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November 30, 2007

The Secret Oasis

Asad date palms 

I have lived here for two months and never suspected it existed.  Al Asad has an Oasis. It is on the opposite end of the base from Ripper in a little depression and not easily spotted.  According to local legend, the patriarch Abraham camped here on his way from Mesopotamia to the Holy Land.  It is not the most direct route, but maybe he was lost.

There is reed fringed pond with crystal clear water coming out of an underground spring.  The water is as transparent as liquid air and it is hard to tell where one world stops and the other starts.  As you can see in the photo, it is full of little fish.  They almost look like they are floating air.  There are about 30 acres of date palms surrounding the spring.   Our agriculture guy Dennis says some of the trees are around sixty years old.  The younger ones are probably around fifteen years old.  The whole grove is in need of renovation.  Date palms can regenerate naturally, but they are not very good at it.  Under natural conditions, there would not be so many date palms here.  Once established, the palm roots can reach the moist earth several feet down, but they would not establish themselves on the dry surface.

al asad fish

I understand that when they built the Al Asad base during the Saddam time, they kicked out the families who were living here about.  Incongruously a few managed to hold on, ignored, living in the oasis.  When the Al Asad base expanded in 1995, they got kicked out and their homes were demolished.  It must have been sad to leave such an idyllic spot.  I can imagine how it must have been when it was well tended.  There would have been gardens of vegetables and citrus.  There also were certainly sheep and goats, probably a donkey.   But the families had to move off.  We can see the ruins of their houses. That piece of history explains why the youngest trees are around fifteen years old.  The oasis was neglected and abused since the time they left.   I am afraid that we Americans have not been any better stewards than the Iraqi had been.   It could be cleaned up and restored with a reasonable investment in time and money.   Maybe I can help that happen.

Al Asad Mig

As I walked around the oasis, I let my mind wander and imagine how it was when Abraham stopped by.  The oasis is quieter than most of the base, since it is far from the main roads or the landing areas and it is somewhat protected by earth banks.  I was shocked out of my reverie by MiGs.  Yes, MiGs or maybe Mirage.  I don’t know.  We saw the wreckage of two.  One had evidently crashed.  The nose was crushed.  The other seems to have just been abandoned.  It was stripped, but it looked like it had been intact before that. There are lots of MiGs around here; I have seen dozens just haphazardly littering the desert.  Saddam paid billions for these things, enriching Soviet & French arms merchants, but they never did him any good.  They were no match for American forces.  Everybody knew that, the pilots most acutely.  That is why there are so many expensive air assets scattered around the desert.  I guess it is fun to fly a warplane when there is no war, especially if that does not imply that you have to fly if anybody might be shooting at you. 

 Al Asad pond dennis

Above is our Ag guy Dennis in front of the little pond.

I will certainly go back to this oasis.  Unfortunately, it is a little outside running range from Ripper so it won’t be every day.  But now I know where to go where when I want a little natural peace.

Two Days in Fallujah

Osprey as AA 

The picture above is my ride.  They kick us out when they refuel. Good precaution.

It was supposed to be a short trip to Camp Fallujah.  My penultimate big boss, John Negroponte, was coming by to learn a little more about progress in Anbar and PRTs, so everybody figured it was a good idea for me to come down. 

The meeting was very good.  I learned a lot listening to my colleagues and the generals, all of whom have more experience in Iraq than I do, explain how the situation had changed and what we were likely to see in the future.  I made a modest contribution about our own ePRT plans.  That was it. 

Camp Falluja

Above is Camp Fallujah

I planned to be back in Al Asad before chow.  Unfortunately, as often happens, my flight time was changed leaving me in Fallujah for the whole day.  This is not a bad thing.  I have learned to bring books; my I-Pod and I can usually link on to the military email and keep up with some of my work. 

Beyond that, I have the nicest room I have ever had in Iraq.  I sometimes get treated better since my late promotion.  I feel kind of bad about that, but not bad enough to turn down the special offers.  There is a real bed, real chairs, a real desk and a little refrigerator with Coke.  This evidently was some kind of conference center, so it features a nice conference room and luxurious guest quarters.   You still have to share a bathroom, but it is indoors and not far from the rooms.  The thing I find interesting about the bathroom is that there are ten showers but only two toilets.  While I understand the necessity for cleanliness, most people take only one shower a day, while they tend to use other facilities more often.  That is why I suspect the showers were dual purpose.

Nice as this place is, the delays do make planning difficult.  Still as I was reading my book in preparation to stroll down to the chow hall, I could not feel very aggrieved.   

Fallujah, as you may recall, was the scene of fierce fighting not very long ago.  Just before I came to Iraq, I saw a History Channel program about it.  It made me just a little uneasy about my decision to come to Iraq.   There were actually two battles.  We won both, and  learned the lesson after the second that we needed to do more than win battles. 

The city is actually more of an area than a true city and more of a Baghdad exurb than a part of Anbar.  The American analogy might be Loudon County.  During the Saddam time it was home to lots of Baathists and others who benefited from the regime.  When Saddam fell, lots of people here lost their jobs and pensions.  They were not all bad guys.  There were various shades of grey and many of them had useful skills.  Those were decisions made above my pay grade and before my time, but in hindsight it is likely that we went a little overboard in putting them out of work.  How would it be for us if all the Federal employees in living Loudon County were laid off and/or lost their pensions?  How might they react?

CF waiting room

Above is the CF waiting room.  You can sleep on the floor and lots of people do. I had the whole place to myself for around a half hour.  

Of course, if we had it all to do over again we would make different mistakes.  It is easy to be smart after you know the outcome.  That is why you meet so many people who theoretically made big money with their past investments but seem to have no money in the real world.

November 28, 2007

Goat Grab

Goat grab 

Iraqi feasts are good, but predictable.   You get goat (or sheep) meat on top of rice, topped with a kind of rice-a-roni, with peanuts, raw vegetables and raisins mixed in. All of this is piled high on some very good tortilla style bread.  I like the bread

Americans try to use the bread to grab the food, making a kind of rice and goat burrito.  Iraqis don’t have much use for that strategy.  They grab a handful, squash it all into a ball, letting juice & pieces fall back on the big plate, and pop it into their mouths. The guy next to you will often rip off a piece of goat  with his hands and put it in front of you.  You are supposed to eat it.  If he likes you, you will get a big fatty piece.  You have to eat that too, it is the honor and all that. Sometimes I suspect it is a long standing practical joke they are playing on us - see what the American will eat.

Some feasts feature roasted chicken and a kind of carp that comes out of the Euphrates.  The chicken is very good.  I am content if I can get a piece of that.  I am also accustomed to eating chicken with my fingers, so it is not so odd.   The fish tastes okay, but it is very boney.   You need to be careful eating it.   I prefer both chicken and fish to the goat. 

What I really cannot get used to is the communal nature of the eating.  All the food is in the middle and you all eat from the same place – with your hands.  Rice just does not lend itself to hand eating, so sometimes they dump some soup on top.  It helps the rice stick together but, IMO, that makes it a worse mess.  At some of the classier meals, a kid comes around with water and soap before the meal.  I am happy wash my hands before the meal and even happier to see my neighbors and future meal mates washing theirs.

There are different shifts of eaters.  The higher ranking people belly up first.  When they wander off, some others come.  It looks like there are at least three waves and I suppose whoever cleans up finishes up the scraps.

After the meal, people sit down around the room and they bring tea.  The tea is very sugary.   I am told it is good manners to drink three little cups of tea.   If you drink less you are not accepting the proper hospitality; if you drink more you are abusing it.

Everybody stands or crouches while eating; you do not sit.  The meal has a kind of ad hoc feeling.  It is sort of like a lot of guys hanging around a public place, say a train station, and then somebody brings out a big bowl of food, forgetting the plates or utensils, and puts it on the counter or on the floor.   I guess you can see how this sort of thing would grow up in a nomadic culture.

Spoons, forks and bowls are good things. 

November 27, 2007

Surging in Iraq


I got my TV connected a few days ago and for the first time in almost two months started watching the news again.  There was a lot of debate about whether or not the surge was working.  While my experience in Iraq is deeper than it is broad, I have observed a few things since I got here that apply to the wider Iraq debate.  I will not reveal anything sensitive and what I am writing here is my personal opinion.  Those of you who know me can discount/compensate for my biases.  All others are on their own.

From my point of view, the surge in Iraq has worked.  My team and I can go places and do things were impossible just months ago.  The Marines who were here before tell me about the unbelievable changes and I can see for myself people rebuilding and putting their lives back together.  We are well received by Iraqis.  Kids come out of their houses to wave at the convoys.  They clearly are not afraid of us.  It is abundantly evident that this place that has just experienced war and war is a terrible thing to experience.  The bad guys can still murder and do damage, but they are increasingly marginalized.  Iraq will not be as peaceful as Switzerland any time soon, but there is a chance now.  It might be the best chance this place has had since the time of Hamurabi to establish a reasonably stable country where rule of law prevails.

Achieving this, however, required and continues to require strong measures.  Security must come before development and security is established and maintained by force.  In an functioning society, force is less obvious and required less frequently, but even Mayberry has a sheriff and a jail.

Here in Anbar the Marines cooperated with local leaders to establish security.  Insurgents and AQI ruled in most of this place last year.  They could not be persuaded to leave.  They needed to be pushed out.  Not all insurgents were terrorists, and some – most - can be reconciled with civilized societies, as I wrote in a previous post.  Others are just bad.  No earthly redemption is possible.   They need to be removed and the sooner the better because their influence is like a pathogen.  Many people who would be good and honest people are corrupted by contact with them.  You are saving lives by removing them from the population.  I know this is very unPC.  It is also true.  Even in our established societies, we have the Jeffrey Dahlmers and the Ted Bundys.  When the institutions of society break down it gets worse.

What works to establish security is persistence.  The Marines patrol.  Most of the time when they patrol nothing happens.  But it is a numbers game.  Sometimes they find things and their presence disrupts the bad guys and makes them nervous.  In addition, As the Iraqi people see the Marines in routine roles they get accustomed to them and more cooperative.

Most insurgents or terrorists are not fanatics who want to die.  In fact, they are often a little on the lazy side.  Many do it for the money or the excitement.  When success is easy, lots of people want to get involved.  When it gets harder or dangerous, they stay home and find better things to do.   That is why a simple strategy like an earth berm is a useful counter insurgency measure.  Obviously, they could just climb over the berm, but they usually don’t because it exposes them to detection and they are just too lazy to hump their equipment over the top.

The Marines have done their part.   It is now becoming the task of others.  Our PRT is part of that “diplomatic surge”.   We can help but it is ultimately up to the Iraqis to finish this job. Iraq is potentially a prosperous country.   I cannot predict the future, but it seems to me that Iraq can become a reasonably democratic and stable place, if we put in the effort.  This is not a pleasant place, but I would be unhappy if I got pulled out before I had the chance to try to finish my job.

November 25, 2007

Random Thoughts

Hunks, Monks Chunks & Drunks

They told us before we came to Iraq that we would end up becoming one of those things above.   The first two are easy here in Al Asad, the third not so much and the last one probably not at all. There are lots of gyms around here and Marines take full advantage of them, so pretty much everybody qualifies as a hunk by civilians standards. They have a 1000lb club (which means lifting more than 1000lbs in a combination of bench press, dead lift and squat).  It is a big club. 

 I don’t know about monks.  Life is austere but the similarity ends there.  Becoming a chunk is possible because of the availability of free, high calorie food, but the Marine culture and the time in the field eating unappetizing MREs militate against it.  Turning into a drunk is practically impossible, since you cannot easily get alcohol and anybody under the influence would stand out.  

It is getting cold around here at night and in the early morning.  Today the prediction is a low of 38.  That is not so cold, but none of the cans have indoor plumbing.  You need to go to a separate building.  Going to and – especially – coming back from the showers will be a chilling experience that many may avoid.   So I expect there may develop a fifth category: skunks.

Iraqi Weather

Speaking of cool, Iraq is not a tropical country.  In summer it is hot (120 degrees is common), but here in the western desert it gets cool during other seasons.  In the last month, the weather has been perfect, around 70 in the afternoon to around 50 at night, but I hear it will be cold soon at night, although usually warming up in the afternoon.  I am ready. I got my coat from Cabalas in the mail a few days ago.

I had an interesting meteorological experience on thanksgiving.  I was on my way to run outside Camp Ripper when I saw a strange dark cloud coming my way.   It was dust.  I decided not to run and instead hunkered down (and got my camera).  The dust did not blow in the wind.  It infiltrated like fog.   It just got darker, colder and harder to breath.  It stung my eyes, but not that much.  The strangest thing was that there were cold raindrops in the dust.  The whole thing had kind of a sinister feeling.  I always assumed that rain would wash the dust out of the air, but evidently not.  Then it passed and it was clear again.


“The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits over the harbor and the city on silent haunches and then moves on.”  What Carl Sandburg said about fog goes for dust, but dust is a meaner, dirtier cat.

Phases of the Moon

I never paid much attention to the phases of the moon but I do now because it matters.  We have no street lights here at Al Asad and it gets darker than an average modern urban American thinks possible.  The walk from the chow hall or the office to my can is very difficult on a moonless night; when the moon is full, as it is today, it is amazingly well lit.

Al Asas moon

November 24, 2007

The Old Man and His Place

wild dogs 

The picture ishows part of a dog pack that patrols the hills near Haditha. There were about a dozen of them, but most went behind the ridge before I got my camera out.  It is not related to my story below.  I needed to put in a picture. I did not have any other use for this one and I wanted to pose a wild dog question that I have been thinking about.  Feral dogs all over the world seem to have cury tails and are often a kind of tan-yellow color.  Wolves and foxes do not have cury tails, nor do most domestic dogs.  I wonder why it is that feral dogs do.  Anybody know anything about that?

As I looked out the window where the local council was going to meet, I noticed an old guy in a fine suit walking slowly across the bridge.  I thought how he looked out of place.  I figured he was a city council member.  As he approached the guards, I got a better look.  He was a sophisticated looking guy, tall with strong features and very well dressed.  He looked like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. with a full mustache.  I noticed his shinny black shoes and impeccable dark suit.   It is so dusty here; how did he keep his shoes & clothes so clean.

He was not a city council member and he was not coming for the meeting.   It turns out he was ostensibly the legal owner of the building where we were meeting.  He was trying to file a claim for rent and ultimate restitution, but he had been unable to complete the paperwork w/o a recent picture of his property and he has been unable to get a recent picture because of security.   He waited until he saw the Marine patrol come by and then he walked from his nearby home in hopes that he could get a hearing and a picture.  It worked.  His nice suit and demeanor got in him past and we can get the pictures.

As I looked around the room, it clicked.  This place had been a restaurant, probably a nice one.  Broken bulbs gloomily festooned the now defunct garden that was now used as a big urinal.  The storage room was the kitchen; we were meeting in the main dinning room. The shattered windows overlooked a beautiful bend in the Euphrates and a little park, with a defunct soccer field.   I had seen all these things but not connected them. 

This poor old guy was the once and & perhaps future owner of a fine restaurant and garden on some prime real estate.  He was polite and spoke English.  Fixing the place up looked like a lot of work, but there did not seem to be structural damage.  In fact, I could not figure out how the place got so busted up in the first place.   It was not battle damage, probably vandalism and looting.

It was poignant watching him furtively look around, no doubt recalling happier times, maybe dreading the work he would need to do to get the place repaired, maybe looking forward to it.  He had been a prosperous man and with any luck he would be again. 

November 22, 2007

Train Depot on the Edge of Forever

 AQ train station

Remember in those 1960s TV SciFi shows & how they always featured a post-apocalyptic world that is not really so much destroyed as just devoid of people and busted up?   I found a place where they can do remakes of those classics.

The Al Qaim train depot sits in the middle of a flat desert with tracks stretching to infinity in both directions. The building was new when it was abandoned because of the war; in fact I don't think it was completed.  Now it is quiet and empty, the vast cavernous inside space ruled by pigeons that spook when you come in, the sound of their wings echoing off empty tile walls.

I kept on waiting for an alien to step out from behind a pillar and cue the Outer Limits control voice:   "There is nothing wrong with your television set.   Do not attempt to adjust the picture.  We are controlling transmission..."  None showed up; all we heard were pigeons and the wind.

The pictures is a couple of my colleagues looking aroud the facility.

AQ colleagues

(BTW - toward evening, I ran a little on the dirt road along the tracks that leads to the depot. The pigeons were sleeping, but I could hear the wild dogs howling in the distance.  It gets dark fast around here.  It was still very light when I started and almost dark 20 minutes later.  I cut my run short because I hoped to avoid getting shot or torn apart by wild dogs.  Neither of these things was a strong possibility, but these are the things you think about when it gets dark in a place like this.   Besides, breaking a leg on the dark rough trail was a danger, so why take chances? This place really has all the needful things for a whole SciFi series.)

The depot is structurally intact.  It looks like what damage it suffered is superficial vandalism and neglect. It seems to me, since there is no town nearby that the whole place is vastly over engineered for its probable use, but maybe it was built with future growth in mind When they built Dulles Airport, it was ridiculed for being in the middle of nowhere; today it is in the middle of a thriving business district.  Some things take time to catch up.  

The railroad was built to serve the local state-owned enterprises. There is a cement factory and a phosphate plant within distant sight of the depot (with a lot of desert in between).  Farther down the tracks was/is a rail repair yard, currently occupied by the Marines.  The rail line was supposed to move heavy materials produced at the plants, such as phosphate and cement to other parts of Iraq and markets in the Gulf and the Med.  The passenger depot would bring in workers from other parts of Iraq and presumably take them back home when they could no longer tolerate life in the desert.  

cement plant
It was not a bad plan as far as central planning goes.  Locating the phosphate and cement plants near sources of bulky raw materials made sense.  Of course they were managed in the typical socialist way.  That, coupled with local proclivities for flexible accounting methods, meant both facilities soon became massive boondoggles. 

With decent management and planning, however, this complex probably could make a profit and  contribute something useful to Iraq's future.  The cement is good quality and there is a large unmet demand.  (Producing cement, BTW, is energy intensive and releases prodigious amounts of CO2.  You literally bake CO2 out of the rocks at high temperatures.  Cement is not an eco-friendly building material, but there is not much wood around here.  Maybe they should import eco-friendly southern pine.)  I have to learn a little more about the phosphate plant before I have an opinion on it.  I hear that it will not make as good an investment, so keep your checkbooks in your pockets for the time being. 

It is a common misconception that every working factory is worth saving.  Often the expense of rehab and various legacy costs associated with previous management give them zero or even negative value in comparison with starting from scratch in a green field (or in this case a brown heap of dirt).  Sometimes the scrap value exceeds the working value, but who knows?  Such decisions are beyond my pay grade.  It might work out just fine.  Maybe the train depot on at the edge of forever will not be forever empty.

With the U.S. Navy in Iraq

Euphrates below Haditha Dam

There is something joyful and appealing about water, especially when you live in a desert.  I had the great fun on one of  the USN boats that patrols Lake Qadisiya above the Haditha dam.  The Navy patrols the Euphrates River and its reservoirs.  This allows us to catch bad guys trying to cross the river or hide supplies on the islands.  It is kind of funny to find the Navy this far inland and in a desert, but I guess water is water.

Coalition forces from Azerbaijan guard the dam, along with the USMC.  This is appropriate, as I understand Azeris were among those who originally helped build the dam.   It was built about thirty years ago and not maintained very well, so it needs lots of work.  It was built primarily for irrigation, but it also generates power.  I will not vouch for the exact figures and I am not good at technical things, but I understand the power plant currently produces around 440 mw.  This was enough to power most of Anbar and give some to Baghdad.  But now people have bought a lot of electronic devices like computers or durables like washers and refrigerators, so demand for electricity is rising.  The dam could produce 660 mw if all the equipment was updated & working and the reservoir was full.  Watching the water spill over is very pretty, but a lot of energy can go down the river.  One expert says that in an eight hour period he had watched enough water “over the dam” to make the energy equivalent of 33 tanker trucks each holding 5000 gallons of diesel.  I am not sure how he figured it out, but he was an expert.

Water levels are currently low, but that will soon change when winter rain and snow falls upstream and dams in Turkey and Syria release water to send it flowing down the Euphrates.  Low water creates problems for the Navy since weeds and rocks that they could normally sail over are near or above the surface.  Since I was not driving the boat, I was happy with the lower water levels, since they revealed more of the landscape.  What surprises me is how LITTLE grows along the lake shore.  My guess is that the shore of the expanding lake extended into the rocky desert and there is not enough soil to support plants, but I really do not know.  I noticed the same thing along Lake Mead in back of Hoover Dam, which seems to have a similar climate and disposition.  on the other hand, along the river below the dam it is green (as you see in the first picture), which lends credence to the soil theory.

Back boat

The boats can go pretty fast and ours did, as you might guess from the picture.  I got a good seat near the back, hung on and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of having the water spray past me.  The back of the boat was below the surface, but the wake formed a depression around us.  I didn’t realize how much I missed seeing flowing water.  The best time was when we crossed the wake of the other boat and really bounced.  The water of the Euphrates and the water of the lake is a beautiful aquamarine color and very clear.  You can see fish swimming around below.  The Marines landed on one of the islands, actually more of a peninsula with the low water, took the high ground and checked things out.  Nobody was there.  I stayed on the boat.  Civilians have to be safe.  Actually, I think I just did not get up fast enough, although they clearly didn’t need me, and my boat pulled away to let the other one land troops before I knew it.  After a little while, we picked everybody up and headed back to the shore.

Island in iraq

As I looked toward the dam, I noticed something strange in the sky – clouds.  I had not seen significant cloud cover since I arrived in Iraq.  The clouds were back again today in Al Asad.  Those who know tell me that they are the harbingers of winter when we will get some rain and cool weather.  When I said that I looked forward to it, they told me that I would change my mind when I saw and felt the mud.  I figure it is better to be too cold than too hot.  Right now the weather is perfect and I will enjoy it while I can.

November 20, 2007

Return to Normalcy

 Border gate at Husaybah

Imagine that you lost everything.  Now you are getting it back.  How lucky do you feel?  That is where the people of Western Anbar are today.  After years of suffering, things are finally starting to return to normal and normal looks plenty good when you have not seen it in a while.

The reopening of the port of entry at Husaybah will open western Anbar to trade with neighboring Syria and through that to the Mediterranean. It means that Husaybah and the Al Qaim region is now in the middle of something instead of at the far end.

Goods and people will not move immediately.  The Syrians have been less involved in the opening.  In fact, they were downright petulant, saying that THEY had never closed the POE so they could not reopen it.  But they have begun to clear rubbish, paint buildings on their side, and even touch up the large portrait of Hafez Al Assad, whose friendly face greets visitors entering Syria.  Reopening the POE will profit businesses on both sides of the border and everybody knows that. 

A Syrian official did wander over from the nether region of the border to congratulate his Iraqi brothers on the reopening.   Whether this was a carefully planned diplomatic move or just some guy wanting to get in on the free food, I do not know.

The refurbished POE will have everything it needs.  There is passport control, a medical unit, police station and a bank.  Outside are docks for the unloading of trucks, as well as a quarantine area and acres of parking. Presumably businesses will pop up nearby to serve the traffic. 

Hundreds of invited guests turned up for the official opening ceremony, including business leaders, officials and local sheiks.  Officials made longish speeches about the work that had gone into the opening as well as the perceived benefits of trade and commerce.  In other words, they made predictable political speeches, normal politics, thanking and acknowledging all those who may be useful in the future.

The opening ceremony itself represented a return to normality.  Although security was very tight, great pains were taken to have security not visibly intrude.  As a result, it looked like an ordinary event in a normal country, with Iraqi flags and Iraqi guests generally dressed in suits or traditional garments, not armor.  The ceremony was followed by the traditional feast.  I understand that 40 sheep contributed the last full measure to the festivities.  And when the feasting was done, the guests went home, without incident.

Below is me at the border.  Over my shoulder is Syria.  Still some work needs to be done on the connection, but normality is on the way.

Me at Syrian border

Our ePRT will be facilitating the flow of commerce at the POE, most immediately with a QRF supported grant for signage to direct traffic.  In the longer term, ePRT personnel are helping with planning things such as traffic flow and placement of commercial areas.

A lot of planning went into making this spontaneous event possible.  I like to remember this from the Book of the Tao:

The best rulers are scarcely known;
The next best are loved and praised;
The next are feared;
The next despised:
They have no faith in their people,
And their people become unfaithful.

When the best rulers achieve their purpose
The people say they did it themselves.

I would presume to add one more line: AND they are right, IF planners get initial conditions right and understand when to get out of the way.

November 18, 2007

A Talking Frog

 Purrfect Angelz at Al Qaim

This old guy is walking down the street and sees a frog on the pavement.  To his surprise, the frog speaks and says, “I am an enchanted princess.  If you kiss me, you will break the spell and have a beautiful woman forever.”  The old guy just puts the frog in his pocket and begins to walk along.  The frog complains, “Maybe you didn’t hear me.  I am a beautiful enchanted woman.  If you kiss me, you will have me forever.”  The old guy replies, “At this stage in my life, I figure a talking frog is more interesting.”

I went to see the Purrfect Angelez, pictured above, at a camp show in Al Qaim.  They treated the assembled multitude to an impressive show of gymnastic flexibility, punctuated by less impressive singing.   But it quickly got repetitive, not that it seemed to bother most of the Marines.  I kept thinking about how hard some of those moves would be on a person’s back or knees and it was then I realized that I had been gradually but inexorably moving into the talking frog stage of life.  I am not saying that I am not interested.  The show was worth seeing, although perhaps not worth going to see.  After about a half an hour of watching their vigorous gyrations and observing the enthusiastic response they got from the Marines, I shuffled back to my can to read my book.   I noticed that my PRT colleagues, whose median age is 49, also did not stay much longer.  That is no country for old men. No matter how much we want to pretend, interests develop and that is probably a good thing.

This is kind of a miscellaneous posting.  Take a look at the picture below.  Yes, it is two bottles of mayonnaise sitting in the sun.  I do not know how long they were out there, but let me give you an additional piece of information:  The Marines in Husaybah live with the Iraqi police and they usually prepare their own food.

Mayo in the sn

I was sitting out in the courtyard of the joint Marine-Iraqi Police building listening to the wind and contemplating the nature of things,  when I notice the mayo.  A short time later a couple of Marines came out and we got to talking about their living and working conditions.  They generally liked the Iraqi police and they thought that the fact that they were integrated with the community and got more local food, different from the standard chow hall fare, was a good thing.  It was a more authentic experience than eating the same meat loaf and red jell-o you get in all the chow halls in all the world.  But one of them mentioned, off handedly, that stomach viruses were a bit of a problem among the guys.  Ya think?  Of course, if you leave it out long enough, I hear it turns into special sauce.

All this makes me think of that lesser known Yeats poem.

Celebratory Fire…Maybe the Odd Angry Shot

kids and me on road 

Kids come out and wave as we drive by.  When I got out and walked toward them, they started to run off.  When I sat down on the curb and they came back.  We are evidently a curiosity. 

The day started out auspiciously enough.  We scheduled a full slate of appointments.  We were supposed to meet with the regional agricultural representative, visit the local bank, talk to the microfinance people and tour some local farms.  Beyond all that, we planned to go on a foot patrol through the marketplace.  I had grand hopes to spend my first Iraqi dinar at an actual Iraqi market, even if it was only to buy a can of Coke and some kabobs.

We DID mange to meet the ag official.   I did not have much business with him and only went through the greeting rituals, but my team members spent a couple of very useful hours looking over plans and proposals.  Our first bad news came when we learned we would not be able to visit the market.   An IED had gone off there a couple days before.  The Iraqi police said that it was a local matter, more a case of criminal intimidation than terrorism, but since the site was where we were going, the Marines thought it was not worth the risk. 

Instead, we went straight to the bank to meet the microfinance guys, but there was a flawed communication.  The people we were supposed to meet had gone.  The guard called them and they said they would be right back.  We were having a good into talk with the administrative manager.  He has survived some rough times.  AQI had murdered his father and his ten year old brother.  His family had to hide out in the desert for six months until AQI cleared out.  But now times were better. 

We heard shots, quite a few.  It was “celebratory fire”.  Evidently some detainees were released and their joyful relatives were celebrating the way they do around here: shooting guns into the air.  These kinds of celebrations are dangerous for two reasons.  First they sometimes turn nasty.  Maybe for some of the former inmates, the joy of getting out does not completely balance the annoyance of being put in.  Second and probably more important is that other rule of law -- gravity.   What goes up must come down.  Falling bullets hurt and kill people.  They tend to tumble a little, but they come down with force similar to what they went up with.  Not a good thing to get caught in that rain.  The Marines told us that it would be very embarrassing if we got shot while under their care.   They ushered us out quickly and we missed the rest of our appointments.

It is surreal.   Our hosts at the bank were not armored or protected and they were also not particularly concerned.  They were just bringing out cakes and little cans of Pepsi (very cute little cans) when we made our excuses.  Those kids you saw in my picture just kept on playing.  I understand the need for safety in general.  I also understand that given the circumstances of the celebrations our presence might actually cause a celebratory mob to turn unpleasant creating danger for ourselves and those people around us.  I just hope there is less such joyful noise so that we can get more work done.

November 14, 2007

I Can't Complain

My office in DC 

Above is my office at my last job when I ran the Worldwide Speaker Program.  I could see the Capitol from the window.  The view from my office in Iraq is not so nice. 

I have been getting lots of emails from people asking me about jobs in the Foreign Service or in Iraq.  I am probably the only FSO they know but hiring procedures are things I know not too much about.  I let HR do their job.  I came in the FS in 1984.  Things were different back then (of course, much harder.  Kids today have it easy.  When we were young …) But I can give you my opinion about careers in the FS and a webpage (www.careers.state.gov) were you can find out more.

I could tell that I always wanted to be an FSO, but I would be lying.  My father wanted me to be a truck driver and I wanted to be a forester or maybe an archeologist.  Becoming an FSO was more a result of serendipity than design.  I was taking a nap in the student union at the University of Wisconsin.   When I woke up, I saw a booklet called “Careers in the Foreign Service” laying on the table.  My snoring had driven away the previous owner.  Before that, I did not know there was such as thing or at least I did not know that someone like me could get in. 

FSOs join State through a written test.  It is pretty hard, but not impossible.  I wonder how some of my colleagues got in and I am sure they wonder the same about me.  You have to know about little things about lots of things most people do not care about.  FSOs are very good at Trivial Pursuit and we can usually impress our friends when watching Jeopardy.   Skills that sell in the marketplace…?  They are useful skills for us because we are generalists.   As generalists, we do what we need to do.  They told me when I came in that my duties could range from talking to important officials to carrying luggage.  I have done both.  Sometimes the luggage job is more fun.

All joking aside, the FS has been good for me.  I have been able to do things and meet people I could never have done.  The FS taught me three languages: Portuguese, Norwegian & Polish.   It gave me a year at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and paid ME to attend school and live in New Hampshire.   I have never had a job in the FS that I did not enjoy – mostly – and that includes my current job here in Iraq, which is often uncomfortable and sometimes a little scary but tremendously rewarding.

The hardest part is the travel and living in foreign countries.  I know many readers are thinking to themselves that these are the great advantages, the very quintessence of the FS and they are certainly right.  But it is also hard.  You do not have the feeling of home and you are always an outsider, a sojourner, a stranger in a strange land (okay, I will stop with the descriptions).   When we got back to the U.S. and lived in Virginia, I realized how much I enjoy being an ordinary American citizen, a participant in the affairs of my country and community.  Diplomats are always guests, never participants and by clear definition never citizens of their host countries.   

It is the career I wanted and I thank God I woke up to find that brochure at the Student Union, but the FS is not for everybody.  After I come back from Iraq, I am thinking of retiring.  The FS is a great job, but maybe it is time to do something else.  I just don’t know.   That is the final advantage of the FS.  You can retire at 50 (with 20 years of service).  You still are young enough to find something else and you have the FS retirement to fall back on if you don’t.

Below is the American Indian Museum was a short walk from my office at SA 44.  Washington is a nice place to live too and you live there about 1/3 of your career.

Indian museum and capitol

FS is good work if you can get it.  At least I really can't complain. Check out the webpage at www.careers.state.gov.   BTW – the Department did not put me up to this.   As I said, I am getting dozens of emails.  Maybe this will answer some of the questions.   

November 12, 2007

The Rest of the Iraq Story

New Hampshire Lake 

I did not have an appropriate picture for this article, so I reached back into the files for something pretty.  As you can see by the date stamp, the picture is a couple years old.  It is taken around 100 meters from my house in Londonderry, New Hampshire, where we lived when I was at Fletcher.  It was even prettier in October and there is probably more fresh water in that picture than in all of Al Asad.  I could stretch it and say that I chose the picture to go with my trout metaphor below, but the truth is that I just like to think of the green and pleasant places.  I won't be in this desert long enough to forget.

I know that good new is no news, but maybe it should not be that way.   Some things sometimes DO get better.  A key reason for following the news is to understand the world in order to make informed decisions, so positive developments are as important as negative ones.  If you measure the success of your fishing trip only by how much bait you use, you may miss out on the grilled trout in lemon sauce.

Journalists (IMO) often prefer bad news because it better fits with their cynical personalities.  It is also easier to write a bad news story.  That is why when the things get better journalists melt away like snow on a warm spring afternoon.  I guess it is a positive sign that journalist have stopped coming to Anbar.  I think there are only four of them around here right now and they are bloggers.  We will not be seeing much of CNN or CBS anytime soon, unless conditions go badly wrong or they are following a big shot on a quick visit.

This media propensity to follow bad news and step back when things improve leaves the false impression that conditions only get worse.  (That is probably a big reason why so many people in the modern world have such a negative outlook on conditions that are pretty good by any historical standard.  They see the worm hit the water, but never hear about the trout being reeled in.)   Journalists often say that they are just giving the public what they want, but is this really true?  Do we really want our media to be biased toward the negative?

I just received a new Pew Research Report on news coverage about Iraq.  As conditions in Iraq improved, news coverage dropped.  American media featured only about half as much news about Iraq in October as in January, when things were not going well.  Are journalists just giving the public what they want? 

Well…no.  According to the research, Iraq remains the most important item to the public and a growing number want more coverage.  They also want a different type of coverage.  The media likes to cover policy disputes among politicians, anti-war demonstrations and the costs of the war.  The vast majority of the public wants more about the experiences of the soldiers in Iraq and after they return to America.  A majority (52%) also says that efforts to improve conditions in Iraq are getting too little coverage.  Surprise, the public wants some balance.  You need all the shades of dark and light to paint the true picture.  All black just is not a useful perspective.

The public is not getting the news they want about Iraq or the news they need to be informed.  I was surprised to read that only 41% of those surveyed knew that casualties in Iraq had gone down.  I guess I should not be surprised.  Any spike is reported w/o the perspective that shows the general trend.

Progress is still fragile, but the indications are that Iraq is reaching a point where it is tipping in the right direction.  Most people in any civil disturbance are ambivalent.  They do not really want to pick sides; they just want to live securely and sit on the fence until they can reasonably figure out which side will win.  The Coalition and Iraqi forces are looking more and more like winners and that is starting to be a reinforcing trend as former insurgents lay down their arms and Al Qaeda & foreign fighters are killed, captured or otherwise neutralized.  The American public may well be surprised by the outcome in Iraq because the media has not been telling the rest of the story. 

Veterans Day

Saddam swords 

The picture shows those famous big Saddam crossed swords.   The hands are replicas of Saddam's even down to the thumbprint.  Around them and in the road are Iranian helmets.  Saddam liked to "walk on the heads" of his enemies.  There used to be more helmets, but people pry them out and steal them as souvenirs.  It is not worth the trouble, but some people take what they can.  If you stand in a particular spot, it looks in a photo like you are holding those swords   Somebody has marked the sweet spots on the street.  The guy holding the swords is Major Murray, who handles most of the logistics on our PRT. 

It is interesting that Saddam would set up a memorial to his victory when he didn’t win anything and the war nearly destroyed his country, but setting up monuments to dubious victories is an old tradition in the region.  Pharaoh Ramesses did it at Kadesh.  It is actually a parallel.  Ramesses managed to get ambushed by the Hittites, but called getting away and scurrying back to Egypt a major victory.  I guess in his case it worked.  Most people remember Ramesses, but nobody can recall the name of the Hittite king.  Of course, I do not think anybody will recall Saddam in the same way, and I am wandering way off subject.

I am not a warrior and I do not have to be.  I am 52 years old, still alive, free and have never been seriously oppressed or had to face a situation where my courage was severely tested.  For most of human history, being all those things at the same time would have been an impossible or at least an unusual achievement.   Americans take such freedom, security and prosperity for granted thanks to the men and women who keep us safe.  We honor them, too often perfunctorily, on Veterans Day each year.  This year it means more to me, because I am living among heroes.

Our military today is all-volunteer but that does not mean that everybody is a professional soldier.  Here in Iraq I have enjoyed meeting the history teacher from Georgia, who was trying to make a living farming, but was currently doing his duty for his country in Iraq and  guy commanding the Marines at one of the power plants who is an investment banker back home.   We have cops and firemen, pharmacists and small business owners.  They represent the best of America.  The skills they bring from their civilian lives are helping build peace in Iraq and the experiences in Iraq will surely make them better citizens back home.  When you see how fragile freedom can be and how it must be defended, you understand how precious it is in America.

Of course, there are many here who have chosen to make the military their careers.  The striking thing about them is how seriously they take the development of leadership and their responsibility to their jobs and their fellow Marines and anybody else around.  Even very young Marines take charge, full responsibly, “ownership” of their duties.   My particular hero is the Regimental Commander.  I have been observing his leadership style with great interest and will try to adapt some of his techniques.  

Almost everybody in my father’s WWII generation served in the military.    In the later baby boom, my generation, such experience is much less common.  Most in my generation and those that followed don’t know the military first hand and we often get our impressions from what we see on TV or the movies.  Those images are almost always either out of date or wrong.  Some of the images portrayed in the media are downright pernicious, created by people who really do not know what they are talking about.  Most of the soldiers and Marines I meet in Iraq are smart, polite and patriotic.  They do not like to be here, and who can blame them, but they are fully committed to doing their jobs.

The thing that may surprise those who know the military only from old M*A*S*H reruns or movies like “A Few Good Men,” is the intellectual power of many of the officers.   These guys think very clearly about their duties and goals, as well as the ethics of what they are doing.  They see the big picture and apply various historical analogies, cultural sensitivity and sophisticated management methods to their analysis.  Then they make decisions that test their theories in practice.  More things COULD happen than can happen and many elegant suppositions do not survive a real world test.  America is very well served by its professional military and I sure am glad having the Marines looking after me in Iraq.  They get the job done.

So on this Veterans’ Day, I just want to say thanks.  All Americans should be proud.

November 10, 2007

Happy Birthday USMC

Marine cake 

In heaven there is no beer; that’s why we drink it here … NOT.   If Anbar is heaven, we have been seriously misled in Sunday School, but General Order #1 prohibits drinking by U.S. military in Iraq.  It shows respect for the local customs and probably saves a lot of trouble.  As a cruel hoax, the chow hall features coolers full of nonalcoholic beer.   It looks like real beer, but that one word modifier says it is not worth drinking.  If there is any real beer on Al Asad, I have never seen any sign of it, and I have looked - until today.  Today is the birthday of the United States Marine Corps and every Marine gets two beers – two real beers – on this happy day.  This includes honorary Marines like me.  All joking aside, it is an honor to be among Marines on their birthday.

First we got a half hour lecture about the history of 2nd Marine Regiment.  It was an interesting history, very heroically told by true believers.  More than the usual number of people showed up for the meeting.  After that, we all filed out and got two OPEN beers.  Nobody can share a beer; nobody can save a beer for later.  It is two beers for everybody and only two beers. Officers, enlisted men and FSOs all get exactly the same numbers.  Colonel Clardy promised to crush anybody who drank more than two beers.  He seemed serious and probably could do it, so nobody risked provoking his wrath.  There was some choice among brands.  We had Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Special Draft and ordinary Budweiser, I took the Miller.  Bud Light is no better than that ersatz stuff they have at the PX and Coors Light just a baby step above.  Budweiser is brewed from rice.   Need I say more?  Miller Special Draft really is decent beer and its flavor was significantly enhanced by its being in this here and now place.  We were a little worried there would not be enough beer to go around.  According to the Airforce, several cases of beer were “damaged” in transit and could not be delivered.  I am told their story is true.

diet coke

As long as I am on the subject of beverages, let me say a few words about my favorite beverage, which is Coca-Cola.   I drink a lot of the stuff – more than 2 liters a day.  Until a couple of years ago, I drank ordinary coke.  I used to run a lot and burn off the calories, but nobody can outrun Father Time and after he trips you, his cousin Mr. Fat comes around.   I switched to Diet Coke in Poland.  In Europe it is called Cola Light.   But the interesting thing about Coca Cola, the ubiquitous symbol of the homogeneity of globalization, is that it tastes different in different places.  The best version of ordinary Coke, for example, is found in Brazil.  Western Europe’s Coke has a peculiar taste, but in Eastern Europe Coke is more like the U.S. variety.   European Cola Light is much better than Diet Coke you get in the U.S., even though the cans look similar.  What tastes like Cola Light in the U.S. is Coke Zero.   So when overseas, I drink Cola Light, which now I like even better than sugary Coke.  In the U.S. I go for the crisp taste of Coke Zero. 

Unfortunately, my switch to Diet Coke proved a temporary fix.  Father Time has delivered another kick in the keister and Mr. Fat moved right in again.   I will have to cut down on the chocolate now.  Life is tough all over, but with the proverbial couple of beers softening the blow, today who cares?

November 09, 2007

Civics 101


I think this is Haburabi, but I do not know for sure.  I found him while walking around in Baghdad IZ.  The Peruvians guarding a nearby building knew less than I did about it.  They just thought it was bonito.  It did not have an inscription.  So I am just assuming it is Hamurabi because it COULD be Hamurabi and I need the picture of the great lawgiver in this post about the rule of law.  If anybody knows better, let me know.

The council for the sub district in Haqlaniyah is an important part of the emerging democracy in western Anbar.  Members take their positions seriously and of the twenty-two members, at least eighteen regularly attend meeting, but they lack of experience and the absence of clear lines of authority complicate proceedings. The council operates much like a homeowners association in an American suburb.  It avoids some of the issues that naturally might fall under its mandate and debates things beyond its scope.  Members are volunteers.  They were not elected to their posts.  Although they were later confirmed by the provincial governor and are paid for their efforts, the group was self formed by community leaders and/or those who thought of themselves as community leader.

The council conducted some useful business at the meeting we attended.  They discussed provisions for the support of widows, for example.  A bigger topic discussed was the need to create employment.  In this area, however, the Council is essentially powerless.  A disturbing aspect of the debate was, in fact, that Council members thought that they could plan job creation among private businesses and should be involved in micro management decisions of private enterprise. It is a idea the lingers from the failed socialism of the past.  It may take a while for them to realize that they can help create conditions for employment, but that they do not create the jobs.

After the Council meeting, we were treated to a Kabuki performance by a Deputy Mayor. Our ePRT had approached him some time ago to ask him to develop a project in cooperation with the Council.  This latter requirement was specifically the purpose of the project.  Project definition was flexible, since this exercise was designed to foster cooperation among local government officials.  The Deputy Mayor developed plans for a sports complex, avoiding consultation with the Council, while leading the PRT to believe otherwise.   We had come to this meeting ready to finalize a project we thought had been vetted and approved.  We were surprised when the Council Chairman told us that his higher priority would be lighting in the market places and surrounding streets.  With

peruvian guard

his game revealed, the Deputy expressed outrage that he had worked so hard with no result.  The end result of this is that WE need to start again.

Beyond personalities, a systemic problem involves lack of coordination among the parts of government.   The councils in each locality can go directly to the provincial council and the governor. They need not coordinate with neighboring districts or even with the mayor of their own locality.   There currently is no district council.   To take the homeowner association analogy to a conclusion,

it is as if each homeowner’s association had a line directly into the state governor. 

The council experience will eventually produce leaders of Iraqi local democracy, but watching the process can sometimes be frustrating.  The experience that prepared me best to understand the whole process was my wife’s tenure on our local homeowner’s association.  Personalities rule. 

We cannot be too critical, however.   The problem is that these guys are acting like ... politicians.  Democracy is sometimes messy, but it works better than the alternatives.

BTW - the Peruvian who didn't know about the statue still insisted on having his picture taken when I told him I was going to post the statue picture, so I obliged. 

November 08, 2007

My New Friends

I notice from my logs that the visitors at my blog went from around 100 a day to 1587 yesterday.  I am guessing that most of the newcomers are not friends & family.  You were probably drawn here by the notoriety of my comments re FS assignments in Iraq. 

My blog is not designed for a general public, but I certainly welcome anybody who wants to read it.  Most of what and how I write is idiosyncratic and probably interesting only to those who know me.  I don’t expect you will again find anything nearly as controversial as the posting that drew you here.  It was very interesting to see blog posts about what I had written.  My sad conclusion is that many bloggers (Certainly not all.  Some were good) write before they read.  Some are almost embarassingly supportive; others are critical and some are just stupidI guess it is easier to have an opinion than seek accuracy. 

Anyway, even in an interesting place like Iraq, I tend to think prosaic thoughts, so if you are looking for excitement you probably came to the wrong place.  You are welcome to stay, but I won’t be put out if you don’t. 

November 07, 2007


Although I earn my money as an FSO, the thing I really like to do is grow trees.   I am the communication director for the Tree Farm Committee at the Virginia Forestry Association.  My main duties consist of writing articles for the magazine, “Virginia Forests”.   I also get to interview the Virginia outstanding tree farmer of the year.  Forestry is more an art than a science and I learn a lot from these masters of forestry that I can use on my own 178 acres in Brunswick County. 

This is the last profile of the tree farmer of the year that I wrote.  I am proud of the article and even prouder of the man I profiled, who has become a friend.  His son made three acres of wildlife clover plots on my land.

The Tree Farm Committee was gracious enough to let me keep my position with them while I was away in Iraq and I am still writing articles.   I hope to get home on R&R in the spring to interview this year's Virginia tree farmer of the year.  I did not write a blog post today, because I wrote an article for them.  It also refers to Iraq and I include it below.

Forests in the Cradle of Civilization and the Old Dominion

Irrigated palm

As some of you know, I am writing this far from the forests of Virginia, as I am leading a Provincial Reconstruction Team embedded with the 2nd Marine Regimental Combat Team in Al Asad, Iraq. 

People have been cultivating the soil of this part of the world for more than 6,000 years.  Generations have prospered here, but they also made mistakes with their management of soil, water and vegetation.  We can learn from both their success and mistakes.  In this birthplace of civilization the principles of good stewardship of the land and what grows on it are very much on my mind.

There are well-managed forests here.  Iraq cannot support the forests of loblolly pine, oak or tulip-poplar we see at home, but there are forests of date palms that have been cultivated for centuries.  Our tree farm principles apply to them.  The palms provide fruit in the form of dates, and their shade and the microclimates they foster create environments that protect water resources and help plant and animal communities prosper.  Nearby, however, are barren regions where the soil has been destroyed by poor management, and not far away are examples of the disastrous results of forest exploitation. Hillsides once covered with cedars are now barren and rocky.  Some of these trees went to built Solomon’s Temple or ships for the Pharaohs, but many of these forests were not managed sustainably; they were not managed at all, and now they are no more.

With its ample rainfall and moderate climate, Virginia is a much more forgiving environment.  Our forests will regenerate if given even a small chance. In fact, we see the regeneration all around us. Many of our forests have been harvested and regenerated many times, but that blessing does not mean that good forest management is not essential.  In Virginia, we have the luxury of not asking IF the forest will regenerate, but rather, how long before it is again productive and what sort of forest it will be?  How well will management practices preserve the soil?  Will the waters flowing through the forest be cleaned by the sojourn or filled with silt and pollution from a poorly managed land?  What is the quality of recreation the land supports? Can wildlife flourish?  These are the questions a tree farmer asks -- and a good tree farmer is proud of the answers.

Some of the lessons of tree farming might well apply in Iraq.  Most Virginia tree farmers are relatively small landowners.   They love their land, and that informs the management decisions they make about its future.  Here in Iraq it is often unclear who owns a piece of land.  Tribal, private, family and governmental claims overlap and various assets are divided.  A person may own the palms, but not the land.  Somebody else owns the water. One person can graze sheep; another can plant crops.  It is a type of ossified adhocracy. You can understand the logic in each individual aspect, but together they form a heavy burden. 

Those of us who own land in Virginia do not realize how lucky we are to have a clear system of land ownership.  It is hard to be a good steward of land when you cannot make decisions about it.  We are proud and thankful for the good decisions made by those who cared for the forests before us, and resolved to do our part for the future, so that Virginia will be now and forever a place of healthy and productive forests.

November 06, 2007

When the Marines Go Home

Marine copter 

I am in beautiful Baghdad at a conference to discuss what happens when the Marines start to leave.  It is a good thing that they can.  It is a measure of success in Al Anbar that the Iraqi army and police forces can take over big chunks of territory and it has to happen eventually, but it will make life harder for us at the PRTs.  The Marines give me my food, transportation and even my boots.  I need the Marines.

They will not be all gone, but Marine brigades in Al Anbar will be reduced by more than half by this summer, if all goes as planned.  This means fewer helicopters & humvees as well as fewer places to land the helicopter or park the humvee for the night.   Our AO is as big as the State of South Carolina.  It would be hard enough to travel such a big place, but Al Anbar does not have a good road system like the palmetto state and we have significant security concerns on long road trips.  Even absent these problems, I would look forward to driving 12 hours (that is how long it takes to get to Rutbah) through one of the bleakest deserts in the world w/o the prospect of rest stops or gas stations.

That is why we are making plans now.   Actually, I would call it perhaps less planning and more wishing or hoping.  There are a few options and we are already doing some things that make travel less crucial.  For example, we can (and are) sending our people out for longer periods.   They are essentially embedded in a local town for days or weeks.  We also are looking into hiring local employees, as I mentioned in a previous post.  What might end up happening is that we have a HQ at Al Assad, but most of the staff is someplace else most of the time.

Personally I do not need to worry too much.  As long as I am here (until September next year) there will be enough Marines to take care of most of what I need to do.  I will just need a little more planning and trip consolidation.  They would not have given me a new pair of boots anyway.

More challenging, but more interesting is how the PRTs will take over some of what the Marines do in civil affairs.  The Marines have done an excellent job of securing the country and beginning the job of rebuilding (building) those aspects of civil society that help keep the peace.   They are can do kinds of guys and they do the jobs they are given.

But Marines are fundamentally warriors.  Some of them are getting a little nervous that it is too peaceful around here for them to employ their particular talents to the fullest.  We (PRTs) will need to take some of that civil society program over.  Word is that I will get a few more staff members to go with the accretions of responsibility.   Following the Marines, we have some big boots to fill.

Above is the setting sun through the dust as seen from the back of a chinook.  I look at the world a lot through the back of a helicopter.

November 05, 2007

It's DaMayor

corner house 

Sorry no ACTUAL pictures.  I forgot my camera.  My wife tells me my poses are getting formulaic anyway.  The picture I have included is from my files.  It is the house where I grew up in Milwaukee.   I planted that horsechesnut tree on the corner - from seed - in 1966, so you can see how big such a tree gets in 40 years.  Maybe I should have fertilized more...or some.

This is the real post

Sheiks are picturesque, but the future of Iraqi democracy is in the hands of the more prosaic local leaders: mayors, local council members and ordinary administrators.

We had a long talk with one of these guys, the mayor of Haditha at the home of a local notable.  His city of Haditha is recovering from the late unpleasantness.  As we drove through town, I noticed that shops are open and full of goods; people are rebuilding homes and fixing damage.  The neighborhood around our destination was very upscale and looked undamaged or repaired.  When we returned after dark, I noticed that the lights were on all over town.    The condition of the city leaves no doubt that it recently was the center of a war zone, but the life of the city gives hope that those dark times have passed. 

The Mayor is a believer in democracy and free speech.  He expressed some anxiety, however, about the quality of leadership available at the national and provincial level in Iraq.   There was not enough virtue and honesty, he complained, necessary for democracy to flourish and expressed the wish that the U.S.  would encourage the appointment of better officials at the national level, ones that would not be beholden to foreign interests.   He was speaking about Iran.   The general opinion around here is that the Iranians currently have overmuch influence in Iraq.  We discussed the need for virtue more generally. 

Our American founding fathers had little confidence in the long term efficacy of virtue in protecting liberty.   Their reading of the history of republics informed them that virtue is often in short supply among the political classes.  Lord knows we Americans do not usually have enough virtuous politicians to go around.  That is why they relied on balances and checks that would keep virtuous people virtuous or at least channel their self interest into less harmful directions.  With that in mind, I said that all governments need strong institutions to contain the ambition of potential leaders.  The Mayor mentioned a free media.  Unfortunately, this section of Anbar doesn’t have any regular media, but the mayor assured me that informal networks (i.e. gossip) were usually sufficient to keep the people informed.

I wondered if the “Iraqi diaspora” could use the skills and knowledge acquired in exile to help in their former homeland’s transformation, as expatriates from E. Europe had helped those countries throw off the lethargy of communism.   The Mayor corrected me, pointing out that in the case of Poles or Lithuanians, those who left and came back had been well integrated into society.  In some cases, they were well known and respected before they left.  In contrast, the Iraqi exiles were more often members of oppressed minority groups or isolated individuals.   Saddam was more brutal than the later years of communism in Europe.   Many of overseas Iraqis feel less connected with their homeland and are unenthusiastic about returning.  Even if they did they often lacked the networks and entrée that was common for E. European returnees.  Iraq’s future rests almost exclusively on the people who had stayed in, or at least near Iraq.

As we discussed Iraq’s future, we naturally moved to the economy and investment.   There are two big facilities in the Haditha district:  Haditha dam, which supplies power for most of Anbar and some of Baghdad, producing 180-200 mw of hydropower every day, and K3, a refinery and pump station for oil from Bayji in the north.  The pumping doesn’t work and the refining does not even support local needs.    If it was up and running near capacity, it could satisfy local needs and send product to other regions.  K3 produces kerosene and naphtha, the latter is also blended to make benzene.

For a “small” investment of $80 million, the pumping facility, which would service Basra and has connections to the Mediterranean through Syria, could be refurbished and developed, which would facilitate oil export, pay fat dividends and would probably reach a break even point within months, not years .  Why the central authorities, who own the plant, neglect this opportunity remained a mystery to all involved in the discussion.

Iraq needs a lot of investment, the mayor allowed.   That is why he hoped the Americans would be in Iraq now and forever.  He says that he always tells people to look to Japan, Korea and Germany.   The guarantee of stability provided by U.S. involvement s is like an umbrella for investment.   Investment goes only where it feels secure.  The recent success in Anbar has bought some time with the American political process, but the Marines continually point out that they will go home and American troop levels will drop.  Iraqis like the Mayor do not want to hear this.  

Rule of law is a prerequisite for both democracy and the free market.   The mayor pointed to out that during the recent insurgency, rule of law was not well established for the practical reason that it was nearly impossible to gather evidence or bring witnesses.  Now that order is being restored, it is time to establish procedures and rule of law.  We agreed that the test of rule of law was when it was applied to those we disliked. 

It is encouraging to talk to a man like The Mayor.   The discussion highlighted how far Iraq had come, but also how much remains to be accomplished.

Outstanding in His Field


This guy in thinking, "What the ...?" 

We walked around some of the irrigated agriculture near Haditha.   The soil is rich.  Our Ag guy, Dennis, says that this place could have productivity similar to the Imperial Valley.  But there is not much in the way of crop variety or improvements.  They are using the same system as the Babylonians.  They dig ditches and flood square sections.   A lot of water is lost.  The soil is full of gypsum and it does not hold the water well.  Evaporation and salinization are also constant challenges.

In some ways life is perhaps too easy.  The primitive methods produce decent results.  Why mess with success?  Another reason might be lack of materials.   Pipes cost money.  Ditches are free.  But probably the biggest impediment to progress is the screwed up system of land tenure.  It is unclear who owns any given piece of land.  Tribal, private, family and governmental claims overlap.  It gets worse.  Various assets are divided out.   A person may own the date palms, but not the land.  Another person owns the water rights.   One guy can graze sheep; another can plant crops.   It is a type of ossified adhocracy.  You can understand the logic in each individual aspect, but together they form a heavy burden.  A guy might plant a date palm only to find he does not own the harvest; he might improve an irrigation ditch and learn he does not own the water.

One of our colleagues thinks a way to cut this Gordian knot is through real estate taxes.  We all hate to pay them, but they do serve to establish ownership.  I know that I was relieved to receive my first Brunswick County tax bill on my tree farm.   Until then, I nursed the unreasonable fear that I somehow had been duped by those slow talkin' but clever locals. Paying property taxes indicates ownership and at least a minimal commitment.   W/o that commitment, someone can conveniently wait to assert a claim after all the work is done and when he can steal someone else’s labor.

BTW - you can see the difference between mere involvement and commitment in your bacon and eggs breakfast.  The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.

In any case, I did appreciate that I was looking at the Mesopotamia that Sargon or Nebuchadnezzar would have seen. Alexander the Great might have looked at the same scene as he passed down the Euphrates.  They would have been surprised only by this guy’s stylish clothes and the bike that evidently is his means of transport, otherwise not.

garden plots

I wonder what the locals thought of us.  I am sure the rumor is more interesting than the truth.  Our “patrol” was just picking up dirt, putting our hands in the water and taking pictures of plants.  Dennis filled a couple bottles with dirt and put a dried turd into his bag for later analysis.   Crazy Americans.

November 04, 2007


 Iraq kids

Personal greetings are really important around here.  People visibly brighten up when you  acknowledge them with a simple wave and a “salaam”.  All of us make a special point to greet strangers when we pass.  Of course, when someone you know walks in, that is occasion for even more complicated good wishes.  From my initial observations and all I read or am told, this is an intensely personal culture.  Everyone needs to be included and acknowledged and relationships trump everything else.

It is also the culture of the spoken word.  People do not read much, but they listen carefully and remember the elegant spoken word.  Some people just like to hear themselves talk, but surprisingly others like to listen to the long talk.

I am beginning to appreciate the Arabic language.  I understand almost nothing, but I can hear the musical quality and I am learning to enjoythe animation of the speakers.  I like to listen to the calls to prayer and the readings from the Koran.  They are very evocative. 

All I can manage to actually say is the simple Salaam and then I flash a broad smile.  Despite the language barrier, I almost always get a smile back and it think it makes a difference to both of us.

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