01 Sep 2007

Ali Allawi

Former Minister of Defense and Finance in Post-Saddam Iraq
by Roger Thompson


After spending much of his adult life in opposition to Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime, London-based businessman Ali Allawi (MBA ’71) couldn’t say no to an old friend who called to offer him a Cabinet-level position — minister of trade — in the interim Iraqi Governing Council. A member of a prominent Shia family who fled after the revolution of 1958, Allawi was educated in England and the United States, worked for the World Bank, and later became an investment banker. He watched the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 on television, but six months later, he found himself in the thick of postwar Iraqi politics. Before returning to London disheartened in May 2006, he also served as minister of defense, minister of finance, and as a member of the Transitional National Assembly.

Back in London, Allawi turned his attention to writing the first book about postwar Iraq from the perspective of an insider — The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. Published last spring, it’s a damning indictment not just of America’s many missteps, but also of the “utter mediocrity, incompetence, and venality of the new Iraqi political order.” Allawi spoke recently by phone of his experiences and the future of his war-torn country.

How did it feel to return to Iraq in September 2003 after four decades of exile?

It was really something bittersweet. Obviously the feeling was euphoric, increased by the fact that we had overthrown a dictatorship and a much better future beckoned. But then as I entered the border town of Safwan, which is a few miles into Iraq from Kuwait, it became clear that this was not the country that I had left. It had changed in ways that were incredible.

Safwan seemed to be a gigantic used-car market. All kinds of cars had been dumped into Iraq after the overthrow of the regime. It was the main market for cars coming from the Gulf area. It was a very, very scruffy and dirty town. As we moved up into Iraq proper, we followed the main north-south Euphrates highway. Along the way, the roadside was littered with burnt-out hulks of vehicles. In each town that we passed through there were crowds milling about without much purpose. The whole scene was decaying.

As we drove into Baghdad, you could see that the place was quite a wreck, marked by burnt-down buildings. The place was litter-strewn, and there were crowds standing around. So it was really a mixed feeling, between euphoria and great apprehension about the country that we were inheriting.

You survived two assassination attempts, and six of your aides were killed. Yet, you chose not to live in the security of the Green Zone. Why?

In the early days, I must say it wasn’t any heroics. My house was outside the Green Zone. Our family home had been taken over by the former regime and turned into a Baath Party military intelligence headquarters. When the regime fell, we took back our property. The place was in terrible shape, so for the first few months in Baghdad, I stayed in a hotel until the house was ready for occupancy.

But then as the security situation deteriorated, I made a decision not to live in the Green Zone. I didn’t want to be associated with the kind of bubble environment that emerged there. It was like living on a different planet. Of course the flipside of the coin was the danger. I lost three of my bodyguards to a suicide bomber. Later, we were ambushed twice. The second time around was very serious. My armored car took 24 hits.

When did you realize that the American presence in Iraq was going off-track?

The lightbulb went off when I began to meet the officials and advisers who were attached to my first ministry, and I discovered the varying qualities of those people. Before I went back to Iraq, I spent a lot of time reading about the occupations of Germany and Japan so that I could compare and contrast the team that was being assembled in Baghdad with those who went in after the defeat of Germany and Japan. And the quality was just not there.

Also, as I talked to Coalition Provisional Authority CPA administrator Paul Bremer MBA ’66 and other officials, they were clearly on a different wavelength. They refused to acknowledge that the overthrow of the regime opened up really deep fissures in Iraqi society. So I would say around October 2003 it began to be clear that the American-led mission was going to go awry.

You write that the insurgency wasn’t inevitable. How could it have been avoided?

It could have been nipped in the bud if the United States had handed over administration of the country to the Iraqi opposition. The Americans could have come in, overthrown the regime, spent maybe a few weeks looking for weapons of mass destruction, and then pulled out like they did in Kuwait. A new provisional government would have been formed, and then you let Iraqis, whether for good or ill, manage this process.

For the first four months after the overthrow of the regime, there was very little resistance either from disbanded army units or from the Baathists. But as the hodgepodge of decisions coming out of the CPA — some contradictory, some pointless, some incoherent — and the manifestly small size of the occupation force became clear, the cost of resisting and escalating resistance became less and less.

In addition to the insurgency, is there a civil war going on between the Sunnis and Shias?

Well, it isn’t a civil war in the classic sense, like the American or the Spanish civil wars with two clearly defined sides. It’s a new kind of civil war that happens when a multiethnic society fractures. And it is not just one war, or even two — it’s about eight, nine, or even ten different conflicts taking place with different levels of intensity.

There’s a struggle going on, for example, between Arab Shias and Sunnis, and between Arabs and Kurds in the northern territories around the Mosul area. There is a struggle between various Shia factions for local control in the south. There’s a struggle between mafias and criminal gangs and provincial authorities connected to the political parties. Recently, the Americans have taken to arming two very large Sunni insurgent groups that have turned against Al Qaeda. But at the same time, they are positioning themselves for a power play later on. These same groups are also using their weaponry against the Iraqi army.

Didn’t the Sunnis and Shias get along in the past?

There are historical divisions between the Sunnis and Shias. But what we see now was unknown in the past. What happened in Iraq is basically an overthrow of a system of power and rule dominated by the Sunnis. To some extent, the Shias had been sort of grudgingly accepting of it, as long as there was room for gradual improvement.

In the last twenty years, this kind of accommodation was turned upside down by the brutality of Saddam’s regime and the way it attacked the symbols of the Shias and alienated them. Normally, this would have been played out through a series of minor riots and so on, and through adjustments over a period of time as the Sunnis ceded power under stronger and stronger Shia pressure. But the current conflict did not take place in an organic way. It took place as the result of a military invasion. So basically the rule book for reconciling Sunni-Shia conflicts was thrown out.

What impact would a U.S. withdrawal have on Iraq, and would Iraq’s neighbors likely get pulled into the country’s internal strife?

If the Americans pulled out tomorrow, I don’t think much would change. Maybe the Iraqi military would fall under the control of the Shia-Islamist parties, something that the United States is now trying to stop, but not very successfully.

The Sunni insurgents would take over most of the Sunni provinces. And a U.S. withdrawal would cement control over the insurgency in the hands of two or three groups. There would be some attempt to increase the hold of the Sunnis on neighborhoods in Baghdad. But I don’t think much would change. Baghdad is now a 90 percent Shia city. It would be more of the same, but with more opportunities for foreign powers to support their proxies than we have now, but no direct military involvement.

Is there anything that can be done to bring about reconciliation among the various groups?

One approach is to federalize the country, giving the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds significant autonomy over their own territories with a relatively weak central government. Over time, one hopes that these regions will flow together rather than flow apart, because if they are fragments, no country in the world is going to recognize the resul-tant components.

You write that President Bush’s MBA ’75 Iraq policy may well go down in history as one of America’s greatest strategic blunders. Is there anything he can do now to reverse that judgment?

I think there is, but the question is whether he will do it or not. It’s very difficult for a president who is reaching the end of his term to engineer a U-turn because there are too many people who may block him because their own careers are on the line. But if you asked me theoretically, yes, there is something he could do.

The starting point is to recognize the conditions in Iraq and that the war has created terrible uncertainty and anxiety in nearby countries. Somehow you have to come to terms with that, something that requires statesmanship. And you must recognize that the original plan for a strong central government will not work, and that the plan moving forward is, in fact, to push for a kind of regional solution.

Would you like to return to Iraq?

I’d love to return; it’s my country. Currently I have good reasons not to return. I have a very good chance of getting killed.

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1971, Section I
Class of MBA 1966, Section A
Class of MBA 1975, Section C

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