Although the West is pulling out its armies, the war is by no means over for the Arab world, a former adviser warns. Nick Hopkins reports.
A British woman who worked as a senior United States officer during the most troubled periods of the Iraq war said she feared the West had yet to see how some Muslims brought up in the past decade would seek revenge for the “war on terror”.
Speaking for the first time about her experiences, Emma Sky also questioned why no officials on either side of the Atlantic had been held to account for the failures in planning before the invasion.
Sky (44) was political adviser to the US’s most senior general in Iraq. She was part of the team that implemented the counterinsurgency strategy that controlled the civil war erupting in the country.
The appointment of an English woman at the heart of the US military was a bold and unprecedented move and it gave her unique access and insight into the conduct of one of the most controversial campaigns in modern history.
In all, the Oxford graduate spent more than four years in Iraq, including a spell as civilian governor of one of its most complex regions.
She met Tony Blair and Barack Obama in Baghdad and earned the trust of senior Iraqi officials as well as many of the country’s leading politicians and community leaders, some of whom remain her friends.
Now back in London, Sky has been reflecting on her time in Iraq. She expressed concern about the effect this period has had on the Arab world and how some of the mistakes made in Iraq appeared to have been repeated in Afghanistan.
But Sky also defended the military and the senior commanders she worked with, who she said did everything they could to retrieve the situation.
A lack of understanding of the Arab world also meant the West struggled to grasp why it had provoked so much violence and who was responsible for it.
“We’ve been fighting the war on terror for 10 years,” said Sky. “At times, it seems we have been fighting demons. We behaved as if there were a finite number of people in the world who had to be killed or captured. And we were slow to realise that our actions were creating more enemies.
All over now
“It has been seen by many Muslims as a war on Islam. Now we are saying: ‘We’ve pulled out of Iraq, we are pulling out of Afghanistan and it’s all over now.’ It may be over for the politicians, but it is not over for the Muslim world. Well over 100000 Muslims have been killed since 9/11 following our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, mostly by other Muslims.
“We have to ask ourselves: What do we think this has done to their world and how will they avenge these deaths in years to come? It is not over forv the soldiers who have physical injuries and mental scars, or the families who have lost loved ones.
“The world is better off without Saddam, but nobody has been held accountable for what happened in Iraq and there is a danger that we won’t learn the right lessons, particularly related to the limitations of our power.”
Sky said the focus on building up local security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was not the right priority.
“We think it is about us, and it is about our security. But in the end it is about their politics ... success in Iraq was always going to be defined by politics. We needed a political solution, a pact, a peace.”
Sky was one of the British volunteers who went to Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion to help the reconstruction effort being led by the Coalition Provisional Authority.
She was appointed civilian governor of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city in the north of the country, and impressed US commanders with the way she worked with an American brigade to bring stability to the region.
Her frankness about the problems facing the country and the coalition’s difficulties in dealing with them did not deter the US military from recruiting her in 2007. She was made political adviser to General Ray Odierno, the US commander sent to Iraq to oversee the military “surge”, which involved 20000 extra troops being sent to Iraq to stem the violence.
In 2008 Odierno succeeded General David Petraeus as overall commander of forces in Iraq. He asked Sky to return with him in the same advisory role.
Odierno is now chief of staff of the US army and Petraeus is director of the CIA.
As a civilian member of Odierno’s team, Sky accompanied him everywhere and was given responsibilities that seem remarkable for a “foreigner”.
She witnessed some of the horrific violence that led to tens of thousands of Iraqis and thousands of coalition troops being killed. A number of people she considered friends – Iraqi and American – died in the fighting.
An Arabist who spent 10 years working in Jerusalem, Sky said: “That first year in Kirkuk I spent a lot of time with the provincial council and about a quarter of the people on the council were killed.” – © Guardian News & Media 2012