Terror is a tactic
Interview with Nir Rosen
By Mike Whitney
11/30/07 "ICH" -- - Question: Is the "surge" working as Bush
claims or is the sudden lull in the violence due to other
factors like demographic changes in Baghdad?
Nir Rosen: I think that even calling it a surge is
misleading. A surge is fast; this took months. It was more like
an ooze. The US barely increased the troop numbers. It mostly
just forced beleaguered American soldiers to stay longer. At the
same time, the US doubled their enemies because, now, they're
not just fighting the Sunni militias but the Shiite Mahdi army
No, I don't think the surge worked. Objectively speaking, the
violence is down in Baghdad, but that's mainly due to the
failure of the US to establish security. That's not success.
Sure, less people are being killed but that's because there are
less people to kill.
The violence in Iraq was not senseless or crazy, it was logical
and teleological. Shiite militias were trying to remove Sunnis
from Baghdad and other parts of the country, while Sunni
militias were trying to remove Shiites, Kurds and Christians
from their areas. This has been a great success. So you have
millions of refugees and millions more internally displaced, not
to mention hundreds of thousands dead. There are just less
people to kill.
Moreover, the militias have consolidated their control over some
areas. The US never thought that Muqtada al Sadr would order his
Mahdi Army to halt operations (against Sunnis, rival Shiites and
Americans) so that he could put his house in order and remove
unruly militiamen. And, the US never expected that Sunnis would
see that they were losing the civil war so they might as well
work with the Americans to prepare for the next battle.
More importantly, violence fluctuates during a civil war, so
people try to maintain as much normalcy in their lives as
possible. It's the same in Sarajevo, Beirut or Baghdad---people
marry, party, go to school when they can---and hide at home or
fight when they must.
The euphoria we see in the American media reminds me of the
other so-called milestones that came and went while the overall
trend in Iraq stayed the same. Now Iraq doesn't exist anymore.
Thats the most important thing to remember. there is no Iraq.
There is no Iraqi government and none of the underlying causes
for the violence have been addressed, such as the mutually
exclusive aspirations of the rival factions and communities in
Question: Are we likely to see a "Phase 2" in the Iraq war? In
other words, will we see the Shia eventually turn their guns on
US occupation forces once they're confident that the Ba'athist-led
resistance has been defeated and has no chance of regaining
Nir Rosen: Shiite militias have been fighting the
Americans on and off since 2004 but there's been a steady
increase in the past couple of years. That's not just because
the Americans saw the Mahdi army as one of the main obstacles to
fulfilling their objectives in Iraq, but also because Iraq's
Shiites---especially the Mahdi army---are very skeptical of US
motives. They view the Americans as the main obstacle to
achieving their goals in Iraq. Ever since Zalmay Khalilzad took
over as ambassador; Iraq's Shiites have worried that the
Americans would turn on them and throw their support behind the
Sunnis. That's easy to understand given that Khalilzad's mandate
was to get the Sunnis on board for the constitutional
referendum. (Khalilzad is also a Sunni himself)
But, yes, to answer your question; we could see a "Phase 2" if
the Americans try to stay in Iraq longer or, of course, if the
US attacks Iran. Then you'll see more Shiite attacks on the
Question: Hundreds of Iraqi scientists, professors,
intellectuals and other professionals have been killed during
the war. Also, there seems to have been a plan to target Iraq's
cultural icons---museums, monuments, mosques, palaces etc. Do
you think that there was a deliberate effort to destroy the
symbols of Iraqi identity--to wipe the slate clean--so that the
society could be rebuilt according to a neoliberal, "free
Nir Rosen: There certainly was no plan on the part of the
occupying forces. In fact, that's the main reason that things
have gone so horribly wrong in Iraq; there was no plan for
anything; good or bad.
The looting was not "deliberate" American policy. It was simply
incompetence. The destruction of Iraq's cultural icons was
incompetence, also---as well as stupidity, ignorance and
I don't believe that there was really any deliberate malice in
the American policy; regardless of the malice with which it may
have been implemented by the troops on the ground. The
destruction of much of Iraq was the result of Islamic and
sectarian militias--both Sunni and Shiite--seeking to wipe out
hated symbols. The Americans didn't know enough about Iraq to
intentionally execute such a plan even if it did exist. And, I
don't think it did.
Question: The media rarely mentions the 4 million refugees
created by the Iraq war. What do you think the long-term effects
of this humanitarian crisis will be?
Nir Rosen: Well, the smartest Iraqis--the best educated,
the professionals, the middle and upper classes---have all left
or been killed. So the society is destroyed. So there is no hope
for a non-sectarian Iraq now.
The refugees are getting poorer and more embittered. Their
children cannot get an education and their resources are
limited. Look at the Palestinian refugee crisis. In 1948 you had
about 800,000 Palestinians expelled from their homes and driven
into Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Over time, they were politicized, mobilized and militarized. The
militias they formed to liberate their homeland were manipulated
by the governments in the region and they became embroiled in
regional conflicts, internal conflicts and, tragically,
conflicts with each other. They were massacred in Lebanon and
Jordan. And, contributed to instability in those countries.
Now you have camps in Lebanon producing jihadists who go to
fight in Iraq or who fight the Lebanese Army. And this is all
from a population of just 800,000 mostly rural,
religiously-homogeneous (Sunni) refugees.
Now, you have 2 million Iraqi refugees in Syria, a million in
Jordan and many more in other parts of the Middle East. The
Sunnis and Shiites already have ties to the militias. They are
often better educated, urban, and have accumulated some material
wealth. These refugees are increasingly sectarian and are
presently living in countries with a delicate sectarian balance
and very fragile regimes. Many of the refugees will probably
link up with Islamic groups and threaten the regimes of Syria
and Jordan. They're also likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions
They're also bound to face greater persecution as they "wear out
their welcome" and put a strain on the country's resources.
They'll probably form into militias and either try go home or
attempt to overthrow the regimes in the region. Borders will
change and governments will fall. A new generation of fighters
will emerge and there'll be more attacks on Americans.
Question: You have compared Iraq to Mogadishu. Could you
Nir Rosen: Somalia hasn't had a government since 1991.
I've been to Mogadishu twice. Its ruled by warlords who control
their own fiefdoms. Those who have money can live reasonably
well. That's what it's like in Iraq now---a bunch of independent
city-states ruled by various militias---including the American
militia and British militias.
Of course, Somalia is not very important beyond the Horn of
Africa. It's bordered by the sea, Kenya and Ethiopia. There's no
chance of the fighting in Somalia spreading into a regional war.
Iraq is much more dangerous in that respect.
Question: Is the immediate withdrawal of all US troops really
the best option for Iraq?
Nir Rosen: It really doesn't matter whether the Americans
stay or leave. There are no good options for Iraq; no solutions.
The best we can hope for is that the conflict won't spread. The
best thing we can say about the American occupation is that it
may soften the transition for the ultimate break up of Iraq into
smaller fragments. A couple of years ago, I said that the
Americans should leave to prevent a civil war and to allow the
(Sunni) rejectionists to join the government once the occupation
ended. Turns out, I was right; but, obviously, it's too late
now. The civil war has already been fought and won in many
places, mainly by the Shiite militias.
The Americans are still the occupying force, which means that
they must continue to repress people that didn't want them there
in the first place. But, then, if you were to ask a Sunni in
Baghdad today what would happen if the Americans picked up and
left, he'd probably tell you that the remaining Sunnis would be
massacred. So, there's no "right answer" to your question about
Question: November is the 3rd anniversary of the US siege of
Falluja. Could you explain what happened in Falluja and what it
means to Iraqis and the people in the Middle East?
Nir Rosen: Falluja was a poor industrial town known only
for its kabob which Iraqis stopped to get on the way to picnic
at lake Habbaniya. There were no attacks on the Americans from
Falluja during the combat-phase of the US invasion. When
Saddam's regime fell, the Fallujans began administering their
own affairs until the Americans arrived. The US military leaders
saw the Sunnis as the "bad guys", so they treated them harshly.
At first, the Fallujans ignored the rough treatment because the
tribal leaders leaders wanted to give the Americans a chance.
Then there was a incident, in April 2003, where US troops fired
on a peaceful demonstration and killed over a dozen unarmed
civilians. This, more than anything else, radicalized the people
and turned them against the Americans.
In the spring of 2004, four (Blackwater) American security
contractors were killed in Falluja. Their bodies were burned and
dismembered by an angry crowd. It was an insult to America's
pride. In retaliation, the military launched a massive attack
which destroyed much of the city and killed hundreds of
civilians. The US justified the siege by saying that it was an
attack on foreign fighters that (they claimed) were hiding out
in terrorist strongholds. In truth, the townspeople were just
fighting to defend their homes, their city, their country and
their religion against a foreign occupier. Some Shiite
militiamen actually fought with the Sunnis as a sign of
In late 2004, the Americans completely destroyed Falluja forcing
tens of thousands of Sunnis to seek refuge in western Baghdad.
This is when the sectarian clashes between the Sunnis and
Shiites actually began. The hostilities between the two groups
escalated into civil war.
Falluja has now become a symbol throughout the Muslim world of
the growing resistance to American oppression.
Question: The political turmoil in Lebanon continues even though
the war with Israel has been over for more than a year. Tensions
are escalating because of the upcoming presidential elections
which are being closely monitored by France, Israel and the
United States. Do you see Hezbollah's role in the political
process as basically constructive or destructive? Is Hezbollah
really a "terrorist organization" as the Bush administration
claims or a legitimate resistance militia that is necessary for
deterring future Israeli attacks?
Nir Rosen: Hizballah is not a terrorist organization. It
is a widely popular and legitimate political and resistance
movement. It has protected Lebanon's sovereignty and resisted
American and Israeli plans for a New Middle East. It's also
among the most democratic of Lebanon's political movements and
one of the few groups with a message of social justice and anti
imperialism. The Bush Administration is telling its proxies in
the Lebanese government not to compromise on the selection of
the next president. This is pushing Lebanon towards another
civil war, which appears to be the plan. The US also started
civil wars in Iraq, Gaza and Somalia.
Question: The humanitarian situation in Somalia is steadily
worsening. The UN reports that nearly 500,000 Somalis have fled
Mogadishu and are living in makeshift tent cities with little
food or water. The resistance--backed by the former
government--the Islamic Courts Union-- is gaining strength and
fighting has broken out in 70% of the neighborhoods in
Mogadishu. Why is the US backing the invading Ethiopian army? Is
Somalia now facing another bloody decades-long war or is there
hope that the warring parties can resolve their differences?
Nir Rosen: After a decade and a half without a government
and the endless fighting of clan-based militias; clan leaders
decided to establish the Islamic Courts (Somalis are moderate
Shaafi Muslims) to police their own people and to prevent their
men provoking new conflicts. Islam was the only force powerful
enough to unite the Somalis; and it worked.
There have only been a half-dozen or so Al Qaida suspects who
have-at one time or another---entered or exited through Somalia.
But the Islamic Courts is not an al Qaida organization. Still,
US policy in the Muslim world is predicated on the "War on
Terror", so there's an effort to undermine any successful
Islamic model, whether it's Hamas in Gaza, or Hizballah in
The US backed the brutal Somali warlords and created a
counter-terrorism coalition which the Somalis saw as
anti-Islamic. The Islamic Court militias organized a popular
uprising that overthrew the warlords and restored peace and
stability to much of Somalia for the first time in more than a
decade. The streets were safe again, and exiled Somali
businessmen returned home to help rebuild.
I was there during this time.
The Americans and Ethiopians would not tolerate the new
arrangement. The Bush administration sees al Qaeda everywhere.
So, they joined forces with the Ethiopians because Ethiopia's
proxies were overthrown in Mogadishu and because they feel
threatened by Somali nationalism. With the help of the US, the
Ethiopian army deposed the Islamic Courts and radicalized the
population in the process. Now Somalia is more violent than ever
and jihadi-type groups are beginning to emerge where none had
Question: The US-led war in Afghanistan is not going well. The
countryside is controlled by the warlords, the drug trade is
flourishing, and America's man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, has
little power beyond the capital. The Taliban has regrouped and
is methodically capturing city after city in the south. Their
base of support, among disenchanted Pashtuns, continues to grow.
How important is it for the US to succeed in Afghanistan? Would
failure threaten the future of NATO or the Transatlantic
Nir Rosen: Although the US has lost in Afghanistan; what
really matters is Pakistan. That's where the Taliban and al
Qaeda are actually located. No, I'm NOT saying that the US
should take the war into Pakistan. The US has already done
enough damage. But as long as America oppresses and alienates
Muslims; they will continue to fight back.
Question: The Gaza Strip has been under Israeli sanctions for
more than a year. Despite the harsh treatment---the lack of
food, water and medical supplies
(as well as the soaring unemployment and the random attacks in
civilian areas)---there have been no retaliatory suicide attacks
on Israeli civilians or IDF soldiers. Isn't this proof that
Hamas is serious about abandoning the armed struggle and joining
the political process? Should Israel negotiate directly with the
"democratically elected" Hamas or continue its present strategy
of shoring up Mahmoud Abbas and the PA?
Nir Rosen: Hamas won democratic elections that were
widely recognized as free and fair; that is, as free and as fair
as you can expect when Israel and America are backing one side
while trying to shackle the other. Israel and the US never
accepted the election results. That's because Hamas refuses to
capitulate. Also, Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood
which is active in Egypt and Jordan and both those countries
fear an example of a Muslim brothers in government, and they
fear an example of a movement successfully defying the Americans
and Israelis, so they backed Fatah. Everyone fears that these
Islamic groups will become a successful model of resistance to
American imperialism and hegemony. The regional dictators are
especially afraid of these groups, so they work with the
Americans to keep the pressure on their political rivals.
Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah collaborates with the US and Israel to
undermine Hamas and force the government to collapse. Although
they have failed so far; the US and Israel continue to support
the same Fatah gangs that attempted the coup to oust Hamas. The
plan backfired, and Hamas gunmen managed to drive Fatah out of
Gaza after a number of violent skirmishes.
Israel should stop secretly supporting Fatah and adopt the "One
State" solution. It should grant Palestinians and other non-Jews
equal rights, abandon Zionism, allow Palestinian refugees to
return, compensate them, and dismantle the settlements. If
Israel doesn't voluntarily adopt the One State solution and work
for a peaceful transition, (like South Africa) then eventually
it will be face expulsion by the non Jewish majority in Greater
Palestine, just like the French colonists in Algeria.
This is not a question of being "pro" or "anti" Israel; that's
irrelevant when predicting the future, and for any rational
observer of the region it's clear that Israel is not a viable
state in the Middle East as long as it is Zionist.
Question: The US military is seriously over-stretched. Still,
many political analysts believe that Bush will order an aerial
assault on Iran. Do you think the US will carry out a
"Lebanon-type" attack on Iran; bombing roads, bridges,
factories, government buildings, oil depots, Army bases,
munitions dumps, airports and nuclear sites? Will Iran retaliate
or simply lend their support to resistance fighters in
Afghanistan and Iraq?
Nir Rosen: I think it's quite likely that Bush will
attack Iran; not because he has a good reason to, but because
Jesus or God told him to and because Iran is part of the
front-line resistance (along with Hizballah, Syria and Hamas) to
American hegemony in the region. Bush believes nobody will have
the balls to go after the Iranians after him. He believes that
history will vindicate him and he'll be looked up to as a hero,
There is also a racist element in this. Bush thinks that Iran is
a culture based on honor and shame. He believes that if you
humiliate the Iranian regime, then the people will rise up and
overthrow it. Of course, in reality, when you bomb a country the
people end up hating you and rally around the regime. Just look
at the reaction of the Serbs after the bombing by NATO, or the
Americans after September 11.
Iran is more stable than Iraq and has a stronger military. Also,
the US is very vulnerable in the region---both in Iraq and
Afghanistan. America's allies are even more vulnerable. An
attack on Iran could ignite a regional war that would spiral out
of control. Nothing good would come of it.
The Bush administration needs to negotiate with Iran and
pressure Israel to abandon its nuclear weapons.
Question: Bush's war on terror now extends from the southern
border of Somalia to the northern tip of Afghanistan---from
Africa, through the Middle East into Central Asia. The US has
not yet proven---in any of these conflicts-- that it can enforce
its will through military means alone. In fact, in every case,
the military appears to be losing ground. And it's not just the
military that's bogged down either. Back in the United States,
the economy is rapidly deteriorating. The dollar is falling, the
housing market is collapsing, consumer spending is shrinking,
and the country's largest investment banks are bogged down with
over $200 billion in mortgage-backed debt. Given the current
state of the military and the economy, do you see any way that
the Bush administration can prevail in the war on terror or is
US power in a state of irreversible decline?
Nir Rosen: Terror is a tactic; so you can't go to war
with it in the first place. You can only go to war with people
or nations. To many people it seems like the US is at war with
Muslims. This is just radicalizing more people and eroding
America's power and influence in the world. But, then, maybe
that's not such a bad thing.
Bio: Nir Rosen is a Fellow at the New America Foundation who
has written extensively on American policy in Afghanistan and
Iraq. He spent more than two years in Iraq reporting on the
American occupation, the relationship between Americans and
Iraqis, the development of postwar Iraqi religious and political
movements, interethnic and sectarian relations, and the Iraqi
civil war. His reporting and research also focused on the
origins and development of Islamist resistance, insurgency, and
terrorist organizations. He has also reported from Somalia,
where he investigated Islamist movements; Jordan, where he
investigated the origins and future of the Zarqawi movement; and
Pakistan, where he investigated the madrassas and pro-Taliban
movements. Rosen's book on postwar Iraq, In the Belly of the
Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq, was published by
Free Press in 2006.
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