28 Apr 2016

The Unravelling: What went wrong in Iraq ?

From Nine To Noon, 10:06 am on 28 April 2016
Emma Sky

Emma Sky Photo: supplied

In 2003, Emma Sky was working for the British Council when she saw a Foreign and Commonwealth Office email request for civilian volunteers.

Despite opposing the war, she decided to help out as a way of apologising for the war to the people there.

She was only going for 3 months but went on to serve in Iraq longer than any other senior military or diplomatic figure.

Sky served as the governorate coordinator of Kirkuk in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and as political advisor to US General Ray Odierno until 2010.

She is currently the director of Yale University's World Fellows programme and lectures on Middle East politics. Her book The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq was just recently shortlisted for the 2016 Orwell prize for best political writing.

Emma Sky is coming to New Zealand for the Auckland Writers Week between the 10th and 15th May.

Read an edited snapshot of her conversation with Kathryn Ryan

KR: You were opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but you ended up going there. What was it that led you to go there?

ES: It does sound like quite an unusual story, but in 2003 after the invasion, the British government sent out and email asking for volunteers to go to Iraq for three months, to administer the country before we handed it back to the Iraqis.

As you said, I was very much against the war, but I thought this was my chance to go out and apologise to the Iraqis and do my bit to help rebuild the country.

KR: What were your impressions of how Kirkuk was being run at the time?  There was actually a joke at the time that CPA (Coalition Provision Authority) stood for ‘Can’t Provide Anything’.

ES: The CPA didn’t have the best reputation particularly in the eyes of the US military, so when I got to Kirkuk the US military was running everything…the Iraqis had been running their own country before, so it was like; “what are the US military doing running everything now?”

KR: Well it became you in a some ways, because you became governor of a province, how would you answer that question yourself, and was there a question over whether you would stay?

ES: Well in my first week in my job I realised that Iraqis took my new position quite seriously when insurgents tried to assassinate me. In the middle of the night they came to my house, which is in downtown Kirkuk and they fired rockets, and they fired five RPGs into the house.

I was very fortunate to survive that, the house was very well made – thank god!

But I thought "ah" I have no got nowhere to live. so I went to the US brigade commander of the province just to get a tent somewhere on the airfield where the military was based, so that was my first interaction with the US  military.

KR: There was demand for a speedy drawdown from Iraq, primarily by President Obama. You describe Secretary (Hillary) Clinton as running a dysfunctional mission to Baghdad that allowed a lapse back into sectarian war after elections in 2010 and that she appointed an incompetent ambassador… in your mind, this is a conclusion to another critical failure along the way.

ES:  “Well it is really sad because – I believe the Iraq War was wrong - it should have never happened - but nothing that happened after 2003 was inevitable. There really were hopes of creating a world without Saddam Hussein, and the missed opportunities to create a better order. First, in 2003 when we collapsed the states and in 2010 when we didn’t uphold the election results. And this had been the outcome, tragically.

KR: The BBC's World Affairs Editor John Simpson suggests you slipped into a Stockholm Syndrome relationship with those you worked with in Iraq, is that fair?

ES: Well he takes that from my book because I was introduced to Tony Blair by Petraeus and Odierno, and Tony Blair said “Are you British? And I said ‘I am British, born and bred.’” And he looked at me and said: “explain this.”

And of course you’ve only got 5 seconds to meet the Prime Minister – so I just said “Stockholm Syndrome” and everybody laughed and moved on.

At one level you could say I’m not somebody who naturally would have an affinity with the military, but what happened from my time in Iraq was I built up very close relations with people. And it’s the bonds that are formed by people through being thrown together in very difficult circumstances. We may have different world views, we may have different outlooks on life, but when you are put in those circumstances, when you have to rely on each other every day for support, not just for your livelihood, but for your very life, then you grow very, very close to people.