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Accumulation of Heartbreak


August 25, 2005

Few westerners are more knowledgable about the Iraqi mindset than Yaroslav Trofimov. During the 1990s, Trofimov covered the Middle East for a variety of publications. A speaker of Arabic, he was hired by the Wall Street Journal in 2001 as the roving foreign correspondent for the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia and the Balkans. Over the next three years, he visited more than twenty Muslim countries, interviewing people from all walks of life. Part travelogue, part embedded war chronicle, Faith At War: A Journey on the Frontlines of Islam, From Baghdad to Timbuktu draws on Trofimov’s reporting from nine of those countries and explores what, in all its complexity and variety, the Muslim gaze westward has seen during the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

[Interviewed by Joel Whitney]

A Flower

Guernica: Obviously you devote more of Faith at War – three chapters – to Iraq than to any other country. How many times were you in Iraq?

Yaroslav Trofimov: I first entered Iraq on the day after the war started on March 21, 2003, and was there five times in total.

Guernica: In the book, you talk about how, to get around, you had to lie down in the back of taxis with a flak jacket up against the door, and later how journalists and westerners in Iraq had to put on local clothing to avoid getting kidnapped or attacked. Did you find it ironic that the occupiers who brought their “shock and awe” and their way of life were essentially the ones forced to wear the others’ clothes?

Trofimov: 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. That obviously changed, and journalists soon became targets. Everyday it’s more and more dangerous, as we see now, when this American journalist was kidnapped and assassinated just this week in a relatively safe spot. He was wearing native garb, by the way.

I think right now 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.

The last time I went to Baghdad, the rule was, if you went to eat with somebody, never stay in a place more than half an hour or forty-five minutes because that’s how long it takes for a neighbor to call his friends and get a couple of cars to grab you. And [another] rule is never walk the streets.

I have colleagues in Baghdad who’ve spent a year there, and since last year have never ever walked the streets of Baghdad. They go in their cars from appointment to appointment, stay in the green zone and stay in the hotel where all the journalists stay—because it’s just not safe. A five minute walk is often enough to end in tragedy.

Guernica: I was very cynical about what kind of reporting we would get when I heard about embedding, assuming all stories would be told from the soldiers’ point of view. But in your narrative, the closer you are to the soldiers, the more your own hopelessness about their role there seems to emerge. How would you define the behavior of the soldiers you spent time with, and what were some of the major mistakes you saw in the “battle for hearts and minds?”

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.

Trofimov: First, yes, 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.

The tragedy is that since the fall of Baghdad, you can only go as embedded journalists because there is no other way to get there.

Now as to the behavior of the soldiers: occupations always corrupt the occupiers. 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 that it leads to a power that many abuse.

Now, 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.

Right now, 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 result of this—especially 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.

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.

Guernica: Would you describe the American soldiers’ attack on the school in Fallujah, mentioned repeatedly in your book, as the worst tragedy, the greatest turning point and most despised incident you saw?

Trofimov: It was not the worst. What it was, I think, was really the first one.

Guernica: Was it one of these turning points in how Iraqis saw the occupation?

Trofimov: Yes, it was very shortly after the invasion stopped, I mean two or three weeks after the fall of Baghdad. And these were weeks of relative calm, and people were waiting to see how the Americans would behave and what they would be like.

And at that time people were very open to cooperation. But this killing in Fallujah, the killing of school children by American soldiers, it really changed public opinion, especially in the Sunni belt. And I think the reason Fallujah became such a hotbed of the insurgency can be traced back to those days—to the killing and then to the denial of responsibility by the military, which claimed that all those twelve-year-olds they killed were terrorists brandishing guns.

And then by the lack of understanding of the tribal norms that governed that part of Iraq—where if your family or tribal member got killed, you’re duty-bound to avenge that. Unless you’re bought off and there are all kinds of procedures for compensation and all that. Which would have been an option at the time but which nobody thought of. But all this the result of a lack of cultural knowledge on the part of the occupiers.

Guernica: Which seemed to be the biggest problem that came through in your book—

Trofimov: 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.

In the occupation in Afghanistan right now, 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.

They were about to arrest the poor man and ship him to Kandahar where he would have spent weeks or months or a year in jail, possibly being tortured, as we know now.

But it took me one look to find out that these were documents from the anti-Soviet jihad, half of them pertaining to the most secular of the mujahadeen. Because I told this to the company commander, the man was not arrested. But had I not been there, he would have been probably sent to the camp and—guess what—he’s going to be with the Taliban supporters as a result.

Guernica: You also describe an astonishingly insensitive American billboard asking Iraqis to turn in terrorists.

Trofimov: Yes, there was this big poster, really huge, that showed a middle-aged Iraqi man, probably in his 40s, lying in the dirt face-down with a GI in khakis and camouflage with his boot on the man’s neck, which is really as much of a humiliation as there can be in Iraq.

It was burnt at the edges because somebody threw a firebomb at it. But the Iraqi who was with me summed it up best, saying, “Why do they bother destroying it? It’s such a recruitment poster for the insurgency!” Which it really was.

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.”

Guernica: That detail was one of the details in your book that most astonished me. Another was the conversation you overheard in the Afghan province of Zabul, between a soldier and his commander as to why he couldn’t beat on the prisoners.

Trofimov: Yes. In Iraq, which is seen as a more conventional war, the Geneva Conventions are thought by the United States military to apply, more or less. 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.

So the soldiers were instructed that even though the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply, you really shouldn’t torture them without special authorization, at least. And I did overhear a conversation with a soldier saying, “Why can’t I beat him?” And the sergeant was saying that, “Well, we’re just such nice people that we shouldn’t really be beating them, even though they’re not entitled to any protection under the Geneva Conventions.”

And this was with prisoners for whom the evidence of any insurgency links was flimsy at best. Which didn’t stop them, unfortunately, from being sent to Kandahar.

A Flower

Guernica: What was the most heartbreaking moment for you in all of the countries that you visited?

Trofimov: That’s really hard to point out. It was the accumulation of heartbreak. On a personal level, when my colleague and friend Danny Pearl was killed, that was really hard for me.

But in the book, at the end of the Iraqi chapters, I write about how I went to the city of Baiji with this American official Bob Silverman who, to my surprise, spoke Arabic, and he impressed me as somebody who was competent. He was this occupation governor for the central part of Iraq who inspired me and made me hopeful after seeing his competence.

So we came into this huge hall filled with tribal chiefs, and he was traveling with this Iraqi former general who was supposed to “read them the riot act” and convince the locals that Americans were ready to work with them and start rebuilding. But instead it was the Iraqis who read the riot act to us, saying, “The Americans killed my relatives, the Americans destroyed my house, the Americans this, the Americans that.”

And Silverman was trying to talk about the aid and the development projects that the United States was ready to finance and finally a local tribal chief just got up and said, “Even if you turn our country into heaven, we don’t want it from you. Just leave us.” That was really a moment that showed the futility of much of the effort there.

Because no matter how much money we spend there, 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.

Guernica: To be fair, we should probably mention that even before the Iraq invasion, you make clear in the book, you found quite a bit of anti-Western and anti-American feeling in the Muslim world—

Trofimov: Oh, yes. Absolutely. 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.

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.

Guernica: Is there anything that you’re seeing in all this—in this potentially catastrophic clash of cultures—is there anything you’re seeing to be hopeful about?

Trofimov: Well, the unexpected side effect of all this was that Iraq—not because the U.S. wanted it, but because of large street demonstrations, and protesting and violence—there were elections in January. Which resulted in Iraq becoming now the first major Arab country with an Islamist government, thanks to the United States.

Some people say it’s horrible. I think it’s not so bad because it offers a chance for the Islamic parties who have been shut out of the political process throughout the Arab world to take on some responsibilities of government and to start delivering.

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.

Paradoxically, the Prime Minister of Iraq today is a member of the party that blew up the American embassy in Kuwait in the 1980s. This is very hopeful. It shows that we don’t have to be enemies with Islam forever. And there are friends who can be brought into the fold.

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