Nir Rosen: the Iraq and Af-Pak Wars, at the Receiving End

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Nir Rosen (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Ghaith Abdul Ahad photo

NR: If I was going to name a company that sort of stood for the so-called American success [in Iraq] it would be Black and Decker, maker of power drills. Power-drill marks in a corpse became a signature of Shia militiamen. If you found a corpse and its head was cut off, you knew a Sunni militiaman killed him. If you found a corpse with power-drill marks on the body, you knew he was tortured to death by Shia militiamen. And this became so routine and widespread (along with other civilian abuses and casualties, murders and kidnappings conducted by both Shia militiamen and the Shia-dominated Iraqi police and Iraqi Army) that it crushed the Sunni opposition. And they were finally forced to realize that they were a small, vulnerable, weak minority staring into the abyss of extermination. And that forced them to change their calculus and ally with the Americans which led to the Awakening phenomenon (the ‘Sons of Iraq’). And that changed everything.

CL: So the short form is: the Black and Decker guys won.

NR: Terror won. So, yes. We took sides in a civil war that we helped create. One side emerged dominant and crushed the other side. We called that success and we moved on to Afghanistan.

Nir Rosen is the rare war reporter (not unlike Anthony Shadid) who covers Iraq and Afghanistan as if there are articulate people in pain on the ground — in families and villages caught between the wrecking ball of American military force and the junk-yard dogs of warlords who end up owning so much of the wreckage. Aftermath is Nir Rosen’s door-stop of a new book, nearly 600 pages of person-to-person reporting “following the bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.” Reading it all, Nir Rosen, I keep thinking: on some great Judgment Day, Americans are going to have to account for what they knew of this horror show, and if not, why not?

Nir Rosen is strikingly cast for this job of telling us. He is an American born in New York, with a bouncer’s build and a Jewish name, but with Iranian blood, too, deep olive skin and a huge Middle Eastern mustache that let him go native. Back in 2003, he writes, an American soldier saw him and exclaimed: “That’s the biggest fuckin’ Iraqi [pronounced ‘eye-raki’] I ever saw.” He’s also had the mettle to hit the street in Iraq and Lebanon and Egypt and Afghanistan — always a freelance and a solo act, not embedded and not with a New York Times or CNN credential — to report what you or I might see.

I am wondering how “fixed” Baghdad would look to us in 2011.

NR: … There has been a relative decline in violence since the peak of the civil war period, 2005 to 2007 or 08. You no longer see militias controlling the streets and checkpoints in neighborhoods. You no longer see Americans conducting patrols or arrests. But Iraq is destroyed and broken and dirty and decaying and sick. Thomas Friedman talked about “a million acts of kindness” [as the US contribution]. I think for any Iraqi that would be outrageous, and they would remember a million explosions, a million assassinations and killings and deaths and displacements and arrests. And they would blame the US for this, because all this followed the American occupation and the chaos we created and the sectarian structures we imposed on the country. So a million acts of occupation and brutality may be more correct from an Iraqi point of view.

Over the course of a long war, Nir Rosen is observing, we Americans have learned to euphemize our own brutalities, at the same time we have adopted and embellished the enemy’s bluster about the stakes.

NR: It’s ironic that we’ve adopted Al-Qaeda view of the world. Al-Qaeda believes there’s some kind of global battlefield, a global war against Jews and Crusaders and infidels, that countries don’t matter. And Obama has continued all the pathologies of the Bush administration: it’s a global war against a sort of undefined enemy, an idea, a movement, a symbol, not a nation-state — Al-Qaeda or Islamic extremism. But ironically, as a result of our wars, Al-Qaeda has gone from being a marginal, insignificant phenomenon to a much more important one throughout the Muslim world. You had 200 guys who belonged to Al-Qaeda, more or less, at the time of 9-11. And they got lucky in 9-11 and were able to murder 3,000 people. But as a result of that we went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan, we bombed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and conducted operations in other countries as well, and we spent trillions of dollars on this war without end. All for a couple hundred relatively unsophisticated extremists who, in the grand scheme of things, were able to conduct only a pinprick on the great American empire, which didn’t cause that much damage. The damage was caused by our overreaction to September 11, internally and externally.

CL: … You remind me of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations notion. I said to Sam Huntington once on the radio: ‘it seems to me that you’ve developed methadone for Cold War addicts, that you’ve invented a clash of cultural significance and worldwide scope that could go on forever, partly out of nostalgia for this enormous, long Cold War confrontation with Russian Communism.’

NR: Yes, it was as if we got rid of one enemy [in Russian Communism] and now we need to find another one to justify our massive military expenditure and our militaristic approach to dominating the world. For now, Muslims are a good candidate. But Al-Qaeda is such a marginal phenomenon in the Middle East, in the Muslim world, it just doesn’t make any sense. … They’ve become more important thanks to us, thanks to our approach, but it’s not a threat. It’s a nuisance really. And we treat them as if Al-Qaeda threatens to take over and dominate the Muslim world, when it’s just a joke. There’s no war of ideas here, and no threat militarily. If you visit the Arab world nobody cares about them.

Nir Rosen of Aftermath in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 5, 2011

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  • orangescissor

    Thank you for trying to help us understand what happens in Iraq, Afghanistan and the occupied territories. One of the impressions I get looking back at the last decade in the Middle East, even the last 20 years, is that all the promises after the end of the Cold War have turned into crimes of enormous historic magnitude. Somehow it has been acceptable to destroy so many lives in the Middle East, permanently displace people, and claim that this is reasonable to protect ‘our way of life’.

    Quite possibly the point about Israel and the occupied territories can be generalized, that those of us who are living well today do so at the cost of others. Because Rosen has documented some of what has happened in Iraq, Afghanistan and the occupied territories hopefully we will try to reckon with the crimes of our past, to pay back some debts to the peoples whose lives have been lost and destroyed…But if recent history tells us anything, it is that we will not look back at our painful past and instead accept that it is ok for many people to live their whole lives in conditions of war ‘out there’ in order to ensure peace and prosperity for a privileged few at home.

  • Potter

    Yesterday we heard on the news that VPJoe Biden, re his assessment trip to Afghanistan said that we might be there even after 2014. We are figuring 30 years unless we get some real change in leadership.

    But I don’t see one coming down the pike. Instead we might be voting in 2012 against much worse leadership coming to office.

    Regarding Israel and the hopelessness of the 2 state solution- those with their heads stuck completely in this issue (I pull mine out for air every now and then, this is a breathing period) still say that this is the only way forward– even though we can’t see how that happens. Regarding Abbas as an enabler of occupation (as Rosen suggests) he is also of the non-violent persuasion and realizes that violence has gotten Palestinians very little- and certainly the loss of some international support. The quieter Palestinians are, the more they concentrate on building their state, the further they move towards their liberation one way or another (one state- two state) and the more israeli’s dig themselves deeper into a hole domestically and internationally. Israel has had extraordinary support not just from the US since it’s birth. That is changing… even amongst Jews abroad.

    In both cases, including the very sad chapter on Iraq (not over) Obama has been very disappointing, weak, especially if he really meant what he said prior to assuming leadership. I think we can assume that at his core (where is he?) he knows better.

    Regarding Iraq, especially listening to Nir Rosen tell it after creeping around and assessing the damage, I can’t miss this opportunity to again wish that we as a nation look bravely and truthfully at what we have done, what we were lead into and then to reckon with it, disassociate ourselves from this kind of foreign policy, say that we erred and that this is not a precedent for our future. Listening to Rosen, I feel such shame. We will never live to feel good about these wars.

    About Afghanistan, Obama’s war now, Nir Rosen confirms the rightness of those who say we should just leave and “why are we there??” Pakistan?

    Thank you Nir Rosen… Chris.

  • sidewalker

    Another disturbingly enlightening show. The painful stories of the foreign other, too rarely, are give a hearing against the drum beat of benign imperialism.

    Listening to the show, two things came to mind.

    One was Rene Girard’s theories of Mimetic Desire and The Scapegoat. In a hyper competitive consumer culture with such a wide and growing income gap, does the USA have any other means of avoiding a greater orgy of killing at home than unleashing its military for bloodbaths around the globe?

    The second is the disparity of media coverage if we compare the attention given to the recent killings in Arizona with the daily killings of officials during the darkest days of the Iraq occupation.

    Thank you Chris and Nir Rosen for continuing to question, listen and reflect when so many want to just forget and move on.

  • When I was living abroad in 2003 prior to the Iraq War, two themes stood out: (1) when looking to debate back home through the internet, the views of credible journalists like Nir Rosen providing us eyes and ears for the Iraqi citizen was nearly nonexistent; (2) among the expat community, the ratio of those against the war was roughly 98 to 2.

    One of the themes of this program is that our current wars appear to be a war against communism by different name. At least with the war against communism, communism itself, theoretically, had some attractive qualities: equality among the sexes, the disbursement of middle class hording, etc. But among that 98 percent, even in our most sarcastic moments, I don’t recall anyone ever arguing for bin Laden’s version of the Koran. Indeed, as Nir Rosen says here, the “War of Ideas” explanation is a farce, unless by ideas you mean American ones, and war, the usual vitriol.

    What exactly is the American global vision now? This program combined with the recent one on the WikiLeaks melodrama, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that our government is now desperately trying to rein in a free world it helped create.

  • Jane Orvis

    This program is absolutely essential! Thank you for telling the truth without fear, whatever that truth might be, wherever you find it. I hope you continue the good work!

  • Jeech

    I feel that some one is there to hear Middle East and the Muslim world. Thanks for setting us free.

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