Learning to Love Iraq

"The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq" - Emma Sky (Atlantic Books, 2015)

Coming some years after the glut of writing that accompanied the US-led Occupation of Iraq is this unusual and unlikely story of 'a British woman, advising the top leadership of the US military' (p.4). That woman is Emma Sky who was a 35 year old working for the British Council when the American tanks rolled into Baghdad. Sky had spent time already working abroad and in the Middle East, although her only experience of Iraq was her previous opposition to conflicts in the country and she'd signed up to be a human shield in 1991. Suddenly she found herself on a military transport plane out to the region in response to a FCO advert.

Sky can be described as a romantic liberal of sorts whose subsequent experience with the US military opened her mind to a very different culture of working. She warns herself that 'Mesopotamia will always get the better of those who come to love her' (p.89) and the book is a very honest appraisal from someone who clearly cares deeply for the country and the people she has spent time working with. It also is that of a wanderer, an only child whose time at boarding school seemed to give a drive and direction that found its calling in Iraq. Sky describes how 'I had felt so alive in Iraq, with such a strong sense of purpose. The best times of my life - and the hardest times - were in Iraq' (p.362). Her enthralling, readable and fascinating account is simultaneously 'an Iraqi story. It is an American story. It is my story' (p.341)

The account is far more than that of a liberal leaning British woman working in the heart of a US male-dominated military machine at war. Sky's political acumen and ability to gain the trust of senior figures placed her in the cockpit of US efforts in Iraq. She was no ordinary advisory and this book is not only a tale of observations but rather of influence in practice whether that was around high level efforts on sectarian reconciliation, the SOFA discussions that would determine the nature of the US presence in the country or important prisoner swaps.

Sky also tells of her education in the ways of the 'American tribe' that is the military at war. Learning about rank, customs, culture and getting to grips with frequent helicopter rides. Sky explains that 'I studied it (the US military), found shared values and objectives, and learnt how to work with it' (p.41). In turn Sky's honest advice within a 'can do' culture would prove invaluable for the military figures she worked with and particular the looming figure of General Odierno, or 'General O', to whom the book is dedicated to. The 'British babe', as some US soldiers described her, also seemed to use her sense of humour to connect with an American bureaucracy that often appeared to take itself too seriously, although by contrast the British General Lamb comes across as a madman, albeit a highly intelligent and effective one.

The chaos and ineptitude or the early days of the Occupation are well told. Sky didn't meet a single Iraqi for first week but would eventually come to know the country and its people well. This ranged from nuggets such as the fact that 'Iraq was the only country where hello meant goodbye' (p.121) or more important observations of the defining challenges of 'land, water, oil, minority rights, citizenship, identity and allegiance. No group recognised the grievances of the others' (p.32). Sky was initially based up in Kirkuk and learnt from the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani that the 'Shi'a have a complex about the past. Sunnis are afraid of the future...Kurds feared both the past and the future' (p.159). Kirkuk provided a microcosm of manner of the issues that challenged Iraq as a whole, the battle of the past and correcting grievances, seeking revenge whilst trying to chart a course ahead for the future. Sky then found herself in Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer's outer circle and witnessed the nominal transfer of sovereignty back to the Iraqis.

The conclusion as to the balance of success and failure is never quite clear. At one point Sky tells General O that 'this is the greatest strategic failure since the foundation of the United States' (p.147) and paints an accurate picture of how the invasion collapsed the state and the new formed entity struggled to include everyone into a new landscape dominated by sectarian politics. On the other hand Sky talks to success where she personally saw it and makes the important point that to get Iraq on right track "just required huge amounts of effort - and the right people with the necessary relationships to push everything in the right direction" (p.225). Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt from Sky's account is that whilst she was there for the long term the constant turnover of senior diplomatic or military leaders lost the essence of personal relationships that were key to building such a delicate political consensus.

The Obama administration is portrayed as disinterested in saving Iraq and whilst talking a good game around focusing support on institutions not individuals makes a bad mistake in doubling down on Maliki as Prime Minister at a time where he'd lost the trust of many. Vice-President Biden made the point in Sky's company that "Iraq was Bush's war" (p.272). Where the book is lacking is perhaps in a bit more critical reflection on some of the aspects of organisation and reliance of the military as a key driver of Occupation politics. Aspects of sectarianism are left open and it is not clear whether the levels of religious identity were underestimated or artificially manipulated to fill the post-2003 political space. What is more the role of Iran is poorly explored and comes across as shadowy, unknown yet constantly the source of much of the problems the US-faced.

Sky is an immensely likeable figure throughout and the reader shares her frustrations and learning's along the way, whether that is around a significant political moment or more light hearted anecdotes - such as sharing a plane with then Prime Minister Maliki who was in fits of laughter whilst watching 'Mr. Bean'. Although now safely ensconced in US academia you feel that Sky's relationship with Iraq is by no means over.