Amid the incessant flow of accounts and analyses that attempt to come to grips with America’s deepening imbroglio in Iraq, rarely do we get any glimpse into the minds and actions of those involved in creating the new political structures of post-Saddam Iraq. Much can be gleaned from the existing literature on Iraq about the constellations of policy failures and other unique political, historical, societal and cultural factors shaping the current conflagration in Iraq today. Yet little is known about the process of reconstruction – both physically and politically – set into motion in Iraq after the fall of the Ba’ath party regime.
Mark Etherington’s Revolt on the Tigris: The al-Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq provides a narrative of the nine months in which he served as one of 18 governorate coordinators appointed by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq. On October 1, 2003, Etherington, a former paratrooper in the British Army with extensive experience of conflict and post-conflict management in the Balkans, flew on board a British RAF Hercules to assume the duties of a coalition governor of the province of Wasit, a predominantly Shi‘a province southeast of Baghdad, where the loyalties of a population of approximately 900,000 are divided among more than 100 tribes and dozens of political parties and entities. The complex and fragmented political and demographic makeup of Wasit exemplifies the socio-political atomization of Iraqi society and the fluid and intricate political landscape it produces. As the author observes, “There was no all-embracing society in Wasit to speak of, but rather a series of camps and cliques – miniature societies – each with its own place. Most were quick to denounce the others, and compromise was rare. Each clique was self-sufficient because it was built around a source or sources of power. Like ancient city-states, they traded with one another, made alliances and broke them, declared wars and negotiated peace; and occasionally one vanished because the strength sustaining it had waned” (p. 84).
From the early days of his new assignment, Etherington came face to face with how ill-prepared the US-led Coalition was for the “day after”: the post-invasion phase where resources were to be directed towards refashioning post-Saddam Iraq into a presumably ‘democratic’ and ‘prosperous’ state. This ill-preparedness stemmed not only from failures in intelligence assessments and analyses, but also from utter ignorance of “facts on the ground” about the situation in a potentially hostile environment. In his pre-deployment briefings in London, Etherington became painfully aware that his new employers “had been unable to furnish much more detail than gossip and the media had already provided” (p. 6).
Etherington learned swiftly that such ill-preparedness precluded his fulfilling operational demands and requirements. To his chagrin, he found out shortly after his arrival in Iraq that armored civilian vehicles, which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made mandatory for the travel of British nationals inside Iraq, “were not yet present in sufficient numbers to meet the needs of the proposed CPA structure, although they were being bought from production lines as fast as they could be built and often air-freighted direct to theatre” (p. 18). The shortage of these armored vehicles, as well as of other material resources, was typical of the larger problem of military over-stretch that has dogged the occupation of Iraq all along. It was in part the desire to rectify such shortages that led to the ‘privatization’ of many aspects of the war and the occupation of Iraq. For instance security for the CPA team in Wasit was provided by a private company, Control Risks, whereas logistical support was provided by Kellog, Brown & Root (KBR), a darling of the Pentagon. But the new tentacles of latter-day private colonialism stretch beyond the realm of security. Many tasks in the overall effort of reconstruction were also contracted and sub-contracted to private companies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One of these sub-contracted organizations, “called ‘Research Triangle Institute’, or RTI, which had been awarded the contract to pursue so-called democratisation and civic education initiatives across Iraq on the CPA’s behalf” (p. 44), was involved in a variety of programmes such as training journalists, setting up Iraqi NGOs, and overseeing the work of branch ministries in the provinces.
Much as the proliferation of organisations creates more bottlenecks for plans and courses of action to pass through, the steep increase in the number of contractors and sub-contractors in Iraq fostered inefficiency, became a breeding-ground for corruption, and produced operational problems and headaches. The proliferation of contracts and sub-contracts created different, and sometimes competing, reporting lines and blurred the boundaries between chains of command. Etherington points to the “irony” that lies in assuming that KBR could provide “the answer to many of our problems – but in giving a single company so much administrative power we also gave it command; and hence implicitly subordinated our operations to its policies… So absolute was its control that CPA teams had never been given any form of operating budget; and during KBR’s absence [throughout the Sadrist uprising] we could neither recruit nor pay local staff, which was obviously absurd” (p. 223).
With his small team of advisers and contractors, Etherington set out to perform the Herculean task of rebuilding a part of a fragmented society that had been shattered by Saddam’s despotic and brutal rule, riddled with endemic corruption and patronage, impoverished by decades of mismanagement, wars and sanctions, and scarred psychologically to the extent of falling into bleak despair. To this end, he set up local courts, reappointed justices, police officers and other local officials, and organized elections for local councils. However, the project was doomed to failure from its start. This was no foray into Jeffersonian democracy, but rather an experiment in ‘controlled democracy’. All along, the Governorate Coordinator of Wasit sought to support independent technocrats in an attempt to eclipse political parties and trends, especially Islamist ones. Various stratagems, such as requiring a higher level of education and experience in administration, were employed in order to limit the number of candidates in contests for certain posts, such as for the post of governor of Wasit. This effectively excluded political-party activists, the vast majority of whom had spent long years in exile during Ba’ath party rule. Etherington unwittingly blurts out an indication of his desire to pre-determine the outcome of local elections, saying: “We saw the functions of the Governor of Wasit as incompatible with membership of a political party, believing that the political process in the province was not sufficiently mature to allow the requisite level of independence on the part of the candidates… If we could have been sure that no political party could command the requisite number of Council votes to win we would have thrown the contest open, but we had no such confidence. Past experience showed that the political parties, particularly the Islamic ones, were feared by Council members and intimidation seemed a real possibility” (p. 228).
Etherington’s suspicions of the Islamic parties extended to the political role of Iraqi tribes in post-Saddam Iraq. He was sceptical of the CPA’s plans for the new Iraq, which envisioned the “fostering of tribal democracy” as one of “three large policy ‘anchors’ in each of the provinces” – the other two being human rights and women’s rights. But Etherington “was not persuaded by this notion of anchors, and thought it gimmickry”. He believed that human rights and women’s rights “would be products of any success we had in re-shaping the country, rather than its principal locomotives”. As for the tribes, Etherington “was all for co-opting them, if this were judged appropriate, but was less sure that introducing them to the delights of democracy would secure for us the stability we needed in the short term. There is no substitute for control – though we did not have sufficient troops to retain it without public consent” (p. 35).
But, as the US-led coalition has agonizingly found out, control in Iraq is elusive. This became crystal clear to Etherington when he and his team were driven out of the CPA headquarters in Kut by Mahdi Army (Jaysh al-Mahdi) fighters during their first uprising in April 2004. In chapters 5 and 6, entitled “The Sadr Uprising” and “Return to Kut” respectively, Etherington provides a detailed account of events in Kut during the uprising that swept most of southern Iraq after the CPA’s closure of al-Hawzah, Muqtada al-Sadr’s newspaper, on March 28, for alleged incitement of violence against the Coalition. The unfolding scenario in Kut resembles similar chains of events in most southern provinces at the time, with local CPA staff failing to come to work, and local police forces and paramilitary Iraqi Civil Defence Corps deserting their posts or even turning against the Coalition and joining the Mahdi Army. But Sadr’s fighters, who were largely dependent on their personal weapons, were ill-trained, poorly organized and inadequately supplied. Their undisciplined conduct compounded their lack of tactical sophistication, resulting in a poor battlefield performance. Thus Kut was easily recaptured by the US First Armored Division, led by Major-General Martin E. Dempsey.
In contrast with the marked hostility that shaped the relationship between the local CPA team in Kut and al-Sadr’s group, relations with Shaykh Abdul Jawad al-Qarawi, the representative of Grand Ayatullah Ali al-Sistani, were cordial and collaborative. Etherington and his team “saw the Sistani tradition as the best expression of mainstream thought in the province, and had agreed with Sheikh Abdul Jawad al-Qarawi’s staff that we would draw on their knowledge of its districts and post-war structures” (p. 122).
Throughout his book, Etherington is full of praise for the Americans and the US army. In his reflections on the performance of American troops, the author maintains that “it was impossible not to admire the conviction, commitment and courtesy of American officers and soldiers alike. American morale remained generally high despite almost unprecedented tour-lengths and high casualties, and this must have been because most soldiers were led by intelligent, well-trained and educated officers who took the same risks” (p. 220). Since the occupation of Iraq in April 2003 there has been increasing evidence of the misconduct of US soldiers, which gives the lie to such exaggerated praise. Stressed out to the limit by the dangers, uncertainties and rigors of serving in a hostile land, trigger-happy US soldiers in Iraq have been involved in numerous incidents of indiscriminate fire, torture of prisoners, massacres against civilians, and other atrocities. Such incidents led Major Don Vandergriff, who teaches military science at Georgetown University, to observe six months after the occupation of Iraq that the morale and cohesion of the US Army in Iraqwere “deteriorating at four times the rate it did in Vietnam”.
Overall, Mark Etherington’s work is revealing as it provides an important historical portrait of the intricacies of the US-led effort to devise a new political and civil apparatus in post-Saddam Iraq. But Revolt on the Tigris is not a work of history per se. It is a political memoir and as such tells a historical narrative in a personalised, and therefore selective, form. It provides a glimpse into the thought-processes of one of the people involved in the post-invasion policy process in Iraq. The book is beautifully written and demonstrates the author’s exceptional gift for expressing emotions and conveying inner impressions of place and social and political milieux. As more bleak news continues to come from Iraq, with sectarian violence escalating and the country sinking deeper into the dangerous quagmire of failed states, Etherington’s book is a significant contribution to our understanding of how the US-led adventure in Iraq turned into abject failure.