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The Unraveling

High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
by Emma Sky
Reviewed by Stephen Kaye

Emma Sky’s The Unraveling, High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq is a  memoir of a most intelligent and caring woman who witnessed the inside of the American occupation.

Ms. Sky is a well-educated Brit who studied at Oxford and at the University of Alexandria.  She worked in Palestine with an NGO.  At the beginning of the Allied occupation of Iraq she volunteered; she was assigned to Kirkuk where she was soon recognized by the commanding officer of the American brigade, for her linguistic talents, her understanding of the culture and her ability to talk to the tribal leaders  and to gain their trust.  She became one of the main bridges between the occupied and the occupiers. She was one of the people trusted by Bremmer, the occupier in chief, and by the parade of generals that served in the early occupation.  By the time she left Kirkuk she had persuaded the US Army and most of the Kurdish, Arab and Turkamen leaders to at least try to make Kirkuk a multi-ethnic city, to work together in power sharing, and to work toward trusting just a little. She made personal friends amongst all these groups.      

After her first tour of duty, she went Afghanistan where she was encouraged by the internationalization of the occupying powers.  As she was settling into a moment of domesticity at her English home she received an email from General Ray Odierno asking her to be his political advisor. He had just been assigned to run the Baghdad sector.  She accepted.  She “did not want to miss the opportunity to help him make the situation in Iraq a little less worse.”   

During a heated argument with Odierno the nature of military thinking is revealed.  He had a mission. His job was to accomplish that mission. Neither he nor the generals under him, including the intelligence officers, thought the surge was the answer to the growing insurgency.  They all understood that it was a natural response to de-Bathification, unemployment and Sunni resentment to Shia control of the government, the police and the Iraq army.  But when the surge was ordered from on high, Odierno was committed to carry it out and he did.  It turned out that it worked because the disaffected groups were persuaded to join the government, if only for a year or two.    

Sky: “Sir, this is the greatest strategic failure since the foundation of the United States.” 
    General O: “What are we going to do about it? We are not leaving it like this.”

Later, she told the general she had been a peace-nik, against the 1991 Gulf War, and “now I am advisor to a modern-day Genghis Khan.”

General O: “To lead soldiers into battle, a commander had to believe is the cause.”
“…for the military, failure was not an option”    

“Military planners and State Department diplomats worked together to formulate a joint campaign plan which put politics as the main line of operation, and economics, governance and information in support…However, Iraqis were not involved in the process ---and had no idea we had a plan to ‘develop’ them.”  

“How can a country that put a man on the moon not know what it is doing?” – Dr. Basima Jadiri, military advisor to PM Nuri al-Maliki.

“As we took off, I could not get the image of the little girl and her piercing green eyes out of my mind.  Did she have anyone to look after her?  I imagined picking her up, continuing down the street carrying her on my hip.  I wanted to apologize for leaving her and to explain that I had to look after generals, not children.”    

The aftermath of the surge was the beginning of Iraq sovereignty, the exit of the occupiers and the gradual undermining of the fragile entente between the factions by Nuri al-Maliki when he refused to leave the presidency after losing the election. He established a tyranny of the Shiite party allied with Iran.  The last chapter is “Things Fall Apart” and a sense that we failed to meet our goal of stabilizing Iraq as a country, a goal which was briefly accomplished but then evaporated when the Sunni’s were pushed out of their government positions.   
The sense of failure runs through the book, but it is also full of hope.  She, like many Americans who served in Iraq, has a high regard for its people and its leaders.  History has been unkind.  The ultimate failure she places on our president whose priority was to exit Iraq whereas the generals saw that our continued presence was necessary to see Iraq through the birth pangs of its first real election, the election which al-Maliki subverted.         

The horrors of the Iraq war are not ignored in this book; they are there, but the focus is always on the possible, on hope, on the noble aspects of the people.  They deserve a better deal than they got.