"Iraq Is Not a Lost Battle"

An Interview with Isam al-Khafaji

by Paul Aarts
published in MER228

Isam al-Khafaji, a contributing editor of Middle East Report, is an Iraqi social scientist. As a young faculty member and a left-wing intellectual, he was forced to leave Iraq in 1978 during campaigns of forced Baathification in higher education and repression of the left. Between that year and the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, al-Khafaji entered Iraq several times clandestinely, but never his native Baghdad. He taught at the University of Amsterdam. In 2002, al-Khafaji participated in the State Department "Future of Iraq" workshops -- 18 in total -- including the "the mother of all workshops," entitled "Transition to Democracy." Later, he accepted the Pentagon's invitation to be a member of the Iraqi Reconstruction and Development Council (IRDC). On May 9, al-Khafaji went to Baghdad as one of around 140 expatriates recruited to assist the US with post-war reconstruction planning. Exactly two months later, extremely frustrated about US reluctance to share policymaking duties, he submitted his resignation to Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Al-Khafaji is now working to establish a social science research center in Baghdad. Paul Aarts, lecturer in international relations at the University of Amsterdam, spoke with him on August 18, 2003, in Uithoorn, the Netherlands.

What made you decide to participate in the workshops and later join the IRDC in Iraq?

I hate to say that we on the left sometimes take a hypocritical approach of watching events and denouncing "plots of imperialism" without putting our hands into the filth of everyday work. I had no illusions that I was going to change things, but at least I could try to make my voice heard. To participate in the IRDC was the most difficult decision I have made in my life. It was particularly my son and my wife who encouraged me to take this job. Was I pleased to do it? No, but I felt that my country was being shaped and that I should take part in it.

Since then, have you been seen as some kind of collaborator?

No, not really. The fact that people get killed -- both American soldiers and Iraqi civilians -- doesn't mean that there is a popular Iraqi resistance. This is no Vietnam. There are very few Iraqis being killed because there are seen as collaborators, and the number of American casualties is also very low. If you asked Iraqis whether US troops should leave, the vast majority would say no. On the other hand, the rising number of attacks have already forced the Americans to swallow much, not all, of their arrogance. But is this "resistance"? No. Sometimes we confuse our emotions with the facts. A real popular resistance does not end up with one or two dead a day -- with my deep sorrow for each life lost. If this were popular resistance, there would be something like 50 dead a day.

Don't you think that most Iraqis would favor a UN presence instead of US-British occupation forces?

I have asked myself whether I should take that position. But don't forget that the UN has an extremely bad reputation among Iraqis. For 12 years, the UN has been seen as the strangler of the people and as a corrupt organization. If you asked Iraqis about a multinational force, the answer would depend on which countries would be part of it. The most terrifying thing is that Arabs would come -- not because of some isolationist Iraqi attitude. Iraqis remember that the Arab regimes have defended Saddam. Up until now they are defending him.

What were your initial expectations of the IRDC and when did you get frustrated about its activities?

This council was a technocratic, not a political, organ. One of its ostensible main functions is to overhaul the state structure and bring in honest, independent people who had been working inside. But we faced two opposing tendencies within the Bush administration, both of which have appendages among Iraqi political organizations. One trend is the State Department, the CIA and "its Iraqis," who wanted to keep changes as limited as possible. We knew that before the war; when they talked about regime change, they never inserted the word "democratic." The other trend is represented by the Pentagon and its people, mainly the Iraqi National Congress led by Ahmed Chalabi. They had an opposite view which is no less dangerous and today, under Paul Bremer, it is being put into practice, unfortunately. Although it is correct to label the former regime as a Nazi-type regime, it is wrong to draw from that the conclusion that you need to eradicate all former Baathists. Not all of them have been bastards! Here, in particular, we felt disappointed. We thought we would give advice on which former Baathists would be acceptable. But Bremer's blanket de-Baathification did not allow for much advice.

Does that mean that you were not really advisers?

In all fairness, I must say that I was consulted many times and on many issues. But it is one thing to pick up a phone and ask, "What do you think of this person?" -- which was done from the uppermost level in the palace [occupied by the Coalition Provisional Authority] down to the lower levels -- and being treated as a real adviser. We reached a point where we started asking ourselves: are we informers or advisers? Being an adviser means that you sit around the committee table devising the orders, but we were implementing orders without being consulted in their devising. So we were not seen as advisers, let alone as decision-makers. All the big decisions -- dissolving the Iraqi army and the security apparatus, privatization, oil policy, the banking system, the restructuring of the media -- were made behind closed doors.

Did you have illusions, before joining the council, that you would have a voice?

I want to criticize the use of the word "illusion." It's unfair to say that our being shunted aside was a foregone conclusion, because it wasn't. Let me explain. It's one thing to say that there were bad intentions; it's another to say that it was all foredoomed from the beginning. Our thinking was like this: we Arabs, we Middle Easterners, we always talked about what the others want from us; we never tried to think what do we want ourselves. Now [the war] was coming, whether we liked it or not, can't we find at least a temporary modus vivendi with what's going on in order to influence it? Was it possible? Yes, it was possible.

What made you so optimistic?

There was a trend within the Bush administration, especially during the first days of the war when the fighting was fierce, toward thinking that the war would take months and months. In that context, it was supposed that US forces, after reaching Baghdad, would meet a hostile population. So Iraqis would be badly needed to handle that situation. Given these circumstances, we did have the thought -- not the "illusion" -- that we could effect change for the better. Regrettably, we fell victim to the ease with which the military campaign was conducted. Because of this and because of the euphoric mood after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Americans thought: what's the need for Iraqis? We can do it on our own. This is where it went wrong.

You sent your letter of resignation to Paul Wolfowitz. What is your opinion about his views on the Middle East? In an interview, you hailed him as "visionary."

Compared to most politicians, he is a great visionary. Of course, you don't have to share his vision, but when considering your opponents, you have to admit their points of strength. I am not comparing Wolfowitz to Saddam Hussein, but can't I say that Saddam Hussein is a great tactician without loving him? You have to admit that Wolfowitz does not fit into the stereotype of politicians who are driven by votes and other mundane interests. He is not like Dick Cheney. Now that is a man of the multinational corporations, who answers to their interests in a very trivial sense of the word.

What about the particularities of Wolfowitz's "vision" for the Arab world?

Let's admit that right-wing visionaries can thrive when the left has resigned its visionary role of changing the world. This became clear to me in 1997 when the Middle East Institute in Washington organized a conference on the future of Iraq in which Wolfowitz participated. In the closing session, we ended up with all the cliches about the instability in the Middle East. Then Wolfowitz asked for the floor, and began by saying that "in 1970, there was Hafiz al-Asad in Syria and now there is Hafiz al-Asad. In 1968, there was the Baath in Iraq and now there is the Baath in Iraq. In 1968, there was Yasser Arafat and now there is Yasser Arafat -- what a dreadful stability!" I was saddened and happy at the same time. Isn't that what the left should have said? How is it that we turned into such a reactionary force fearing for the stability of the Middle Eastern regimes? Certainly, the Middle East is a region ripe for change, although the left and right differ on the mechanisms of change and where change should lead.

Let's talk about mechanisms which have been employed after the war. Are Iraqis better off under Bremer than they were under Jay Garner?

I think that's correct. Garner installed an extremely arrogant regime under which large numbers of Iraqis were humiliated. More importantly, Garner and his team were much too focused on keeping "stability," which implied no de-Baathification. The word even became taboo, at a moment when every Iraqi was expecting drastic changes. In those days, people started even seeing a plot between Saddam Hussein and the Americans -- evoking memories of the failed 1991 uprising. When Bremer came, it was a happy day. But soon it turned out that Bremer's approach of full de-Baathification was no less erroneous. A lot of Iraqis were alienated and the conditions for a civil war were laid. His famous decree to demobilize the army was issued without taking notice of the fact that no less than 60 percent of the population was already unemployed. By demobilizing the army, he added 400,000 people to their ranks. Multiply that number by four (the average family size) and you have 1.6 million people thrown into the streets. Dissolving the army was a big crime. Only after the officers started to protest did Bremer's staff come to us to ask what they should do. We were never consulted beforehand.

The Iraqi Governing Council, installed by the Coalition Provisional Authority, is sometimes described as "a closed circle of collaborators." I presume you don't share that view?

No, I certainly do not. I have the greatest respect for some of the Council's members, both on a personal level and because of what they represent politically. What would you have expected these people to do? Just sit in their homes and talk about occupation? That does not mean, however, that this Council is the best one could have. First and foremost, there is a problem of lacking domestic constituency -- with some exceptions of course. Most members do not have any leverage. I fear they will be played against one another. Finally, I must say that the large number of members from the formerly exiled opposition parties is a scandal. In many ways, the inside-outside "divide" is nonsense, but in this instance it is certainly applicable.

Is post-Saddam Iraq lacking in independent institutions or associations that could serve as agents of governance and transformation? Is it inevitable that tribal, ethnic and religious identities will predominate? Some speak about "creeping Talibanization."

These views are overstated. Under the Baath regime, the population was atomized. All kinds of day-to-day social relations have come about, mainly on the basis of mutual interest. People don't go to the mullah because they are believers -- it is a relationship of interests. Besides, I have met wonderful administrators and engineers who were the product of the past 35 years and they have reached a point where they themselves realized the importance of democracy. They are talking about it. One can see many mid-level businessmen who want to share modernizing ideas. I can see an Iraq in which tribalism is all but dead in the five major cities, which hold 12 million people out of 25 million. "Tribalism" has mostly become nothing more than a marriage of convenience. Concerning the so-called return of religion, I don't deny that Iraqi society -- like many others -- has become more conservative. But conservatism is not Islamism. Many people are treating the Islamic leaders as political figures rather than as representatives of God. What you can see in Iraq these days, unlike the situation in Egypt for instance, is that people are making fun of or criticizing these leaders, just as happens with any political leader. There is no fear of the aura of the turban. There is much talk about "fundamentalism," but the only thing that worries me is Wahhabi influence through money coming from Saudi Arabia, not necessarily through official channels. What may happen is the following: the typical Baathist, believing in the "old" ideology and coming from a provincial background, might indeed adopt some kind of fundamentalist Sunni Islam. But to speak of "creeping Talibanization" is too much. Without reducing everything to economics, it all depends on improving everyday life.

Regarding economics, were you consulted on the issue of privatization?

Yes, I suggested that the issue of privatization should be lifted above the ideological combat of capitalism versus socialism. There is a kind of privatization that can lead to a Mafia type of [market] economy and that's where the worst type of fundamentalism would have a chance. So one should not follow a policy of blanket privatization just because it is fashionable. One should try to create an atmosphere where maximizing your profit -- the prime motive for every capitalist -- in productive assets is possible, but privatization must be done case by case, because of the consequences of growing unemployment. Banking and financial markets should also be kept under strict state control, creating, for a while, a partly protected market as in South Korea and Taiwan. This is crucial because once you open the financial markets, it will be stupid from any capitalist point of view to invest in industry, the airways or the technology sector. Unfortunately, I can't see that happening in Iraq. We already have 16 private banks. So far it is unclear what the CPA is doing, and that is very frustrating.

What about the oil industry?

Here I made the suggestion, and this may surprise you, that we should go back to the way Iraqi oil was dealt with during the monarchy. Oil was still in the hands of the state, international companies received concessions and, more importantly, there was a law stipulating that 70 percent of oil revenues be in the hands of what was called the Construction Board. The cabinet was not allowed to use that money for the budget -- only the remaining 30 percent -- restraining it from abusing the oil money. The question is: can we establish an independent, autonomous body that controls 70 percent of oil revenues for investment purposes only? I think we can do it. It will not be easy. There are a lot of businessmen who want to make a quick profit, but who is interested in industrializing Iraq? Here I draw confidence from the fact that there is a growing number of people -- modernized, secular, with a pan-Iraqi ootlook and often in their thirties -- who are disenchanted with the present situation. Again, don't look at the mullahs and sheikhs, and say "this is Iraq." The "70-30" formula is not yet part of any blueprint for Iraq's oil policy, but the idea is floating around.

What are the CPA's ideas on oil policy?

There is no oil policy under Bremer. From day one, everybody was told that oil policy comes from the White House. You may remember the fact the Oil Ministry was the only one which was well-protected during the days of looting, and that's why we jokingly asked the Americans: "Do you expect to find oil under the ministry?" Here Dick Cheney comes in, with Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR). The tentacles of KBR are everywhere in Iraq!

You seem to remain quite optimistic.

If you asked me if Iraq is a lost battle, I would say no. Let's not lose confidence in our people. We should not sit idle. The point is that an old system is dead. We should not not repeat the mistake of the Egyptian left -- and many other leftists -- in speaking about "the good old days." The old days were no good. What we have to work on now is not only to denounce what the Americans bring forward, but develop our own, new plans. These plans should, of course, be realistic and mobilize the people. This includes the "70-30" formula.

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