Emma Sky: Why Iraq is the 'worst strategic failure since the foundation of the United States'

Emma Sky’s new book draws on her experience as a civilian volunteer aiding the reconstruction of Iraq and advising U.S. generals. It's a first-hand look at disastrous mistakes made by the Bush and Obama administrations that have transformed Iraq into a country hopelessly divided by sectarianism and terrorized by ISIS.

'The people at the top should be held accountable for what went wrong' former adviser says of Iraq

People evacuate the body of a victim killed in a bombing at Baghdad's Jameela market on Aug. 13. A massive truck bomb ripped through the popular food market in a predominantly Shiite neighbourhood, killing at 58. (Karim Kadim/Associated Press)

Emma Sky was in the middle of the storm in Iraq, and she still isn't quite sure how she got there.

In 2003, Sky, a British civilian, volunteered to help in the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq. She ended up spending much of the next 10 years there, watching the country collapse even further into chaos and violence.

Sky, who has written a new book about that time called The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, says she was opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but signed on to help in the reconstruction of the country.

"I wanted to apologize to the Iraqi people," she told CBC's The Sunday Edition. "But when I arrived, the Iraqi people didn't want an apology. They wanted their country to work again."

In 2003, British civilian Emma Sky volunteered to help in the post-invasion reconstruction of Iraq. She ended up spending much of the next 10 years there as a provincial governor and adviser to the U.S. military.

Sky spent much of the next decade serving in a number of positions, from ad-hoc governor of Kirkuk to political advisor to numerous U.S. generals, including Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. Forces in Iraq. 

But so much of that journey seemed to happen by chance.

"When I arrived to Iraq I had no training, no briefings," she recalled. "I had no idea what my job would be, and then I was suddenly in charge of Kirkuk. It was a indication of the problems there. There was no plan."

Wishful thinking

Sky said the United States led the invasion of Iraq in 2003 to oust a dictator, Saddam Hussein, and to help establish a democratic beachhead in the Middle East. But after the invasion, it was the military that was left with the job of trying to keep the country together.

"They had been told to go in and take care of Saddam and that was it. They were completely unaware of the situation there. They had to make the best of the situation they found themselves in."

According to Sky, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush believed that democracy would take hold on its own; they had no roadmap for how to make that happen.

"These plans drawn up in Washington were all wishful thinking," she said.

At one point, Sky recounts in the book, Donald Rumsfeld showed up for a military briefing in northern Iraq, and didn't know where neighbouring Iran was on the map.

In Emma Sky's book, 'The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq,' she details the country's collapse into chaos in the wake of the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"No one has ever been held accountable for the decisions, for the false intelligence that led them to invade Iraq," she says. "They should be. The people at the top should be held accountable for what went wrong."

Sky was blunt in her assessment to General Odierno, telling him that America's blundering in Iraq was the, "worst strategic failure since the foundation of the United States."

His response, said Sky, was, "What are we going to do about it? We're not going to leave it like this."

In Sky's view, the army began to adapt to the reality, changing their focus from attacking "the enemy" to protecting Iraqi civilians and supporting the Iraqi armed forces. The so-called surge, from 2007 to 2009, put more U.S. troops into Iraq and helped to stabilize the country. Things looked hopeful.

But the biggest missed opportunity happened following the first national elections in 2010, when the sitting Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, failed to gain a majority.

"Iraqis had become convinced that politics, not violence, was the way forward." she says. "All the various groups came out to vote, and the bloc that won ran on a platform of 'no to sectarianism.'"

Sky was blunt in her assessment to Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq (centre), telling him that America's blundering in Iraq was the, "worst strategic failure since the foundation of the United States." (Karim Kadim/The Associated Press)
Sky believes this presented an opportunity to oust Nouri al-Maliki, a man who was consolidating his own power base, in favour of a true - or at least fledgling - democracy.

"But it was a close result. Maliki refused to accept the results," she said. 

The U.S. decided that backing al-Maliki, even with his faults, was the best chance for stability. This wasn't something the military supported.

"The ambassador at the time, Chris Hill, had no experience of Iraq and didn't really want to be there."

Sky writes that Hill spent most of his time trying to make the embassy in Baghdad "normal." He even brought in rolls of sod to make a lawn where he could practise lacrosse.

"General Odierno was adamant that the U.S. should protect the political process, allow the winning group 30 days to form the government. Hill didn't have the same feel for Iraq and he said 'Maliki is our man, the strong man the country needs.' In the end Biden went with the ambassador's recommendation."

Sky believes it was a huge mistake.

"Maliki's politics were poisonous," she said.

Fading confidence

Sky was disheartened as she watched the Iraqi people lose confidence in the country's leaders, especially groups such as Sunni Muslims, who felt there was no place for them and no chance to be part of the government.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Iraq's parliament unanimously approved an ambitious reform plan on Aug. 12 that would cut spending and eliminate senior posts following mass protests against corruption and poor services. (Karim Kadim/Associated Press)
"If you were Sunni, you made the unfortunate decision that supporting ISIS was a better option than supporting the central government in Baghdad," she says.

Current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been trying to reform the government. This week he cut the cabinet in an attempt to oust some of the old guard, and dropped quotas for government positions that were based on ethnicity.

Sky is cautiously hopeful that the new government may help turn things around, but says it will not be easy.

"It is difficult in Iraq. The best case scenario is some form of confederation of Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, with power taken away from a central power.

"The near future is pretty grim, but Iraq has an incredible history of different groups working together. Hopefully that past can inspire a new future. But it's going to take an awful long time."

(Listen to Kevin Sylvester's conversation with Emma Sky Aug. 23 on The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One just after the 9 a.m. news, 9:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador, or here).

This week on The Sunday Edition

Starting at 9 a.m. on CBC Radio's The Sunday Edition on Aug. 23:

Florida and sea levels: Harold Wanless, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Miami, says sea levels will rise by at least a couple of metres by the end of this century. The consequences for South Florida, where hundreds of thousands of Canadians own property, are hard to wrap your head around.

Vera Peters, conservative radical: Vera Peters was a pioneering Canadian doctor who radically changed the way Hodgkins Disease and breast cancer are treated; she made the lumpectomy an option for women with early stages of breast cancer. Her achievement is celebrated in a new play.

The life and legacy of James Baldwin: The great African-American novelist and essayist James Baldwin once wrote, "To be a negro in this country ... is to be in a rage almost all the time." Twenty-eight years after his death, Baldwin's ideas and his analysis of race, sexuality and their relationship with mainstream society are as relevant as ever.