Emma Sky Discusses Her Work With Coalition Forces in Iraq

Convening Yale

Emma Sky, a British civilian, had never imagined partnering with a U.S. military general to bring healing in the aftermath of a brutal war, but in the tumultuous Iraq of 2007, that is exactly what she did.

The director of the Yale World Fellows and a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, Sky shared her experiences serving in occupied Iraq during a discussion with students at the Yale School of Management on April 11.

Sky, who served as advisor to Ray Odierno, the commanding general of U.S. Forces in Iraq, from 2007 to 2010, tells the story in her 2015 book, The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (PublicAffairs). She spoke at Yale SOM as part of Convening Yale, a lecture series that brings scholars from across the University to share their research with the SOM community.

Sky first met Odierno in 2003 when she served as governorate coordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority for one year. She had previously worked in the Palestinian territories for a decade, managing projects to develop institutions and promote co-existence between the Israelis and Palestinians, and had come to Iraq, in the wake of a war she did not support, to do what she could to help the Iraqi people recover and rebuild. She arrived, she said, to find “an appalling situation” in the chaos that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein. Although she thought she would be stationed in Baghdad, Sky traveled north to the Kirkuk province, where she first encountered Odierno.

Because she understood nation-building better than they did, Sky said U.S. military leaders became eager to partner with her. “We had the same values,” she said. Sky worked with a group of paratroopers, going into communities to talk to Iraqi citizens, learn their grievances, and to mediate between them.

“I ended up with a very talented team,” she said, adding that it was amazing how quickly the American soldiers followed her lead and switched tactics from force to working more diplomatically within the region’s complex ethnic, social, and religious history.

When Odierno began a new tour in Iraq in late 2006, he asked Sky, who had returned to Britain, to come along as his political adviser. She did, traveling with him everywhere and acting as an intermediary.

Violence dramatically abated, as U.S. forces helped stabilize the region and promote a democratic election, but turmoil—along with Iran’s destructive interference—resumed after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to concede defeat in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

By the time the Obama administration began withdrawing American forces in 2011, the politics were breaking down, Sky said.

But she added that she learned important lessons about leadership during her time in Iraq, through her working partnerships and their short-lived success. “As a leader, you should surround yourself with people who are different from you,” she said. “General Odierno did when he hired me.”  

About the Event

Please join us on Monday, April 11 for a very special Convening Yale with Emma Sky, author of "The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq." Ms. Sky is Director of Yale World Fellows and a Senior Fellow at the Jackson Institute, where she teaches Middle East politics. Her book was named One of the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2015. Advance registration is required.

Sky served as advisor to the Commanding General of US Forces in Iraq from 2007-2010; as advisor to the Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2006; as advisor to the US Security Co-ordinator for the Middle East Peace Process in 2005; and as Governorate Co-ordinator of Kirkuk for the Coalition Provisional Authority, 2003-2004.

Prior to that, Emma worked in the Palestinian territories for a decade, managing projects to develop Palestinian institutions; and to promote co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. In addition, Emma has provided technical assistance on poverty elimination, human rights, justice public administration reform, security sector reform, and conflict resolution in the Middle East, South Asia and Africa.

Emma has published numerous articles including in the New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Politico, Atlantic, Slate, Survival, Center for a New American Security, US Institute of Peace, the Guardian, and the Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

Emma was educated at Oxford (UK), Alexandria (Egypt), Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Israel) and Liverpool (UK).

Emma is an Officer of the British Empire.