The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities is a rivetting firsthand account of a young British civilian woman, Emma Sky, who volunteered to go to Iraq immediately after the invasion in 2003, and within weeks found herself in the role of Governor of Kirkuk – the most dangerous place on Earth. As a Brit, a woman and a liberal, Emma Sky’s presence and position in Iraq following the invasion in 2003 is the stuff of fiction. Shortly after the coalition troops went in, Sky, an Arabist, volunteered to go to assist the Coalition Provisional Authority in the occupation. Alone, she made her way to Baghdad, was told they had enough people, so travelled north, to Kirkuk. Within days she became the most senior civilian there, Kirkuk’s lady governor.
When the house she was staying in came under mortar fire, Sky realised that she must integrate herself within the US Army in order to survive. She moved into the army compound, initially sleeping in a tent with seven soldiers, and soon won the confidence of top US military officials, among them Gen Odierno, now head of the US Army, who became friend, confidant, mentor. Two years later Sky was back in the UK when she received an email out the blue from Gen Odierno. It was time for the prosecution of the Surge: would she help? Sky became Odierno’s key political advisor, and found herself at the very heart of US operations during the perilous and volatile days of the Surge. At the end of 2007 she left once more but almost immediately was recalled for a final tour, when again Odierno sought her help. This time she worked alongside him until 2010, leaving only when US combat operations were ended.
The Unravelling is also a deeply personal memoir that explores what it is like to be British, alone and a woman, working both within and outside of the US Army. As Sky writes, ‘I have encountered many alien cultures on my travels, but none so alien as the US Army’.
One of the world’s leading newspapers, Britain’s The Guardian, had this to say:
mma Sky’s book is an eminently sensible “tale of unintended consequences, both of President Bush’s efforts to impose democracy and of President Obama’s detachment”. A critical insider’s account, it undermines the too-easy assumptions of left as well as right, exposing the achievements and (more often) stupidities of both administrations’ approaches to Iraq.
In 2003, Sky was working for the British Council when she saw a Foreign and Commonwealth Office email asking for civilian volunteers. Despite opposing the war, she signed up, arrived into chaos, and improbably found herself governing the province of Kirkuk. When Saddam was a western ally, a quarter of a million Kurds and Turkomans had been cleansed from Kirkuk and tens of thousands of (mainly Shia) Arabs moved in. Assyrian Christians and Yazidis added to the mix. “No group recognised the grievances of the others,” writes Sky, who refers too to “the American tribe” whom she at first railed against, “so out of place, running around in uniforms which looked like pyjamas, with their name tags on their chests”.
Sky witnessed the gallop from regime change to state collapse in the first days of occupation. The Coalition Provisional Authority and the governing council together institutionalised sectarianism: “The emphasis had been on identifying communal representatives rather than bridging communal divides.” Unelected Iraqi elites set about seizing the spoils, excluding Sunnis and the Shia working-class Sadrist movement.
The sweeping de-Ba’athification programme led by Ahmad Chalabi – a darling of the neocons later discovered to be spying for the Iranians – exempted Shia but not Sunni Ba’athists. Most had joined the Ba’ath not out of ideology but for career promotion, and the programme emptied schools of teachers and hospitals of doctors, impoverishing Sunni families. The closure of state-run enterprises and the dissolution of the military exacerbated the situation. The new Iraqi army, born into the task of fighting Iraqis, would never become a national institution.
Sky was called back as political adviser to the US general Raymond Odierno in 2007. The diminutive and bookish “internationalist” became an unlikely but firm friend to the oversized sports and beer-loving soldier during the dual “surge” – of US troops and of concrete for blast walls. Her section on this period is urgent and compelling, the only one in which the occupation finds some redemption. Sky arrived in Baghdad during the worst of the civil war, with bombs exploding and corpses littering unlit streets. “If the head was cut off, it was Shia; if the head was drilled through, it was Sunni.”
About the Author
Emma Sky was raised in England and attended a boys’ boarding school from age seven to thirteen; her stepfather was a teacher there and her mother was a house mother. She earned her undergraduate degree in oriental studies at Oxford University’s Somerville College. Sky has worked at senior levels on behalf of the US and UK governments, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Jerusalem, across the fields of development, defence, and diplomacy, and with multi civilian and military agencies. Sky was made a Member of the British Empire in 2003 and an Officer of the British Empire in 2008 in recognition of her service in Iraq.