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George Packer on the Betrayal of Working Iraqis

Journalist George Packer's article in the March 26 issue of The New Yorker magazine is called "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America the Most."

He reports that men employed by Americans as interpreters, construction workers, drivers and office workers are now being marked for death and hunted down as collaborators.

Packers most recent book is The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq.


Other segments from the episode on March 22, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 22, 2007: interview with George Packer; Interview with Daniel Byman.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: George Packer of The New Yorker on his new article
"Betrayed" about the Iraqis working for America

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. America has betrayed the Iraqis who
trusted America the most, according to the new article "Betrayed" in the
current edition of The New Yorker. My guest is the author, George Packer.
His article is about Iraqis who have worked as interpreters and in other
capacities with the Americans in Iraq only to find themselves labeled
collaborators and targeted for death by Sunni and Shiite militias in Iraq.
Packer writes that when Iraqi employees of the US military began to be
kidnapped and killed in large numbers, there was essentially no American

Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and won an Overseas Press Club
award for his coverage of Iraq. He wrote the 2005 book "The Assassin's Gate:
America in Iraq." Packer has made six trips to Iraq. His latest was in

George Packer, welcome to FRESH AIR. What are some of the jobs involving
Iraqis working with Americans in Iraq that have become really dangerous to do?

Mr. GEORGE PACKER: Well, the most common job is interpreting. Iraqis flock
to the Marines and the Army when Americans first came to Baghdad. And that
was the job that most of them expected to do and asked to do, and obviously
there was a huge need, far greater need than the supply was ever able to meet.
And that job became especially dangerous as Iraqis accompanied Americans out
on patrols or on raids or even at city council meetings, or meetings with
tribal sheiks. And the insurgents began to target them as collaborators. And
so more and more of them had to disguise their identity, whether by hiding
their face or by working in cities that were far from where they were born, by
using American names, which soldiers gave them, like "Kristy" and "Andy."

But there were a lot of other jobs, too, that Iraqs performed: subcontractors
who did construction work, day laborers, drivers, office managers at USAID in
the green zone, secretaries at the US embassy. Really, you can count them in
the thousands, those Iraqis who worked one way or another with Americans over
the last four years.

GROSS: So what are some of the typical problems that an Iraqi who's working
with the Americans may face if their identity becomes known?

Mr. PACKER: Death. Death by execution style. I mean, it has become a sure
thing now that if your identity is revealed and you do not protect yourself,
either by leaving the country or quitting your job and hiding out at home or
in some way making yourself scarce, you'll be killed. It's the most certain
thing in Iraq today, that those Iraqis working with Americans are targeted for
death. They're the most vulnerable group and they are, in a way, the most
hated group, and the most persecuted by the insurgents, and now by some of the
Shia militias, as well, because they're seen as agents of the occupiers.

And one forgets--and many Iraqis forget--that four years ago, lots and lots of
Iraqis wanted nothing more than to get a job with those occupiers. But over
time, as the occupation has more than worn out its welcome, and as America's
presence has grown more unpopular, even hated, the Iraqis who've stuck it out
and who've remained loyal and committed to the American presence, whether for
money or because they believed in the vision, they are truly a homeless
population in Iraq. No one is on their side, and they really can't protect
themselves, either. Which is why, after seeing so many of their colleagues
targeted, kidnapped and killed, so many of them are now leaving the country.

GROSS: So one of the few things that Sunni and Shia agree on now in Iraq are
they don't like Iraqis who are working with the Americans?

Mr. PACKER: Exactly. It's a grim point of consensus. And even the Iraqi
government, which one could say owes its position, in some ways, to the
American Army and the American government, its officials also seem to harbor
contempt and suspicion for Iraqis who work with the Americans. I think that's
partly an effort to burnish their own credentials as nationalists with their
constituents. But an Iraqi can be going to work in the green zone, and an
Iraqi guard at the gates of the green zone will shout out `Embassy!' when he
sees the person's badge, and it's done to target that person. It's done to
call attention to them, and I've heard so many stories of Iraqis whose
neighbors spotted them on their way into the green zone, or who were
recognized at a military base by someone they went to college with, or whose
image appeared on television because a journalist forgot to turn off his
camera when the interpreter was in the scene, and their lives are transformed.
I mean, in the sense they're marked at that point, and they have to take
extreme measures to protect themselves.

GROSS: Has the United States done anything to try to protect the Iraqis
who're working with the Americans?

Mr. PACKER: Basically, no. There are some individuals at the embassy, at
USAID and in the military, maybe more than anywhere else, who have taken a
personal interest in an Iraqi who works with them and who have tried to help
them, whether to get them housing on a base or to get them a visa to the
United States. I know of a sergeant major who's been working very hard to get
several women who worked in his office, and who are now refugees in Jordan,
visas to the US. But institutionally, astonishingly little has been done.

Iraqis at the US embassy tried over and over again to get the smallest
procedural changes made in order to be more secure. For example, they've
always had to wait in line to get into the green zone with every other Iraqi
who had any business that day in the green zone. But for them, they had to do
it every day, and they had to show their badges in front of all these other
Iraqis and display that they were working with the Americans. And they--a
group that I talked to went in and spoke with former ambassador Negroponte and
then again with other officials and said, `Can you please let us into the
priority lane where people, Americans and others with security clearances, can
get into the green zone quickly and then search us once we're in the gates,
but outside the gates, we're targets of car bombers and we're targets for
insurgent lookouts.' And over and over again, they were told `We can't do
that. We can't change the rules.' The security of the...

GROSS: Why not? Why can't they change them?

Mr. PACKER: Well, the excuses given were, `We would have to change the color
coding of your badge, and if we did that for you, we'd have to do it for 300
other Iraqis, or we would have to change the wording of weapons permit on that
priority lane badge from yes to no, and for some reason that might be a breach
of security.' I mean, the word "security" is sort of the explanation for all
questions. And it became a word that the Iraqis I met grew to hate, because
what it really meant was "no." And `we can't tell you exactly why not, but the
answer is no.'

And what it told them was that they weren't trusted, that the security problem
was them, and that they needed to be searched every time they came in and out
of the embassy, even though Jordanians aren't searched every time they come in
and out of the embassy. They couldn't have housing beyond, say, a week in a
trailer in the green zone even though Jordanians and other foreign nationals
can live there for months on end. And what that told the Iraqis is, `Even
though you work with us, even though you sacrifice for us, even though you
risk your life every day, we really don't trust you.' And I think that was one
of the fundamental reasons why the answer was always no.

GROSS: Is it getting hard to find Iraqis who are willing to work as
translators or do anything else for Americans in Iraq?

Mr. PACKER: Yes, it is, although the pay is the good, and so that has made
it difficult for some people in those jobs to quit them, and made it tempting
for others to apply for them. But basically, at this point, you have to
be--you have to have nerves of steel to take a job like that, and it is
getting harder. And the Americans have also made a decision to put Jordanians
and other foreigners in jobs that used to be held by Iraqis at the embassy
because, I think, they simply found it easier to deal with their security
concerns. They lived like Americans. They lived in the green zone. They
didn't have families in Baghdad who might be kidnapped or threatened. They
didn't go home and risk being kidnapped themselves and threatened and
blackmailed into giving information up, etc., etc.

So the embassy has sort of taken the easy way, the short term way, which is to
allow Iraqis to leave, to not make a real effort beyond the pay raise to hold
onto them, and to give those jobs to others. But, of course, the problem is,
Jordanians and others don't know anything about Iraq. It's the Iraqis who do.
They have such a wealth of information that the Americans could and, in some
cases, have used. Without them there, I think we're blinder than we've ever
been, and we have been blind throughout.

GROSS: What message does that send to Iraqis, if it's now mostly Jordanians
and people from other countries, like you mentioned, the Republic of Georgia,
who are getting hired for those jobs?

Mr. PACKER: I think it tells them that you're dispensable, that the
potential threat you represent is great enough that we're willing to sacrifice
some part of the mission here in order to be able to deal with it. And really
that, after four years, there isn't much of a relationship. I think this is
the thing that struck me the most about my conversations with these Iraqis who
worked with Americans. There was a sense of almost being a jilted lover or a
discarded friend, a sense that, `We reached out to you, we wanted you, we were
so happy to see you in our country, and this is what we've gotten.' And
there's a deep sense of betrayal.

GROSS: My guest is George Packer. We're talking about his article "Betrayed"
in the current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is George Packer. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker.
We're talking about his article "Betrayed," which is in the current edition.
It's about how Iraqis working with Americans in Iraq are now seen as
collaborators and targeted for death, but they've received little protection
from America.

Now, you write about the Titan Corporation, which, until December, helped the
Pentagon contract for employing interpreters in Iraq. And you say that this
company became notorious among Iraqis for mistreating its foreign staff. What
kind of reports did you hear?

Mr. PACKER: Well, the mistreatment ranged from the petty, like sort of
abusive language and making people wait for hours in the sun and not paying
them on time, to what I think is really the criminal. For example I talked to
an interpreter who was in a Marine convoy that was hit by a roadside bomb, and
the Iraqi interpreter suffered second degree burns on his face and hands, he
went to his hometown for medical care after being told after a week in a green
zone hospital that he couldn't stay there any longer. He recovered. He drew
a lot of suspicion in his hometown. `What're you doing here? Why're you
burned? Where've you been?' And then he went back to the base to resume his
job, and he found that Titan had essentially decided that he no longer
existed. His badges had been destroyed. And they refused to pay him any
compensation money for the time he spent recovering from injuries he sustained
on the job.

Very few Iraqis seem to know what's in their contract with Titan. Titan
doesn't publicize those contracts. And when another woman at the same base
received a death threat by phone and went to Titan to ask them what they could
do for her, they essentially said to her, `You can quit,' and she said, `If I
quit, I'll be targeted when I go home,' and they said, `That's not our

So there's just this sense, and I think Titan, in a way, was worse than
certainly the military, because their motive was the profit motive. The
mission was not what brought them to Iraq. But a just sense that there was no
strategic price to be paid for treating Iraqi employees this way, that they
were disposable. You could always bring in more. That was what one
interpreter said to me, `We always told ourselves there're hundreds more like
us if we don't want to keep doing the job and suffering these indignities.'

But there really was a strategic price to pay because the lesson was learned
not just by those Iraqis but by Iraqis that the Americans were not willing to
protect the people who work with them, which just sort of destroyed the
confidence of those Iraqis, that the Americans were able to provide anything
for Iraq. If they couldn't even provide good body armor for Iraqis working
with American soldiers or diplomats, then why should anyone have any faith
that America was providing Iraq itself with anything? It fed right into the
propaganda line of the insurgents and made it very easy for the insurgents to
convince the civilian population that these Iraqis were traitors.

GROSS: Just to give more of a sense about what Iraqis in general, in
particular Iraqis who work with Americans, are up against, you were
interviewing two people who have worked with Americans, and the only place
that they were willing to talk to you was at the Palestine Hotel, a hotel
where a lot of journalists stay, because it was the only place that felt safe
being seen with an American. And one of those two people, it took them three
days to get from their house in western Baghdad to the hotel. How many miles
are we talking about, and why did it take so long?

Mr. PACKER: Oh, we're just talking about maybe three miles, maybe four at
the most. And streets empty of traffic because so much of life has shut down.
So it should've taken him about 15 minutes. He was at his parent's house at
an insurgent stronghold in western Baghdad, that's essentially what he has to
live with every day. He hates the insurgents, but he's surrounded by them and
has to kind of make his peace with them. In order to get to me, he went to
his sister's house a little further east, but his sister's house was in an
area that was in the middle of Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence. He was
trapped there for two days, watching firefights and street battles and houses
around him burning down.

On the third morning, his brother-in-law, who's Shiite--my friend is
Sunni--walked him out past the Mahdi army militia men, essentially saying,
`He's with me; don't touch him,' and put him in the taxi. Where my friend
went to his friend's house, spent another night there in a slightly safer,
although not much safer, neighborhood, and then the next morning, they both
went to the Palestine Hotel, which was literally the only place in Baghdad
where we could meet. They felt going into the green zone was too dangerous
for them. For me to come to them was out of the question, it would put us
both in danger. And so we met in this creepy, deserted hotel at night, with
pretty loose security and all of us wondering, you know, `Is this place
entirely safe?' It used to be the major hangout for Western journalists, and
now it's completely abandoned. There's almost no guests there at all.

GROSS: Is that because it had been attacked before?

Mr. PACKER: It had been the target of a massive suicide bomber with a cement
mixer in late 2005, but it had already begun to thin out before then. Just
over the course of the last four years with each returning trip, I've watched
the foreign press corps sort of disappear, and now there's just a few hardcore
bureaus in a couple of mini-green zones around Baghdad, and none of them are
at the Palestine Hotel any longer. So it had the feel of a rather sinister
place at the tail end of a dismal war.

GROSS: So the person who we're talking about, who took three days to travel
just about three miles from his home to meeting you at the Palestine Hotel,
his family has had a lot of problems because of the war in Iraq. His two
teenage brothers were kidnapped, and then one of his brothers was shot in the
eye, and you describe how, you know, they took him to the hospital, but the
hospital--you say the whole health system is under the Mahdi army's control,
and he's the radical Shia cleric who has a milita. What does that mean that
the health system is under the Mahdi army's control?

Mr. PACKER: Well, when the government of Iraq was formed after the
elections, the ministries were divided among the political parties and Muqtada
al-Sadr sort of followed the Hezbollah pattern and went for the key sort of
social ministries: education, health. So the minister of health is a member
of his movement, and hospitals are plastered with posters of Muqtada al-Sadr,
female doctors are harrassed by militia men if they treat male patients or if
they go with...(unintelligible), doctors are threatened routinely, and
Sunni patients are at risk if they stay at the hospital for more than a day or
two because the security is provided by the Mahdi army, and the Mahdi army is
looking for Sunnis. So my friend, who I call Othman in the piece, decided his
brother with the bullet in his eye would be safer at home than in a hospital,
so he took him home.

GROSS: Now, you say that Othman, the man we've been talking about, when you
spoke to him, he was paralyzed. He really wanted to leave, but he couldn't
decide whether to leave or stay. Why was this decision so paralyzing?

Mr. PACKER: It does seem like a no-brainer, doesn't it? Your younger
brothers have been kidnapped and threatened within an inch of their lives, and
your older brother has been nearly shot to death. But I think it speaks to
the attachment Iraqis feel to their homes. I mean, obviously, everyone feels
that attachment, but I find it intense in Iraq, stronger than in other
countries where I've seen people fleeing. It takes a lot to pry Iraqis from
their homes.

This refugee population, and there's really almost two million of them who
have fled the country, is not the sort of unwashed masses, or the desperate
and starving that we see in other refugee crises. They're largely middle
class, they have homes, they have jobs, their children are in school, they
worry about their daughters completing high school and their sons completing
college. They have what seemed to us like rather prosaic and familiar
concerns. And for them to leave everything in Baghdad, and really knowing
that they may well never go back, is an enormous decision. And Othman has
finally made that decision. He spent several thousand dollars on black market
passports for his family, but he himself is going to have a very hard time
leaving, even though his life is in danger every day.

GROSS: George Packer's article, "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America
the Most," is in the current edition of The New Yorker. He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with George Packer, a staff
writer for the New Yorker magazine and author of the 2005 book "The Assasin's
Gate: America in Iraq." He's made six trips to Iraq, the latest was in
January. His article in the current edition of the New Yorker "Betrayed" is
about Iraqis who have worked with Americans in Iraq and consequently have been
labeled as collaborators, targeted for death by Sunni and Shiite militias.

Here we've been talking about Iraqis who've worked for Americans and are in
jeopardy because of that. Many of them are trying to leave the country, or
have already left the country. But it's not just Iraqis who work with
Americans who want to leave. You say that last summer Iraqis were fleeing the
country at the rate of 40,000 people per month. And you described this as a
refugee crisis that is hidden. What is hidden about it?

Mr. PACKER: Well, I mean, I think at this point it's the biggest refugee
crisis in the world. But it's really only in the last two or three months
that it's gotten international attention. First of all, they were not
officially considered refugees. The vast majority of them who are in Jordan
and Syria--because Jordan and Syria were not signatories to the 1951
convention on refugees, and also because the US government did not want to see
them as refugees. It regarded them as temporary displaced people. I think
the term was temporary protected status, with the assumption that as soon as
things stabilized they would go back to Iraq. They wanted to go home. They
were not looking to be resettled in third countries. And UNHCR, the UN office
on refugees, sort of took its queue from the American policy and only
registered small numbers of these hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.

But I think pressure from refugee advocates and from journalists forced the UN
and then the US to change its stance to ask for more money and more staff to
register these people, and to begin to ask third countries to start to accept
them for resettlement. But up until now, a tiny, tiny number of them had been
resettled. But the main point is they are refugees, they are not going back
to Iraq any time soon. The decision to leave was a huge one, and once they
leave they are in limbo. And Iraq is not a place where people are able to
return easily.

GROSS: You went to Syria because tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled to
Syria. You said there's about a million Iraqis now, I'm not sure if they're
all people who left after the 2003 invasion or whether some of those million
had gone to Syria earlier.

Mr. PACKER: I think almost all of them left after the invasion.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PACKER: But there were different waves after the invasion. The first
wave were essentially sympathizers of the former regime, Baathists and their
friends and families who went to Damascus and Amman. And in a way back to the
front of the line and had enough money to be able to buy property. And now
property values have skyrocketed because of the refugee population, and so
they're looking pretty good.

The next wave were fleeing kidnapping and economic crimes. They were middle
class people with money, with businesses. But now it really is any Iraqi who
can leave; almost any Iraqi with the means to get out is getting out.

And when I was in Damascus in January, I went one night to the bus station
where the buses were coming in from Baghdad. And I met a driver of one of
these minibuses and I asked him, you know, `Who's coming here?' And he said,
`Everybody.' I said, `Well, who's in Baghdad?' He said, `The only people left
in Baghdad are those too poor to get out or those with a bad omen on their
heads who will be killed in one of three ways: by kidnapping, by car bomb or
by militia.' He sort of said it so categorically as if it was a fact that
anyone left behind now was either poor or in some way cursed; everyone else
was trying to leave.

GROSS: There were congressional hearings held by the Senate Judiciary
Committee subcommittee on refugees chaired by Ted Kennedy. And these were
held in January, and that led in February, the State Department announced the
formation of a task force to deal with the problem of Iraqi refugees. What's
being accomplished so far?

Mr. PACKER: Well, the task force was a good development, and so was the
announcement that the US government would be willing to resettle something
like 7,000 Iraqis this year, which is an increase of about 20 times what had
been resettled in the last couple of years. But so far I don't think very
much at all has been accomplished. And the way I measure it is by the people
I know who I met during this trip and this reporting project.

There's a guy who's stuck in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. His bisa
there is running out. They're not going to renew it because Iraqis are not
welcome in these countries any longer. He worked for USAID. He got a death
threat along with the symbolic severed upper half of a dog in his yard. He
was essentially told, `You're a dead man.' He left the country. He went to
Dubai. His visa's running out. He has nowhere to go. There is no other
country that will take him, where he has any chance of making a living. So
he's really seriously thinking about returning to Iraq at the beginning of
next month.

And what does the task force have to offer him right now? Well, they've
essentially said, `You can begin registering with the UN and we will put you
in a kind of expedited line if you worked with the US, and perhaps in six
months you will have come to the front of the line and been cleared by the UN
and the Department of State. And then all the security checks of Homeland
Security will have to take place and that will push it even back farther.' So
maybe by the end of this year this man has a chance of being resettled in this
country. But what is he going to do for the next nine months? He has no
income, he has a young wife, and he's thinking seriously about returning to
Iraq, which he said to me is like taking the decision to commit suicide.

There are others who are in similar positions. These are desperate cases.
And I know of them as individual cases, but you can only imagine that they're
repeated in the hundreds or thousands. And I'm afraid there isn't enough of a
sense of urgency. There isn't enough, really, political will to make this a
priority. I mean, if we look back at the end of the Vietnam War, President
Gerald Ford made a decision to cut through the bureaucracy and change
immigration laws almost overnight in order to admit 130,000 Vietnamese by the
end of 1975. We've admitted a couple of hundred Iraqis so far. And there is
no sign yet, to me, that the administration sees this as such a moral
obligation that they are willing to pay the political price for making it a
top priority that Iraqis who worked with us will be brought to this country
for their own safety. And until I see that beginning to happen on an
individual level in cases that I know, I'm going to remain skeptical that it's
going to happen at all.

GROSS: How many people that you've met in your six trips to Iraq have been

Mr. PACKER: I think maybe five, maybe six.

GROSS: And what are some of those circumstances?

Mr. PACKER: Well, one was Sergio Vieira de Mello, the UN envoy who was
killed in a car bomb.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PACKER: One was a politician named Akila al-Hashimi, who was
assassinated. One was an Iraqi fixer for the New York Times in Basra named
Fakher. One was, you know, just a friend of one of my friends who I met
briefly and who I later heard had been killed. But, you know, more important
than people I know, every Iraqi knows someone. And not just someone, but
someone close to them who's been killed. It's kind of staggering what you
begin to hear when you start to find out what daily life is like.

I mean, for example, Othman in my story has just had one disaster after
another befall his family, and he is just a tower of strength to be able to
maintain his sanity and his judgment through this. But that's a typical case.

GROSS: Well, in fact, why don't you leave us with the story of his two
brothers getting kidnapped and how he tried to deal with the kidnappers on the

Mr. PACKER: You know, Othman is the guy who I would want at my side in a
crisis. You know, if I was about to be kidnapped I would absolutely want him
there because he's just very cool headed. He's a doctor who then began
working with Western journalists.

He has two teenage brothers whom he adores. And--it's a Sunni family, and one
day they didn't come home from their high school. This was in January. And
he couldn't get them on the phone, and finally he got through on the cell
phone and a stranger answered. And Othman said, `Where's Muhammed? Where's
my brother?' And the man said, `He's right here. I'm looking at him.' `You're
joking.' `No, I'm not joking. I've got both your brothers right here. Are
you Sunni or Shia?'

And at that moment Othman had to try and make the decision what to answer in
order to save his brothers lives. And he actually gave the wrong answer. He
said, `We're Shia,' because he assumed it was the Mahdi army that had
kidnapped them. And after that he lost contact with the kidnappers for a
couple of hours. And his mother had also talked to the kidnappers, and they
had said to her, `How do you want your boys killed? Should we cut off their
heads or chop them into pieces? We love chopping boys into pieces.' It was
really about as horrific as you can imagine. Finally, Othman, through his
contacts with the Sunni political party, got a friend who knew insurgent
groups to call these guys back. And this shows you that all Iraqis have to
have contacts with everyone. They are so much more embedded in the, you know,
the sides, and in the violence and in the factions than we ever can imagine.
And this friend convinced the kidnappers that the boys were, in fact, truly
Sunni. The kidnappers were al-Qaeda members.

And the boys were released with apologies and returned--had their cell phones
returned to them, and by the end of the afternoon they were back home. But as
Othman as was said to me, `It was the worst day of my life and I'll never
forget the sound of that man's voice on the phone.' But he also said to me,
`This has made me all the more determined to learn journalism so I can tell
the world the story of what these people do.' And so, in a sense, even at the
absolute worst moment of his life, he is trying to find some way to redeem it.
And I've seen that in other Iraqis, and it's the thing that inspires me about
them and makes me want to keep telling their story because we don't hear
enough about that. What we only hear about is death and destruction. But
there's an amazing spirit that has not completely been destroyed by this war.

GROSS: George Packer, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. PACKER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: George Packer's article "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America the
Most" is in the current edition of the New Yorker.

Coming up, we talk about the ripple effects of the war on the region and on
worldwide terrorism with Daniel Byman, director of the Center for Peace and
Security Studies at Georgetown University. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Daniel Byman discusses the effects of the war in Iraq
on state sponsored terrorism

This week marked the fourth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq and
the start of the American military's fifth year there. The war has had many
unintended consequences. My guest, Daniel Byman, writes about some of them in
a paper he co-authored titled "Things Fall Apart," containing the spillover
from an Iraqi civil war. It was written for the Brookings Institution's Saban
Center for Middle East Policy where Byman is a nonresident fellow. He also
directs Georgetown University's Center for Peace and Security Studies, and
served on the staff of the 9/11 Commission.

Daniel Byman, welcome back to FRESH AIR. How do you think the war in Iraq is
affecting the larger jihadist movement?

Mr. DANIEL BYMAN: Iraq is one of the greatest boons to the global jihadist
movement that they've ever had. Young men from around the Middle East and, at
times, Europe and Asia are coming to Iraq where it's a training ground for
them to learn new technologies like improvised explosive devices. They're
being indoctrinated into a more global ideology. So they may have gone there
simply because they don't like the American occupation, but they're leaving
believing that countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Indonesia are
illegitimate and the government should be overthrown. They're finding a
network of individuals whom they can work with and we'll see that network be
used for 20 years, 30 years.

But perhaps most importantly it's unifying the movement. The broader radical
Islamist movement is highly divided over a number of divisions that seem quite
arcane to us, often on theology. And at times they're divided on practicle
questions, whom to strike next? Is it more important to go after India or
Russia and Chechnya.

But Iraq brought this movement together because they could all agree that the
US occupation was something that they should fight against and made them
heroes in much of the Muslim world. And this is something that is hard to
quantify, but is going to make the movement that much stronger in the years to
come becasue it's given them credibility at a time when--2003, in
particular--when they seem quite weak to many people.

GROSS: And we hear a lot about al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, which is the name of one of
the groups in Iraq. Is al-Qaeda-in-Iraq directly affiliated with al-Qaeda?

Mr. BYMAN: Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq is directly affiliated with al-Qaeda, but not in
a way that is often described. There was a jihadist movement in Iraq that had
some loose links to al-Qaeda. And over time, because Iraq was such a popular
struggle, became quite strong. Then there was a negotiation between the local
leaders in Iraq and the al-Qaeda movement, the bin Laden movement--in
particular, his deputy Zawahiri. And this negotiation brought these two
together, where each can see it a bit. What the local movement got was a
global network and a certain degree of prestige in radical circles by
affilitating with al-Qaeda. What the global movement got was a hot property,
if you will, a hot organization that was in the heart of the most important
struggle in terms of recruits and propaganda. And that was Iraq. So there
was a win-win from this merger. But it wasn't bin Laden creating a movement
and nurturing it. It was a movement that was largely created by others and
nurtured on its own.

GROSS: Now, you recently co-authored a paper on how to contain the spillover
from the civil war in Iraq. And this paper was based on studying recent civil
wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Congo, Kosovo, Lebanon, Somalia and other
countries. You wrote this paper as part of your work with the Brookings
Institution. Part of the paper is about preventing what's happening in Iraq
from becoming full scale civil war. But since you wrote the paper, do you
think that it's reached that level of full scale civil war?

Mr. BYMAN: Iraq is certainly in a full scale civil war. But even within
full scale civil wars there are degrees. And what we're seeing in Iraq is
thousands of people dying on a regular basis in Iraq. But what we saw in a
place like Congo is millions of people dying. And as horrible as the
situation in Iraq is, it's worth pointing out that it could be worse. And a
lot of what we were thinking about in this report is: If the United States
leaves and if things start to get much worse, what are the consequences of
that for the region? And the shorter answer is the consequences are bad.

GROSS: One of the countries your concerned about is Iran. Now, they already
are playing some role in Iraq. What role would you say they're playing now,
and what do you consider--I mean, how might they escalate that role?

Mr. BYMAN: Right now Iran is playing a massive role in Iraq. It has
hundreds, perhaps thousands of intelligence and paramilitary personnel on the
ground. They are working with a wide variety of factions in Iraq, not only
Shia groups but also some Kurds. They are training, they're organizing,
they're proselytizing. And in general, Iran is trying to have influence with
as many different groups as possible, and it also wants influence on a local
level as well as a national level.

For Iran, a US withdrawal is an opportunity to expand its influence. Iran is
likely to try to see the resulting power vacuum as a way that it can become an
even more important and an even more dominant power in Iraq. I'm not sure
this will succeed. But in the short term, at least, Iran is likely truomg to
expand its intelligence and paramilitary presence. And there's even a
possibility that Iran could become more involved militarily should the
sectarian war start to spill over even more and should Iran believe it has an
opportunity to aid particular proxies in the ensuing fight.

GROSS: I don't know if you saw this. There was recently an article in the
New York Times by Edward Wong, who's based in Iraq. And it was headlined
"Iran Is Playing a Growing Role in Iraq Economy." And I'll read you just a few
lines from the article. It said, "While the Bush Administration works to stop
Iran from meddling in Iraq, Iranian air conditioners still Iraqi applicance
stores, Iranian tomatoes ripen on the windowsills of kitches here, and legions
of white Iranian-made Peugeots sit in Iraqi driveways. Some Iraqi cities,
including Basra, buy or plan to buy electricity from Iran. The economies of
Iraq and Iran, the largest Shiite majority countries in the world, are
becoming closely integrated with Iranian goods flooding Iraqi markets and
Iraqi cities looking to Iran for basic services."

I think that's certainly an unintended consequence of the war in Iraq. What
is your reading of the implications of that?

Mr. BYMAN: We shouldn't be surprised by this. It's natural that two
neighbors are going to trade with one another and, you know, ideally, more is
better. The United States, of course, trades--you know, has a huge trade
relationship with both Canada and Mexico. But this is another potenial form
of Iranian influence. Iran can manipulate trade, it can manipulate the border
to make life better or worse for Iraqis. And any government that's in power
in Baghdad has to recognize this reality, that Iran is not only a force on the
ground militarily in terms of paramilitary and intelligence forces, but also
has tremendous influence over Iraq's economy.

GROSS: So your concern about Iran becoming more deeply involved with
Iraq--and you're also worried about the Saudis become involved in Iraq to
counter Iran's influence. Why would the Saudis--why might the Saudis feel
that they needed to do that?

MR. BYMAN: The Saudis may have multiple reasons to become involved. One is
that they fear Iran and they fear the rise of the Shia in Iraq. So they may
aid their own proxies in an attempt to at least hurt their opponents, or at
least weaken their power. They also may believe that Iraq would become a
stepping stone for Iranian influence throughout the rest of the Arab world.
That seems a bit farfetched to me, but the Saudis are quite paranoid about
this. And this fear is shared by a number of other Sunni-Arab states that are
very worried both about their own domestic Shia but also about the spectre of
Iranian power in the region.

GROSS: My guest is Daniel Byman, director of Georgetown University's Center
for Peace and Security Studies. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH


GROSS: My guest is Daniel Byman. We're talking about a paper he co-wrote for
the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy called "Things
Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War."

You caution in your paper about the ripple effects of the war in Iraq, that
the United States shouldn't try to pick a winner in the civil war. Why not?

Mr. BYMAN: Well, sitting here from Washington it's very tempting to think of
Iraq as a chessboard, and if you move one piece, if you strengthen one side,
you can really do this quite artfully. In reality, to pick winners, you have
to have tremendous intelligence about the local military balance of forces.
And in Iraq, we don't know who the best military commanders are. We also
don't know the relative strengths of the different sides. And this is, in
large part, because the Sunnis and the Shia in particular have numerous
internal divisions. In the United States, people often talk about the Shia as
if it were a single community with a single voice and a single set of leaders.
In reality, the Shia leaders are often heavily divided. Shia militias have
fought against one another. So it's not clear who's going to show up to fight
and who's going to fight against whom. And in those circumstances, it's very
difficult to choose one side and help guide it to victory.

GROSS: OK. So your recent paper's about the ripple effects of the war in
Iraq and what the ripple effects would be if the United States pulled out of
Iraq. From your position now, what do you think the United States should do?
Should it stay in Iraq because things are such a mess there now? Or should it
pull out because things are such a mess there now? And what are the
consequences of either actions?

Mr. BYMAN: I'm personally pessimistic about the chances for the United
States achieving victory at this point. I think that we have a strategy and a
military leadership that, I think, understands what needs to be done, but the
mission is still woefully understaffed and underresourced. We don't have
nearly enough troops. And the insurgent troops are quite strong. The local
political structures are weak and corrupt. And so, in general, I'm
pessimistic. And I would add that I don't think the American people are going
to be tolerant of a mission that's going to last another 10 or 15 years which,
in my judgment, is what this thing is going to take if it's going to have a
chance at victory.

If victory is off the table, we get into questions of, what do you do instead?
And for me walking away completely would be disastrous. As we discuss in the
paper, there are a host of problems that could destabilize not only Iraq,
which is already close to being a basket case, but also many neighboring
states, including such important allies as Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
And we need to think very heavily because we have tremendous interest in those
regions. And to do this, I would say that the United States should be
thinking hard about how to minimize spillover from Iraq. The United States
should be thinking about how to contain this problem rather than,
unfortunately, how to solve it, which I don't think is practical at the
moment. And this requires a very different way of thinking and approaching
the US military presence and US political goals in the region.

GROSS: Because right now what we're doing is fighting militarily. So how
could we use the resources we have to contain the problem as opposed to trying
for victory?

Mr. BYMAN: Containment emphasizes trying to stop the problems from spreading
to regional states. So this involves working with regional states to police
refugee camps, trying to make them stronger bureaucratically, trying to make
them stronger economically, trying to help them guard against terrorism,
countering some of the economic effects. And also trying to dissuade states
like Iran or Syria or even allies like Saudi Arabia from increasing
intervention in Iraq, in particular military intervention.

But it's worth pointing out that a containment strategy has huge costs, as
well, in particular, as we discussed, Iraq could go from a horrible situation
to one that's truly off the charts where, instead of thousands of people are
dying, tens or even hundreds of thousands of people are dying on even a
monthly basis. And we've already seen two million refugees from Iraq. That
number could double. And when you're going to a containment strategy, you are
effectively saying the United States is not going to be able to solve the
humanitarian nightmare of Iraq. And that's tragic, that's horrible. But at
this point, I'm quite pessimistic that the United States has that capability.

GROSS: Have you been talking to anybody about this who actually has some
decision-making power in the US government?

Mr. BYMAN: We've been talking to people in the US government, in the
military, in the intelligence community and also a fair number or people in
Congress about our ideas and about our plans. My personal frustration is
that, even if you believe that the surge will work, you should nevertheless be
considering the possibility that it will fail. The failure to plan for
negative contingencies for things going wrong was one of the ultimate flaws of
the US decision to invade Iraq in the first place. And right now we need to
be doing plan B. We need to be thinking of alternatives to the current plan.
Because two years down the road, one year down the road, three months down the
road, we might need that plan B. And my colleague Ken Pollack and I at
Brookings have tried to start this process, but this is something that
requires a massive inter-agency effort. And, to my knowledge, it is not being
done in a serious comprehensive way.

GROSS: You don't think there's a plan B?

Mr. BYMAN: To my knowledge, no.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. BYMAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Daniel Byman is a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center
for Middle East Policy, and is the director of Georgetown University's Center
for Peace and Security Studies.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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