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After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, British Middle East expert Emma Sky joined the U.S.-British civilian operation there, advising Coalition Provisional Authority Chief Paul Bremer and top U.S. military commanders, including Generals David Petraeus and Ray Odierno.
Emma Sky explores the mistakes that were made in her new book, "The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq."
In the latest addition to the NewsHour Bookshelf, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner talked to her at Busboys and Poets, a local Washington bookstore.
Emma Sky, welcome. Thank you for join us.
EMMA SKY, Author, "The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq": Thank you.
You opposed the Iraq war from the start. What drove you then to volunteer to go to help rebuild the country after the invasion?
Well, I thought, this is my opportunity to go to Iraq to apologize to the Iraqi people for the war.
The British government asked for volunteers. They said it would just be three months before we hand the country back to the Iraqis. I thought, I have got some skills. I can help rebuild. I can help conflict mediation. I can help institutional development.
What was the fatal mistake of the Americans and the British? At what point did it become the unraveling?
There were many mistakes all the way along.
So, after the invasion, there was no plan for what should be done. And the invading forces didn't have enough troops. There was a power vacuum. All these different gangs started to form. Then there was de-Baathification dissolving the military, and all of this led to the collapse of the state and then the civil war.
You said you thought the big mistake was for the Americans and the British to try to get Iraq to reorganize on the basis of ethnicity and sect. What was the alternative?
I think the alternative was to create the sense of Iraqiness.
And you organize based on regions and towns. And so you don't say we will have 20 percent Sunnis, 20 percent Kurds, 60 percent Shia. You actually think, we will have representatives from Basra, from Anbar, from Irbil. And that way, you're building up geographical representation, not based on the sect and ethnicity.
Instead, we wanted to build a pluralistic society, but what this did was institutionalize sectarianism. So, there was nothing about being Iraqi. It was all about being a subcomponent.
Paul Bremer asked you to come to Baghdad as his adviser.
Tell us about that.
I arrived there in sort of February 2004.
And by that stage, it was very clear things were not going well. We had the Abu Ghraib scandal. We had uprisings in Fallujah. We had uprises in the south with the Sadrists. And at the palace, we were forever being bombed and rocketed and there were always sound of gunfire.
So, it was a very dangerous time. And there was a sense that everything was starting to go downhill rapidly.
And yet you say Ambassador Bremer didn't see it that way.
When does optimism become delusion? And at one level, Ambassador Bremer is trying to lead in these very difficult circumstances.
But I remember the farewell party he had for us. And he said, you know, for the rest of your lives, you will remember how you brought democracy to Iraq. And as the bombs and rockets were going off in the background, I thought, there's a lot I'm going to remember. I'm not sure I will remember the democracy bit.
Now, what was it like for you, first of all, clearly progressive young woman from Britain, who was suddenly sitting at the right hand and advising these powerful American generals and living with the U.S. military? Must have been a huge cultural shock.
I mean, when I — I had never worked with any military before, let alone the U.S. military, before I got to Iraq. The initial interaction was a lot of friction.
But I came to see quite early on that these guys wanted to do the right thing. They wanted to stabilize Iraq, so they could leave. And they had capabilities. They had good leaders. They had resources. So I calculated that my best use of my skills was to help them be better at what they were doing.
But, in 2010, after quelling the Sunni-Shia civil war and al-Qaida, the Americans, Sky says, made a fateful mistake, throwing their weight Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki after he narrowly lost the 2010 election against a non-sectarian rival.
There was a sense of, do we uphold the election results or do we keep Maliki in power? And General Odierno was, we're Americans, there's been an election, we must uphold the results.
But there were others who thought, we know Maliki. He will give us a follow-on security agreement. So, that was the debate. And, unfortunately, Vice President Biden came down on the side of, there's no one but al-Maliki, this is the quickest option, keep the status quo, and we can get an security agreement, and then just really disengage.
Which is what Washington wanted to do.
Washington wanted to end the war. That was the priority, to end the war.
So what is the future now that you see for Iraq?
Iraq's present is really very grim.
You have got Islamic State controlling a third of the country. For all of us who served in Iraq year after year after year, it's really hard. And I think the only way is to maintain hope, is to look at Iraq's past, and you think, you know, this is the land where Adam and Eve were. This is the land where the Talmud was written. Baghdad was once the cultural capital of the Arab world.
That's an amazing history. And I hope the new generation comes along that's inspired by Iraq's incredible past and that's able to build a better future.
Well, Emma Sky, thank you so much.
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