A few weeks before I deployed to Iraq as a young US military officer, in the spring of 2003, my French-born father implored me to watch The Battle of Algiers, Gillo Pontecorvo’s dramatic reenactment of the 1950s Algerian insurgency against French colonial rule. There are many political and aesthetic reasons to see this masterpiece of cinéma vérité, not least of which is its portrayal of the Algerian capital’s evocative old city, or Casbah. One winter morning in 2014, more than a decade after I first saw the film, I took a stroll down the Casbah’s rain-washed alleys and into the newer French-built city. Scenes from the black-and-white movie—like the landmark Milk Bar café where a female Algerian guerrilla sets off a bomb that kills French civilians—jumped to life. The ensuing French military response, memorably depicted in the film, included arbitrary arrests, torture, and “false flag” bombings that only inflamed the Algerian insurrection.
It was these moral perils of counterinsurgency that my father hinted at. “Keep your eyes open,” he told me. This was a prescient warning, one that served as the backdrop for my deployment, even if the Algerian analogy was imperfect and would become overused. As American soldiers soon faced a guerrilla and civil war in Iraq for which they were woefully ill-equipped, intellectually and militarily, The Battle of Algiers would be screened and discussed at the Pentagon. To this day, it is taught to West Point cadets as a cautionary tale.
Still, the full weight of the film’s lessons was not apparent to me in Iraq until one morning in the summer of 2003, when I received an urgent phone call about a captured Iraqi intelligence officer. My commander wanted me to go interview him at the Baghdad hospital where he was being treated for unspecified wounds.
I donned my Kevlar vest and grabbed my carbine for the trip to the so-called Green Zone in the city center, which was becoming increasingly dangerous because of bomb attacks and ambushes by a growing insurgency.
My own experience with this militancy was mostly of a distant nature—though my encounters were anything but impersonal. As an intelligence officer, I debriefed Iraqi sources and informants on insurgent groups and foreign fighters, which sometimes yielded detailed information that US soldiers would use to conduct raids, looking for weapons, explosives, insurgents, or wanted ex-regime figures. Since I read the after-action reports of these operations, I learned the names and ages of those who were captured. Sometimes, I even saw photographs of their faces. This established a sort of intimacy, a chain of causality between my actions and their fates.
In collecting the intelligence that drove these raids, I tried to vet and verify what I heard. Ninety percent of the information I discarded after rounds of questions. Much of it was outright fabrication by Iraqis seeking financial reward or favors from the US military. Others were trying lure American soldiers into helping them settle personal scores or eliminating their political, commercial, or sectarian rivals. The remainder of the information sometimes proved valid. And the resulting seizure of militants, weapons, or bomb-making materials did save lives.
On occasion, though, we did not sufficiently corroborate the information before an assault, or we got the location wrong. In the aftermath of such misdirected predawn raids on innocent Iraqi civilians, I remembered Pontecorvo’s film and would ask myself: “How many new insurgents did we just create?”
All of this was a departure from the original focus of my deployment, which was to interview former Iraqi officials about Iraq’s suspected weapons of mass destruction (WMD). But once the insurgency started attacking American soldiers, Iraqis, and international organizations, US military commanders demanded that more intelligence resources be devoted to penetrating the insurgents’ networks—especially since the hunt for Saddam’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons was going nowhere.
Even so, I continued to chase down any leads I got on WMD. And that was what I assumed this call about the detained Iraqi spy was about. Instead, when I got to the hospital room in the Green Zone, I found myself seated across from a man who had been at the center of one of the biggest lies behind the US decision to invade Iraq.
When Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani was posted to the Iraqi embassy in Prague in the late 1990s under diplomatic cover, he quickly came under surveillance by the Czech security service. One morning in early April of 2001, an Arab informant working for the Czechs reported seeing al-Ani meeting with an Arab student at the Iraqi embassy. This student was identified, according to the report, as an Egyptian named Mohamed Atta—the man who, not long after, became the ringleader of the hijackers who carried out al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001.
The CIA and FBI later punched holes in this story; the Czech president himself subsequently repudiated it. To begin with, the informant had identified Atta as the man from the April 2001 meeting only upon seeing his photo published in the news after September 11. The FBI’s records of Atta put him in Virginia and Florida immediately before and after the supposed Prague meeting, and the agency uncovered no evidence of international travel. But none of this stopped the Iraq war hawks in the Bush administration from seizing on the so-called Prague Connection as proof of Saddam Hussein’s supposed complicity in terrorist attacks on American soil—and using it as a casus belli for the 2003 invasion.
There at the Baghdad hospital, I joined an FBI agent in questioning the bedridden al-Ani about his time in the Czech Republic. A diminutive man with a grizzled face creased by bouts of pain, he epitomized the type of drab regime functionary I’d come to know in Iraq all too well. He answered our questions straightforwardly. In the end, the hours-long session provided no evidence about the Prague meeting to contradict the debunking that had already appeared in the press. Al-Ani had never met Mohamed Atta or even heard of him until he saw news reports after September 11. Nor was he himself even in Prague on the day of the alleged encounter; he was out of town, seventy miles away.
Even more disturbing than this non-revelation, though, was his account of his capture that summer by US special operations forces and the reason for his hospitalization. Snatching him from his Baghdad home at night, US soldiers had bound his wrists, covered his head, and forced him to lie on the floor of a Humvee for the long trip to a detention facility. Within fifteen minutes of his confinement in the vehicle, he felt an unbearable burning sensation. A Humvee’s engine is located in the front and conducts heat to the rear bed, where al-Ani was lying facedown on the bare metal. He twisted and writhed from the pain, but his American guards thought he was resisting. One of the soldiers stepped harder on his back with his boot. “Jesus, Jesus, please,” he’d cried, he told me, hoping that this invocation in English would get them to relent.
In front of us in the hospital, he lifted his gown to show us the results: severe burns, in dark-hued patches, covered his stomach, thighs, feet, and palms. As a consequence, al-Ani would endure three months of hospitalization, which involved multiple skin grafts, as well as the amputation of his thumb and the loss of movement of a finger.
After the meeting, I relayed his account of these injuries to my commanding general, who later reported the matter to a Senate inquiry into detainee abuses. The US Department of Justice also included the FBI’s account of this same interview in the inspector general’s 2008 report on detainee interrogations. And, over several years, the US Army investigated the incident, concluding that al-Ani’s injuries were consistent with his story and that “the offences of Assault and Cruelty and Maltreatment was [sic] substantiated.” Despite that finding, the Army dropped the case.
To my knowledge, nobody was ever disciplined or punished for al-Ani’s mistreatment.
It is a cruel irony that this Iraqi man was first used as a prop for an American invasion and then subjected to disfiguring violence by soldiers who had carried out that invasion. But his story weighs on me in other ways. The abuses we’ve seen in US policing have deep, homegrown roots, but I am convinced that they are also partly a result of the militarization of law enforcement born of the Iraq War and America’s other overseas interventions. The Iraq disaster has rippled across virtually every facet of American life, deepening the inequalities that divide us, stirring a popular contempt for “expertise” that has opened the door to demagoguery, and contributing to the hollowing-out of our infrastructure and institutions in ways that have left the country dangerously exposed to future shocks.
The Iraq debacle is what the journalist Robert Draper, in his engrossing recent book on the decision to oust Saddam, To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq, correctly calls the greatest American tragedy of the twenty-first century, alongside the attacks of September 11, 2001. What comes through in his account is the singular focus of certain administration officials to use those attacks as a rationale for the Iraq invasion. The disfigured Iraqi I’d debriefed had thus been a crucial, early part of that project to “connect the dots.”
According to Draper, al-Ani became a preoccupation for two Bush administration officials in particular: Vice President Dick Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Cheney had a “hard-on” for the Prague Connection, a CIA analyst told Draper; and Wolfowitz became an “obsessive fanatic” about it.
Wolfowitz held a special fascination for me. Years before September 11, he’d embraced a fabulist theory about Saddam’s involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. And the smoke had hardly cleared from the September 11 attacks when he was already asking US intelligence agencies for any signs of an Iraqi hand. Those queries grew in frequency and intensity over the months that followed, especially after the Czech intelligence report came to light, even as the defense official’s quest left intelligence analysts exhausted and exasperated.
“Wolfowitz asked the same question different ways,” a CIA analyst related to Draper, “partially because we weren’t giving him the answer he wanted—but also partly to prove that we were idiots.”
Reading these pages of Draper’s book brought a tightening to my chest. I’d seen the human consequences of such single-mindedness—not only in the injuries to this one Iraqi spy, but also in the anguish of countless other Iraqis I’d met in 2003. And that harm was only the beginning, before the world would learn of Abu Ghraib, Haditha, and Nisour Square. More abstractly, though, Draper’s volume angered me because it showed how Wolfowitz, Cheney, and others had abused the craft of intelligence that had comprised the better part of my military career—in Draper’s words, as “a drunk uses a lamppost, more for support, rather than illumination.”
The obfuscation and denial of ground truths would continue well after the US toppled Saddam.
“Have any of you ever had a tapeworm?” the French paratroop colonel asks his soldiers in The Battle of Algiers, drawing a metaphor for the insurgency. “The tapeworm is a worm that can grow to infinity.” Cutting off the head of the enemy, the commander continues, is the only way to stop its regeneration.
Of course, this doesn’t happen in the film, in which the French eventually hunt down the leaders of the Algerian resistance, any more than it happened when US soldiers captured Saddam Hussein, on December 13, 2003, which happened to be the day I left Iraq. The deposed dictator, though an object of nostalgia and veneration for some Sunnis, was never the main figurehead of an increasingly diffuse insurgency—what then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously derided as “dead-enders” and Wolfowitz later called “an unholy alliance of old terrorists and new terrorists.” We struggled in those early days to define who exactly we were fighting, especially with the influx of foreign Sunni militants, a confusion epitomized by the farrago of politicized and unhelpful acronyms, like Former Regime Elements (FRE) or Anti-Iraqi Forces (AIF), that were handed down for us to use in our reports.
All the while, another foreign power was exploiting our disarray. By the summer and fall of 2003, I was getting flickers from my Iraqi sources on the movement of Iranian intelligence operatives, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces, and even Hezbollah militia members in Iraq. This widening Iranian influence in Iraq was one more unforeseen consequence of the 2003 invasion. Five years later, when I returned to Baghdad as a civilian adviser, I faced near-weekly salvos of Iranian-supplied rockets.
In the meantime, I tried to forget about Ahmed al-Ani and the countless other Iraqi contacts, informants, and sources I’d encountered. They were the sonar devices that the US occupation used in an attempt to sound out a country and a society we only vaguely understood. Among them were, to be sure, snitches, hustlers, inveterate liars, embittered Ba’athists, likely Iranian double agents, and soon-to-be insurgents, but they also included physicists, religious scholars, students, tribal elders, mothers, and artists, whose lives had been upended by our invasion but who nevertheless sometimes gave us tip-offs, leads, intelligence, and, occasionally, the insights we lacked. Nearly two decades later, their forms are still clear to me in outline, but their features and the details of their lives remain blurry and distorted, like divers in the depths glimpsed from the surface above.
The affliction of memory persists, along with the moral injuries borne by the innumerable American soldiers who followed me in Iraq, often experiencing far worse bloodshed and trauma. These are an inevitable outcome of war; so, too, is the moral corruption of an open-ended occupation.
“Should France remain in Algeria?” the French commander in Pontecorvo’s film asks a pool of journalists inclined to question his brutal methods. “If you answer ‘yes,’ then you must accept all the necessary consequences.” Likewise, no one should be surprised when a foreign military presence engenders nationalist resentment and an armed insurrection, especially when the occupation systematically dismantles governance institutions and disenfranchises swathes of the populace. There is a scene Robert Draper describes of President Bush watching TV footage as coalition troops liberated Basra in April 2003 and asking an aide, of the Iraqis, “Why aren’t they cheering?”
Most members of the US military will shoulder the psychological and physical risks of being sent to war, and most will accept accountability for their actions as moral agents in war. What they expect in return, though, is some assurance from their leaders that they were used wisely, and that they were called to the awful task of inflicting violence only after other means had been exhausted, and only for a cause deemed vital to the good of the nation. The absence of any such justification for the Iraq invasion—embodied in the spurious pretexts of WMD and linkages to al-Qaeda and undergirded by a hubristic ambition to reorder the Middle East—is what makes it perhaps the most consequential tragedy of our times and an essential lesson for the future.
I hope it is one that our citizens and leaders will never tire of learning, from accounts like Draper’s, from histories yet to be written, and from the testimonies of veterans and Iraqis alike, to avoid another ruinous adventure.
I am not terribly optimistic.