What I found most ironic is that the safest part for us as journalists was during the actual war. Back then, during that stage of fighting, we were not targets. After the war itself, during the first month or two, it was extremely safe. We could go anywhere in Iraq, talk to anyone, and didn’t have to worry about anything.
Because no matter how much money we spend there [in Iraq], as long as the people there see this money as… as assistance that is unwelcome, as long as they continue to be humiliated in their own country by us… I mean, the future looked bleak, and the future after that was in fact very bleak.
The rules of engagement are so lax that soldiers are shooting and killing Iraqis under mere suspicion, and tragedies are everyday. There are road killings, killings on the road when someone is trying to pass a convoy and they get shot. Or if a roadside bomb goes off, the soldiers just start shooting in all directions.
The American official was trying to talk about aid and development projects and finally a local tribal chief got up and said, “Even if you turn our country into heaven, we don’t want it from you. Just leave us.”
Now as to the behavior of the soldiers: occupations always corrupt the occupiers.
Even if you are a liberal in the Muslim world, when you see Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and you see all the other reports of abuses by American forces, it’s very hard to get up and say, “We should simulate the American ways,” because this is the face of America now in the Muslim world, for many Muslims.
So our own actions sometimes have undermined our safety, in our efforts to fight terrorism. The only way this can work is if we are aligned with liberals, with moderate Muslim forces. But if our war on terrorism is seen – as it is seen by many Muslims – as a war on Islam itself, it’s very hard for us to have Muslim alliances, because America and the West have become so toxic.
Even if you look at Iran, those campaigners for human rights there, they don’t want to have anything to do with America, because they are afraid that having American support will be the kiss of death for their movement. And that’s really tragic.
But in Afghanistan, the general rule was that since you were fighting the Taliban, which was not a lawful government force, the Geneva Conventions did not apply. And that led to a lot of excesses in Afghanistan, excesses like Abu Ghraib that were already well-publicized.
Long before 9/11 and the war in Iraq, a lot of people hated the United States and the West. But what the Iraqi war seems to have done, at least in… I mean, I’m just reporting what I see from the people on the ground, is that it has silenced many pro-American forces in the Muslim world.
In the occupation in Afghanistan, there are tragedies as well. It’s not as bad as in Iraq because there are fewer American troops. But, as I describe in the book, going out on patrol and coming into a village, the soldiers found a stash of documents and decided this was Taliban propaganda.
Well, it’s a problem in general with the American military. If you are the biggest and the strongest military power in the world, you have this natural reluctance to learn the quirky ways of the natives in faraway lands.
I think the behavior of the troops has been a huge factor in the rise of the insurgency and in the rise of the anti-American feelings there[in Iraq].
In a country like Iraq with its culture of blood feuds – is that the more locals are killed, the more motivation there is for the insurgency, for the insurgents the more feelings of revenge there are, and in the end the more the operational security of the soldiers suffers, because any soldier who kills an infant today is grooming the killer of his mate tomorrow.
The other problem is that the priority of many soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan is operational security: not getting killed. Now that is a very valid priority, but it has to be balanced against many other priorities, especially not killing too many locals in the process.
I did some embedded stuff. And if you are embedded, the only things you see are what the soldiers see, and if the people talk to you, they talk to you as if you are a soldier, because with your flak jacket and your helmet, they can’t tell the difference between you and the soldier next to you, and they obviously won’t tell you what they really think because they are afraid of you.
If you are an eighteen or nineteen-year-old with little education, as is often the case, and you’re put in charge of many, many people on the other end of the world, you have absolute power and you’re not prepared for it.
I think in Baghdad, any westerner, journalist or not, has a big dollar sign on his or her forehead. So, first and foremost, you are a ticket to unimaginable wealth. And that makes any trips out of the safe zones very risky.
And if you look at the experience of Turkey, for example, where the modern Islamists are in power and are doing fine – this is very good. Because democracy is not possible in the Muslim world without bringing in the Islamists or part of the Islamists who hate us now into these governments.