[This review was published in the Spring 2011 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 108-116.]

Book Review

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World

Nir Rosen

Nation Books, 2010

          Journalist Nir Rosen is an American, raised in New York City, with Middle Eastern features (his father’s family is of Iranian-Jewish origin).  In covering, since 2003, the conflicts that have occurred in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan, after 9/11/2001, he adopted an unusual but admirable method: he immersed himself in the populations of those countries, talking with several hundred people who have had many different perspectives, and made it a point to avoid doing what most other journalists have done, which has been to deal primarily with the top level – i.e., with politicians and the American military.  His Middle Eastern features and knowledge of the local languages (he took intensive classes in Pashtu, say, before going to Afghanistan) allowed him to mix easily with the peoples of the region.  (For the most part, it was “easily,” but there was one occasion when he came within minutes of being beheaded as a spy by the Taliban in Afghanistan.)

          The resulting book is built on that journalistic method, and both benefits and suffers from it.  The benefits come to intrepid readers who have the intellectual curiosity that will inspire them to follow along through the hundreds of conversations to discover that, taken together, they form something like a Seurat pointillist painting in which the myriad dots form a larger picture.  When seen in that way, the book is a highly valuable survey of the enormous complexities of the Islamic world.  It’s a world that, far from being a monolith, is comprised of a wealth of contending factions and points of view.  As Rosen points out, a failure to understand those intricacies will lead outsiders, such as successive American governments, far off the mark in dealing with the Islamic peoples.  Accordingly, anyone wanting to have that understanding will do well to take this book seriously. 

At the same time, Rosen’s book will be relatively insufferable for those readers who don’t have the determination to see it through.  Only the most careful reading will keep a reader abreast of just who it is that Rosen is talking with at a given point, as the telling passes from one human contact to another with almost imperceptible separations.  Moreover, Rosen would have done well to keep readers apprised of just what time-frame is being talked about at any given point; he’ll mention a year and then three or four pages later say something like “that February” without re-identifying it, making the reader search back through the text.  His writing is easily readable, but one has difficulty tracking the flow.  So, a warning: we don’t recommend the book for those (i.e., most readers) who would prefer to shy away from a formidable self-assignment.

An advantage of reading a review is that, if one has reason to have confidence in the reviewer, much of the benefit from a book can be gleaned from the work the reviewer has put himself through.  We will try to pass on many of the main points, subject to an even stronger caveat than usual that the book contains much, much more:

1.  Rosen’s assessment of U.S. post-9/11 actions.  The following passage near the end of the book succinctly summarizes Rosen’s conclusions after seven years of immersing himself in the chaos of the Middle East:

A Newsweek issue in March 2010 declared U.S. victory in Iraq.  But for Iraqis there was no victory.  Since the occupation began in 2003, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis had been killed.  Many more had been injured.  There were millions of widows and orphans.  Millions had fled their homes.  Tens of thousands of Iraqi men had spent years in American prisons.  The new Iraqi state was among the most corrupt in the world.  It was often brutal.  It failed to provide adequate services to its people, millions of whom were barely able to survive… Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees languished in exile.  Sectarianism increased in the region.   Weapons, tactics, and veterans of the jihad made their way into neighboring countries.  And now the American “victory” in Iraq was being imposed on the people of Afghanistan.

In another passage, Rosen says that “the war in Iraq had changed everything in the Muslim world, creating new confusion and new certainties… The planners of the American war in Iraq claimed that the democracy they would install in place of Saddam’s dictatorship would create a domino effect… [but] it was radical Islam that had spread.  In fact, it was experiencing a renaissance.”

Speaking of Afghanistan, Rosen says that “for the narrow goal of preventing Al Qaeda from having bases in Afghanistan, the United States has prescribed for itself the creation of a new Afghanistan and a never-ending counterinsurgency.”  He points to five underlying assumptions behind U.S. policy, each of which he considers wrong:

… that it is possible to create a centralized, functioning state in Afghanistan….

… that the Karzai government would be perceived as sufficiently legitimate to gain the loyalty of the population….

… that [the coalition, primarily the United States] would provide the resources necessary to conduct a population-centric COIN [counter-insurgency]  campaign…. 

… that the voters in [the coalition nations, again primarily the United States] would support this effort for the decade that historical examples suggest would be necessary [for a counter-insurgency strategy to work]….

… that failure to create a unified, centralized state in Afghanistan would result in the country’s reverting to a major base for Al Qaeda… But…  Al Qaeda was already ensconced in Pakistan.

The unreality of these assumptions has been matched, Rosen says, by the misconceptions that fed the U.S. invasion of Iraq:

The underlying assumptions of the invasion of Iraq were that Iraqis would greet the Americans with flowers, that the Iraqi institutions would remain functioning with the leadership merely replaced, that the war would pay for itself, and that fewer troops would be needed to secure the country than were needed to invade it.  All these assumptions proved wrong.

These observations are all-too-accurate.  Their importance should not, in this reviewer’s opinion, be undermined by an unfortunate over-extension on Rosen’s part.   He is eager, through several iterations, to lay the blame for Islamic sectarianism on the United States.  If he were simply to argue that the American invasions removed the lids, such as Saddam’s dictatorship in Iraq, that had held the expression of those sectarianisms at least partially in check, there would be little to quarrel with about that.  But there are a great many historical details that Rosen himself reveals in the book that belie the idea of a pre-invasion harmony among Muslims.  Their sectarianism long pre-existed the American invasions, and often has burned at white heat.   For example, he tells us that “after the Gulf War [in 1991]… Shiites were removed from jobs, or kept out of jobs, while power became more and more concentrated in the hands of Sunnis from certain tribes.”   That there were “scores to be settled”  before the 2003 U. S. invasion is apparent when he tells us that “Sunnis were the primary victims of the murderous settling of scores that began on April 9, 2003” [our emphasis].   The sectarianism extends well beyond the countries invaded by the U.S.: “Like in Kuwait, sectarian tensions in Bahrain had been a regular feature of the political landscape since the 1980s,” and “Shiites in Saudi Arabia are considered subhuman, an official view that is promoted in state schools.”   In Afghanistan, “regionalism and warlordism tore the country apart in the wake of Soviet withdrawal.”  The brutal sectarianism among Muslims goes back, indeed, for centuries.  One of those Rosen talked with told him that “Ibn Taimiya, the thirteenth century scholar loved by the Salafis, had said that Shiites ‘were worse than Jews or Christians.  Shiites hate Islam and hate Sunnis.’” 

2.  Muslim versus Muslim, even within their own sects.  Rosen’s narrative brings to light something that will surprise many readers.  It is that there has been major conflict not just between the Saddam government and Iraqis and between Sunnis and Shiites (neither of which is surprising), but also between Sunnis and other Sunnis, Shiites and other Shiites, and Palestinians with other Palestinians.  The impression one gets is of ubiquitous mutual hostility, often expressed through reciprocal slaughter.

In Iraq, there were Shiites who joined Iranian-sponsored anti-Saddam militias.  After his overthrow, there were “killings of tribal members who had served the previous regime.”

Much of the book is an account of the ethnic cleansings, assassinations, mass killings, bombings and torture that Sunnis and Shiites inflicted on each other, especially during the civil war that was well underway by the summer of 2005.  Arab fighters “flocked to Iraq to kill Americans and Shiites, often at the behest of Sunni clerics and theologians throughout the Arab world.”  In December 2006, “thirty-eight Saudi clerics and university professors signed a global fatwa calling on all Sunnis in the world to unify their efforts and fight the Shiites to protect the Sunnis in Iraq.”  Despite these efforts, it was the Shiites who won the civil war, full of atrocities on all sides, with a definitive victory and a crushing of the Sunni militias.

In part, this victory was due to the disinclination of the Sunnis to work together.  The jihadists, Rosen tells us, “were embroiled in internal conflicts, declaring one another infidels.”  Even after the United States put the Sunni militias on the payroll, creating what was called “the Sunni Awakening,” as a way to end the insurrection against the American occupation, the Sunni leaders couldn’t form a united front “because they couldn’t agree among themselves.”   If we add to this the extremism of the Wahhabis and the domination-seeking, violent assertiveness of “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” there has been a witches’ brew boiling even among the Sunnis themselves.

For their part, the Shiites in Iraq have been at each other’s throats, even though they have come to dominate the government.  Within the first few months after the U.S. invasion, most Shiite areas came under the control of the followers of Muqtada Sadr (the Sadrists), who imposed “a strict interpretation of Islam.”  But “different units of the Mahdi Army [composed of Sadrists] fought each other” and “Shiite militias battled one another in the south over oil and control of the lucrative pilgrimage industry.”  More importantly, the Iraqi government under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, though itself Shiite, but backed by the United States, sought and achieved domination over the Sadrists; Rosen tells us that in April 2008, Maliki “declared full-scale war on the Mahdi Army” and that “the Mahdi Army and the Iraqi army fought openly.”   The result was that a Shiite prime minister “gained the trust of many Sunnis” and came to represent an Iraqi nationalism.  This has formed the basis for today’s extremely shaky coalition, its fragility manifested in the fact that it took nine months of haggling after the March 2010 elections to agree on a new government that retained Maliki as Prime Minister.

Lest anyone think that a Shiite-dominated government will automatically be in the vest pocket of neighboring Iran, a Shiite power, it is worth noting that Rosen recounts how the mainly Shiite “Supreme Council hated Iran,” the reason being “the humiliation of being looked down upon by Iranians for being Arabs.”  (This highlights yet another division, even among Shiites – that between Arabs and non-Arabs.  Class divisions are another source of division, especially among Iraqi Shiites, with the Sadrists prevailing among those who are poor and the Dawa Party of Maliki having its base among the Shiite intelligentsia.)

People outside the Middle East may have the impression that Palestinians, in their decades-long struggle with the Israelis, have the wholehearted support of the Islamic world.  They don’t.  After the Palestinians were driven from Palestine in 1947-9, they were received hospitably, but “this goodwill did not last forever.  In Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, and elsewhere, it ran out.”  The Palestinians are mostly Sunni, but Rosen quotes a Sunni in Lebanon as saying “nobody likes the Palestinians.”  Within the refugee camps, there “are many disagreements among the Palestinian factions.”  The PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) was “broadly secular,” which put it at odds with fundamentalist Muslims of all sorts.  A good many Palestinians took refuge in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, where they suffered the fate of becoming “among the first victims of reprisals by the inchoate Shiite militias” early in the U.S. occupation.

The specifics we have cited hardly do justice to Rosen’s full account, which goes on for hundreds of pages recounting the experiences of Muslims as they told him about the hatreds and bloodshed that have torn them apart.  

3.  The apparent ubiquity of torture.  The United States has been criticized at length for the abuses at Abu Graib and for “waterboarding.”   It would appear, from what Rosen tells us, that this criticism applies an egregious double standard that holds the United States to a standard that is far above anything Middle Eastern Muslims apply to themselves.    (It is a double standard that most Europeans and Americans prefer to see applied, wishing to hold themselves to a higher morality; at least, that’s the sensibility among those who aren’t “in the trenches” fighting asymmetrical wars.)  Here is some of what Rosen tells readers about a variety of torturers:

Saddam, of course, is infamous for his methods.  One of those with whom Rosen spoke told him that after the 1991 Shiite uprising against Saddam his “interrogators had tortured him with electricity.  They had tied his hands behind his back and hung him from them.”  During the Iran-Iraq war, Iraqi Shiites taken prisoner by the Iranians were often killed or tortured because “the Iranian guards… viewed them as traitors fighting for Sunnis.”  As to the Shiites, Rosen cites many examples of “rapes, beheadings and extreme torture” by them.  He tells of a “torture chamber” in which “Iraqi detainees were tortured by [Shiite] Iraqi officers with power drills.”  [It somewhat boggles the mind to think of what can be done to a person with a power drill.]  For their part, Sadrist “militiamen began brutally slaughtering men suspected of homosexuality,” with a staff member at a Sadr City hospital saying “the victims were tortured to death in the area’s garages.”  And Rosen tells how in mid-2007 Al Qaeda “came for [a Sunni student who had been working with the Sunni-U.S. opposition to Al Qaeda] at his high school… They kidnapped him,… and tortured him.  They ended up beheading him and leaving his head in a tree.”  

4.  Features of the American occupation in Iraq.   One of the principal features of the U.S. occupation was that “the Americans never controlled much in Iraq.”  Rosen says “it resembled Britain’s ‘colonialism on the cheap.’”  The Americans patrolled during the day, but “at night, darkness and fear emerged.”  Weapons bazaars existed in every neighborhood; thousands of weapons depots were looted; there were anti-American loudspeaker broadcasts by neo-Baathists; years after the occupation began, a diatribe calling for “death to the Americans” was given before about 500 men in a Sadrist mosque.  The situation was summed up nicely by an American officer who asked rhetorically, “how does one stop a civil war at the barrel of a gun with only a seven-hundred man cavalry squadron in a district of close to a hundred thousand people?”  Nor is it apparent that the American leadership coordinated closely with the Iraqi government, as we see when in 2008 “Maliki’s move was a surprise for the Americans” when Maliki decided “to target unruly Shiite militias,” a step Rosen says was “one of the most important factors ensuring the civil war would end.”

There was incomprehensible bungling (which is not to say that there weren’t valiant efforts by countless individuals struggling to handle an impossible situation).  Examples: “The U.S. constantly shifted its support back and forth between Sunnis and Shiites, calling for Sunnis to rein in their militias… while conducting massive and lethal raids on the Sunni population.”  The Eid holidays are on different days for the Shiites and the Sunnis, and “by hanging Saddam on the Sunni Eid, the Americans and the Iraqi government were in effect saying that only the Shiite Eid had legitimacy.”   This, Rosen says, “virtually declared that Iraq was a Shiite state.”  A report in August 2007 said “that 190,000 weapons the Americans had given to Iraqis were unaccounted for.”

5.  Reverberations within the Islamic Middle East.  Rosen points out that although the jihad against the Soviet Union began in 1979, “it was following the Gulf War of 1991 that jihadism became an international ideology.”  Then, as stated by the Syrian ambassador to the United States, “when the U.S. changed Iraq into [a] lawless state, Iraq became fertile ground for every extreme organization.” This was manifested by an “internal war between Sunnis and Shiites in places like Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and even Yemen.”  Al Qaeda (or, rather, the penumbra of radical Islamism that permeated from Al Qaeda) became “a major driving force of Sunni-Shiite hatred.”  Rosen spent considerable time in both Lebanon and Afghanistan, and reports the conflicts in detail.

 It is worth noting Rosen’s view that it has precisely been U.S. policy to provoke civil war within the countries just mentioned, together with Gaza and Somalia.  He doesn’t back this up with any evidence of the U.S. intent, but if the old admonition to “judge things by their fruits” has any wisdom to it, his conclusion has, at least, a certain presumptive validity.

It is easy to understand that much of the content of this book is subject to being controverted.  Indeed, many of the conversations Rosen reports contradict other views that are expressed to him.  There is bound to be a certain asymmetry in any attempt to dispute his narrative, however, since it is doubtful that anyone else has come even close to matching the journalistic foundation that he laid through years of close contact with so many people in the Middle East.

                                                                                                                                          Dwight D. Murphey