Yasir Abbas is studying international relations at Tufts University. He worked as an interpreter with the U.S. Army in Baghdad and Taji, Iraq, from 2005 to 2009.
When I was a high school sophomore, the United States invaded my country to depose Saddam Hussein. Ten years later, I have lost scores of family members and friends. I am viewed as a traitor by many of my compatriots, and I was forced to leave Iraq — probably for the rest of my life.
Soon after the invasion, Iraqis were forced to choose sides between the new, U.S.-backed government and the insurgency. Many decided to join the militias and insurgents or passively accepted their actions in return for the protection and security they offered. I chose a different path: siding with the people who had invaded my homeland.
My decision to work with the U.S. military as an interpreter was not easy, but for me it was the only choice. When I saw the sectarian violence that rapidly filled the void left by Saddam Hussein’s fall, I realized that the U.S. military was the only actor with sufficient resources to resolve the intensifying conflict. Siding with the Americans also spared me from societal pressure to join a militia and take part in the violence.
During the war, dozens of my extended family members were killed by al-Qaeda, Shiite militias and the U.S. military. I am from a mixed tribe in central Iraq, so my friends and relatives are not exclusively Sunni or Shiite. Effectively, my loss was doubled.
Because of my job and contacts, I frequently had the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to find the corpses of friends and family and return them to their next of kin. One of my most difficult experiences took place in the summer of 2007: I had to find 18 of my relatives, who had been tortured and executed by al-Qaeda. I tracked them down in a morgue in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, and returned them to their families in a small village in Diyala Province.
A few months later, I had to bury 25 more family members and friends who had beenkilled by a misguided U.S. airstrike in the same village. Although a U.S. Army major general personally apologized to me later, the military’s official position was that the deceased were terrorists. I fought terrorists every day, not just those days I worked with the U.S. military — and those men and women were not terrorists.
As difficult as it could be, I knew I had to continue my work for the good of my people and that I had to stand for what I believe. Forty kilometers southwest of my village, near Taji, I helped work on negotiations between U.S. commanders and Iraqi tribal sheiks that led to the Awakening Councils along Baghdad’s northern belt. These awakening councils, which were at the heart of Gen. David Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, resulted in a drastic decrease in violence — and a more hopeful future for Iraq.
Although security improved massively that year, I was viewed as a traitor by many Iraqis. While on patrol, people shot me angry looks and called me names. I was spat on. Many interpreters were kidnapped for ransom; others disappeared or were killed. The danger forced me to live like a ghost. Over time I even learned to enjoy my life of adrenaline and secrecy.
Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, I am taking a class on the sociology of war and peace, listening to lectures on the escalatory processes of violent conflict. As I reflect on the war, while sitting in the safety of my new country, I think about all the lives destroyed and how the chaos that followed the invasion could have been avoided.
When people ask me, “Was the war worth it?,” I am often unsure how to respond. The world is a better place without a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. But poor U.S. post-invasion planning helped unleash sectarian furies that will plague not just Iraq but the broader Middle East for decades. I think a better question is “What should the United States do now?” My answer is that the venture into Iraq must not result in American detachment from the region. American ideals and aims are too noble for isolationism. The United States must learn from its errors and use its unequaled power to positively shape the world, helping to prevent future conflicts rather than sparking them.
Was it worth it to me? I can’t deny that my wife and child are healthy or that there is limitless opportunity for me in the United States. But is that worth losing my friends, family and country? Never.