Friday, October 10, 2008

Dexter Filkins Talk

New York Times war correspondent Dexter Filkins is probably the most talked about journalist in the country right now. And, just by chance, I saw him speak this past week at the New York Times’ building.

Last Tuesday I was covering a graduation ceremony for America’s VetDogs, an organization that provides service dogs to disabled veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our reporting I professor wants us out in the field as much as possible, so this week, instead of having class, she sent us an email listing events taking place that day in New York. We had to pick an event, report it, then write up the story and email it to her by midnight.

I chose the VetDogs event because I thought it was the most interesting and important. Apparently so did a lot of my classmates. Five other people from my class showed up, including Ali, the guy from Iraq I mentioned previously.

I’ve been friendly with him and after the event finished we chatted a bit. He knows I’m interested in the Middle East and we compared books we had read about the region.
(Not only had he read the books, he knew most of the authors)

And then he told me: “I’m going to a talk about the future of the Middle East tonight at the New York Times building.”

“Oh wow,” I said.

“You wanna come?”

Do I wanna come????? Hell yeah, I wanna come!!!!

The talk featured Filkins, former Times Jerusalem Bureau chief Steven Erlanger, and Robin Wright, author of Dreams and Shadows. The tickets, $30 a pop, had sold out weeks in advance but I got in free because of my friend. Filkins and Erlanger didn’t seem too optimistic about the Middle East’s future. Wright, citing a democracy activist who’s spent most of his life in a Syrian jail cell, weirdly saw a bright future.

The three spoke about their experiences for 45 minutes, then opened the floor for a 45 minute Q&A. To summarize what they said:

Filkins at one point admitted that we (the Western world) don’t truly understand the Middle East. On a good day we can only catch a glimpse of it. He gave a story about Iraq as an example, saying that their were two conversations going on in Iraq: the conversation the Iraqis were having with the Americans, and the conversation the Iraqis were having with each other.

He returned to the US in December 2006 to write his new book, The Forever War, which was released a few weeks ago. His goal was to give a worm’s eye view of reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan. The book contained 91 chapters, he said. Each was a short-take about what it was like to cover the war.

Last month he returned to Baghdad and was blown away by the progress that had been made. People were cowering in their homes when he left in 2006. Public parks were a no man’s land, often littered with dead bodies in the morning. Now people were enjoying themselves in the street, women were walking around in jeans and T-shirts, and the vibe felt eerily relaxed.

He attributed the progress to the surge and the Sunni awakening councils, but warned that the situation could collapse tomorrow. Filkins explained that the surge was much more than just the addition of 30,000 troops. General Petreaus instituted a new counter-insurgency strategy, which was the real beneficial aspect.

The Sunni Awakening councils could not be under-estimated, he said. But the councils were made up of former insurgents (at one point he committed a Freudian slip and referred to the councils as “insurgent councils”). He recounted a meeting he had with a council leader whose last name was Al-Tikriti. The guy was from Saddam’s hometown, might’ve been related to him.

He said that the key to understanding the lull in violence was this:
Sunni insurgents saw the Americans as invaders and occupiers and fought them from the beginning. Then Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia came
along. AQM targeted not only the Americans, but the Iraqi Shi’a as well, reasoning they were apostates.

The Sunni insurgents wanted to kill Americans all day long, but didn’t see the point in killing shi’a. This created a conflict between Al-Qaeda and the Sunni insurgents, and the insurgents were soon forced between a rock and a hard place.

The Shi’a greatly outnumber the Sunnis in Iraq, and control the new government being established. Shi’a death squads (many of which had links to the central government) began retaliating genocidally against the Sunnis for Al Qaeda's attacks.

The insurgents looked to their left and saw Al-Qaeda. They looked to their right and saw the Shi’a. Then they looked straight ahead and saw the Americans, who suddenly didn’t look so bad anymore. An alliance with the Americans was their ticket home.

So now we have the present situation: the former Sunni insurgents make up the awakening councils and we pay each council member $300 a month, basically not to shoot at us. And we’re their buffer against the shi’a. The central government now wants to disarm and break up the awakening councils. If they press too hard, everything could fall apart.

He said he had no idea what would happen in Iraq, and anyone who does is lying. The lull in violence is built on a house of cards. But a house of cards is better than no house at all, he added.

The discussion then turned to Afghanistan. Filkins said that the surge/awakening council strategy most likely would not work in that country. Doling out money to the awakening councils worked because, in essence, we gave money to the tribal leaders who then distributed it to their flock. Iraqi society, surprisingly, has a coherent and orderly tribal structure. If you make peace with the tribal leader, you make with the tribe.

Afghanistan does not have that. Afghan society used to be based on a similar tribal structure but, after about 30 years of continuous war, that is gone. The Taliban in particular saw the tribal leaders as a threat and went after them to consolidate power in the 90’s.

Now, Afghanistan is a free for all and there’s no tribal leaders left to pay to quell violence.

Furthermore, Afghanistan is stuck in the 4th century. They have like a 20 percent literacy rate, no roads or infrastructure, and no industry. Bombing them wouldn’t really do anything. And the Taliban are literally from another planet. There’s nothing the US could conceivably negotiate with them.

When the discussion turned to the November election, Filkins said most Iraqis would prefer McCain. If the Arab world could vote, they would overwhelmingly vote for Obama, he said. Except in Iraq. Iraqis get scared when they hear Obama’s pullout talk. They know that, if the Americans left soon, the house of cards would collapse and the bloodshed would be worse than imaginable. So they prefer McCain.

The other two didn’t have anything really new to say. But Erlanger did note that the recent news that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother is a big player in the heroine trade had been an open secret for years. He also stressed the labyrinthine element to the Middle East. Speaking of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Erlanger remarked that, if there were easy answers, they would have been done already.

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