How did an English pacifist become the advisor to the head of the United States military during the Iraq war? Emma Sky told her story on Thursday at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, in conversation with host James Brown. Her book The Unravelling: High hopes and missed opportunities in Iraq. She spoke to a full house, and captivated the audience with her dry humour, keeping them laughing despite the serious subject.
Ms Sky said she had never imagined working with the military but, when given the opportunity to go to Iraq in 2003, she didn’t hesitate. “This was a chance to apologise to Iraqi people for the war,” she said.
The petite Briton already had a solid knowledge of the Middle East. “I went to a kibbutz in Israel for my gap year after school, then I chose to study Arabic and Hebrew. I thought, ‘I would try to do whatever I can to promote peace in the Middle East.’ When the first Gulf War broke out I signed up to be human shield.” She spent more than a decade in the region working on peacekeeping projects.
She had been critical about “the invasion” of Iraq by the Coalition in 2003. For her first meeting with Colonel William Mayville, the officer in charge of the Province of Kirkuk in northern Iraq, she brought along a copy of the Geneva Convention. “I read it to him, line by line, and told him that if he violated any of these articles I would take him to The Hague,” she said.
In Kirkuk, she became Governorate Co-ordinator. “I learned I was the senior civilian authority, responsible for administrating the Province, reporting directly to Ambassador Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority,” she said. In order to fulfil her mission, she had to work closely with US military. She had no idea how they operated, but she set to study and understand them. “I treated the US military just as another foreign tribe.”
Against all odds, their partnership was fruitful. “We had similar objectives: hand back Iraq to Iraqis.” Her assignment was supposed to last three months, but she stayed for a year. When she left in June 2004, “the Coalition Provisional Authority was disbanded, handing over authority to an Iraqi Interim Government. Thousands of Coalition soldiers stayed on to keep a lid on the increasing violence inflicting the country.”
“At the beginning of 2007, Iraq looked like it was lost,” she said. US President George W Bush wouldn’t let the situation deteriorate any further and sent in five brigades of troops: “Americans don’t know how to lose”.
General Raymond Odierno was to lead the so-called surge and put Iraq back on track. Ms Sky worked closely with him. “General O, A huge man, about six foot five. I got to meet him in 2003. He was Colonel Mayville’s boss,” she said. “I got an email from him, he wanted me to be his political advisor. I went back to Iraq. He was now the commander of 170,000 troops.”
She had to follow General O everywhere, anytime. “He had learnt the limitations of the military force. He said he wanted me to tell him when he was screwing up,” she said.
They spent hours coming up with a framework to bring stability to the country, and it worked. “There was a change in the mindset. We built up trust. Soon we were seen as that force that stopped the Civil War. We helped recreate the State,” she said. Between 2007 and 2009 the violence diminished drastically. However, they could not prevent then Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki from staying in charge despite not winning the General Election in 2009. He had the support of Iran, the US ambassador and Vice-President Joe Biden.
It went south from there. “Politicians were linked to Al Qaeda and jailed, killed or force to leave the country. He arrested Sunnis en masse. This led to protests which were crushed with force. All this created the conditions for the Islamic State to raise,” she said.
She said IS was the symptom of broken politics in Iraq. “While the West is focused on IS, Iraqis are focused on their corrupt politicians, demanding that this kleptocracy be sacked.”
There were missed opportunities. “There shouldn’t have never been a war in the first place, but even then nothing that happened in Iraq was inevitable. Iraqis could have had much better futures.”
“The best lesson from the surge is that no matter how successful you are militarily, it’s not sustainable if the politics don’t come together. In Iraq, conditions aren’t set yet.”