There is a darkness that hangs over Nir Rosen’s Aftermath. To read it, one is forced to closely examine the impact of one of the most despicable crimes of American imperialism and the true cost of what George W. Bush called, “twenty-five million people[’s] chance to live in freedom.” The statistics of this crime are shocking enough just as numbers; thousands of American soldiers, hundreds of thousands in “excess deaths,” millions of war refugees and a trillion dollar budget. But what Rosen does through hundreds of lengthy quotations from Iraqis who face the daily crushing of their homes and families is sometimes almost unbearable to read.
The arc of Rosen’s story is the sectarianism between Shias and Sunnis that broke out in Iraq and resulted in civil war. He rejects the common narrative that the conflict began after the bombing of the Samarra shrine in 2006 and that Americans really had nothing to do with it. Rather, he places the blame for sectarianism in Iraq at the feet of the invading American army and the failure of any viable post-invasion plan. One of the many incidents of imperial stupidity came early with the U.S. decision to empower exiled ethnic parties with axes to grind while ignoring truly grassroots groups, such as the Sadrists. Creating the Iraqi Governing Council out of these groups, Rosen argues, set the stage for the civil war to follow.
Although Iraq was largely a secular nation before the invasion, the regime of Saddam Hussein favored Sunni Muslims over the majority Shias. Rosen quotes Iraqis who speak of a “glass ceiling” within the government, which became a source of resentment for Shias, especially for those bumping into it. In Rosen’s estimation, such discrimination was blown out of proportion by the exiles who had the ear of the Americans, and the neoconservative true believers like L. Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld took it upon themselves to become liberators not of Iraq but of Shias from Sunnis.
The consequences of this were devastating, Rosen writes, and have yet to be fully played out. Because the Iraqi Governing Council was so ill-conceived, there was a power vacuum that became filled with armed militias with street-gang politics. But even with the thuggish rule of the militias, the sectarianism didn’t fully emerge until the bombing of Fallujah. As refugees from the devastated city came to Baghdad, they displaced Shias in the western part of the city—who went east and displaced Sunnis, compounding the acrimony. The newly-elected government, dominated by Shias because of a Sunni boycott, was urged to crack down on the militias by the aloof Americans and they did so mostly on sectarian terms. Even as Ahmad Chalabi was sent packing and the Maliki government came onto the scene there was no shift in policy. Rosen describes Maliki’s office of the commander in chief headed by Dr. Bassima al-Jadri:
Under her the office developed a fearsome reputation for issuing secret sectarian orders, advising Maliki on military matters and overruling the Defense and Interior Ministries, circumventing the chain of command to order officers to attack targets. She helped Maliki create his own praetorian guard. Jadri wanted to purge all nonsectarian officers and those not loyal to the ruling Shiite parties while promoting sectarian officers by removing Sunni names from lists of recruits to the army and police. She viewed all Sunnis as Al-Qaeda supporters. When Maliki established a national reconciliation committee…Jadri was put in charge of it.
Rosen also performs a reality check on what is generally seen as the successful end to the civil war. The Americans compensated for their initial lack of a strategy by implementing their “surge” in 2007. Along with sending more troops, they implemented counterintelligence operations, putting local informants on the payroll. The surge also resulted in the erection of walls that divided cities and the imprisonment of at least 25,000 Iraqis in prisons where torture was an everyday occurrence. This strategy led to an increase in violence where whole cities were destroyed.
Rosen argues that the real reason for the subsequent decline in violence and ultimately the end of the civil war was the ceasefire by Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Taking advantage of the ceasefire, Maliki declared war on the Mahdi army in an offensive named the “Charge of the Knights,” crushing resistance with the help of the Americans in the Sadrist southern stronghold of Basra. However, Rosen maintains that Sadr’s influence is still vast and that, outside of the context of the civil war, the movement will become even more important because the Mahdi Army was so decentralized and out of his control. For now though, Maliki has been given credit for ending the civil war.
Rosen’s book is also about Afghanistan. His travels almost got him killed at least twice, once by an American soldier who called him “the biggest Hajji I’ve seen,” and once in Afghanistan, where he was nearly brought before a Sharia court that would likely have given him a death sentence for being American.
Rosen’s apparently chameleon nature allowed for unparalleled access to all kinds of sources that no American has ever reported on. His time with the Taliban should be given serious attention by anyone opposing America’s current Afghan surge. The forces America has chosen to fight are grassroots organizations that have credibility, if not popularity. The forces America has chosen to back are corrupt kleptocrats with no social weight behind them, who employ criminals and drug addicts as the national police. Exposing the thinly-veiled brutality of American operations and their allies in Afghanistan, Rosen states succinctly:
The Americans had won in Afghanistan when it was merely a punishment campaign. Once they lingered following the flight of bin Laden they began to flounder. And when they turned it into a war against the Taliban, an indigenous movement, they lost.
The darkness that hangs over Aftermath is certainly appropriate for its subject matter, but there is sometimes a woodenness to Rosen’s conclusions that don’t seem to jibe with the reality he so painstakingly recreates for the reader. His claim that Iraq will be a state like Mexico or Pakistan—with a strong leader acting as a repressive force against the people in the interests of the United States—is an example of this. It is not without much evidence that he suggests this, but surely with the almost daily reports of bombings and unrest in Iraq, there can’t be a definitive conclusion regarding the country’s future. The latest election shows this as well, with Maliki’s party being surprised and forced to negotiate with the opposition parties. Even the title Aftermath implies a false end to the matters Rosen writes about.
That said, Aftermath stands as testament to journalism at a much needed time. When WikiLeaks is being called a terrorist organization and embeds are the only mainstream reports we get from the Middle East, Nir Rosen should be read by everyone who wants to actively oppose elite American interests in the Middle East.