Guest Post: Performing a State in Occupied Iraq 2003-2006

Our guest post this week is reposted by kind permission of the author, Dr. Nida Alahmad, who holds Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant No 658988 PS-IRAQ at the Middle East and North Africa Research Group (MENARG) at the Department of Conflict and Development Studies, Ghent University, Belgium. The original post can be found at the ‘Performing a State’ blog here. A more elaborate discussion of the question will appear in Nida Alahmad, “Illuminating a State: Statebuilding and Electricity in Occupied Iraq,” Humanity Journal 8, no. 1 (2017).

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The Iraqi state was the focus of a major American engineering project that failed, leading to a civil war in 2006. The US occupied Iraq in May 2003 aiming to radically reshape the country into a liberal democracy. This was to be done mainly through re-engineering state institutions and re-defining their functions in a process that is often designated as “statebuilding.” Over the span of thirteen months the Coalitional Provisional Authority issued sweeping orders and launched projects to implement its radical vision. In August 2003 an insurgency irrupted and spread across the country. Shortly after the transfer of sovereignty from the CPA to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, Iraq witnessed the first civil war since its establishment in 1920. Many state-building experts declared post-occupation Iraq a fragile or failed state. With the rise of the Islamic State in northern and western Iraq in 2014, Iraq is facing renewed threats of civil war and possible partition, indicating a definite failure of the state-building project.

This failure has prompted criticism from various directions. Scholars have treated the US project and its failure as the outcomes of an imperialist project;or an ambitious implementation of the so-called Liberal Peace paradigm; or as a failure that could have been avoided given better policies. These critiques are important. They help up see the practical and normative problems of intervention. At the same time, they tend to starts from the presupposition that these interventions are external to the political field upon which they act. Treating these interventions as external (either as an imposition or as welcome intervention—both distinctions are mostly normative) reifies their self-representation as a body of expertise that is autonomous from the objects of intervention.

My research project is not interested in asking how the American statebuilding project in Iraq could (or could not) have worked. Instead, it takes as a starting point that once an intervention occurs, it becomes part of the landscape that it attempts to change. In other words, whether or not it succeeds in changing the object of intervention into a particular form, once an intervention takes place it can no longer be treated as an external element. This research project is an inquiry into the performative nature of statebuilding: how is the state (as an object of intervention) conceived, identified, quantified and acted upon in the production of knowledge about intervention and during the intervention itself? How does the act of intervention and the knowledge that informs it become part of the reality such intervention seeks to amend?

There are different ways to approach the investigation of a failed statebuilding project. We could ask, how it could have been better? Or, why did it fail? Or, could it ever have worked? Or, which is what this project is interested in: how did it materialize itself and its object on the ground? Which set of questions we choose to ask depend on what is it that we try to understand, or in some cases, predict.

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