The Day We Lost the Iraq War

News Abroad

Mr. Goldfarb is the author of the just published book, Ahmad's War, Ahmad's Peace: Surviving Under Saddam, Dying in the New Iraq, which tells the story of Ahmad Shawkat, his translator during "major combat operations" in northern Iraq/Kurdistan in the spring of 2003.

London -- It is Iraq anniversary season, those four weeks of the year when assessments and opinions on what the Bush Administration wrought when it overthrew Saddam Hussein fill up the airwaves, Internet and newspapers. We’ll be performing these annual assessments for years to come because the final result of the Bush action is still unknowable and because so much of the public debate has been led in a spirit of willful ignorance.

When it comes to the Iraq conflict “Fog of War” doesn’t refer to the smoke and dust of the battlefield but rather to the hot air emanating from the mouths and pens of partisans and pundits, many of them living inside the confines of the Green Zone on the Potomac, virtually none of whom were in Iraq during the period of major combat operations and very few of whom have made the journey to that country subsequently. Their analysis is flawed by their lack of eyewitness experience of the conflict.

Given how little objectivity has been brought to bear on understanding Iraq by the official classes, I have come to realize that the accounts of those of us who reported this conflict really are the closest thing the world possesses to a “first draft of history.” Three years on, based on my experience as an unembedded reporter covering “major combat operations” in northern Iraq, I have reached a conclusion: it didn’t have to turn out the way it did. I base this conclusion on what I saw in Mosul, a city of around 1 and a half million people on April 11th 2003 and subsequently.

In the small hours of that day Saddam’s regime evaporated and as the sun rose the city was sacked by its own citizens with considerable help from their Kurdish neighbors in Erbil an hour’s drive away and villages in between.

It was a glorious spring day and as I drove from Erbil, my base throughout the previous weeks, I saw a surreal carnival: papers stacked up on the side of the road, records of Ba’ath party meetings, school reports, purchase orders, the entire bureaucratic detritus of a hideous dictatorship; the World Food Program warehouse was smoldering and people were dragging massive bags of rice out of it; a group of Kurdish pesh merga had tied a tow rope around an abandoned artillery piece and were driving it slowly back towards Erbil.

Not every one in the streets was looting. Along the half-excavated, grass covered walls of ancient Nineveh and in the park surrounding it thousands of people were wandering in a daze, somnambulists walking in the blazing spring sunshine. These were people awakened from a nightmare into a state that offered neither immediate comfort nor security. There were no public services as the state had collapsed, there were no shops open, and there was no sense of what would happen next.

In the city’s main square, Diwassa, the National Bank was being ransacked. Kurdish pesh merga had appointed themselves local sheriffs and were trying to stop the daylight robbery. A gun-battle ensued as chaotic as anything Hollywood could dream up, I cannot say whether it was as deadly as reality can be as I saw no bodies carried out of the bank in the five minutes I was there.

I had intended to stay in Mosul but it didn’t take long to figure that wasn’t going to happen so at the end of this day I drove back to Erbil. On the way out of town I saw committees from the mosques walking down the streets led by men shouting through bullhorns, calling on looters to return the goods they had stolen.

The next day I returned to Mosul. At the gates of the city’s university, I met a group of perhaps fifteen men, professors and caretakers at the campus. They had chained the gates shut and had established themselves as an unofficial committee of public safety. They were dressed in western clothes and did not look particularly threatening but they were doing what they could in the absence of authority. We engaged in a bit of role reversal with them peppering me with questions. “There is no security. Where is the American military?” several men demanded in a tone of voice that indicated they expected I might be able to answer on some General’s behalf.

“Is this what Bush means by democracy?” asked another gesturing out to the empty street and beyond towards the whole city. It became clear to me that at that moment, as the only American around, I was somehow a representative of my government. I could only beg them to be patient.

“Patient, how long will it be like this?” Being someone with a firm belief in the awesome logistical power of the American military, I blithely told them it would take no more than a week, a month at the outside, for the army to restore order. For some reason this seemed to mollify the posse.

I regained the questioning initiative and asked them about the committees from the mosques I had seen the evening before. Had they succeeded in shaming the looters to return things? The men directed me to a mosque just up the road. There the courtyard was stacked high with stuff that had been stolen from university dormitories: beds, refrigerators and ceiling fans. Apparently some folks had heeded the call of the previous evening. Up a flight of stairs from the courtyard in what was presumably a little study area were dozens of boxes of drugs and medical paraphernalia. It had been looted from the local hospital and returned, although whether out of a sense of guilt or at gunpoint wasn’t clear. Three doctors were conducting an impromptu clinic, providing what care they could for locals.

It was clear that day that there was a strong sense of civic responsibility amongst the Iraqis. The cadres to create a new civil society were to be found among the men guarding the gates at the university and the doctors caring as best they could for local patients. Mosques were the one aspect of civil society that still functioned. It is important to understand that even in the anarchy and chaos that attended the too swift overthrow of Saddam there was a window of opportunity for the U.S. authorities, military and civilian, to help Iraqi’s create a decent society and there were enough Iraqis around who wanted to do this. That window was open as long as those people were safe and I can tell you precisely when the window started to shut.

My guide on those days in Mosul was my translator Ahmad Shawkat. He fully embraced the possibilities of building a new civil society post-Saddam. With funding from the U.S. he started a weekly journal of political and cultural opinion. He called the newspaper Bilattijah, which translates roughly as “Without Direction.” The title was his poetic attempt to name the new era in Iraq, a time when his countrymen, like the somnambulists wandering along the walls of Nineveh the day the regime collapsed, did not know which direction to take. The first issue came out at the end of August and conveyed Ahmad’s hope for the future tempered by a realistic understanding of the precariousness of the situation in his country. “Salvation has surprised us,” he wrote. “So we surrendered to our chaos.”

By the end of September the situation had become clearer. Ahmad Shawkat noticed with bitter irony the coming together of radical Islamists and the Ba’ath thugs who used to spy on them back when Saddam was in charge. These two sets of fascists were beginning to operate at levels of society the Americans could not see. He saw the possibility of building a new Iraq slipping away and his editorials began to take on the tone of prophecy, “The Freedom that descended on us is a gift from God – and damaging such a gift might be a cause for its vanishing.”

At the end of October, in utter despair at the corruption that was already running rampant in Mosul, and ordinary people’s inability to embrace the opportunity of this new era, Ahmad wrote an editorial headlined “The Defunct Regime is Still Alive.” He asked, “Don’t they (the Americans) understand we are a people who have never learnt to work without someone standing over us? ... We want to open American eyes and remind them that decay has reached everywhere in their short rule. That means their first step was not successful.”

Before that editorial appeared Ahmad was assassinated. The date was October 28th 2003. My friend was not the first grassroots advocate of a better Iraq to be murdered, and he certainly wasn’t the last. But his death a mere six months after his hometown was “liberated” marks the moment when, in this eyewitness’s judgment, the window of opportunity for Iraqis as well as the U.S. began to shut down. The era “Without Direction,” a time of possibility and peril, was over. Iraq found its direction – and the fresh bodies by the roadside each and every day since then mark its path.

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Mr. Ebbitt is on the right track, but I would go a bit further against this pro-Cheney propaganda fantasy

Consider just one of the many further nonsensical assumptions therein:

"Saudis, Pakistanis and Iraqis are all killing al-Quaeda for us every day"

Even setting aside (a) the blatant contradiction that Al Qaeda was largely CREATED by Saudi Arabian and Pakistan people, ideas, and money, in the first place, and (b) that Iraq has had, until long after the 2003 invasion, practically nothing to do with Al Qaeda (and thus the claim that invading Iraq would help fight Al Qaeda was a monstrous double-lie from the start), steam STILL pours voluminously from this load of mad-cow BS.

Al Qaeda is based on radical neo-fundamental Islamic ideas which cannot be "killed" any more than Western ideals of democracy or human rights can be blown up.

More than anything the Saudis or Pakistanis could have done, and have recently done, the American traitors running Washington DC today have helped Al Qaeda, by following their script for a blatantly hypocritical, unAmerican, and totally illegitimate invasion occupation of an Mideastern country in order to_____
[fill in blank with Rove's shifting lie of the month] and badly botched things up every step of the way, managing to accomplish almost none of their purported objectives (except to capture Saddam which was a lucky fluke), wasting huge amounts of US taxdollars and trashing America's international reputation and national security in the process.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Yes, quite right Mr. Seaton, however: In adopting the "neo-cons"' plans for Iraq in 2003, Baseball owner G.W. Bush and lapdog Tony Blair did not adopt the absurd and untenable visions of the "neo-cons."

What they did was in many ways much worse, because, while the neo-con fantasy of Pax Americana has now been clearly revealed as the great hubristic idiocy that it always was, (and discredited for years to come most likely) Bush and Blair remain in power, only slightly scathed by murmers of discontent at their outrageous disaster in Iraq.

Bush's main purpose in the mad sudden rush to invade Iraq in 2003 was to have a "war" so that he could run for president, and get legitimately elected to that office for the first time, as a "war president." THAT plan succeeded beyond most expectations.

The main problem with Bush is not his intellectual laziness. Reagan, for example, was markedly worse. It is his lack of any true moral compass. He seems to believe that attention to his short term political objectives suffices for considering what is in America's long term interest.

Reagan's campaign against the Evil Empire of the USSR was ill-conceived in many ways, but he did take a principled and fairly consistent position on a genuine challenge for America and the "West". Bush is chasing chimeras like the "war on terrorism", using fictious "coalitions of the willing", and throwing out bogus cover-ups like the "democracy" drive in the Mideast to try to hide his past mistakes.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Mr. F.,

IF (and bigger "if" than I can make it with this technology) your "impressions" of Lewis's views about when and how to attack Iraq are correct, then the aging scholar is either demented, insane, or been kidnapped by fairy-tellers of the Project for a New American Con-job and forced to read an hallucinagenic script from them.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

This is an excellent piece of journalism. But I don't think the basic historical conclusion is quite correct.

Cheney's Regime Change in Iraq (to call this mess a "war" is to foolishly echo Rove's most outrageous Orwellian deception) failed at the moment when Rumsfeld & Co arrogantly ignored State Dept's staff reports and decided that they would try to do it on the cheap. Combined with the hamfisted diplomacy that ticked off the French, the German, and Turkish regimes, and most of the rest of the world, the lack of any solid well-informed plan on the part of the CHICKENHAWKS who hatched this reckless squandering of American power and prestige, and their manifest and serial blundering in carrying out this unAmerican foreign adventure, that penny-wise pound-foolishness doomed the "cakewalk" even before the "shock and awe" unleashed on March 17, 2003.

Why did they do it ?

Because these traitors never gave a damn about America (or Iraq). All they cared about was duping enough swing voters to win in 2004 on a "war presidency" campaign. Hence the reckless and grotesquely sudden rush to invade Iraq in 2003 (after coddling or ignoring Saddam for most of the previous 25 years), the crude deceptions about yellowcake and imminent mushroom clouds, the Saddam=Osama Big Lie, the pitiful strut across the nearly beached "Mission Accomplished" carrier, the incessant fearmongering, and the childish yet vicious attacks on Byrd, Levin, Dean, Kerry, Wilson, and anyone else standing in their petty treacherous way.

They have been looking, it seems in vain, for an excuse to cut and run, and so the only strategy left seems to be to let the Democrats win in 2006 and/or 2008 and then blame every failure in Iraq on them. Millions of Americans dumb and ignorant enough to fall for the Saddam=Osama lie, will line up to be bamboozled and fleeced again, thus such a strategy is certainly not going to be ruled out on practical political grounds (and THAT is the only principle to which the Cheney-Rove Republicans adhere).

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

Protestants, Catholics, and Texans might work

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006

You spilled your gin...

"American Democrats, and the liberal TV networks want the killing to escalate."

Where does one find proof of this?

Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006


You write. "Compare that with Iraqi(s) killed in the past three years."

One can construct any idea around a sentence or two to create an esoteric argument to claim one action as being inherently better than another/former action but, what are these numbers to which you derive your talking points that substantiate/justify your position?

How many mass graves are attributable to Saddam? What were the average numbers of murders per year that he committed?

Case in point... who was responsible for "Bloody Friday" in Halabja in 1988 and was it Saddam?

How many Iraqi civilians have died during the initial Coalition invasion? How many have died during the past three years?

This is not an endorsement of Saddam who needs to hang with his boots on... Hopefully, not the pair Rummy gave him but, boots all the same...

Other posters with a right leaning bent have failed to provide any solid numbers whatsoever... here's hoping you can do them one better.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/16/2006

Take the number from all the mass graves of Saddam, divide by the number of years he was in power, and presto - you will get the average number he murdered per year. Compare that with Iraqi killed in the past three years. Saddam was much worse.

Arnold Shcherban - 4/16/2006

Plus, calling anti-American Iraqi fighters "al-Qaeda terrorists" won't change anything either in the military or socio-political disposition of forces within completely destroyed fabric of Iraqi society or in the domain of US goverment so-called "war on terror".

Arnold Shcherban - 4/16/2006

<The number of Iraqis killed has averaged less than they suffered under Saddam in peacetime>

And where is the proof of this, if
not only the number of Saddam's repressions "in peacetime" was greatly exaggerated by the US propaganda machine (as the excuse for the launching of criminal invasion - agression - in the UN lexicon), but the number of the direct or indirect victims of the US-Iraq continuing "operation" is known only with an error of dozens
of thousands?
Not mentioning already, that the evidence/numbers coming from reliable independent sources definitively points to the falsity of the quoted statement.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 4/16/2006

You boys are so anxious to have the war to go badly for George W. Bush and the United States that you can't see that it's actually going pretty well. Do you realize that Saudis, Pakistanis and Iraqis are all killing al-Quaeda for us every day? The loss of American volunteers was very small to effect the transformation we have seen in the area. The number of Iraqis killed has averaged less than they suffered under Saddam in peacetime... Large sections of Iraq are quite peaceful and prosperous, and all of it seems headed for real, long-lasting, self-government, very likely with a sense of national pride. This has already happened sufficiently that you are crazy to bet against it continuing. With the rotation of our troops the Iraqis have seen about 500,000 different Americans face-to-face, and nobody can tell them any more that we are the Great Satan and be believed, for our troops are excellent ambassadors. They have come to realize that the true satans are the extortion gangs of their own people, and they are not going to put up with them much longer. Furthermore, the Bush administration has established enormous credibility. Under the current president, we always do what we say we are going to do, instead of taking a poll and sticking our fingers in the wind. This gathers the minds wonderfully in Teheran and Pyongyang, also in Berlin and Paris, and makes miscalculation by the bad guys far less likely. Best of all, perhaps, we have established unquestioned military superiority, whether the job needed is to clean out jihadists door-to-door, or to turn an entire province into an oil slick. We can do it, and everybody knows we can--thousands and thousands of miles from home, too. Having that reputation means we will very often not have to use our power, because a simple threat will bring the desired result. Ergo, much less killing. Isn't that what we all want? That's what the Iraqis want. Only terrorists, American Democrats, and the liberal TV networks want the killing to escalate.

Andrew Seaton - 4/13/2006

"Do I hear a petard going off?

Mr. Seaton, "Kurd" is not a religious appellation. Most Kurds are Sunni. Your last sentence is as logical as dividing the U.S. into "Protestants, Catholics, and Nebrasksans""

In your enthusiasm to appear clever maybe you hoisted a "petard" of your own when you missed my meaning of "there are no Iraqis" in context with Bush knowing "the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis "and decided to create another argument about "appellations" (strange word choice- not talking about the wines of war here).

Despite the Kurds being Sunni, they are still set apart from the other groups by their own language and culture. Still a separate group. And even though the majority of Kurds are Sunni there are also Al-Fayliah Kurds who are Shia who live in Central Iraq as well as Christian and Jewish Kurds. Religion had little to do with my comment.

John H. Lederer - 4/12/2006

"Although he is ignorant and arrogant, Mr. Bush is intelligent, nevertheless before the Iraq war started he did not know the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis. As powerful as he is, he could have summoned up from somewhere a refresher course in history in order to understand that there are no Iraqis. Only Shi ítes, Sunnis and Kurds."

Do I hear a petard going off?

Mr. Seaton, "Kurd" is not a religious appellation. Most Kurds are Sunni. Your last sentence is as logical as dividing the U.S. into "Protestants, Catholics, and Nebrasksans"

N. Friedman - 4/12/2006


You may well be correct. I do, however, know that the good professor favored the war. He even wrote articles supporting it.

N. Friedman - 4/11/2006


I do not know whether Bush knew the Shi'a from the Sunni from the hole in the wall.

On the other hand, his advisors surely did. So, somehow I suspect he was briefed or ought to have been briefed on the matter. If not, he is not the only guilty party.

In any event, Bush's advisors did consult at least one known authority on the topic who, it appears, thought that a war against Iraq was a good idea. Specifically, the Bush administration was advised by Bernard Lewis who, by any standards, is a maven on matters related to Islam and its various sects.

Lewis, it is my impression, believed that war against Iraq was necessary. It is also my impression that he envisioned a less humane war in order to send a message to Muslim Arabs, namely, don't mess with the US. That advice - if it was given - does not appear to have been followed.

Andrew Seaton - 4/11/2006

Although he is ignorant and arrogant, Mr. Bush is intelligent, nevertheless before the Iraq war started he did not know the difference between Shi’ites and Sunnis. As powerful as he is, he could have summoned up from somewhere a refresher course in history in order to understand that there are no Iraqis. Only Shi ítes, Sunnis and Kurds.

But believing that the Iraqi army will solve the problems is an illusion and the chances are slim they would hold the country together if the occupying Americans left anytime soon. Afraid the neocon gang’s plans have backfired. All they have in Iraq are Green Zones filled with puppets of the Pentagon. All they have done is turned Iran into a powerbroker and have let the Americans defeat their enemies: the Taliban and Saddam.

Joan E Crow-Epps - 4/10/2006

And with another election coming up, suddenly there's talk about regime change in Iran, and possible use of nuclear weapons.

John Chapman - 4/10/2006

Although Iraq in the minds of all of us is still in its first draft, Mr. Goldfarb is right on one thing, "it didn’t have to turn out the way it did."

The losses and the ensuing mess in Mesopotamia began before the 9/11 terrorist attacks and before the first bombs or boots ever hit Bagdad because it was the idea and the ideology behind it and the rush to judgment that was doomed to failure long before the war and the multiple-choice reasons this administration gave as the war progressed in the Iraq occupation. At first it seemed that the dog was wagging the tail but then I saw it was far worse than that. We also had a military industrial complex that needed feeding. It’s what America does best today. Most of our higher paid jobs were being out-sourced and America needed another income stream to run its war-consumer-economy. It wasn’t only for the "noble cause" or for the oil. But then depending on America’s imperial objectives, which seem to be tweaked every week, we are winning the war sometimes and sometimes we are losing it. But mostly it’s a loss on the books, a bloodbath of red ink.

Installing Democracy, one of its latest reasons, was always a lost cause because our "masters of war" (really too good a cliché for them) acted as if they were ignoring some basic history about the Middle East. Some history majors with even a couple undergraduate courses on the Middle East would have been be able to see quickly enough that the manner with which this administration dealt with 1) the initial 9/11 attack and 2) the pre-emptive attack (on the wrong country), was a slippery slope only a "Texas cowboy" with little knowledge of the subject and a lot of bad advice would encourage him to boldly go where no smart person would ever go. Unfortunately, our installation of US Democracy version 2.0 in Iraq hasn’t yet booted up as easily as predicted, their ideology and cultures are not compatible with our Intel and high tech ultra-consumer society which believes those who posses more material things and power must be superior or more godly than those who haven’t achieved "success".

In terms of installing democracy, it’s really difficult to be optimistic about what is going on in Iraq after America’s attack and occupation there. There has been the rise of the Islamists and of Shiite power and increased Iranian influence and they know that all they have to do now is wait until the Bush administration disappears. Political leaders all over the Arab world have also dallied in their reforms. Why should they? Their economies are booming. And they know too that, this too shall pass - they’ve been in the real world longer than we have.

Of course, the Americans say democracy takes time and requires a consistent application (pressure?). It’s a slow, evolutionary process - unless they’re talking about teaching it in US schools of course. But after Bush leaves office that may change as the cost continues to burden the economy, the American taxpayer. Iraqi troops are actually going out on patrol on their own now. Great! But is the war still lost? No, maybe they will finish the job after the Americans leave. Maybe after the departure of American troops the dynamics of the war will change and the part of the problem to this solution will be gone and they can go have their civil war just like America had one.