Talking about Collaborators

February 25, 2014   •   By Neve Gordon

Baghdad Central

Elliott Colla

To Be a Friend Is Fatal

Kirk W. Johnson

NO ONE LIKES to talk about collaborators. Collaborators are about as loved by their handlers as they are by the communities they betray, even if sustained military occupations are unthinkable without them.

To be sure, collaborators under military occupation can 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. From the handler’s viewpoint, though, collaborators are instruments of war and counterinsurgency, only to be expunged like checkpoints or latrines once the fray is over. From the point of view of a large part 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, traitors. Collaboration, in other words, is a thorny issue, and the ethical questions it introduces are easier to repress than to address.

This is why I was so surprised to come across two books that provide a cautionary tale about the moral and strategic failures of military occupation, both of which center-stage the calamities of collaboration. And although both Baghdad Central and To Be a Friend Is Fatal focus on the US occupation of Iraq, the theme could have just as easily been lifted straight from Afghanistan, the West Bank, or Gaza.


Elliott Colla’s Baghdad Central is probably the only work — whether fiction or nonfiction — 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 as prostitutes providing services to American soldiers, or even perhaps as 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 tea wallah, and some mukhabarat thugs. And there is Khafaji’s bedridden 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, Colla also takes his cue from the Arab canon: a professor of Arabic and Islamist Studies at Georgetown University, he has translated several contemporary Arabic novels. In one scene in Baghdad Central, 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, 20 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 within the ranks of the American victors. And who can argue with this thesis? 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.

Both books underscore the fact that, notwithstanding the massive scale of the NSA electronic intelligence gathering and Obama’s drone wars, the military still relies on human actors and 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.

The collaboration strategies of military occupation are notoriously dangerous and corrosive — a truism 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. Because it effectively 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.

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 20-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. 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.

The novel exposes something else, though, something perhaps even more profound. People tend to think that information gathering lies at the heart of any collaboration strategy, but 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 bodies. 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.

At the same time, a fragmented society can 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. 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 credited 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 acts into warfare, which includes working with the local population. Colleen Bell from the University of Saskatchewan describes this as a form of hybrid warfare, which enacts targeted killing while helping the population to 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 co-opt 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. But in the end, the deceptive and corrosive nature of military occupation also makes the US military vulnerable.

To put it simply, a network of collaborators 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 corruption, 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.


Kirk Johnson also explores the theme of collaboration, but he focuses on the handlers and their moral responsibility toward those they recruit and employ. To Be a Friend Is Fatal is a memoir of sorts, which begins with a brief description of Johnson’s childhood, followed by an account of his experience with USAID in Baghdad and Fallujah, including the agency’s required two-week preparatory Diplomatic Security Anti-terrorism Course. His self-reflective descriptions serve as a lens through which one can understand a different but no less profound aspect of Iraq’s occupation.

During the course’s first week, Johnson and other aid workers lived on a government farm in West Virginia, where they underwent explosives training, drove around for hours in a minivan trying to determine which cars were tailing them (usually, he notes, those with Pentagon parking decals affixed to their windshields), and learned what they were to do if they were ever captured and forced to sit in front of a camera and condemn the United States for a propaganda film. “[W]e should,” Johnson explains with a touch of sarcasm, “use our face as a map to point out clues as to where we thought we might be. Our forehead was north, our chin was south. Our nose was Baghdad.”

The second week of the course was dedicated to teaching the trainees about Iraqi history and culture. Dr. Mansfield dived right into the cultural differences between Iraqis and Americans: “Iraqi women who lose their virginity before marriage will tell a villager to go out and kill a pigeon on the day of their wedding,” she explained, before adding that “the bird’s liver would be extracted, filled with pigeon blood, and inserted in her vagina shortly before the consummation.” What was disturbing was not just that those who developed this program had, as Johnson notes, “seen a lot of bad spy movies and probably hadn’t been to Iraq,” but that this course epitomized the level of US preparation for Iraq’s occupation.

Initially, Johnson worked in the Green Zone as a public affairs officer for the US government propaganda machine, which he calls USGspeak. He was responsible for digging up good stories about Iraqi reconstruction and writing about them for the Iraq Daily Update, which was published by USAID and distributed to thousands of bureaucrats, Capitol Hill staffers, journalists, and contractors. It was during this period that Johnson worked with several Iraqis, most of whom were interpreters and translators.

But after six months of writing for the USAID daily, Johnson decided he wanted to do something more meaningful and asked to be transferred to Fallujah. He was 25 years old, held a BA in the humanities from the University of Chicago, and was responsible for dispensing $20 million for reconstruction projects in the region. In other words, he had about the same amount of experience as the secret service agents who handled Detective Khafaji in Colla’s novel.

When Johnson leaves Iraq for R&R, a tragic accident prohibits him from returning. While convalescing in the United States, he receives an email from Yaghdan, an Iraqi friend who had served as a project manager for USAID. Yaghdan tells Johnson that he has been exposed by the insurgency as a collaborator and that his life is at risk; he and his wife need a way out of Iraq, and fast.

One event leads to another, and rapidly Johnson finds himself dedicating more and more time to trying to save the lives of Iraqis who had collaborated. After creating a list of Iraqis who had worked for the United States and were in danger, he manages to secure his first meeting with the Refugee Bureau of the State Department. “Kirk, we are going to have to study this [list] more closely,” the woman at the State Department tells him, adding that due to confidentially requirements, they wouldn’t be able to speak with him directly about the particulars of any of the cases. The policy, Johnson realizes, was brilliant: “It allowed them to suggest that they were so concerned with protecting the vulnerable that they were unwilling to communicate with the person who brought them names of the vulnerable, so pure was their commitment to the integrity of the process.”

Was Kirk Johnson handled? I don’t think so, at least not by the Iraqi collaborators he strived to help. It seems clear that Johnson was motivated by a basic belief that humans are not mere instruments, and as a true American patriot he spent years of his life fighting the Bush and Obama administrations, trying to convince them that they have a moral obligation to the Iraqis who worked for the government and its contractors. He founded the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies and raised money, wrote op-eds, mobilized journalists, and lobbied Congress to find a solution for these Iraqi refugees. His is a Kafkaesque story of a person confronting the maze of government bureaucracy, and while occasionally he did manage to make a dent in the system, he mostly failed, not least because this bureaucracy is also based on deception.

The month after he delivered the first list, eight Iraqis were admitted into the United States. A month later, and during the very period when Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey assured the American public that, “We could resettle up to 25,000 Iraqi refugees [...] this year,” only one Iraqi was actually admitted. Indeed, members of the Bush administration, such as Under Secretary of State Paula Dobriansky and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, kept making lofty statements about US-affiliated Iraqis, but month after month nothing actually happened.

Matters did not really change much when the Obama administration took over. As Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on Obama’s National Security Council, Samantha Power, the author of “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, made promises but failed to modify a thing.

Johnson’s book ends up being a poignant story about bureaucratic red tape and lies, where the US government constantly made promises to address the plight of the collaborators while simultaneously creating insurmountable obstacles for their visa applications. Samantha Power and her friends were unwilling to say it, but they preferred to leave behind a hundred innocent Iraqi employees facing possible assassination than to admit one former collaborator who could potentially cause damage — nobody, Johnson surmises, wanted his or her signature to be on the visa papers of the next 9/11 hijacker.

This is the major difference between Johnson’s List Project and Operation Baghdad Pups, an initiative to resettle Iraqi dogs that had befriended US troops. “No Buddy Gets Left Behind!” reads the organization’s flashy website banner followed by the imperative: “Abandoning Charlie in the war-ravaged country would have meant certain death for him.” In exchange for a $1,000 donation, the group promises to cut through the US government’s red tape in order to bring these pets to “freedom.” In July 2012, CNN reported that Americans had donated $27 million to help Iraqi dogs (nearly 14 times the amount the List Project was able to raise over the years). On January 2, 2013, President Obama signed the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which included an amendment to grant dogs working for the US military the status of “Canine Members of the Armed Forces.” While I don’t have anything against the resettlement of dogs, witnessing the government’s radically different approach toward those Iraqis who came to the US’s aid leaves, to use a British understatement, a foul taste in one’s mouth.

Precisely because Johnson’s and Colla’s books reveal very dark sides of occupation, not only readers interested in memoirs and political thrillers will be attracted to what Baghdad Central and To be a Friend Is Fatal have to say — government officials and secret agents will also be unable to put these books down. These two authors provide a relentless critique, but they also offer a fascinating and intimate look at the inner workings of military occupation and its effects.


Neve Gordon is completing a book entitled The Human Right to Dominate co-authored with Nicola Perugini.