Occupational Hazards by Rory Stewart

Occupational Hazards is Stewart’s account of trying to administer Maysan province in southern Iraq. He’s obviously an interesting character; to quote his author bio: ‘After a brief period in the British army, he studied at Balliol College, Oxford, and then joined the Foreign Office, serving in Indonesia and Montenegro, Yugoslavia. From 2000 to 2002 he walked six thousand miles across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal. In 2003, he was posted to Iraq as CPA Deputy Governate Coordinator of the provinces of Maysan and later Dhi Qar.’

He explains that, after being away from the Foreign Office for some time, he approached them and asked to be sent to Iraq. He never quite says why; he clearly finds the work fascinating and loves the Middle East and central Asia (he has now returned to working on regeneration in Afghanistan, at the Turquoise Mountain Foundation); even so, there can’t have been many people whose immediate reaction to the invasion of Iraq was to send off a CV and ask for a job. His reward was to be given the job as supreme civilian authority in Maysan.

US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts

The book is an account of his time trying to do that job; trying to set up some kind of administration, get reconstruction projects started, and prepare the province for handover to Iraqis. And the overwhelming impression is of chaos. The kind of broad brush stuff we’re all now familiar with — Sunni vs. Shia, moderates vs. extremists — is just the tip of the iceberg. Apparently 54 new political parties appeared in Maysan in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. There were conflicts between different tribes; there seem to have been endless different clerics, all with their own supporters; the educated urban Iraqis looked down on the rural population. Stewart had to try to achieve some kind of balance of their competing claims while also favouring the kind of moderate, secular government that the CPA aspired to producing. He also had to deal with the central administration in Baghdad, which was disorganised, ideological and unhelpful; and with the local British Army commanders, who he theoretically outranked, but who had their own priorities and were not under his direct command.

He writes well, and the book is in turns depressing, funny and, mostly, interesting. I don’t think I’m giving away the ending when I say that, despite some successes, he didn’t manage to establish a model secular democracy in his chunk of Iraq. On the other hand, if you read the book hoping to understand why the occupation hasn’t been more successful, it doesn’t provide any simple answers. He recognises the reasonableness of many of the criticisms aimed at the administration: the failure to prevent the looting immediately after the invasion, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the lack of planning generally. But his own feeling is that actually, even if all those thing had been done right, it still would not have been enough to create a peaceful, stable, democratic Iraq; that we overestimate our own powers if we think we can shape a country that way. And that we could never have planned for all the complexities anyway.

» The picture, US Army soldiers and Iraqi hosts, is taken inside the traditional Marsh Arab reed-built mudhif. I don’t know if it was taken in Maysan, but it’s certainly the right kind of building. It was taken by James Gordon and is used under a CC attribution licence.

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