David Rose, Vanity Fair and the Hamdani Myth (Updated)
David Rose, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, has authored a prime example of ham-fisted revisionism and misguided self-promotion in this month’s issue of the magazine. The basic message of this article is that had Washington—then occupied by the evil ‘neocons’—only listened to General Raad al-Hamdani in 2004, then the whole Sunni insurgency could have been contained. It features a cast of unsung, busy-body Americans who feel compelled to tell the story of their nearly heroic opportunity to redeem the war in Iraq.
It’s a cute narrative of ‘shoulda-coulda-woulda’, one that nonetheless is full of holes and adds up to baloney.
Rose is a reporter in the same category as that of George Packer: a prototype of journalists who once thought that liberating Iraq was a noble cause, but have since recanted so that those who used to invite them to cocktail soirees in Manhattan would put them back on their invite lists.
Rose begins his first paragraph with “The history books will record…” and his second paragraph with “What history books should also record…” Quoting a former Rumsfeld aide who features plenty in this revised historical account, Rose writes ““From July ’04 to mid-’07,” he points out, “you can directly attribute almost all those K.I.A. [killed in action] in the Sunni regions of Iraq to this fatal error.”
What is this fatal error?
Not listening to Talal al-Gaaod (I spell it Gaoud).
Enter Ken Wischkaemper, a Texas businessman who believes he discovered al-Gaoud in December 2003. Wischkaemper—who volunteers that he has no political or military experience—claims that al-Gaoud told him during his initial meetings that “We are totally disenfranchised, and we have no contact with the Americans. The country is being turned topsy-turvy and we have no voice. We have no connections in Washington. Will you help us?’”
That is not true. In late February 2003, before the war, Talal al-Gaoud was already meeting U.S. officers in Amman and discussing his plans to pacify Anbar Province. I would know since it was I who arranged the meetings. At the time I was working with Gen. Saadoun al-Dulaimi, who went on to become Iraq’s Minister of Defense under
I had refused to meet al-Gaoud, believing that a meeting would lend legitimacy to a former intelligence cut-out of the regime that has yet to prove his loyalty to the New Iraq. I knew that al-Gaoud had leadership potential, and I knew that he was non-sectarian (his wife was from the Abu Gullel family of Najaf), but there was a still long way to go to prove to skeptic like me that someone as closely affiliated to the Saddam regime as al-Gaoud had repudiated the ethos of that tyranny.
As it happens, the whole INC enterprise out for Anbar was shut down because the CIA liaison at CENTCOM had put his foot down, insisting that Western Iraq was the CIA’s turf, and by extension, Ayad Allawi’s too. (For more about my experiences with Anbar, check out Of Tribes and Men.)
So that’s the first point, al-Gaoud already had channels to the Americans before meeting Wischkaemper. His associates, Sa'adoon al-Dulaimi and Jabir al-Khalaf, were hired by the DoD as consultants for the Coalition Provisional Authority during that same period; they could also have plugged him into the Americans. Here, I’d theorize that al-Gaoud’s previous channels were shut down either because he had proven himself unreliable, or probably because he was red-flaged as a cut-out of another intelligence agency, this time around, the Jordanian mukhaberat.
In April 2004, Wischkaemper meets John Jones, the Rumsfeld aide, who is quickly won over to Wischkaemper’s talking points lionizing al-Gaoud. It should be noted again that Wischkaemper is a businessman who had a staked interest in promoting his business partner, al-Gaoud.
By July 2004, al-Gaoud organizes a conference in Amman which is attended by the aforementioned Americans, and James Clad, then a consultant for the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, who is quoted throughout the piece railing against the neocons.
Enter General Raad al-Hamdani, a subject of recent discussion on this blog. At the conference, al-Hamdani rails against the Americans and sobs at the retelling of his arrest by American troops. Clad is so moved that he walks up to al-Hamdani and apologizes on behalf of America, without taking into account that there may have been a perfectly good reason for the arrest. Clad is described in his Hudson bio as a Southeast Asia expert who is fluent in Spanish, Italian, Indonesian and Ethiopian Amharic. Like many who had no background or experience in the Middle East, he was posted to Iraq. I’m not sure whether knowledge of Indonesian is that helpful in, say, Hillah, but here was a man prepared to embrace al-Hamdani as Iraq’s Great Sunni Hope at the drop of a hat, or rather a tear.
Not only that, but Clad goes on to play the role of pamphleteer on behalf of the Sunni insurgency. A couple of days after the conference, we find him holed up in a hotel room with three representatives of something called the ‘Iraqi National Resistance Council’. (Note: this was not Monotheism and Jihad, not Islamic Army, not Army of the Mujaheddin, not Ansar al-Sunna, not 1920 Brigades; what al-Gaoud was peddling was an outfit that at the time no one had heard of.)
The self-styled ‘insurgents’ had a list of demands written in poor English, so Clad offers to redraft the demands on their behalf. The end product of eleven demands is described by the article as “benign” and hence palatable. Really? Was the Sunni insurgency in July 2004 neglecting to make any political demands other than calling for a ceasefire, garrisoning U.S. troops, reconstituting the Iraqi Army and reigning in the Kurds? Was that it? Wasn’t there a part about releasing Saddam? Or at least rehabilitating the Ba’ath Party?
Maybe Clad left much of what may be controversial on the editing floor, or he could always claim to have misunderstood the Arabic being spoken, since it wasn’t, y’know, Amharic. Whatever way one cuts it, the demands drafted by Clad did not reflect the end-goals of the Sunni insurgency, which its non-jihadists component at the time still clutched at the idea of recapturing Sunni hegemony in Baghdad.
I think Dahr Jamail, interviewing an insurgent ‘leader’ as late as 2007 better reflects the untenable demands of the Sunni insurgency:
1. All parts of the Iraqi resistance should be the exclusive representatives for Iraqis.But there should have been a couple of things that would make the American interlocutors uncomfortable about their newfound buddies in Amman, had they known what they should have looked out for. For example, the chief insurgent negotiator, referred to as ‘The Messenger’ or ‘Dr. Ismail’, claims to be an MD and a lawyer, according to the article, but that combination is exceedingly rare in Iraqi higher education. It may be normal in the U.S. to have a JD in addition to a host of other degrees, but mixing up disciplines in Iraq is bureaucratically difficult and culturally unknown. Or maybe the guy was one of a dozen cases in the whole country who’d fit such a category, who knows?
2. An immediate withdrawal of American forces without conditions.
3. Full compensation for both Iraq and Iraqis for those who have been killed since the sanctions starting in 1991 until now. During the sanctions, 1.7 million Iraqis were killed. And according to the Lancet report, 655,000 have been killed, and by now possibly even one million.
4. The release of everyone in prisons.
5. Canceling all the current political procedures and all the 100 Bremer Orders legislation done during the Iraqi Governing Council because according to international law, it is illegal to make any political and legislative action while the country is under occupation.
6. Canceling the UN legislation that has been passed since the sanctions.
7. Putting all the traitors, those who betrayed Iraq, and those who are allies of the Americans into trials.
These are the rights of the country and if the Americans and their allies respect these rights, we can sit together. Not to negotiate these rights, but to plan the withdrawal and discuss the implementation of these rights. Also, the resistance will go on no matter how long it takes or how much it costs, until there is a withdrawal.
Secondly, the insurgent leaders proposed to prove their bona fides by standing down their fighters. Great, that’s exactly how one proves whether the other side can actually speak on behalf of the insurgency. But wait a minute, they also demanded that the stand-down coincide with suspending patrolling by U.S. troops. So essentially the Americans would not be able to verify that a stand-down is in effect since they are not out and about. The article rightly asserts that this demand is ‘unacceptable’—not to say ridiculous.
That last demand alone should have been enough to question whether these representatives were indeed speaking on behalf of the major insurgent factions.
Then in August 2004, al-Gaoud presented al-Hamdani’s grand plan to gather together 5000 fighters and 100 officers to form the ‘Auxiliary Security Force’ that would battle the terrorists. It would have a budget of $108 million and would be armed by the Americans.
“We could have solved several problems at once,” al-Hamdani told me when I met him last November in Amman. “Many of the security problems America faced would never have existed if they had listened to us in 2004.” Besides fighting al-Qaeda, the force would starve the insurgency of recruits, many of whom had been driven to fight for lack of better options. “The people from the old army were without any job, any control,” al-Hamdani says. “The insurgency was paying them, and there were guns everywhere.”Lt. Gen. James Conway? Col. John Coleman? Where have I seen these names before?
Al-Hamdani’s paper was received by the Marines with enthusiasm, and with the blessing of Lieutenant General Conway, Walker went to Amman at the end of August for a two-day “security conference” to discuss the proposal. Accompanying him was Colonel John Coleman, Conway’s chief of staff.
Oh yeah! They were the Marines who masterminded the Falluja Brigade. Remember?! It was April 2004, and they picked Maj. Gen. Jassim Muhammad Salih al-Muhammadi, a former Republican Guard division commander (…just like al-Hamdani!), to head a 1,100 force of former military men and tribesmen, and proceeded to arm them. When a ruckus was raised in Baghdad over this, they just appointed a commander more senior to al-Muhammadi and called it a day. The commander’s name was Maj. Gen. Muhammad Latif al-Adhami, and by August of that year (…the same month than Hamdani submitted his plan for the new force), he was stating on the record that there were no foreign fighters in Falluja. We all know how that ended.
We do know how it ended but it seems that Rose wasn’t aware how two of his most featured protagonists, Conway and Coleman, had authored a fiasco during the same timeline being discussed. Seems relevant to the topic, n’uh? I mean it provides background as to why so many people thought al-Hamdani’s proposal was full of holes, right? I mean the Fallujah Brigade did turn their guns on their American benefactors, remember?
Hence the formula—recruiting the old army to police Anbar—was put into effect four months before al-Hamdani made his proposal. And it failed. Miserably.
I think it is odd that this episode is missing from Rose’s narrative. I guess it is more convenient to blame the neocons.
Another reminder: remember the Marines intelligence report in November 2006 that threw up its arms in exasperation and concluded that Anbar is Al-Qaeda territory? The one that came out a few months before Al-Qaeda was trounced? The one that I thought was full of it?
Moving on, Rose discusses the events of July 2005 in the border town of Al-Qaim and claims that al-Gaoud was involved. This is a revelation for me since I’ve never been able to fully understand what happened there during that time. There were two factions in Al-Qaim, one led by Usama al-Jaryan of the Karabila tribe (supported by the Iraqi government, he was assassinated by Al-Qaeda in May 2006 in Baghdad) and another led by Sabah al-Shergi of the Albu Mahal. Both tribes were competing over smuggling, as they’ve always done, and were miffed that Al-Qaeda had cornered the smuggling market. Al-Shergi was based in Amman and it has long been thought that his fighters were part of a Jordanian intelligence operation. Now that we know that al-Gaoud was involved, the picture is getting clearer. It also reinforces the idea that al-Gaoud was an asset of Jordanian intel.
Of course, all this nuance and granularity is missing from what Rose has written.
My final thought on Rose’s narrative is that had the Gaouds, al-Hamdani & Co. really made inroads among the insurgents, then why didn’t they seize upon the change of policy in 2006 and 2007 when the Americans began sponsoring the Awakening Councils and the Sons of Iraq? Why didn’t they leave Amman and begin organizing the men that supposedly answered to them into anti-jihadist militias, and why didn’t they attempt to compete for political standing in provinces like Anbar?
If the Gaouds and al-Hamdani were that well-regarded by their constituencies, then they’d be active political players in Baghdad by now. But they are not, while others are. Rose never addresses this big gaping hole.
Rose intended for his piece in Vanity Fair to enter the historical record. Too bad for him I’m also around to highlight the many weaknesses of his reporting.
On a completely different note, I was struck by what Iraqi Mojo posted on Tuesday. He had dug up a 1993 documentary made by Michael Wood that had left a deep mark on me when I first saw it. Iraqi Mojo has a brief and apt description to go with the re-posting.
I watched it in 1993 when I was 17. It was being passed around a dozen Iraqi families in Amman as if it were contraband. I remember feeling that, in a sense, it was great that someone was explaining to the world what Saddam was doing to the Iraqi people, and also, that I somehow have to do something about it.
I hadn’t seen the documentary or thought about it intently since being a teenager. Seeing it now, I’m glad that I eventually contributed to doing something about it.
Watch it and remember why bringing down the tyrant was a just and noble cause. Watch to know what roles these 'hallowed' Republican Guard generals played in protecting that tyrant. David Rose, you should view it too, to rediscover that part of you, the one that endowed you with moral clarity, that was misplaced during the years of handwringing, recantation and ideological self-flagellation.
UPATE (Saturday, May 16, 2009):
It’s one of the little ironies of life that I’d cite George Packer to make my point; my point being that the demands drawn up by James Clad did not reflect the reality of the insurgency’s politics.
Through the good graces of a former Ba’athist embassy official who had been close to Uday, I met a group of Sunnis from Anbar province who were vaguely connected to the insurgency. Two were tribal sheikhs from Ramadi; the third being a young businessman rumored to have been one of Saddam’s bagmen. We met in the offices of his holding company on a quiet Amman street. The businessman, Talal al-Gaaod, had a master’s in construction management from USC, wore jeans and suspenders, and was up on the latest op-eds from the American press. All of them presented themselves as anxious to build a democratic Iraq. They had nothing against Americans; they had long dreamed of the good things America could bring to Iraq, and they had welcomed the overthrow of the regime. “I am a believer in the Americans’ good intentions,” Gaaod said, “but something happened on the way from Washington to Baghdad.” The whole guerilla war was a terrible misfortune that needn’t have happened if only the Americans had listened to people like him instead of invading their houses and dishonoring their women and compelling the Iraqis to seek revenge. Gaaod admitted that some of the insurgents were living in the Middle Ages, extremists who gave the rest of them a bad name. But the legitimate resistance, as they called it, was an Iraqi resistance against occupation. It included two hundred thousand people, and if elections went ahead, Gaaod said, it would increase tenfold. The civil war would become quite real. They were hardly the masked cutthroats of my imagination. They were recognizable Iraqis, the tribal sheikhs traditional, the businessman modern, and they had far more connections to my world that I had thought possible.‘Zaydan Halef al-Awad’ is actually Zaidan Khalaf al-Awad, brother to al-Gaoud’s friend Dr. Jabir al-Khalaf (see above), who was profiled by another of Packer’s colleagues at the New Yorker, John Lee Anderson, in November 2007. I critiqued this article at the time, highlighting the fact that al-Awad was not as prominent as al-Gaoud and the New Yorker claimed he was.
Then the underside began to emerge. One of the sheikhs, Zaydan Halef al-Awad, claimed that the Sunnis were the majority in Iraq—63 percent, in fact. “If Sunnis settled in America, they would rule America,” the sheikh said. “We always carry the stick in the middle. We can move it any way—we control it.” The politicians running for office in Iraq, Kurdish and Shiite, were illegitimate pawns of the Americans and the Iranians, and if they happened to be assassinated, too bad for them.”
George Packer, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, 2005, pp. 416-417
Another interesting angle on the David Rose piece is that it had all the events that he describes had been reported previously by David Ignatius in a column he wrote for the Washington Post in September 2007. Rose does not cite this column at all.
A Sunni tribal leader who pushed bravely for an alliance with the Americans was Talal al-Gaaod, a leader of one of the branches of the Dulaim tribe. Looking back through my notes, I can reconstruct a series of his efforts that were mishandled by senior U.S. officials: In August 2004, he helped arrange a meeting in Amman between Marine commanders from Anbar and tribal leaders there who wanted to assemble a local militia. Senior U.S. officials learned of the unauthorized dialogue and shut it down.BTW, I'd wager that Ignatius, Anderson, Packer and Rose all shared the same fixer in Amman, who led them onto the al-Gaoud story. That's how journalism works.
Gaaod tried again in November 2004, organizing a tribal summit in Amman with the blessing of the Jordanian government. Again, the official U.S. response was chilly; the U.S. military launched its second assault on Fallujah that month, and the summit had to be canceled. In the spring of 2005, the tireless Gaaod began framing plans for what he called a "Desert Protection Force," a kind of tribal militia that would fight al-Qaeda in Anbar. The proposal was gutted by U.S. officials in Baghdad who derided it as "warlordism."
A despondent Gaaod e-mailed me in July 2005: "Believe me, there is no need to waste anymore one penny of the American taxpayers' money and no more one drop of blood of the American boys." His despair roused the new American ambassador to Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, who began meeting with Gaaod and other Iraqi Sunnis in Amman in hopes of brokering a deal with the insurgents. Gaaod died of heart failure in March 2006.