This article was first published in The Boston Globe on March 26, 2003.
With academics, analysts, and Iraqi exiles crowding the airwaves and the op-ed pages lately, it would seem that the United States does not suffer from a shortage of specialists on Iraq.
But a host of scholars and analysts say there is a surprising absence of specific, on-the-ground knowledge of how the Iraqi government and society actually function today. While that may not affect wartime strategy, it could make any postwar occupation much more of a challenge.
“We don’t have a single academic expert in America who understands how Iraqi politics work in 2003, not a clue,” said Augustus Richard Norton, a Boston University professor who specializes in the Middle East.
Even the CIA’s former top political analyst on Iraq acknowledges there’s a problem. “There’s nobody in this country who really knows the internal dynamics, the fabric of how Iraq works,” said Judith Yaphe, a senior fellow with the National Defense University.
It’s certainly not for a lack of trying. With Iraq in the cross hairs of the US military for more than a decade and with UN inspectors crisscrossing the country, Iraq has been the subject of intense scrutiny for years. While valuable insight has been gained in certain areas, such as how the military is organized and what the instruments of terror are, there are few people, even inside Saddam Hussein’s security-obsessed Iraq, who understand how the system really operates. And apparently none of them are talking.
The US government has operated an embassy in Baghdad for only about six of the past 35 years. Since at least the early 1980s, there have been no real ties between American and Iraqi universities. Field research in Iraq by American scholars has been next to impossible. Hussein has succeeded in keeping everything a state secret. Disclosing even basic data, such as the number of members of the ruling Ba’ath Party, could be punishable by death.
America’s haziness over everything from Iraq’s electrical power grid to its political power distribution could spell big trouble for US forces during occupation, analysts say. That’s because there will be pressure to ensure security quickly and the delivery of basic services and to begin working with Iraqi leaders on the local level.
“They’ll find themselves in the middle of clan rivalries with no playbook,” said Joseph C. Wilson IV, who was the last American diplomat to meet with Hussein, when Wilson was the acting US ambassador to Baghdad in 1991.
Now a scholar with the Middle East Institute, Wilson recalled that during his days in Baghdad he often relied on local staff members to get things done, realizing that “some questions were best not asked.”
“We will have to ask those questions this time, because we will own the operation,” he said.
Wilson said he has been struck by how rare it is to hear someone with current information about Iraq. “Everybody I know has been talking about this from the perspective of a Washington think tank and not a Baghdad street.”
The apparent US preference for remolding the existing Iraqi bureaucracy, rather than building a new one, will require detailed knowledge that seems elusive right now, said E. Roger Owen, director of Harvard’s Contemporary Arab Studies Program. “We know less, but because of the particular circumstances of the intervention, the US will actually need to know much more,” he said. “It’s the British mandate returned.”
After World War I, when Britain assumed control over what was then Mesopotamia,it benefited from the knowledge of Gertrude Bell, a British archeologist who had steeped herself in the politics and personalities of Arab tribes while living among them.
There seem to be no Gertrude Bells in the American arsenal. There are widely respected American scholars, such as Yaphe and Phebe Marr, who have devoted their careers to studying Iraq. Former CIA and National Security Council analyst Kenneth M. Pollack, author of “The Threatening Storm,” is credited with having an excellent command of the Iraqi military picture. And there are a couple of highly regarded analysts of Iraq in Britain and Israel.
But there are clearly shortcomings to this expertise. Marr wrote “The Modern History of Iraq,” a definitive work, but that was published in 1985.
Yaphe said that even though she began her focus on Iraq as a graduate student, she has never been to the country because of the severe security measures Hussein began putting in place in the 1970s.
In recent years, some scholars have spent time in the semiautonomous Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. But such visits have limited value in understanding Hussein’s regime, Yaphe said.
A stash of government documents uncovered in the north after the Gulf War shed some light on the brutal operations of the Iraqi state. The documents are part of a Harvard archive project overseen by Kanan Makiya, a native of Iraq who is now a Brandeis University professor.
The State Department has tried to tap the knowledge of Iraqis in the United States, assembling committees for its “Future of Iraq” project. But Mohaned Al-Hamdi, an assistant professor of economics at Kansas State University who was part of an uprising in southern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War, said that when he has participated in such committee meetings, “my sense is that most people don’t know what has happened in Iraq since they left.”
There are reports the Pentagon and CIA have tangled over how much trust to put in the information coming from the latest wave of Iraqi defectors. But Al-Hamdi, who was a physicist in Iraq, said the main problem is that “the regime built the system so that [as an Iraqi worker] you know what you’re doing, but nothing about what’s happening next door.”Neil Swidey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.