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Elliott Colla’s "Baghdad Central"

The Moral and Strategic Failures of Military Occupation


Without networks of collaborators conscripted from among the ranks of the insurgency, sustained military occupations are unthinkable. Yet, no one likes to talk about collaborators—it is an unpleasant subject because collaborators are about as loved by their handlers as they are by the communities they betray.

To be sure, collaborators under military occupation consider themselves as a beneficial screen, ameliorating the worst that might happen, and at times they even embrace the new order and think of themselves as brave emissaries of the future. But from the handler’s viewpoint, they are instruments of war and counterinsurgency only to be expunged like a checkpoint or watchtower once the fray is over.  And from the point of view of the majority of their own society, they are, at best, individuals who at a time of collective strife put their own egotistical interests before the interests of their community, and, at worst, they are unforgivable traitors.  Collaboration, in other words, is a thorny issue whereby the ethical questions it introduces are easier to repress than to address.

This is why I was so surprised to come across Elliott Colla’s Baghdad Central which provide a cautionary tale about the moral and strategic failures of military occupation while center-staging the calamities of collaboration.  And although the noir thriller focuses on the US occupation of Iraq, the theme could have just as easily been lifted straight from Afghanistan, the West Bank, or Gaza.

Baghdad Central is probably the only work—whether fiction or non-fiction—that tries to tell the story of the American invasion from the point of view of an Iraqi nationalist. In fact, Muhsin Khadr al-Khafaji, Baghdad Central’s hero is the epitome of Dick Cheney’s bogeyman—he is a Baathist cop with a background full of war crimes. (Apparently named after an actual high-ranking Baathist official, the Three of Diamonds, captured by the Americans in early 2004).

Typical of many noir thrillers, Baghdad Central’s storyline is messy and winds its way from Red Zone to Green Zone and back again. The plot follows Khafaji as he is arrested and thrown into Abu Ghraib prison, and then agrees to be a collaborator with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq (CPA). He is ordered to search for missing Iraqi women, who may have been working as translators for the CPA, or prostitutes providing services to American soldiers, or even perhaps operatives of a cell within the resistance.

True to the noir genre, the more Khafaji investigates, the more people start to die. There is a dodgy dame, car chases, IEDs and some double-crossing. There is a disappearing CIA handler, a talkative communist taxi driver, a Pakistani teawalla, and some mukhabarat thugs. And there is Khafaji’s bed-ridden daughter, Mrouj. I am not in a position to judge whether the descriptions are authentic, but despite the occasional excess, the reader is drawn in. In works of Orientalist imagination—and this is certainly one—Baghdad is supposed to be written this way.

Yet, Elliott Colla also takes his cue from the Arab canon. In one scene, Khafaji is on his way to meet his handlers in the Green Zone when he happens upon a bomb scare at the gate. The bomb squad searches a parked water truck, but they do not find anything at first.  Indeed, in a scene taken — I suspect —from Ghassan Kanafani’s “Men in the Sun,” a soldier ultimately climbs on top of the truck and opens the seals on the tank. He looks for a long time, then yells something into the hole. Finally, he shouts, “Sergeant, you better come up here and look at this. There are men down in there. It’s an oven. You better get the medics.” As it turns out, twenty Jihadists have died on their way to infiltrate the Green Zone.

Not surprisingly, in this novel the Iraqi resistance does not pose the major threat to American occupation. Colla’s thriller begins by suggesting that the chaotic breakup of the Baathist regime planted seeds of defeat collabaghdadwithin the ranks of the American victors. And who can argue with this thesis, even if it is presented in the form of fiction written by an Arabist professor of comparative literature.

But while this may be enough to hook the book clubs in the barracks or the students of Middle East politics, actually it is only the beginning of the story. This noir novel is ultimately an in-depth exploration of the psyche of the collaborator, and his or her key role in military occupation.

Notwithstanding the massive scale of the NSA covert intelligence gathering and Obama’s drone wars, Colla’s book underscores the fact that the military still relies on human intelligence. It is extremely unlikely that those drone attacks in remote Pakistan or Yemen depend solely on high-tech—there is always a collaborator on the ground working with and for the Americans.  Occupations, one could even argue, are as strong as their networks of collaborators. Baghdad Central not only suggests that the US occupation was weak because of its lack of networks—it also suggests that this reliance on collaboration is a double-edged sword.

It is well known that the collaboration strategy of military occupation is both dangerous and corrosive—and this truism is at the heart of Baghdad Central. Detective Khafaji may have been recruited into collaboration, but that does not mean he serves only the Americans. In fact, his story is that of an individual struggling to maintain his selfhood and values even as he loses them.

Some of this is as funny as it is tragic, such as when Khafaji finally puts on his US military uniform only to have a twenty-something American playfully joke, ‘Hey, everybody! Tell Bremer I’m the one who found Tariq Aziz, and he was working right here! I want my million dollars now!’ The soldier slaps Khafaji on the back, and the Iraqi collaborator has no choice but to go along with the jibe, at least for the time being.

But the more Khafaji works for the Americans, the more he understands that he can also work for himself and for those whom he loves. By following the twisting and twisted trail of money and sex in the novel, the reader begins to understand that neither the collaborator nor the culture of collaboration is something that can be readily controlled.

On the one hand, there is nothing radical, or radically new about this. It is not just postcolonial critics who insist that native informants maintain at least some of their agency. Intelligence officers also know this well, and handlers are trained to recognize and minimize the ways in which their positions can be undercut by their operatives. On the other hand, however, the novel exposes something else, perhaps even more profound.

While people tend to think that information gathering lies at the heart of the collaboration strategy, occupation regimes benefit just as much if not more from the culture of deception that it engenders and the way this culture corrodes the occupied society. Neighbors learn to distrust one another precisely because they know that anyone could be an informant. Activist and militant networks break down once the poison of collaboration has been injected into their body. I know this, having heard endless stories from Palestinian friends in the Occupied Territories. The resulting social disintegration is the kind favored by occupation forces—a divided society is one that has trouble resisting.  But, at the same time, a fragmented society can also be an unruly one.

Baghdad Central describes this breakdown in detail, as it does the rise of competing networks, such as those of the Shiite militias. More than this though, because it uses the noir genre to explore how the culture of deception is one that necessarily infects everyone, it is difficult to put the book down.

Khafaji’s handlers lie to him, and he returns the favor. Neighbors and strangers lie to one another. But the lie is not something that is deployed solely outside the confines of the Green Zone. Once the deception starts, the lies proliferate and fold back on one another. There is no antidote. It is in this aspect of intelligence work in military occupation—its complete reliance on deception and its completely corrosive effects on the occupied as well as the occupier —that Baghdad Central shows its fangs, since it underscores an unspoken shortcoming of General David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency doctrine.

Petraeus is commonly accredited with introducing a shift in the strategy of military rule in Iraq. Instead of squashing the enemy directly, he maintained that counterinsurgency needs to integrate humanitarian means into warfare, which includes working with the local population. Colleen Bell from the University of Saskatchewan describes this as a form of hybrid warfare that simultaneously enacts targeted killing while making the population ‘‘live.’’ She shows how, according to the Petraeus school, insurgency is characterized as “a virus or bacteria that plagues the social body, whose immune system is already compromised.” Accordingly, counterinsurgency needs to heal the disease through targeted violence, while working to coopt the rest of the body; i.e., the population. Both the violence and the pacification depend on collaborators.

While critics of different stripes have commented on the shortcomings of Petraeus’s approach, to the best of my knowledge no one has discussed what this strategy has done to the US military as an occupying force. Wittingly or unwittingly, Colla’s novel begins to reveal how this form of counterinsurgency can rebound. Yes, the corpses belong mostly to the occupied Iraqis. Yes, Iraqis were the victims of this prolonged invasion and counterinsurgency tactics. But in the end, the deceptive and corrosive nature of military occupation also makes the US military vulnerable.

To put it simply, the goal was to produce a network of collaborators. This network was created mostly by inexperienced agents who bought—using different means—the services of Iraqis. Colla shows that when the official policy is one of corrupting and there is no robust firewall to prevent it from recoiling, the agents may end up paying operatives, who end up betraying and killing Americans. To use the same medical metaphor Petraeus’s cronies deployed when describing the fight against insurgents, collaboration is like a contagious virus that ends up also infecting the occupier. The handlers become the handled.

Precisely because Colla’s book reveals very dark sides of occupation, not only readers interested in political thrillers will be attracted to what Baghdad Central has to say – government officials and secret agents will also be unable to put these books down. Even though Colla provides a relentless critique, he also offers a fascinating and intimate look at the inner workings of military occupation.

Neve Gordon can be reached through his website.

A much longer version of this review appeared in the LA Review of Books