By Alex Kingsbury

Journalist Nir Rosen's new book re-examines the surge

Journalist Nir Rosen didn't just embed with U.S. forces while covering the Iraq war, the former bouncer turned foreign correspondent used his fluency in Arabic to spend time also with Shiite and Sunni insurgents. His new book, Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World, focuses heavily on the war in Iraq and offers a compelling reappraisal of "the surge," a doctrine now helping to guide U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Excerpts:

What's the most important thing you've come to believe about the surge?

The surge, as the Pentagon understood it, was simply an increase in the number of soldiers, but it has come to mean a lot more than that. It was a confluence of Iraqi and American dynamics, meaning that the surge is really a description of a time period rather than a military tactic.

What were the most important underlying issues?

There was a Sunni realization by late 2006 that they were losing the civil war. The Americans were talking at the time about withdrawing--leaving the cities and handing things over to the Shiite security forces, who were killing Sunnis. The Saudis were talking about getting involved, to protect the Sunnis from the Shiites. And President [George W.] Bush is finally paying attention to Iraq and fearing the possibility of a regional war.

The U.S. military was doing things differently as well.

Yes, the military had already decided to go in and establish smaller bases, closer to the population. Protecting the population became the new strategy. All this forced the Iraqi militias to recalculate. The importance of the surge wasn't just the increase in troops; it was the declaration that the U.S. military intended to stay, rather than to leave. That forced the insurgent groups to change their approach.

How so?

The Sunnis realized that if the Americans were going to stay, they could help them in their fight against the Shiite militias and al Qaeda. The Shiite militias realized that with the Americans focused on Baghdad, it was better to lie low and wait out the surge. So, both Sunnis and Shiites declared a cease-fire.

What about the rest of the Iraqi population?

Most of the mixed communities, for instance in Baghdad, had already been cleansed and so those gains by each side were frozen in place. Had the surge happened a year or two earlier, it likely would have had the opposite effect and met with more resistance.

You opposed the surge at the time.

I thought it was a terrible idea to set up Sunni militias [the so-called Sons of Iraq]. They were just waiting to fight the Iraqi government and the Shiite militias. But the Sunnis miscalculated badly. By going public and giving the Americans (and the Iraqi government) all their addresses, names, biometric data, and so forth, it was impossible for them to go back underground.

Yet they were never really integrated into the government, as they'd been promised.

The Iraqi government then ended up decimating the Sunni militias, which no one really noticed. Meanwhile, the Shiite militias were also decimated in 2008 by the Iraqi army, aided by the Americans.

What about the millions of Iraqis that fled?

Iraq lost a huge corps of people who were middle class, secular, and educated. They fled to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Europe, and the United States. They were the doctors, lawyers, [and] technocrats. They were replaced with those who are corrupt and more prone to sectarianism.

Did that prolong the conflict?

No, the flight actually helped bring the civil war to an end. The internal displacement meant that you no longer had mixed areas and mixed neighborhoods. The surge then froze those gains into place.

Will they return?

For the most part, those people have not and will never return. The internally displaced have resettled in areas that they are comfortable in. Sunnis in Sunni areas, Shiites in Shiite areas. Remember that every Iraqi family you talk to have experienced deaths, beatings, rapes, and they blame their neighbors. They would now rather live in poverty rather than return to the places that they once lived, which they still regard as dangerous.

Is the civil war likely to restart?

No, even return of refugees would not restart the conflict.

How have the war and the surge resonated beyond Iraq?

For me, so much of what I've seen throughout the Muslim world is related: the increasing sectarianism, the increasing resonance of the al Qaeda message with disaffected Sunnis. In Afghanistan, you can't understand what the Americans are trying to do without understanding what they think happened in Iraq during the surge. But the insurgents brought their own lessons and tactics from Iraq to Afghanistan too.


Available at

Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World

Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East (The Contemporary Middle East)

Enemies of Intelligence

The End of History and the Last Man

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

The Tragedy of Great Power Politics

The End of the Free Market: Who Wins the War Between States and Corporations?

Running Out of Water: The Looming Crisis and Solutions to Conserve Our Most Precious Resource

Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization

The Great Gamble

At War with the Weather: Managing Large-Scale Risks in a New Era of Catastrophes

Friendly Fire: Losing Friends and Making Enemies in the Anti-American Century

Dining With al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East

Uprising: Will Emerging Markets Shape or Shake the World Economy


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