Podcast • January 6, 2011

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 ...

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

Podcast • October 26, 2009

Mark Danner: Scoring Assymetrical Warfare

If, as guesstimated, Osama Bin Laden spent half a million dollars to recruit, feed and train the perpetrators of 911, and if the US has spent or committed something like $2-trillion on our 8-year response, ...

If, as guesstimated, Osama Bin Laden spent half a million dollars to recruit, feed and train the perpetrators of 911, and if the US has spent or committed something like $2-trillion on our 8-year response, the asymmetry of costs in this global war on terror is something like 4-million to 1. And that’s just the money. I’m asking the journalist Mark Danner here to take a shot at a moral and political balance sheet.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Mark Danner. (29 minutes, 13 mb mp3)

Mark Danner has covered one of the dirtiest stories on earth – torture – with an insistent lack of squeamishness about the injuries to human bodies and to American identity. He wrote the landmark New York Times op-ed, “We Are All Torturers Now,” on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as Attorney General in 2005. The best of Mark Danner’s work on politics, violence and war is now gathered in a book titled Stripping Bare the Body. He spoke with me in Boston about the extra-Constitutional “state of exception,” as he calls it, that isn’t over yet – and what these years of suspended rules, prolonged detentions, and foreign renditions of terror suspects, and torture, have done to our country.

CL: Mark Danner, I’m reading David Rohde’s epic accounts of his imprisonment by the Taliban in the New York Times everyday for the past week. I keep wondering: when will we learn that our presence, our mere presence, not to say blowing up weddings, is a main generator of the insurgency?

MD: David Rohde, in his account of his captivity explicitly says that there are people who come and express their anger about the people who’ve been imprisoned in Guantanamo indefinitely, and Bagram and Abu Ghraib. This is a major theme in his writing, and a major theme in the grievances he hears from the Taliban. This does not mean that American policy should be guided solely by what our enemies don’t like. It does mean that there are very significant costs, political costs, to some of these policies that have to be weighed against how useful they are and whether they really protect the country. We seem to have a great deal of trouble weighing those costs, because, indeed, they’re not quantifiable as dollars or anything else.

CL: Your book keeps raising the question of what is power in a world where an IED may represent a few hundred dollars worth of effort that can blow up a multimillion dollar tank. And it happens all the time.

MD: I remember distinctly finding an IED when I was with some troops in Dora in southern Baghdad. This thing, when we finally were able to get it out of the plastic bag — it was disguised as a bit of garbage — was as simple as you can imagine. It was a little mortar shell— millions of which, literally, are around Iraq, Sadaam bought millions of these things — that had been duct-taped to the base of a phone, the kind of mobile phone you have in your house and you can press button on it that will beep the handset if you lose it. An insurgent would stand up in a building, take the handset and beep it. That would blow this thing up. Simple as can be. Easy as can be to make it. Probably cost a couple hundred bucks, depending how you value the mortar shell. And these things are incredibly effective. You cannot stop all of the IEDs from being made. You cannot stop that. You have to at some point stop the people from wanting to make them. You won’t succeed in stopping all of them, but you might succeed in stopping most of them. It is one thing that I think Americans have learned in the last eight years, that the road toward killing every Jihadist is not the road that the United States has to take. It has to be more political, and that’s not simply a matter of money, it’s a matter of effectiveness. We read everyday about these drone attacks. Another theme in the pieces by David Rohde in the New York Times was the extreme anger caused by the civilian deaths that are a side effect, a direct effect of using these missiles to attack targets on the ground in parts of Pakistan. And we think this is surgical warfare, but in fact it is people standing on the ground, suddenly being blown up. And blaming this directly on the United States. So these things do have a political cost.

Mark Danner in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 22, 2009.