Without networks of collaborators conscripted from among the ranks of the insurgency, sustained military occupations are unthinkable. Yet, no one likes to talk about collaborators-it is an unpleasant subject because collaborators are about as loved by their handlers as they are by the communities they betray.
To be sure, collaborators under military occupation 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. But from the handler's viewpoint, they are instruments of war and counterinsurgency only to be expunged like a checkpoint or watchtower once the fray is over. And from the point of view of the majority 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, they are unforgivable traitors. Collaboration, in other words, is a thorny issue whereby the ethical questions it introduces are easier to repress than to address.
This is why I was so surprised to come across Elliott Colla's Baghdad Central which provide a cautionary tale about the moral and strategic failures of military occupation while center-staging the calamities of collaboration. And although the noir thriller focuses on the US occupation of Iraq, the theme could have just as easily been lifted straight from Afghanistan, the West Bank, or Gaza.
Baghdad Central is probably the only work-whether fiction or non-fiction-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 prostitutes providing services to American soldiers, or even perhaps 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 teawalla, and some mukhabarat thugs. And there is Khafaji's bed-ridden 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, Elliott Colla also takes his cue from the Arab canon. In one scene, 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, twenty 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, even if it is presented in the form of fiction written by an Arabist professor of comparative literature.
But 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.
Notwithstanding the massive scale of the NSA covert intelligence gathering and Obama's drone wars, Colla's book underscores the fact that the military still relies on 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.
It is well known that the collaboration strategy of military occupation is both dangerous and corrosive-and this truism is 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.
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 twenty-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.