A Conversation with Patrick Cockburn

by Monia Al-Haidary

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Patrick Cockburn is an acclaimed journalist specializing in conflicts in the Middle East. He has published numerous books on Iraq and Syria, having worked as a Middle East correspondent for the Financial Times from 1979 before starting with The Independent in 1990. He has received multiple prizes for his work, including the Martha Gellhorn Prize in 2005, the James Cameron Prize in 2006, the Orwell Prize for Journalism in 2009, Foreign Commentator of the Year at the 2013 Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards, Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year at the 2014 British Journalism Awards, and Foreign Reporter of the Year at the 2014 Press Awards.

Cockburn has just published a new book entitled War In the Age of Trump. He recently sat down with Monia Al-Haidary to discuss the US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as his observations on the role of history and journalism in these long-running conflicts.

Monia Al-Haidary: What do you think the relevance of history is in journalism?

Patrick Cockburn: Journalism is often about melodrama and what's happening now, but you have to know what happened in the past in order to understand any of these places, and people probably don't know enough of that. Particularly in places with a very complicated history like Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon; Afghanistan and Iran to a degree too.

But why don't people know the history? In Iraq in 2003, of course, the Americans believed they didn't need to know. In 2001, in Afghanistan, the Americans believed that they had proved everybody wrong who, pointing to the fate of other foreign armies in Afghanistan, predicted that the US would face a long and terrible war. It was, on the contrary, very easy for the first few years. But those who had spoken of Afghan history as carrying a dire warning turned out to be correct, and the US failed to destroy the Taliban. This year, Trump says he wants to pull out the remaining US troops, despite the fact that the Taliban is still there. The Americans really didn't understand that they were taking on the Pashtun, the largest Afghan community, and they weren't going to win.

A US hospital corpsman during an operation in Methar Lam, Afghanistan, 2005

I know before 2003, friends of mine in the Iraqi opposition who talked to the Americans were so amazed about how little they knew—not only about any of the past history of Iraq but even the present history. For example, there had been a series of Sadrist uprisings, and they had never sort of heard of these guys.

And they didn't think they had to because they thought it would be easy, and then when they were in Baghdad, they behaved exactly like any imperial power. They took all the best jobs and looted anything they could find.

Here’s one instance where knowing the history would have really mattered. In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait under Saddam Hussein, Saddam closed the banks. Iraqis couldn’t access their accounts. When the banks reopened, the currency had sort of devalued—I don't remember by how much, but it was an enormous number. Basically, what everybody had was worthless.

After that, Iraqis always kept their money at home, even out of the country if they could, but often at home in dollar bills. So you'd have a quite ordinary looking farm house that might have $20,000 in cash in it, which would be the capital of a whole extended family. It didn't mean they were that rich, but they probably weren't that poor.

Under Saddam, the Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence service) was not allowed to enter a house without bringing the village Mokhtar (village elder) with them. People were very frightened of thieves. They wouldn’t open the door, they’d often open fire or shoot or something like that.

When the Americans turned up, the soldiers started kicking in the doors, and they'd find $20,000 in cash. They'd say this is a sign you are a terrorist, and the money would just disappear. Iraqis were incredibly angry, because they just lost all their money.

It would be important to know the history as to why Iraqi houses in a poor village might have all that money, which we wouldn't find in Manhattan or in Mayfair. But you would in Iraq. Just a little example of history.

MAH: What lesson did America fail to learn in the Middle East?

PC: Iraq is quite an easy country to occupy or become influential in. It's a very difficult country to conquer permanently. The US invasion worked quite well from the American point of view; in the first few days, they seemed to have defeated the Iraqi army and defeated Saddam. But power is fragmented in countries like Iraq, so there isn't really a central state to take over. There isn't a central government. There are lots of other power centers which go on existing.

People used to say that there are four powers in Iraq: the government, the Marjiya (the religious hierarchy), the Hashd (the paramilitaries), and the tribes. But actually it's more complicated than that, because you have Shia and Sunni and Kurds.

And you have to deal with each of them. Sometimes, people think “Okay, we've defeated one lot,” but you then have to deal with all the others. So that makes Iraq a very difficult country to occupy. The Americans, I think, might have gotten away with the invasion of 2003 if they'd got out, but by that time nobody much liked Saddam, even people who'd formerly supported him. He obviously had been a disaster.

But the Iraqis don’t want to see the country occupied. And the Americans never really understood that. If they'd got right out, they might have gotten away with it.

A Catholic Mass for US Marines taking place in one of Saddam Hussein's palaces, 2003

MAH: Do you think the US has accomplished what it set out to do in Iraq?

PC: No, I don't think so. Anybody who's occupied Iraq has had a very bad time.

Look at Iraqi history. This was a frontier zone between the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire. Although the Ottomans held it for a lot of the time, they only held the main cities: Baghdad, Basra, Mosul. They didn't really control much of the rest of the country because it's very tribal. And to this day, it's rather strange that under Saddam Hussein, who was an incredibly brutal dictator, the whole population was armed. Iraqis, they had guns, and quite powerful guns. When the Americans came in, they thought having a gun meant you were a "terrorist," but actually many Iraqis had weapons and still do.

It's easy to have a bit of influence as a foreign power if you’re a supplier. There are lots of people in Iraq who are looking for backers abroad. They want money, they want political support, maybe they want weapons or something.

But they'll never be wedded to an outside force. An outside power can become influential but it can't become all-powerful. And when they try to completely dominate, they fail. The British tried to do that in 1917. They got to Baghdad, but by 1920, there was a big uprising, mostly of the Shia tribes, but it wasn’t only the Shia against them. Even Saddam Hussein could only just rule the place, despite incredible violence.

I remember meeting an Iraqi in a hospital just after the Americans had taken over Baghdad. I think he was a consultant, or a brain surgeon. And he said something that lives on in my mind: he said the Americans should remember Saddam Hussein was a really tough guy, and he’d had a real problem running this country. And he suggested they might have a few problems themselves, which was entirely true.

MAH: What’s something from recent Middle Eastern history that the Americans should have paid closer attention to before invading Iraq?

PC: What Americans do is very much decided by domestic American politics. That's true of most countries and particularly true of America. I think it was true at that time.

One also shouldn't put all the blame on the Americans. In the 1990s, the opposition to Saddam wondered, how do you get rid of him? Uprisings? There had been a Kurdish uprising, and it had been crushed in blood. That wasn't going to work. A coup d'état within the regime—which basically meant Sunni generals—that hadn't happened because Saddam was a thug. But he was quite an intelligent thug; he was a secret policeman. So the only other way was to get somebody else to overthrow him. The only people who could do it were the Americans, so they wanted to get the Americans in.

Iraq was in a terrible state because of Saddam. There was horrible oppression; there were uprisings that had been crushed, but above all, you had UN sanctions that were impoverishing everybody. So people wanted to get rid of Saddam. The Americans came in, but then they tried to take the place over, very much some old-style imperial takeover like the British in 1917. They wanted to appoint everybody.

I remember the Iraqi Stock Exchange. A 24-year-old American whose family were some contributors to the Republican Party was put in charge of the Stock Exchange. He forgot to renew the lease, so they lost that building.

This was stuff out of the Roman Empire. Guys with the right connections would be given the right jobs. Iraq was extremely corrupt—it still is—but at one point, I remember, in 2005-06, the entire military procurement budget disappeared. It was about $1.5 billion. But the Americans were running the Defense Ministry then. Either these were the stupidest people in the world, or they were in on it.

US Marines during a takeover of one of Saddam Hussein's palaces in Baghdad, 2003

MAH: Has what you’ve seen throughout your career affected the way you view domestic and foreign policies implemented by the UK?

PC: Yes, to some extent. Particularly in the current moment, when everybody is saying how bad the British government is, how incompetently they have dealt with COVID-19 and the pandemic. It reminds me exactly of what they did in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was the same level of incompetence. Somehow the British state seems to have lost its capacity to deal with these crises effectively. It doesn't seem to have the same quality of people. The government seems to have been hollowed out.

In Iraq, there was a lack of expertise. I think a parliamentary committee discovered that in 2014, when Daesh was coming down the road from Mosul towards Baghdad, the British Embassy only had three people who knew much about Iraq. When the British were in Basra in the South after 2003, a friend of mine who was a military intelligence officer, I think he was practically the only one who spoke Arabic in the army there. And he said they kept on saying we did okay in Malaya and Northern Ireland—which maybe is debatable—but he said, just remember, we have no allies here, basically nobody likes us, Basra is a city of a million people. They had 7,000 or 8,000 guys. There was just a lack of seriousness, a sort of amateurism.

And of course one of the reasons for this is they wanted to remain allied to the US. They wanted to be the junior partner to the US. So that's why they took part in the invasion. And then later in 2006, they wanted to get out of Iraq without offending the Americans, and they thought the way we'll do it is we'll go to Afghanistan. They ended up in Helmand Province, which was even more dangerous than Basra. One laughs, but 400 British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan for no good reason.

MAH: Could you elaborate on that a bit more? Like how much the British have compromised in order to save their relationship with the US?

PC: Well, they thought they had to show that they were a player, that they had something to offer the Americans. So they mobilized 40,000 troops to take part in the invasion of 2003.

Tony Blair is a highly intelligent guy. He organized the Good Friday Agreement in ‘98. But he partly comes from Northern Ireland so he sort of understood it. He never seems to have understood Iraq or what they were getting into.

You can see all this in the Chilcot report and other documents. You can see the same thing with Libya. David Cameron writes proudly in his autobiography how Britain went into save Benghazi. Look at Benghazi now: it's a heap of ruins. It's like Mosul, the whole center is gone. He doesn't seem to know that. So there's a sense of amateurism and provincialism.

And I never understand why they don't know these things, because I think they are intelligent, they have a foreign ministry. Maybe they don't know these things, or maybe the politicians just never listen to them.

MAH: What role do you think the media plays in escalating foreign conflicts?

PC: Well, there's a sort of media herd instinct, particularly in America after 9/11. American journalists couldn’t be opposed to these things; they’d be accused of lacking patriotism.

Often, Americans are rather good reporters of immediate events, but do they have a more general knowledge? Like all people in journalism, I think probably like in any profession, you have a lot of people who do a perfectly reasonable job, and you have a very limited number of people who do a really good job and really understand things.

War reporting is a bit difficult because people are fascinated by the melodrama of war, things going bang. And all that's very exciting stuff. But often, they don't actually know what's really happening.

If I could give an example, I was in Afghanistan from about three months before the beginning of the war, and as soon as I'd learned about 9/11, I knew the Americans would go far or back the overthrow of the Taliban. So I went down to Tajikistan and crossed over to Panjshir Valley, which is just north of Kabul but within anti-Taliban lines. And then we had the fall of Kabul, and it looked as though you could see all the bombs going off as the Taliban were completely defeated, but when you look at the trenches, you find they weren't there. They'd already gone.

I followed them south to Kandahar. I told somebody, I'd like to meet some Taliban commanders. You find they were still in the villages, they're very undefeated. All the melodrama of the reporting boiled down to people believing that the Taliban had been decisively defeated forever. This was the most important fact reported. And it wasn't true.

And everything flowed from that. There are complications, like Pakistan’s relationship with and support of the Taliban. But essentially, the reports of the war were misleading for television viewers and newspaper readers on the most decisive thing, which was who had won.

The media often pretends retrospectively that we were saying things weren't going so well for the United States; no they weren't. People are very frightened of being accused of being unpatriotic. It should've been pretty obvious pretty fast from about the summer or late in 2003 that the whole American position was collapsing in Iraq. But the newspapers only really started reporting this in 2006. Actually it was guys in Congress that had to say it first, before journalists.

And I think it was in 2007 or 2008 that a US Senator was still walking in Baghdad saying—this was after the so-called surge—now it's safe to walk through Baghdad. And there was some guy, I think he was with CNN, I can't remember, who was trying to say what you can't see from the television cameras is he's surrounded by 100 heavily armed American troops. The television camera is not showing that. I think he practically lost his job saying that on air.

I remember one American network, one of the big American networks in Baghdad, the guys there telling me we can't get on air, we haven't been on air for weeks. When we say this is happening, people respond, ‘oh, Iraq's yesterday story, it's all over.’ It wasn't true, as you can see today.

So there's a herd instinct. Newspapers, media tend to go along with what the government is saying. But there are always people who...it's not exactly that people lie but they sort of...well, they may lie. But often they just don't really know what's going on.

MAH: You have a new book out called War In the Age of Trump. What’s it about?

PC: It's about the last three years and the defeat of Daesh. It’s also about the fall of the Kurds or the failure of the Kurds; they expanded enormously and now have contracted. They're not completely defeated, but they’re much less than they were. Finally, it’s about the confrontation with Iran. Those are the three things that have dominated recent history in the Middle East.

The peculiar thing about Trump is he hasn't actually started any wars yet, but he always seems to be on the verge of them. And it could still happen. We saw that with the assassination of General Qasim Suleimani at Baghdad Airport in January. We saw that last year in Kurdistan, when Trump said he would withdraw and didn't quite withdraw.

All that remains very combustible. So it's putting those three things together, which is the end of Daesh—I don't think Daesh can come back, the Kurds as a complicating factor in that area, and the possibility of war with Iran. Those are the things that it focuses on.

Patrick Cockburn’s latest book, War In the Age of Trump, is out now.