Often described as “the most influential Brit in Iraq,” Emma Sky arrived there in 2003 after having been an opponent of the war.
Tim Lewis: The title of your book – The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq – makes it clear you view the west’s involvement in the country since 2003 as a grand failure but also a preventable one. What were the biggest mistakes?
Emma Sky: There have been a series. The whole experience of Iraq is a rollercoaster and those who didn’t watch it closely just assumed it was going to be disastrous because of the way we went in. But there was that period in the middle – the surge from 2007 to 2009 – when those of us who spent a long time there, we saw things really improving. By 2009, we thought – and the Iraqis thought – that the country was going in the right direction. The big mistake of the Obama administration was in 2010, after a good election, not helping to broker the formation of the government and deciding to keep Nouri al-Maliki in power despite him having lost the election. Everything from then started to go downhill again and it’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening now.
It could have been very different?
Maliki went after all his rivals, pushing them out, and things just started to unravel. So watching that you think, over 150,000 Iraqis lost their lives, almost 200 British soldiers, 4,500 American military. After that sacrifice, we hoped to leave Iraq in a better place. So it’s awful to watch it now.
Although a British civilian, you were the political adviser to the US general Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010 – you’ve been described as “the most influential Brit in Iraq” for almost a decade. Is that how you felt?
When you are working so hard, you don’t sit there thinking, oh, look at me, I’m so important. But in the role I had, I felt I was able to influence the general. He valued the different perspective that I brought. Full credit to him, because they always tell you that you must surround yourself with people who are different to you, but people never do. General Odierno told me he wanted somebody to tell him when he was making mistakes. So I thought, Oooh [rubs hands together], what a great job! Nobody ever asks you to tell them when they’re screwing up.
When you told the Iraq inquiry – also known as the Chilcot inquiry – how you ended up in Iraq, they scarcely believed you. Can you explain?
Well, I was working for the British Council and I volunteered to go to Iraq in 2003. The British government said it would be for three months, before we handed the country back to the Iraqis. I was against the war and I thought this would be penance: I can go and apologise to everybody and help them rebuild. I’d spent a decade working Israel-Palestine, so I’d got experience in conflict mediation and institution development, and I thought I’d be useful. I didn’t know what my job was going to be, but when I arrived in Kirkuk, I was told: “Great! You are now the governor coordinator, you are in charge of the province.” It was a slightly embarrassing position to be put in. [Continue reading…]