Neither the Western nor the Arabic press is doing a good job on this. Only the local Iraqi TV networks are doing good investigative reporting on corruption in the government and abuses of power by the security services. I speak as one of the few Iraqis who have benefited massively from the war. It ended my running-away period and provided me amazing opportunities. Yet I think it was a mistake—a disaster.
In 2001, I was sitting in a taxi in Baghdad, listening to the radio. An Iraqi news reader was talking about planes hitting buildings in America, about buildings falling down, in a very Armageddon-like way. That was ten years into sanctions, ten years after the 1991 bombing. Baghdad had been bombed from 1993 to 1998. So there was no love whatsoever between Iraq and America. And yet I couldn’t find a single Iraqi who would say that September 11 was a good thing. Everyone thought, “This is crazy; this is madness; this is wrong.” Now in 2011, in the bars of Beirut, you see Western-minded people who say that September 11 was a good thing. This change has happened because of the Iraq war. It has driven both Sunnis and Shia to such levels of extremism. The viciousness, the massacring—people have lost their sanity. And all because of the war.
Kabul and Saigon
After my experience reporting on the Iraqi insurgency, I tried to replicate it with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Before I went, I assumed that the Taliban had learned their ideas and beliefs in the madrassas of Pakistan and were imposing them on the people in the villages of Afghanistan. But it wasn’t like that. A lot of what we call Taliban extremism is the local village culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban did not come and make the men wear beards, because everyone was already bearded. Every single woman wore a burqa when she went to town. This was their culture.
I eventually realized that the Arabs in al Qaeda in Afghanistan were more hard-line than the Taliban. The Arabs wouldn’t pray with the Taliban because they thought the Taliban weren’t pure enough.
I also was struck by the way people—NGO workers and journalists and diplomats—live in Kabul. It’s very much like what I’ve read about Saigon during the war there, the French restaurants and the parties. In Iraq, journalists and NGO workers couldn’t live openly like that, but in Kabul, where there’s such wretched poverty, you see all these restaurants and guest houses. That was very awkward, very strange.
Still Missing the Story
In Libya, I think journalists repeated many of the same mistakes as in Iraq. Every single media outlet followed the same narrative, which is that of the rebels against the evil Qaddafi. Qaddafi was evil—there’s no doubt about that—and the rebels, the freedom fighters, were good. But why did the Qaddafi people keep fighting? We missed that part of the story, and it might say something about what happens next in Libya, now that Qaddafi is gone.
When I was in jail in Libya—and I was not suffering from Stockholm Syndrome—I got to talk to two officers. I’ve talked before to security and intelligence officers in Syria, Iraq, and other Arab countries, especially under Saddam. You got the feeling that intelligence officers working under Saddam didn’t believe in the system—it was just a job. They tortured people because they were part of the regime. In Libya, the two officers I talked to spoke about Qaddafi in such a way that they saw nothing else but him. They identified Libya as Qaddafi. One said, “We love him; we really love him.” I was in jail and blindfolded—he had no need to impress or convince me.
An ‘Architect,’ Once Again