chaos and thus the very justification of the occupation that it protests. (Iran’s blandishments are certainly not conducive to peace, but nor would their cessation end the basic problem of Iraqi mistrust of a government that fires on Iraqis.) British officials of the 1920s failed, as we have, to grasp the often tightly intertwined social, religious, and political origins and expressions of anti-colonial rebellion. And they, too, used euphemism and spurious declarations of success to avert scrutiny of the militaristic and corruptly developmentalist security state they fathered in Iraq.

Central to that state was the world’s first aerial counterinsurgency regime (in which bombardment was the equivalent of a police truncheon, critics noted); yet, for all their ingenuity, the British proved no more able to crush Iraqi rebellion (or deliver on the promise of “development”) than we have—not because they didn’t apply enough force, but because the state’s violence and fundamentally colonial nature begat continual resistance. In 1921, power was ceremoniously passed to an Iraqi government under the Hashemite prince Faisal. But even this gesture—and it was, in truth, merely a gesture—failed to win over Iraqi opinion, despite Faisal’s vain efforts to twist out of the collaborationist posture in which his British masters held him. The monarchy’s British backing severely compromised its legitimacy and authority even after formal independence in 1932—rightly, since the British themselves intended the change to be “more apparent than real.”

The 1958 revolution finally brought down the monarchy, and the Royal Air Force scurried home. But Iraqis were condemned ever to wonder about the true extent of their independence; a mere two years later, the CIA made its first attempt to assassinate the new republic’spresident (in 1963, they and the British assisted the Baathist coup that would bring Saddam Hussein to power). Besides grasping the dynamic of resistance to covert empire on display in Iraq’s earlier history, we must heed how such all-too-recent memories inevitably shape reception to our latest effort to remake Iraq; Iraqis, no more than any other formerly colonized people, can simply no longer swallow that much presumption or unfairness—or that much paternalism (unless perhaps under UN or regional auspices).

The wrong-headed logic behind the “surge” and Senator McCain’s Iraq plan is that political and economic development will follow “security” (i.e. the absence of resistance or desperation), but the regime’s unpopularity and illegitimacy are the cause of the violence. Any solution must first foster faith in the regime, strip it of its colonial origins, remove the provocation. The past shows that a merely more discreet foreign presence will only further compromise local authority. The Republican position protests rather too much about wanting to leave (while proposing permanent bases, no less), but then it is perhaps too much to expect an open confession of imperial ambition in an allegedly post-imperial era. Indeed, as long as we claim major national interests in the region, our promise to develop truly independent Iraqi security forces will prove as disingenuous as the analogous British promise of 1932.

The lesson from the past is that the local spawn of covert empire is doomed: today’s blinkered conversation about why the Iraqi government is failing to step up so that we can stand down is founded on the fallacy that an only nominally independent government can ever have any legitimacy. As long as Iraqis can fairly claim that we plan to leave only when our own interests have been secured (if ever), they will always have reason to doubt the integrity of their government, to suspect it does America’s bidding rather than theirs, to fear they are, yet again, subjects of indirect imperial rule.

To restore their faith, we will have to leave when it is manifestly not in our apparent interest to do so—in short, now. The surge was supposed to provide enough relief to permit Iraq’s government to resolve the issues at the heart of their “civil war.” Leaving aside the patent absurdity of there being some sort of relatively acceptable level of violence (2-3 bombs per day?), April was one of the deadliest months for Americans and Iraqis since September, and paralysis remains the Iraqi government’s modus operandi. The surge could only have failed: collaborationist regimes are, by their very nature, prone to paralysis and/or oppression. Iraq needs to belong fully and without reservation to the Iraqis; my own hunch is that if we depart, we will be pleasantly surprised by their possession of the at once heroic and ordinary  human capacity to avert the chaos that we claim to fear—and that we have in any case delivered to them.