Chaos and Caliphate



“One of the best informed on-the-ground journalists. He was almost always correct on Iraq.”
—Sidney Blumenthal in an email to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

“Quite simply, the best Western journalist at work in Iraq today.” —Seymour Hersh

“Cockburn is one of the greatest British foreign correspondents of all time—a must-read.”
—Paul Lashmar

“Has anyone covered this nightmare [in the Greater Middle East] better than the world’s least embedded reporter, Patrick Cockburn? Not for my money. He’s had the canniest, clearest-eyed view of developments in the region for years.” —Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

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About the Book

From 2001 to the present day, Patrick Cockburn’s reporting from the conflicts that have roiled the Middle East and beyond has been peerless. Filing stories untrammeled by preconceptions but drawing on extensive first-hand experience of the region and a deep knowledge of its history, Cockburn’s ability to make the correct call in the midst of often complex crises has been remarkable in its consistency. Thus he anticipated the unsustainability of the Western invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, the likelihood that rebels in Libya would end up fighting each other, and the spilling over of the Sunni rebellion in Syria into neighboring Iraq. Perhaps most strikingly, he reported on the emergence of ISIS as a major force before even government intelligence agencies were aware of the threat it posed, leading the judges of the British Journalism Awards to wonder “whether the Government should consider pensioning off the whole of MI6 and hire Patrick Cockburn instead.”

Presented in compelling diary form, this substantial volume draws together a careful selection of Cockburn’s writings from the frontlines of the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, interspersed with thoughtful analyses and contemporary, original reflection. What emerges is the fine grain and nuance of an unfolding tragedy in which, in contrast to the often facile proclamations of politicians and much of the media: “These are not black-and-white situations, good guys against bad, vile tyrant against a risen people like a scene out of Les Miserables. It is astonishing and depressing to see Western governments … committing their countries to wars without recognizing this basic fact.”

The conflicts being fueled by such misunderstandings are today spilling over to cities in the West, provoking a backlash that learns little from recent history and is likely only to make things worse. In this fervid situation, the measured, erudite work of a journalist like Patrick Cockburn becomes simply indispensable.

Publication April 28, 2016 • 428 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-28-9 • E-book 978-1-682190-29-6

About the Author

Patrick Cockburn is currently Middle East correspondent for the Independent and worked previously for the Financial Times. He has written four books on Iraq’s recent history—The Rise of Islamic State, Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq, The Occupation, and Saddam Hussein: An American Obsession (with Andrew Cockburn)—as well as a memoir, The Broken Boy and, with his son, a book on schizophrenia, Henry’s Demons, which was shortlisted for a Costa Award. He won the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009, the Foreign Commentator of the Year in 2013, and the Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year in 2014.

Read an Excerpt

This era of civil wars [in the Middle East] is the main theme of the diaries and writings I produced between 2001 and 2015, and which appear in this book. I want to look at events from two angles: one is contemporary description; the other is retrospective explanation and analysis from the perspective of today. Both have their advantages. Eyewitness reporting undiluted by knowledge of later events should have a vividness lacking in accounts written later and a credibility in explaining why people acted as they did. But a retrospective account, written a dozen or more years after the start of the Afghan and Iraq wars and four years since the uprisings of 2011, also has benefits. Common features in these conflicts jump out and make it possible to draw general conclusions about the origin and course of distinct but interrelated events. I have always found it a weakness in discussions of these wars and conflicts that people who are expert about Syria do not have much first-hand knowledge of Iraq and may know little or nothing about Turkey, though developments in any one of these countries cannot be fully grasped without an understanding of the others. I remember attending a conference on Syria just before ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014 and vainly trying to persuade the assembled Syrian experts that the most important development in the region—which was bound to affect the war in Syria—was ISIS’ growing strength in Iraq. My fellow specialists were politely impatient during my interventions and swiftly returned to discussing exclusively Syrian matters. On the other hand, generalising usefully about anything in history without full command of the details is dangerous because it is too easy to be tempted into over-simple parallels. I remember how, when I was a correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s, my heart would sink whenever visitors would glibly compare the complex situation in the Soviet Union with some country such as South Africa which they knew well, remarking on similarities that did not really exist. This is why I have put many of my ideas about these very diverse and complicated events in a lengthy “Afterword” at the end of this book, following the presentation of the evidence for my conclusions.

Much of my working life during the past 14 years has been spent covering wars in four countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya. This adds up to more than four wars because at some moments there was more than one conflict going on in the same country at the same time. For instance, in 2004 the US Army was fighting two very different wars in Iraq, one against a Sunni insurgency in which al-Qa’ida in Iraq played a leading role, and another against the Shia Mehdi Army militia of Muqtada al-Sadr. Likewise, in 2015 ISIS was fighting separate wars against the Syrian Army in the centre of Syria and the Syrian Kurds in the north-east, who were aided by the US. In addition to covering these full-scale wars, I was visiting Bahrain, where protests were savagely repressed in 2011. That same year I was in Iran until I was ordered out of the country. Yemen has been teetering on the edge of war ever since I first went there in 1978, but it was only in 2014–15 that it finally collapsed into all-out armed conflict.

I have deliberately left out my writings on Egypt because the country is not at war, though there is brutal state repression and growing guerrilla violence. At the height of the demonstrations in Cairo in 2011 the Egyptian protests were a bright and encouraging example to the rest of the Arab world. Slogans first heard in Tahrir Square were echoed in Bahrain, Sanaa and Damascus. But the protesters never seized state power and two years later Egyptians were under the power of an even more repressive police state than they had experienced under President Hosni Mubarak. The political trajectory is different from the rest of the region.

It is worth emphasising that the governments, peoples and communities I am writing about are fighting civil wars, because failure to understand this has produced many misleading analyses and disappointed expectations. These are not black-and-white situations, good guys against bad, vile tyrant against a risen people like a scene out of Les Miserables. It is astonishing and depressing to see Western governments, presumably advised by well-informed diplomats and intelligence services, repeatedly committing their countries to wars without recognising this basic fact. I recall attending US press conferences in the Green Zone in Baghdad in 2003 at which the official spokesman invariably blamed sporadic guerrilla attacks against US forces on discredited “remnants” of the old regime unwilling to join “the new Iraq.” At first I thought this was just a bit of crude propaganda, but I came to recognise that the spokesmen believed it was true and did not realise that the US and its allies were slipping into armed conflict against the entire 6 million Sunni Arab community in Iraq. The same thing happened in July 2015 when US and European officials cavalierly supported Turkish air strikes and military action against the “terrorists” of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), without appreciating that they were applauding an assault by the Turkish state on its 18 million Kurdish citizens.

A problem with propaganda is that nobody believes it as much as those who propound it: the demonization of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi and Bashar al-Assad and the lauding of their opponents as selfless freedom fighters, whatever its immediate political utility, created a distorted and misleading picture of the problems of Iraq, Libya and Syria. Governments are prone to indulge in wishful thinking and see those opposing them as belonging to a small unrepresentative gang (though this does not prevent these same politicians and officials then acting as if the precise opposite is true and inflicting collective punishments on much larger groups, thus acting as recruiting sergeants for whatever insurgency they are trying to suppress).

The diaries and reports that follow have not been updated, though they are edited down from their original impressive bulk. It seems to me important to present them here, first of all because people forget quite soon what really happened in recent history. Public awareness of recent news may be high, as it is often well covered by the media, but developments over the previous half dozen years are hazy. There is frequently an unfortunate “knowledge gap” about the very period in which current events were gestated. Thus in the UK there is an almost obsessive interest in what happened in 2002 and 2003 when the country controversially went to war in Iraq, but limited knowledge of the disastrous British occupation of Basra between 2003 and 2006, or of what happened in Iraq generally in later years. As American forces withdrew after 2008, interest in the US about what was going on in Iraq petered out. It became yesterday’s crisis. Television and newspapers closed down news bureaux in Baghdad and covered the story only scantily, right up to the moment ISIS captured Mosul in June 2014 and the country fell apart. People are mystified and ill-informed about why this happened because so much of importance took place in the crucial but neglected time zone between the immediate and distant past.

There is a further need for eyewitness history written before we knew the names of the winners and losers in any given crisis. A historian once remarked that “it is important to remember that what is now in the past was once in the future.” This is one way of saying that many options seemed open that in retrospect appear closed. Because one course of action was taken, the decision to act in that way acquires a false sense of inevitability and, of course, those who took it—particularly if it turns out to have been calamitously wrong-headed and mistaken—have every incentive to pretend that nothing else could have been done. In the US the grisly phrases “Monday morning quarterbacking” and “20:20 hindsight” are used to accuse critics of making judgements from a position of knowledge not available to the original decision-maker, while in reality much of what went wrong in a given situation was predictable—and often had been predicted—from facts visible at the time. For instance, I believed in 2003, before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, that the US and its allies might get away with invading Iraq and overthrowing its leader. By that time most Iraqis—Sunni as well as Shia and Kurds—had decided that Saddam had destroyed their country and they wanted to be rid of him. But I was convinced that if coalition forces tried to occupy Iraq long term they would face ferocious and irrepressible resistance from inside and outside the country’s borders. This was not difficult to foresee and I certainly was not the only person saying it even before US tanks entered Baghdad. I wrote about it with some confidence at the time because it was what well-informed Iraqis were telling me. It was baffling that political leaders in Washington and London managed to so cut themselves off from what Iraqis—who are an intensely political people—were saying, when it would have been in their own self-interest to listen. There have always been plenty of Iraqis willing to tell truth to power, though balanced by an equal number who make it a rule to tell foreigners exactly what they want to hear. During the occupation the truthful informants were not intellectuals watching events obscurely from the sidelines, but active politicians and ministers who met senior Western officials almost every day.

The same thing happened between 2011 and 2013 when influential Iraqis like the foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari, former minister and historian Ali Allawi, politician Ahmed Chalabi and the veteran Kurdish MP Dr Mahmoud Othman were saying to me that if the war in Syria continued it would reignite the civil war in Iraq. By 2013 I was being told by some of the same people that the 350,000-strong Iraqi Army would not fight and would flee the battlefield. The Western powers seemed to have convinced themselves, in the face of compelling evidence, that Assad was going to fall and the crisis in Syria would not destabilise Iraq. I used to wonder if the Iraqis I spoke to said the same things to me as to foreign leaders, who were endlessly visiting Baghdad after 2003 but seemed to go away as ill-informed as when they arrived. I decided eventually that many of these visitors must have privately guessed how bad things were. Why else were they flying by helicopter the short distance from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone wearing a helmet and a flak jacket, and not travelling by road? In Afghanistan, diplomats from Kabul would visit Afghan Army positions and listen to accounts of its latest triumphs while averting their eyes from the black Taliban flag flying from a high point in a village a few hundred yards down the road. Presumably they were determined not to be the bearers of bad news to their home governments.

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