Emma Sky interview: The former adviser to the US military in Iraq on being a human shield and why only the Sunnis can defeat Isis

Sky is a British expert on the Middle East and served as the governorate co-ordinator of Kirkuk in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and as political adviser to US General Ray Odierno until 2010

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The Independent Online

You can't just use the military to kill 'bad guys' When I was in Kirkuk in 2003 [following the American and British military invasion of Iraq] and I was governing the province, I had to work closely with the US military. I helped change their mindset, getting them to stop and think a bit more: early on there were all these different groups competing for power and the US military had them pegged as good guys or bad guys. But everything about Iraq was nuanced. I tried to get them thinking about how we could mediate between these groups and empower them to eventually start running things such as education, health and sewage themselves.

I've always been bad at following rules I always want to see where the boundaries lie: if I see a rule, I want to break it. But when I came to work for the US military, there were rules for everything, and they're not there for negotiation. For instance, you can't go for a run on a base while wearing headphones. I kept getting caught and they'd report me for it, which would go up the chain of command. The sergeant major would say to me, "Ma'am you've been caught again." I'd try to explain what a ridiculous rule it was. And he'd say, "Look, will you just obey it for me?" I really respected him, so I did. For a while.

No one expects you to return to Iraq as a tourist But my favourite time with Iraqis have been going back to visit them since leaving, in 2010. I once went back to see the deputy national security adviser, Safa. We went down to the marshes in southern Iraq, which had been drained by Saddam Hussein; since 2003, the water – and life – has returned. We went through the marshes in little boats, watching the wildlife, having barbecued fish on the river banks.


Isis can only be defeated by the Sunnis And they are only going to turn against Isis when they see that it can't win, that there are better alternatives, and that they are getting support from the Iraqi government and the US, who, along with Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, need to hammer out a plan to deal with Isis and cajole the Iraqi elites into accepting agreement. But even after 10 years we don't look at how to set a national strategy that delivers a political outcome: I don't think we've learnt anything from the past decade in Iraq.

There was something really self-righteous about offering myself as a human shield [against the American bombardment of Baghdad in the first Gulf War, while a student.] I look back at that and think, gosh that's a very young reaction, being on the outside and just shouting that the world is unjust. Being a human shield doesn't make any difference to how a government behaves.

I'm now much more worried about disorder than authoritarian regimes I spent most of my adult life in the Middle East, and while I used to be very critical of the West for propping up authoritarian regimes, when you see what happens when a state collapses, and all the groups that fill that power vacuum, it changes things. Though I would never wish Saddam back.

I try to spend a lot of time looking at things that are beautiful I go to art galleries and concerts. I'm still trying to get my senses back again, to appreciate beauty. The most amazing thing I did last summer was horseback riding down the Silk Road.

A British expert on the Middle East, Emma Sky, 42, served as the governorate co-ordinator of Kirkuk in Iraq for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and as political adviser to US General Ray Odierno until 2010. She is now professor of international relations at Yale. Her memoir, 'The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq' (£18.99, Atlantic Books) is out now