It turns out that the world is just after all: a man called Adel al-Mashhadani, who had been bankrolled by the Americans, was arrested by Iraqi security forces over the weekend. Al-Mashhadani was the head of a local crime syndicate in the Fadhl neighborhood of Old Baghdad. At one point, he was a subcontractor for Al-Qaeda’s reign of terror.
There are many of the opinion in Washington that arresting men such as Mashhadani would unleash Iraq’s demons once again; that the gains made in security would unravel since they were built on shaky foundations, and that this unraveling would vindicate their long-held assessments that Iraq is ‘lost’, a hopeless ‘quagmire’, forever at the precipice of ‘civil war’—assessments they have clung too despite the prevailing positive trends that point to Iraq’s endurance and prosperity. And at every turn, whenever a bunch of bombs go off, they gyrate with perverse expectation that their nihilism was valid after all, that a reckoning of dark forces will bring Iraq crashing down, and with it the legacy of those who argued and worked for a brighter outcome. To the nihilists, being right was always more important than getting Iraq right.
There was sporadic fighting after Mashhadani’s arrest, as his gangs (never numbering more than a couple of hundred) went off: in a tantrum. The Associated Press, and others, dubbed what was happening an “uprising”. An uprising? Really? By Iraq’s benchmarks of violence, the ensuing fireworks didn’t even amount to a skirmish. Mashhadani was arrested, the Iraqi Army and police flexed their muscles, most of Mashhadani’s fighters laid down their arms, and a few ring leaders scurried off into hiding. The cataclysm never came, the Iraqi state emerged stronger and more intimidating, and the stateside nihilists had to temper their sense of morbid anticipation, for now.
But Mashhadani’s arrest also unmasks unpleasant truths about the ‘surge,’ a self-sustaining myth whose authors never cease to congratulate themselves on, and which now provides a dangerous, delusional precedent that they seek to implement in Afghanistan.
The narrative of Mashhadani’s story needs some historical context: his turf, Fadhl, was a graveyard on the outskirts of the capital during the early reign of the Abbasids who established the city of Baghdad in eighth century. As the centuries passed, urban sprawl overtook the place, and its new tenants took one of the larger graves as a neighborhood shrine, seeing how size must have reflected a lifetime of prominence. The trouble with building over an ancient and disused cemetery is that one is never sure who was buried where. So when the townspeople sanctified the shrine of someone called “Mohammad al-Fadhl”, they gave their locale a name but offered little by way of historical accuracy: there, at least six different characters lay claim to the name Fadhl, and the grave.
The current shrine and mosque complex is traced to a restoration and an expansion in the late eighteenth century. By that time, Fadhl was again once again an outskirt of what remained of urban Baghdad, a city that had shrunk away from it own walls. Between Fadhl and the walls lay a wasteland, and yet another shrine. The outskirts were settled by the city’s outcasts as well as the newcomers. Tracing the boundary of these outskirts, one finds ethnic Kurds and Tatars, Jews, and a myriad of tribal groups. The relative remoteness of these places, and their function as melting pots, produced the urban phenomena of street toughs, known in Iraqi parlance as ‘shaqawa.’ Among Baghdad’s ghettos, Fadhl was particularly known for its culture of shaqawa.
The shaqawa were supposed to act as a benign crime syndicate: protecting one’s own turf, maintaining order, running protection rackets, and always, if there’s banditry and thievery to be done, the shaqawa would do it far away in some other neighborhood. The maze of alleyways and connecting rooftops enabled the toughs to remain a step ahead of the law, whether manifested by Ottoman gendarmes or the police of the nascent Iraqi state.
Adel al-Mashhadani emerged as a prototype of the shaqawa culture, mutated as it were after decades of Ba’athist tyranny and the most recent subsequent insurgency. For their reign of thuggery, the Ba’athists recruited heavily among the shaqawa. Saddam himself was a product of this world, menacing the alleyways of the Baghdad ghetto where immigrants from his home town of Tikrit had settled over a couple of centuries. It is no accident that Mashhadani was a Ba’athist and an officer too.
In the last six years, there was plenty of money to be made in planting IEDs, sniping at American soldiers, and abducting and beheading civilians, under the guise of fighting for a Sunni resurrection. Ba’athists and jihadists were paying thousands of dollars for every act of mayhem, and men like Mashhadani and his gangs found plenty of work. But they also got cocky and greedy. For example, a helicopter carrying American security contractors was shot down over Fadhel in January 2007, and four various jihadist organizations, including Al-Qaeda’s self-styled ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ took responsibility for it. In April 2007, fierce fighting broke out in the neighborhood, and a claim of downing an Apache gunship was made by three different groups. What was happening was that guys like Mashhadani would pull off such acts of violence and then sell bragging rights to the jihadists. Problem is, the gangs of Fadhel were double billing left, right and center: Mashhadani was tripling and quadrupling his earnings by having various groups pay him for the same work.
By the summer of 2007, Al-Qaeda had had enough of Mashhadani’s shenanigans and they sent over a more ideologically disciplined gang leader to take over the Fadhel turf. Outnumbered and outgunned, it was then that Mashhadani turned to the Americans for help, garnering money and immunity, and all of a sudden, Mashhadani became a poster child for a key strategy of the ‘surge’: paying off insurgents to turn on Al-Qaeda. He was trotted out to foreign journalists and congressmen, the shaqawa turned Ba’athist thug turned Al-Qaeda operative took on the role of statesman-in-the-making. Someone thought it was a good idea to hand Iraq’s destiny to the likes of Mashhadani. He was made into a ‘Son of Iraq,’ the American quick fix solution to policing the country.
But old habits die hard, and Mashhadani continued doing what he did best: racketeering, kidnapping, killing and so on, all with the benefit of a ‘get out of jail free’ card courtesy of the American military. The Iraqi government, in order to accommodate the Americans, had suspended all arrest warrants against the heads of the ‘Sons of Iraq’ networks that preceded the amnesty date of November 2008. But Mashhadani managed to ratchet-up over one hundred new warrants since that date alone, which led to his arrest a few days ago.
I have long argued that the surge was a catalyst rather than a starting point in the demise of the insurgency. The insurgency was already on a downward wane by the autumn of 2006, when the theoretical rationalization for a surge began in Washington. Men like Mashhadani were turning on Al-Qaeda—for example, by brazenly shopping around bragging rights to others—because Al-Qaeda was breaking down due to the complex and intertwining factors of reduced logistics and capabilities, a resurgent Iraqi state, ideological overreach and an expanding sense that the insurgency was failing in its objective of a Sunni resurrection, and that it was actually leading up to a total Sunni collapse as the Shia reprisals grew more brutal with every sectarian provocation. More U.S. boots on the ground - - and a new approach to disperse them in order to get in the face of the insurgents - - speeded up a process that was already underway. But paying off the insurgents was in fact counterproductive since it gave a lifeline to troublemakers instead of allowing their martial spirits to break as a natural result of tactical defeat. Not only that, but it created a false sense of entitlement and bravado among ex-insurgents like Mashhadani, whose moonlighting in violence continued nevertheless, without having to bow down to the sovereignty of the Iraqi state.
What is scary is that the lessons of the ‘surge’ are to be implemented in one form of another in Afghanistan, without fully understanding the implications, and delusions, of what happened in Iraq. This is no mere exercise in ‘I told you so’: the surge arrived in Iraq as the insurgency was petering out, but the surge is going to Afghanistan as the Taliban are on an uptick. The consequences of this misreading could be very, very grave.
The case of Adel al-Mashhadani teaches us that there cannot be security without ‘nation building’, a concept that has become something of a dirty word in the Obama administration. The two go hand in hand. One cannot turn to the thugs and co-opt them, letting bygones be bygones, because in the vast majority of cases, people seldom change their spots. In the New Iraq, men like Mashhadani should be dangling by their necks, not swaggering around with an American ID card hanging from their collars. One cannot expect the thief, the rapist, or the murderer to police the innocent. That is always a recipe for tyranny, for that is how tyrants rule. Let us hope that America’s new doctrinarians are not inclined to equate tyranny with stability, in a hasty repudiation of a doctrine that sees stability as an extension of democracy.
The usual argument against barring the Ba’athists from power runs akin to that made for rehiring the Nazis in postwar Germany: they made the trains run on time. But the analogy to putting Mashhadani back on payroll is to have brought back the Gestapo to maintain order in Bonn. Not only is it immoral, it’s dangerously absurd. We should be thankful that the Iraqi government is soberly correcting a foolish legacy that the departing Americans have forced upon them.