Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Post-Surge Iraq - America's "House of Cards"

Last night, NY Times reporter Dexter Filkins read from his new book, The Forever War, and led a Q&A session that proved rather inconclusive. In his white dress shirt and blue blazer, he looked nothing like the haggard man pictured in his recent NY Times Magazine article "My Long War," but he had the classic nonchalant air and beaten-up face of a war journalist, and his diction was loaded with military lingo. He smiled and chuckled a lot. "I'm totally nervous," he said, about doing the night's event. "I'd rather be shot at with a 50 caliber machine gun."

Filkins is the "death wish" type of journalist who races through battle zones unfazed and wins the good graces of Marines and media critics alike for his down 'n' dirty reporting. His book looks O.K. – it’s a collection of stark and/or action-packed personal accounts of Afghanistan in the late ’90s, the Sept. 11th attacks, and the early years of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. I've only gotten through the first couple chapters (busy with other books), but already a vehicle, several buildings and a head have exploded into oblivion; a hand has gotten chopped off during a public execution at a soccer stadium; and the tragic fate of some child soldiers who worked for the Northern Alliance has been poetically alluded to. I can tell already that this isn't going to be another Taliban, Assassins' Gate, Night Draws Near, or No True Glory. Filkins doesn't have the sharpest intellect, but he can make sense of chaos and horror with a nearly photographic sense, and that's where his book is strong. "It's just stuff that I saw," he explained. "It's representative of my experience."

He just got back from Iraq last Friday. During the Q&A, he said that Iraq is really peaceful now. "The gains are real," he said. But he referred to the country aptly as a "kaleidoscope," and said that it's a "fool's game" to predict what might happen there in the future.

He shied away from opining on the situation, but he suggested that all of this success would amount to little if we withdrew from Iraq in a year. The most elucidating point came when an Iraqi man Filkins apparently knew pressed him on the rivalry between the "Sons of Iraq" - the Sunni fighters and tribal leaders allied against Al Qaida in Iraq, who are famous for bringing down the violence - and the Shi'i-led government. If Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki continues to marginalize the Sunnis (Maliki recently said that he plans to incorporate only 20% of them into the Iraqi Army), won't Iraq eventually devolve into sectarian conflict again?

Filkins had an ominous retort. With the "Anbar Awakening," the United States built an immense "house of cards," he said. “And, you know, a house of cards is better than no house at all.”

“Is it gonna last? Who knows?” he added. “Stay tuned.”

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