Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Need To Engage 'Terrorists'

Talking To Terrorists

By Mark Perry
Reviewed by Allen Quicke
February 13, 2010
Courtesy Of
Asia Times Online

"They are Nazis!" - Paul Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense, referring to Iraq's Sunni tribes.

"Every Sunni is a Ba'athist, every Ba'athist is a Saddamist, and every Saddamist is a Nazi." - L Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, 2003-4

The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names, says a Chinese proverb that doubtless derives from Confucius: "If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success."

This book is in large part the stories of a handful of people who managed to break the shackles of official terminology and learn the right names of things. Some of them were able to use the knowledge to carry their affairs "on to success"; some, like Mark Perry, the author of this book, are trying to pass on to others the right names. In the case of Perry, this is clearly no dry academic exercise but an urgent mission, for the cost of calling things by the wrong names has been measured in flesh and blood since September 11, 2001, and the body count is rising. Perry performs his task with understated, but obvious, passion.

The second half of this book charts Perry's own voyage of discovery as he investigates "political Islam", as he calls it, and talks with the "terrorists", as Washington calls them. Much of this material was originally published by Asia Times Online in a 2006 series, How to lose the 'war on terror'. There is much to be learnt from Perry's discussions with leaders of groups like Hezbollah and Hamas - much that one can only hope Western leaders learn very soon, because if they don't, they will continue to play directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden and the "war on terror" is lost.

The first half of the book demonstrates how such wisdom, put to practical use in Iraq, turned the tide of war. It is a brutal yet wonderful irony that it was the soldiers in the field, boots on the ground, who cottoned on first while the "grunts" in Washington - the soldiers' political masters, so-called statesmen and women, policymakers and strategists - were sending them to die while they chanted their meaningless mantra, "We don't talk to terrorists," and drooled over their dreams of remaking the Middle East.

Early in his quest, in 2005, Perry meets someone he has been told has "close ties to the Sunni-led Iraqi insurgency". Perry asks his interlocutor about rumors that senior US military officers had quietly met with Iraqi insurgents, led by "a sheikh", in Jordan the previous year. The question is avoided and the discussion moves on to other topics, until it finally dawns on Perry that he is talking to a "terrorist":
"You're the sheikh," I said.
"That's right." "You're with the Iraqi insurgency," I said. "You're the political wing of the Iraqi insurgency." "Yes, that's so."
I hesitated for only a moment. "I don't think I can be in this room," I said.
This was followed by silence, as a smile spread across his face.
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because you're killing Americans," I said.
"Yes, that's right," he said, "but don't worry. I've been meeting with American military officers in this room for the last eighteen months ..."
Sheikh al-Gaood is a central figure in this part of the book, which is a blow-by-blow account of how Iraq's el-Anbar province, in 2005 a vast killing field for American soldiers and Iraqis alike, was redeemed. The unlikely heroes of the story are the "terrorists" - or Nazis, as Wolfowitz would have it - and the US Marine officers who were pitted against them until they learned to call things by their right names.

In al-Anbar, these marine officers began to understand that the people they were fighting - the Sunni resistance - were neither terrorists, Nazis nor even Saddamists. They were simply people who had been thrown out of their jobs, civilian and military, as the US imposed its policy - a tragic blunder - of "de-Ba'athification", and installed Shi'ite lackeys in Baghdad to rule them. In fact, the "enemy" was only the enemy because Washington had decreed it so - and this on the flimsiest of rationales.

Perry describes how Iraq became conflated with Germany and the Allied policy of de-Nazification at the end of World War II:
Wolfowitz was also taking cues from Ahmed Chalabi's ideas about de-Ba'athification. Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress, had provided Douglas Feith, the undersecretary of defense forpolicy, with a paper on German de-Nazification at the end of World War II. The paper emphasized Chalabi's view that the successful American occupation of Germany had been due to the wholesale removal of Nazi officials in the German government, a highly suspect and controversial claim. "No one checked to see if it was true," an army colonel who reviewed the study said. "Feith and his crew just took it on faith."
Chalabi had insisted that "Iraq needs a comprehensive program of de-Ba'athification even more extensive than the de-Nazification effort in Germany," adding, bewilderingly, "You cannot cut off the viper's head and leave the body festering." (You can't?)

As for Wolfowitz, whose "They are Nazis!" was jotted in the margin of a memo from his boss at the Pentagon, former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, exploring the possibility of engaging with the Sunni resistance:
[O]ne of Rumsfeld's senior assistants later characterized it [thus]: "Wolfowitz was almost unbalanced about this. He thought that Sunni resistance wasn't even a resistance. You couldn't deal with them. He always described them as 'Nazis'. The word was almost a personal tic. When anyone talked about this he would get so angry he would start shaking. It was a little weird."
While Wolfowitz was doing his shaking in the Pentagon and American soldiers were dying in Iraq, the marines in al-Anbar, with officers from 3rd Civil Affairs Group, 1 Marine Expeditionary Force, in the vanguard, were quietly making contact with members of the resistance. They learned from one resistance leader:
"We are not your enemy ... al-Qaeda is your enemy. If you let us, we will get rid of them. But you can't fight us at the same time. We're different. We will stop shooting and take care of the real terrorists. We're not terrorists, we're the insurgents. There's a difference."
As one American involved in this early engagement put it:
"We did not teach the Iraqis; they taught us. We abandoned our prejudices; we questioned what we were told; we rejected the easy language of terrorism. We listened. We learned."
Gradually and with many setbacks, the two sides learnt to work together for the good of al-Anbar. One such setback came when Washington ordered an assault on Fallujah to punish insurgents for the deaths of four employees of Blackwater, the private contractor. When Lieutenant General James Conway, the marine commander in al-Anbar, received the order, he was first dumbfounded and then enraged: "What the hell are they thinking? We shouldn't be doing this. It'll only make things worse, a lot worse," he yelled as he kicked his hat around the room.

Other setbacks were provided by the "dead-enders" in Washington who insisted that the insurgency could and would be defeated by the force of arms. On one occasion, Colonel John Coleman, Conway's chief of staff, arrived in Amman, Jordan, for a conference with resistance leaders, only to be turned back at the airport. The US State Department had got wind of the conference and had had Coleman declared persona non grata in Jordan.

Nevertheless, al-Anbar was eventually stabilized. Many have attempted to take the credit, from then secretary of stateCondoleezza Rice, who has claimed she supported engagement in al-Anbar from the beginning, to proponents of the troop "surge" that has become the accepted explanation for the American "victory" in Iraq. Perry, however, writes that America's success there "had to do not with a surge in troops but with a surge in thinking ... The real gamble in Iraq was not in deploying more troops to kill terrorists; the real gamble in Iraq was in sending marines to talk to them."

Today's Washington, it seems, remains somewhat unclear on the concept as it attempts to simultaneously "surge" and engage with the Taliban in Afghanistan. There is apparently a new mantra: "First we hit them, then we talk to them" - as if this makes for more effective dialogue aimed at lasting peace and stability.

American statesmen and policymakers should read this book, urgently. For it is not in terrorist dens that the villains of the al-Anbar story are found, but in Washington's corridors of power - civilians all, but with countless wasted lives to answer for. "Chickenhawk" is the right name for them.

Talking to Terrorists: Why America must Engage with its Enemies by Mark Perry. Basic Books, New York, 2009. ISBN-10: 0465011179. Price US$26.95, 240 pages.

Allen Quicke is Editor of atimes.net.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.)

No comments: