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December 31, 2007

Following up on Anah Courthouse

I am not obsessing on the courthouse in Anah, but since I spent nearly two days trying without success to get there, I wanted to follow up with a picture of our accomplishments.  I would have liked to be there to see the opening, but the place opened w/o me and I understand a good time was had by all.  The Marines were there and the Marines with CERP (commander’s money) did most of the renovations.  Our PRT funds just put on some of the finishing touches and all I really did was sign the papers.  Of course it is good to have official civilian participation (i.e. me) at these sorts of events, so I still am sad to have missed it.

Anah courthouse

This is the interesting juxtaposition: the new courthouse representing rule of law growing out of the Hesco barriers and detritus of war.    

December 29, 2007

Free Trade Zones in the Middle of Nowhere


This is the potential free trade zone (FTZ).  It looks the same no matter which way you look.  Lots of room for expansion & nothing to stand in your way.  BTW - This land has not been cleared.  This is more or less what it looks like in its natural state.  About 1/2 mile from here the landscape turns green near the river; beyond that nothing grows.  The change is very abrupt.

I thought that we were to look at a potential free trade zone at or very near the POE.   The Governor of Anbar and the Mayor of AQ had other plans and perhaps better ideas.  They showed us their choice for a future FTZ some twenty-seven kilometers to the east of the POE along Hwy 12 outside the village of Karabilah  Please see the nearby map.

They understand that a FTZ need not be right on a border (Brazil has a FTZ located in along the Amazon River very nearly in the geographical center of that vast country, for example.) and that it is more of an administrative concept than a physical infrastructure.  In other words, it makes much more sense to locate the FTZ where it makes business sense rather than next to the POE just because there is a POE.  The Governor and the Mayor were thinking right.  

This FTZ is currently a large area of nothing but dirt and sand, but this pile of dirt and sand has the advantage of being near roads, the railroad, water resources and electric power lines.  The governor envisioned at least three stages of building the FTZ, correctly pointing out that there was room to expand should expansion be required. Like everyplace else around here, there is plenty of free parking. We will be getting the details of the FTZ soon, such as the number of hectares and the precise location.   An important question beyond these technical ones would be, “what do we envision being made in the FTZ?”  Most FTZs are home to assembly industries, where value is added to imported materials and finished products are exported.  This particular FTZ does not have access to abundant supplies of inexpensive labor or raw materials with significant potential for value added.   The principle local industries are cement & phosphate production along with various types of agricultural enterprises, especially sheep.  These products are not highly processed. 

There was some discussion about specialty agricultural products, such as cut flowers or high quality vegetables that could be processed in the FTZ and then shipped fresh to markets in Europe or the Middle East.  (Fresh cut flowers are profitably shipped from places like Kenya to Amsterdam on a daily basis.)   Iraq certainly has the soils, water and climate (complementary to Europe’s) to support such endeavors.  The infrastructure piece missing from this equation is a good airport.  These high value perishable items are usually shipped via air transport.

It looks bleak now.  In fact it makes me wonder why we call it  REconstruction.  There doesn't seem to me me "re" here. But things take time and all accomplishments require someplace to start.

w. anbar map

December 28, 2007

Getting Traffic Moving

Trucks POE 

I was back at the POE at Husaybah for the first time since I attended the opening about a month and half ago.  Last time I was here there no commerce flowed through the POE.   There is still not much.  The trade coming through consisted of bongo trucks (short flat beds) and vans piled so full and high with produce and goods that their bottoms scrap against every high point in the pavement and a particularly high speed bump could present an impassible barrier. 

The big rigs, eighteen wheelers, are still not coming through.  We thought it might be for security reasons, but the we were assured that the guys at the POE were ready, willing and able to handle them.  For now, the Syrian side seems to be holding up the big truck transit.   I could not find out the ostensible reason but it seems to be a minor or a technical issue rather than a policy statement.  As of now, it doesn’t make much of a difference.  There was not a line of trucks waiting to come over.  The POE on both sides is small and the roads narrow, which leads to another POE problem.

The POE in Husaybah is currently like a roach motel for big trucks: they can check in, but they cannot check out. The roads leading from the POE to the rest of Iraq are too narrow.  Big trucks can drive along them, but if they do nothing else can move in the other direction.  The solution to this problem seems simple: widen the road or – preferably – build another as a bypass for the heavy trucks.  Of course, the simple solution is not the easy solution because it smacks of effort and costs money, but this will have to happen.  The expedient solution, the one that I predict in the short and medium term, is simply for the trucks to force other traffic to drive across the adjacent desert.  The desert is flat and has a consistency a lot like pavement anyway.   I suppose trial and error will even help identify the best routes for the roads, whenever they are actually built.

The POE manager also complained that he did not have enough room to park vehicles waiting for inspection or secure vehicles that have been impounded or just need to be stored for whatever reason.  I am no expert, but this is also a problem I just cannot understand.  Much of western Iraq looks for all the world like a giant parking lot.  In the short term, all anybody needs to do is put up a fence around a suitable area of it and call it an impound lot.  If you didn’t want a fence, an earth berm would probably do the job, maybe even do the job better, since it would be harder to break down and drive through than a chain link fence.   

My general impression is that the POE is just too small for the traffic you could reasonably expect to be coming through when peace and prosperity takes firm root in Iraq.  Fortunately, along this stretch of the Syrian border topography is very forgiving for procrastinating planners & prospective pavers.  Nature has provided acres of flat, hard packed surfaces with few obstacles to block anything rolling across.  There are no significant obstacles to making this POE work besides human inertia, lethargy, perfidiousness and plain cussedness.   This can be overcome.

The guys currently stifled by the lack of parking and roads across a landscape that is essentially one giant parking lot are the same ones who devise elegant and imaginative solutions to much tougher questions of distribution of the goods and services they want and need.  If people want to make this work, it will work.

Shrinking the Vastness

me waiting 

The picture is me waiting for my ride.  Notice the coat and gloves.  It is cold around here in the mornings and colder still up in the air. 

Vast – that is the adjective that usually comes before Anbar.  The province is not really so big.  It is about the size of North Carolina, but it is vaster because it lacks infrastructure.  Vastness is really a time/distance/hardship equation.  You can drive from Wilmington to Asheville in a few hours and expect to find plenty of restaurants and gas stations to help you along.  Driving across Anbar is just not practical at all and there are places where you just can’t get there from here.  We are trapped by the vastness of Anbar and Iraqi leaders are in a worse position than we are.  So we help them with a program called “helicopter governance.”  We provide air assets that allow the governor and his staff to travel to meet local officials and the people of the province.  When the governor of Anbar went to Al Qaim, I got to go along, since AQ is in my district.

The governor seemed a decent sort who wanted to help the people of Anbar.  Local officials in Al Qaim, many of whom I know and respect, are also decent sorts.  When they got together, they got along and cooperated.  The governor promised to fund projects and address many of the concerns they voiced.  It looked like a productive town meeting.  It went as it was supposed to go.  But I have doubts about the whole system.

Sometimes things fail  not in spite of our best efforts but because of them. You always have to look to the whole, to the systemic solutions.  Good intentions, good individuals & even good particular results do not suffice.

Everything was reasonable, but many of the things requested should not be in the purview of government.  They are the business of private business.  Maybe this is just an earlier stage of development, which they will pass through.  This country is still recovering from years of socialism, after all. The other problem was “earmarks.”  In the U.S. we complain about earmarks.  This session was about nothing but earmarks.  Every one of the requests granted represented a specific earmark.  The program was working, but the system was not.

Our goal as a PRT and as USG officials in Iraq is to help the people of Iraq develop systems that will make this heroic sort of political display unnecessary.  Priorities should be addressed through prosaic & routine governmental procedures.  It should not require special interventions by government officials to get normal services.  We take so much for granted in the U.S.  In most places in our country we have reasonably competent & honest officials, but more importantly we have systems in place to make it possible for them to do their work and to a decent extent let us do ours.  We complain about it, but when you see the alternatives ours doesn’t look so bad.  The current Iraqi system reminds me of the goat grab I described in an earlier post.  All the food is in the middle, available, but you have to be there to grab it.

The governor regaled his colleagues with a great and wonderful thing he had observed during a visit to America.  He sent a box from Texas to New York.  He did not require a special request to get into the post office.  Even more surprising, the box arrived in New York completely intact.  Whoddathought the post office was so wonderful.  We take a lot for granted. 

Below is the town hall meeting.  Notice the TV camera.  No matter how vast a place is, you cannot escape the TV cameras.

TV can city hall

December 26, 2007

Thinking About Historical Parallels

I read all of Joseph Ellis’ books except his most recent one, “American Creation”, which I am reading now, so I enthusiastically read his applied history article in the Washington Post about what George Washington would do in modern situations, including Iraq. Since much of what I know about the founding fathers comes from him, I assume Ellis knows more about that subject than I do. But I think he misses the boat on Iraq, where I might have the edge from being closer to the situation.

Whenever I find that someone whose opinion I respect has an opinon that differs from mine, I reexamine my own opinion. I have been thinking about this one all day. I believe Ellis made a false analogy, framed the question in an inaccurate way, which led to an (IMO) inaccurate conclusion, and it occurs to me that this framing issue is at the root of much reasonable disagreement about our current situation in Iraq.

Ellis compares the situation in Iraq to the war of American independence and puts us in the role of the British. “The British army and navy could win all the major battles, and with a few exceptions they did; but they faced the intractable problem of trying to establish control over a vast continent whose population resented and resisted military occupation,” he says. This is true, but it does not apply closely to what we are doing in Iraq.

First let me address technical objections. The British were in fact defeated in a major battle with the help of the French. While they could certainly have renewed the fight, it was Yorktown that ended it. There is no conceivable scenario where Iraqi insurgents could trap & defeat an American army in the Yorktown fashion. Beyond that, Iraq is not as vast as the American colonies, especially given distance shrinking technologies available today and most of Iraq is essentially uninhabited. You really are concerned only with narrow bands of territory near the rivers or at a few desert oases. The part of Iraq that is not like this – Kurdistan – is the place where we never faced significant local resistance, which leads me to the second and more important point: the nature of the enemy. The Iraqi people are not the enemy and most of them are not resisting coalition forces. The biggest challenge is not that they are loyal to an insurgency but rather that they are not committed to any side in the conflict. Most people – logically – simply prefer not to be involved at all. They will passively support anybody who seems to be able to provide security and remain sitting on the fence until they have a better idea which side will prevail. In “American Creation”, Ellis himself mentions the analogous situation in Pennsylvania when Washington’s army was freezing & starving in Valley Forge in the middle of one of the most productive agricultural areas in America, while the British were living fat and happy in neighboring Philadelphia easily buying supplies from local farmers who preferred pound sterling to Continental script. He admits the possibly that the British could have won, since most of the countryside had mixed loyalties. It is a less sweeping analogy and perhaps one that could better inform decision on Iraq. Ellis never compares Washington to the terrorists who operate in Iraq, but I feel it is important to address this other incredibly obvious difference. Insurgents in Iraq target civilian populations – ostensibly their own people – even when, especially when, they have no military significance. In other words, for the insurgents civilian deaths are a goal, not an unfortunate side effect or regrettable necessity. A legitimate resistance does not do this. Washington did nothing like this, specifically refusing to destroy American towns even when they were “Tory”. The British also, BTW, did not engage in such acts, Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot” not withstanding. Civilians are killed in any war, but only terrorists make them the unambiguous target. Although most Americans live fairly conformist lives, almost all 300 million of us like to think of ourselves as rebels and dissenters. We view our history as a struggle or of “us” rebels again “them” in the establishment. I will not be able to dispel that myth, but I would point out that 300 million people cannot all be rebels (who are they rebelling against?) and that our constitution was created in 1787 and remains in force today, making it the oldest such living document in the world. Our government is the second oldest continuously functioning government (second only to our British cousins). These are not outcomes you would naturally expect in a country of rebels.

The paradox, the genius of America, BTW, is our ability simultaneously to embrace both change and order. No matter what the reality, our popular culture is sympathetic to rebels and underdogs and some people falsely view insurgents as falling into the same categories we reserve for some of our most revered heroes, although maybe a little tarnished. In fact, insurgents in Iraq are not rebelling against an establishment or an occupation. Rather they are trying to use force, murder and intimidation to dominate and control the people around them. The true rebels, the ones seeking real change, are those brave enough to stand up to the insurgents. They are the ones we should support and they are the ones we are supporting.

Ellis implies and I want to say explicitly that somebody like Washington would never be involved with the kind of insurgency we have in Iraq. More to the practical point, there is no insurgency in Iraq that is in any way comparable to Continental Army. For all its fractiousness, there was ONE Americans independence movement, not dozens of little competing ones as in Iraq. While Ellis is one of my favorite historians and I certainly agree with his premise that we can and should use history to inform today’s decisions, I do not believe he has correctly applied it in this particular case. I hope you all read the linked article and will read some of his other books, but in the case of Iraq & the American war of independence we are finding more contrasts than comparisons.

Sorry to diverge from the style of the blog.  I am a former history major and I just cannot resist writing the occasional essay.  I will return to true action writing tomorrow.   BTW - I saw "Live Free or Die Hard" today.  Like all such movies, it strains credulity, but is worth watching if you like action.  As you probably know, "Live Free or Die" is the New Hampshire motto.  I wanted to live up there just so I could have that on my license plate.


December 25, 2007

Christmas Moon, Aliens, Singing & Saving Kittens


I could not get this picture to come out no matter how I tried to sharpen it.  Those little dots are artifacts of the sharpening, not part of the picture. It would be at the edge of the photo. You can see it, but it is nowhere near what I saw.  The moon had a very bright halo ring all around it.  I have never seen it like that.  I stared up at the sky several minutes until I realized that I was cold.  It was like you might expect to see in a Sci-fi movie - UFOs, strange aliens etc.  Since I wanted to avoid any alien probing, I took a picture and quickly skedaddled into the safety of my can.  Who would believe me?

I got a box from Chrissy, which ironically made me sad, since it reminded me that I was not with her and the kids.  Alex sent me some wonderful books and I also got some of my tree farm magazines.  I suppose it is natural to feel lonely and homesick when you are away on Christmas.  I do.

The Marines got together, led by our British Royal Marine colleague, and sang the twelve days of Christmas with Marine themes.  It was funny.  


I don’t have too much more to write today.  I just felt like writing something before going to sleep. Good night and Merry Christmas.


Oh yeah – take a look at this very UnPC poster on OPSEC.  It is memorable.  Think of the kittens.


December 23, 2007

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent …

You can endure a lot of "how" if you keep looking to the goal and remember the "why" of what you are trying to achieve.

I am climbing out of that pit of despair I inadvertently tumbled into yesterday.  I had the opportunity to talk with General Robert Magnus, the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps.  I have to admit that I am still impressed with meeting important people, especially when they turn out to be impressive and I can learn from being with them.  Over breakfast, we discussed our ePRT programs and as I answered his questions about what we had done and planned to do, I remembered our goal and the valuable work we are doing.

Making progress here remains slow and painful.  We have more starts than finishes.  It takes hours or days to perform some simple tasks that might take minutes in a more benign environment. Sometimes we cannot even get started.  I did not make it to Anah yesterday and the ceremony went on w/o me.  But for the losses there are gains.  Missing my flight yesterday allowed me to have breakfast with General Magnus today, for example.  Being trapped in a big dusty waiting room also gave me a chance to think through some management decisions, which I put into effect yesterday.  And through it all, we are moving forward.  Projects, like the courthouse I did not get to see, are being done.  Anbar is becoming more secure & prosperous.  It is worth the effort.

New Hamshire lake

The picture is from my backyard when we lived in New Hampshire.  I doubt if anyplace in Iraq looks like this, but it is the only Christmas picture I have on my computer.

White Christmas?

Yesterday night the temperatures dipped into the 20s and it was even colder with the wind chill.  I wonder if it will get much cooler.  Yesterday was the shortest day of the year.   Now it will start getting lighter and warmer.  I hear that February is a beautiful month.  March has good temperatures, but it is sandstorm season.  It starts to get hot in late April and by June it is again frying pan weather.  Winter evidently turns into what reasonable people would recognize as glorious summer in February.  It gets warm enough, and then it overshoots the mark moving into unbearable heat, so I am less enthusiastic about the coming of spring that I have been other places where I have lived.  Winter is okay with me. 

As I walked home tonight, I noticed something about the landscape in the moonlight.  I could imagine it as snowy.  In the moonlight, the gravel and dirt looked white.  The heaps of dirt could be snow banks and the dust blowing in the light near the guard post could have been snow.  You are right.  I don’t really believe it either.   Merry Christmas anyway.

Fatigue Makes Cowards of Us All

me at adac 

Above is me hanging around, waiting for the sand to settle.

I don’t like being in Iraq.  I look for small successes and enjoy myself observing the variety of new things around me, but overall the experience is not pleasant.   Of course, I am not alone in thinking this.   Few of us would stay here if we were not needed but we all need to stay until we are done.

I am writing this in my little notebook as I sit at the ADAC waiting for my flight to Anah.  I know my mood is darker than usual. I told you the frustrating story yesterday.  Today, so far, has produced no more joy.  If do not get to Anah by 1230, there is no point in going.   I will have missed the event.  That means if I am not in the air by 1130, there is no point in leaving the ground and I will bail out.  I regret to admit that I find myself hoping for that outcome.  In that case, I can go back to Al Asad and hunker down.  I can not do my job and have a perfectly good excuse for my failure.  It is only a “sin of thought”, not of deed, but I feel ashamed to think it.

Vince Lombardi said that fatigue makes cowards of us all.  He was right.  I am tired today.  Tomorrow I will do better.

December 21, 2007

Rule of Law, Purpose of Planning, Role of Chance

DC map 

I was supposed to be in Anah for the reopening of a courthouse.  This is a significant milestone in the march toward the rule of law.  A few months ago, nobody could find a judge willing to stand up to the terrorists.  Tomorrow there will be a courthouse, the symbol of the rule of law.  Our funds helped rebuild and furnish the courthouse.   That is one reason I really wanted to go and see what we had wrought.

I was happily in my can at 730 when I got a knock on the door.  I had to go to the airports immediately to catch my helicopter flight.  This kind of short notice is not unusual.  I keep my stuff good to go.   Breakfast?  We don’t need no breakfast.  We picked up Sam, our new and very good translator, an American citizen born in Iraq.  This is great because he has local knowledge AND a security clearance, and headed out.

We got there for show time.  I made an entry about show time a couple months ago.  Suffice to say, show time is not always closely related to departure time.  Although we had sunny clear skies, it was evidently sand-storming someplace, because we had a weather alert.  We formed up and went to the flight line.  I have learned the system, so when I got there, I laid down in the sun and took a nap.  The air was cool, but the sun was warm.  It was not bad if you can filter out the noise and smells.   I have learned that too.

About 20 minutes later, I heard the sound of Ospreys, got in line and walked onto the tarmac.  Unfortunately, it was not our flight.  Back to the flight line and a few more minutes of rest.   Then the “shepherd” comes by and tells us the weather has closed in. We go back to the terminal and sit.  I read my book.  A very good one about Iraqi history my friend Tim thoughtfully sent me. 

It was getting on toward lunch time, so I went to see what the MRE situation was like.  It was, sad to say, normal.  I had something labeled cheese and what they said was wheat bread.  Bread in MREs comes packed with one of those little silica packets you get in the pockets of new clothes.  That tells you something about the quality of the product.  I am not sure you could tell it was bread in a blind taste test.  But hunger is the best cook.  I ate two pieces.  My colleague Sam asked me whether it was mold or a type of fruit sauce on his desert cookie.  I asked him if he thought it really mattered.  He said no and ate the cookie.

Our flight was called again.  We tramped out and went back to the flight line.  I resumed my previous position, now wonderfully enhanced by a warmer sun.   The flight shepherd came by and promised the helicopter would be there in 15 minutes. Twenty minutes later he came back and said that he had good and bad news.   The good new was that the helicopters were coming.  The bad news was that we couldn’t get on them.  They were going straight to Al Qaim with no stops.  Seems they were late (yes) and making up time.  He told us to come back at 2000.  We left the flight line just as the chow hall closed.  

I went back at 2000.  There was no flight going to Rawah/Anah. The guy at the desk told me that I should have been on the flight that left at 930.  I explained that I was there for that very flight.  It did not actually show up until 1330 and it did not go to Rawah/Anah at all.   He looked at the book and said that the flight was scheduled for 930 and his book showed it had gone.  Where it had gone in reality was neither specified in the book nor a concern of his.   Anyway, my options were to stay there all night and try to get a flight in the morning or go home and come back and try to get a flight in the morning.  Which option I chose also was not one of his concerns. I chose option #2.  That is where I am today.  If you don’t see an entry from me tomorrow, it probably means I was successful.

Of course, if I don’t make it to Anah, I might not write because I will have nothing interesting to report.  The MREs will neither improve nor deteriorate.  It will likely be cool and sunny tomorrow, as it was today and as it is every day this time of year.  I really want to go to Anah.  I have never been there.  I hear it is a planned city, planned by the French more than 80 years ago.  It is supposed to be a pleasant place.  That would be a nice change.  Take a look at the Al Asad pictures in my last blog note and you may understand what I mean. The French are good at planning cities and complicated meals.  Pierre L’Enfant planned Washington DC.  Now there is a subway stop named after him.  People should do what they are good at doing.

December 20, 2007

Plexiglas, Tannenbaum, Tatooine, Can, NPR &c.

I have been accumulating short notes but none are enough for a post, so I have glommed them all together in no particular order.

Plexiglas Beats Sandbags

My view

I have Plexiglas in my windows.  Everybody else has sand bags.  I did too, but once when I was standing near my window some of the sandbags spontaneously fell down, bathing my office in natural light.  The Marines thought it was odd that the sandbags fell down only in front of my windows and they piled them back up.  I felt like the guy in the “Cask of Amontillado” watching out the window while the sandbags piled higher.  The colonel allowed that if natural light was so important to me, I could have Plexiglas.   Now I do.  The view is not spectacular (as you can see in the photo), but the windows are above me and when I look up I can see the sky.  I like that.

O Tannenbaum, o Tannenbaum, Wie grün sind deine Bottles


The picture speaks for itself.  In some places they use beer bottles, some of which come naturally in green.   In this heaven, however, there is no beer.  They use Gatorade bottles filled with colored water.   


Tatooine Al Asad

That is the desolate planet where Luke Skywalker lives, or maybe it is Al Asad.

Gettysburg Can City

I just think the name if funny.  It sits across from Lima Tent City.  They actually are cities where people live (cf Tatooine above) You probably cannot tell from the picture, but that bunch of concrete on the left is Ripper Mall.  We have a laundry, little PX and telephone calling center.  Parking is free and always available.  That "parking lot" you see in the front is not paved, BTW.  The desert can be as hard as pavement and is sometimes easier to drive next to than on a road.

Getty can city

NPR Worldwide

I recently got Worldspace Satellite Radio.  The antenna is in the picture.  It gets very good reception of NPR, BBC, CNN radio etc. I really missed NPR.  With Worldspace, I can listen to “Morning Edition” in the afternoon and “All Things Considered” & “Talk of the Nation” before bed.   I still download “Dianne Rehm” weekly news roundup onto my I-Pod for time shifting.  Now that I also have a TV with AFN, I can watch the “News Hour with Jim Lehrer” just before breakfast.  I was worried that I would become uniformed during my sojourn in the desert.  Now my only problem is becoming misinformed.

 NPR disc

Minor Ailments

My ears are still ringing from the helicopter ride I described in the post a few days ago.  When I sleep on my left ear, it does nearly deaf.  I have to tug on it a few times to unlplug it.  The trend seems good, however.  Persistent dust makes for dry eyes and throats.  I am not fond of dust.  I read that some Egyptian mummies have symptoms of a sort of black lung disease caused by the dust there.  I will not be in the desert long enough to suffer it, but this clearly is not a healthy place to live.  The adjective phrase “God forsaken” leaps to mind when looking around most of Al Anbar, at least when you get a short distance away from the Euphrates.  You get beautiful lush places across from lots of nothing - a strange blend of heaven and hell.   

Goats, Grass & Deserts

Dennis has hopes for a kind of wildlife restoration corridor.  I described his grand plan in an earlier post.   Goats & sheep are a big impediment.  These beasts are very picturesque, but they are desert makers.  The land here is arid, but it is barren because of the works of man and his sheep & goats.  They eat everything down to and including roots.  Where there is rain enough or where pastures are properly managed, this is okay.  Neither of these conditions applies in Iraq.  The land will not recover until and unless the goats & sheep are controlled.  Since this is a problem 4000 years in the making, I do not expect too much.  We will try an “ink blot” strategy of protecting small areas as we can and hoping they will expand.  This may be the triumph of hope over experience, but even if the sound management does not spread, at least we will have helped some restoration.

Small Victories

In the small victories category, we have identified a source of “gopher wood”.  This has nothing to do with the small rodent pests.  Rather it is a type of common Mediterranean cypress that grows 25 meters tall and has very durable wood.  The story is that Noah used it to construct his Ark.  I don’t know about that.  What I do know is this cypress was part of the original forest on the upper Euphrates.  We plan to give the little trees out when we visit towns and villages.  If they thrived once, I hope they can thrive again, even if the soil is a bit depleted because of bad farming practices and goats.

Cyprss VG

The picture is Van Gogh.  The real trees do not look so menacing.  Van Gogh had a different point of view.  BTW - he had more trouble with his left ear than I do and he wasn't even in a helicopter. 

We have achieved a few other prosaic but important successes that should clear the way for a more effective operation.   A team member returned from Baghdad with funds to pay for dozens of QRF projects.   We also learned that we will no longer have to send a team member down on the four day trip to fetch funds; Fed Ex will do the job for us.  We are also in line to get another team member who help us with business development, something badly needed in western Anbar.  As peace returns, prosperity will follow faster if we can help develop local business.  Finally, our new bicultural specialist, an American citizen born in Iraq,  has developed a plan to help us recruit LES in our outlying districts.  We have been planning this for some time, but it is good to get something – literally – on paper with an Arabic heading. 

Fox News spent a week in our AO and produced several positive stories about western Anbar and about RCT 2.  I have video clips which I can share with anyone who wants to see them.

December 18, 2007

Flamethrowers & Hesco Barriers

Hesco barriers 

In the background are Hesco barriers.  Guess what those things in foreground are.

I truly enjoy the RCT 2 Marine briefings.  A lot of information passes but feelings of camaraderie and humor lighten the mood.  But it is a special kind of subtle humor, often more conveyed by slight changes in word emphasis (there can be a lot of meaning in a “yes sir”), facial expression or what goes unsaid.  I am afraid I will not be able to properly convey it, but I will try with an example.  First I need to provide a little background.

The Regiment is in the process of demilitarization - demiling.  During the recent unpleasantness, the Marines deployed various types of fortifications.  As areas are returned to civil Iraqi control these things must be removed and the place returned to its former condition.  This often means barren desert, but it has to be smooth barren desert.  The recently demiled desert is usually better than the original, since the smoothing tends to squash down and bury the preexisting garbage.  It doesn’t take military action to create a litter problem. 

Probably the most common forms of fortifications are Hesco barriers.  A Hesco barrier is essentially a barrel of fabric, held in place by wire and filled with dirt and debris.  You can see the pictures above.  They are easy to make and very good at absorbing explosions but unattractive.  The wire is valuable as scrap, but the fabric, which has no salvage value, must be separated.  The protocol calls for the fabric to be burned and the metal salvaged.  Now that I have set the stage, imagine the scene. 

The colonel asks the engineer captain about a particular stretch of road being cleaned up and Hesco barriers removed.  The captain explains, “We burn the fabric, sir, to salvage the metal…”  The captain pauses.  The colonel looks up in anticipation, saying nothing.  The captain gets a satisfied smile on his face and adds “… with our flame throwers, sir”.  Everybody in the room perks up.  The colonel says, “You have flame throwers?  Why do you have flame throwers?”  The captain answers, “Yes sir.  For counter vegetation, sir, we have two flame throwers.”  Testosterone surge in the room is palpable. There are several spontaneous offers to help with the flame throwers. 

It is true that the flame throwers are good for “counter vegetation operations.”  They are very effective in clearing a defensive area around a fortified position.  But it was clear from the enthusiasm expressed that using the flame throwers against vegetation or Hesco barrier is a chore nobody avoids.

BTW - in the picture foreground are urinals.  You try to hit the pipe.  Privacy is not an issue.

December 17, 2007

Hanging in the Sky Cold and Windy


 I took the picture earlier.  This is not the helicopter we used today  but I think it is the same kind.

I thought Iraq was a hot country.  Not always.  Today I flew a couple hours in a CH 46.  They have two big windows in the front for the 50 caliber machine guns.  These windows are obviously always open.  The back is open too, so you have a wind tunnel.  The irony is that in hot weather the heat from the engines makes the ordinary unpleasant heat excruciating, but in the cool weather they seem to have no effect.   Still, when I got off I made a point of lingering in the heat wash of the engines.  Usually I run through quick as I can.

Some seats are worse than other.  The seats on the front left are the worst, since they are in the vortex of several wind streams.  Usually I avoid these places, but this time both the colonel and I sat there.  We had Iraqi guests and we thought it best not to freeze them.  Technically, I suppose they would not freeze since the temperature never dropped below 32, but they looked miserable enough shivering with those checkered scarves wrapped around their heads and faces.  For them, this is about as cold as it gets; I have had worse.

Helicopter rides are not pleasant in the best of times.  Continual buffeting by strong and ever shifting winds detracts even more from the experience.  I tried to make the most of it by calibrating differences in wind speed.  For example, as the gunner makes sweeps across the terrain, the wind gets stronger and weaker.  The most wind is blocked when the gun is facing mostly straight out, but a little forward.  The ammunition box blocks some of the wind.  I would not bet that my observations are correct, but making them gave me something to do.  I also confirmed that you really cannot tell by the feel or the noise when a helicopter is landed or flying.  The machine shakes and produces cacophonous noise in both situations and a good pilot can put it down very softly.  You can, however, tell by the wind.  As you descent, you get a reprieve from the wind and a welcome (in the cold times) blast of hot exhaust. Ah the simple pleasures of life!

My flight suit is fire retardant, but does nothing to slow the wind.  In fact, I think it exacerbates the problem, allowing the wind to blow up one sleeve and literally onto the soft underbelly.  I like to complain how tough it is to be me, but the problem is actually easily solved.  I will have to get a face mask and a wind breaking coat.  The young guys aiming those 50 calibers have adapted and not only do they get their wind directly, but they also must keep on facing it.

December 16, 2007

Sweet Serendipity Strikes Again


The picture is Madison, Wisconsin where I went to school.  I took it in September, just before I left for Iraq. It has nothing to do with Iraq.  It is just a place I enjoyed being.

I have conflicting feelings being the boss.  Everybody else on my staff has something particular to do.  In the “management position” you give up much of the hands-on fun and have to resist the urge to interfere in the productive work of others.  In compensation, you get to avoid some details as well as see and maybe shape the big picture.  The bargain is worth it, but there are clearly costs as well as gains.  For example, I would dearly love to tramp along on the agricultural assessments, but I cannot justify the investment in my time and, besides, I would surely get in the way of the real work if I hung around like a f*rt in a phone booth. 

One of my management duties today is to aggregate the work of my team so that I can understand and to coordinate efforts and, more urgently although perhaps less importantly, be able to brief high level visitors who will be coming around in a couple of days.  The team is active, making the aggregating job more complex, but at the same time making the leadership job a lot more satisfying.

I have everywhere been lucky in finding good colleagues and being able to profit from serendipitous opportunities.  Timing has also often worked to my advantage.

My timing in Iraq was luckier than I had any right to expect.  My predecessor set up the ePRT.  In the creation stage of any endeavourer, investments in time and resources show few tangible results, so the poor guy was working hard and doing good work, but had few specific achievements to brag about.  I inherited an operation at the takeoff stage.  In my short tenure, I have been able to approve and start scores of small projects collectively worth a half million dollars.  I look pretty tall standing on my predecessor’s shoulders.

I had even better timing with the security situation.  I set foot in Anbar at almost exactly at an inflection point in the violence.   Investments the Marines made in blood and treasure were beginning to yield results and the situation just continued to improve. The remarkable reduction of violence make it POSSIBLE to do our projects.   My colleagues who have been here longer tell me that six months ago it was hard to find organizations or contractors brave enough to take our money for projects.  Our problem today is choosing who among the many excellent opportunities.   Nor do I want to minimize the personal benefits for me and my staff.  It is much more pleasant to visit projects or contacts when you have a reasonable expectation of coming safely home.  The excitement of danger is much more attractive in the movies than in real life and I prefer to do w/o it whenever possible.

Life is an enormous relay race.  I got the baton now and it is my duty to run as best I can until I hand it off, but I have to be grateful that my stretch of track is smooth and mostly downhill due to the work of others.

Anyway, I need to get to work actually assessing the projects, making the list and checking it twice, so that I can better understand and explain all that we do and what we will do.  I am proud of my team.  It just goes to show that you don’t have to be smart if you are lucky and I am lucky to be here at this time with these guys.

BTW – to help me keep up with the many projects and commitments, I have gone low tech returning to something I used successfully for years – a durable little green notebook (Federal supply 7530-01-060-7511) about the size of a wallet that fits in my back pocket.  I always have access to it and when I have even a short time available, I can page through my notes.  It is a type of study and memorandum.  It has the advantage of being simple.  I used to make notes on a Blackberry, but I often forgot the notes I made and even more often let the urgent of the latest message replace the importance of the best idea.   With this, my constant review keeps important things at the front of my mind.  I am not going to give up technology, but for some tasks perhaps the appropriate technology is the simplest.

memo books 

The picture above shows a couple of my paper PDAs.  Don’t worry the notes are from unclassified briefings and I made sure to practice good OPSEC.  Besides, who can read my writing?

December 14, 2007

Heroes in Al Anbar

The Colonel of our Regimental Combat Team was interviewed for Fox News.  I had intended to post the video, but at my connection speed I could not.  (This might work on your computer.  It does not work on mine - http://johnsonmatel.com/FNC_12-13-2007_19.42.57.wmv) I still want to post what I wrote and I hope you can find the video.  If somebody finds a link, please send me a comment.   

I admire Colonel Clardy.  He has done an excellent job here.  There is lots of credit to go around, but the Colonel certainly deserves a big share in turning this situation around in western Al Anbar.  He is well respected by his men and our Iraqi colleagues alike, a true soldier-diplomat.  I saw he is also very good on television and told him that he should run for political office.  We could use politicians who have experience running a big operation under these kinds of difficult conditions.  I continue to be amazed at how comprehensive a job it is, with elements of management, leadership, diplomacy, public relations and rule of law. It would also be good more politicians with real experience with war and peace.  

There are lots of heroes around here.  Some people fear that this generation of Americans is not up to the standards of the past.  Every generation has its heroes; it depends on where you look.  I trust my life to young men driving humvees or flying helicopters.  I am impressed by their devotion to duty, not to mention their intelligence, politeness and friendliness.  

The Greatest Generation was great, but they did not use up all the heroism available in America.

Many of the officers are true intellectuals (although I am sure they would reject that characterization).  They work to understand the whole situation, not just the parts but how the parts fit together.   Especially impressive is General John Allen who I meet with some regularity.  I learn a lot just from standing near him. 

Sorry if I am rambling.  I just wish more Americans had the opportunity to work with the brave ad capable men & women here in Iraq.  They would be prouder to be Americans and it might change some attitudes.  One of my colleagues, a self described former tie-dye hippy, was talking today about how he quickly jumped to the defense of our Marines while at a conference about refugees.  He was annoyed when some UN & NGO types accused them of “invading the humanitarian space” that these organizations considered their rightful property.  The Marines were saving lives and building the future while some others were theorizing and chattering about when they were going to decide to decide to demand something be done by somebody else.  Heroes do more than talk about helping.

December 13, 2007

Thank You Herb Shriner

Hoosier Harmonica 

Out of the blue and completely unsolicited I received a box of harmonicas.  I guess somebody figured that the one thing we needed in Iraq was harmonicas.  There were more than a hundred.

They are Herb Shriner “Hoosier Boy” harmonicas.  The accompanying letter explains that Herb Shriner was a 50s era TV star and a harmonica virtuoso.  The harmonicas are a gift from his family.  They have evidently been in storage (the harmonicas, not the family) since the 1950s and now there is a program to give them to the troops. 

At first I thought the whole idea was a joke, but the harmonicas are proving surprisingly popular among the Marines and you can hear the sweet, but melancholy music of the mouth organ all over our corner of Al Asad.  Some people can play the harmonica, others can’t.   Those who can play evidently learned all their songs from watching westerns and/or movies about the Civil War (i.e. the war of northern aggression, to my neighbors near the tree farm).  So far I have been able to pick out “Lorena”, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”, “The Bonnie Blue Flag” and of course that old favorite “Home on the Range.”   There are other songs that I either do not recognize or are unrecognizable at the current talent level of the performer.

I tried to learn to play the harmonica a couple of years back, but since I am uncommonly free of musical talent, the lessons didn’t take.  Maybe I will take it up again so that I can entertain people waiting for flights at the landing zones.  Maybe not, now that I recall everybody around here carries a gun.

BTW - I am trying to put the comments section back in.  Let's hope I do not get spammed again.

December 10, 2007

The Hajj

Iraq map 

Every Muslim who is able is supposed to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in his/her life.  This visit, the hajj, is one of the five pillars of Islam.  It takes place during the lunar month of Dhu al-Hijja, which this year will start on December 11.

We are not directly involved with the hajj, but take a look at the map and notice where Anbar province sits.  Obviously thousands of pilgrims moving through our area of operations is hard to ignore.   Having Coalition Forces around will make it a safer journey for them as CF operations disrupt AQI and insurgents, so that the ostensibly devout (AQI) will have a harder time murdering the genuinely devout (pilgrims going to Mecca).

The Marines have been learning about the hajj and how to be culturally aware around the Iraqis and those traveling through Iraq during this special time.  Iraq shares a border with Saudi Arabia and pilgrims traveling over land to Mecca from the north and the east logically pass though Anbar.  I recently attended a lecture about the hajj.  One of the Marines had been assigned to learn about it and deliver a talk to enlighten the others.  He did an excellent job and was very earnest in his task.  It is important to be earnest.    His lecture was as factually correct as most I heard at college and it was a good deal more entertaining.  He connected the idea of pilgrimage to examples in the experience of most Marines and then gave the background on the significance of Mecca, the pilgrimage and many of the things pilgrims do before, during and after the hajj. 

Of course the best outcome for all involved is that absolutely nothing exciting happens during the month of the hajj, in Iraq or anyplace else.  According to the lecture and what I hear from other sources, the hajj is generally peaceful, as people are in a generous mood and no good Muslim engages in violence during this period. Of course, there always are some who seek the notoriety of disrupting peaceful people even during a special time like this. Let’s hope they don’t succeed this year.

Blogging Comments

This is overtaken by events.  I am leaving it on the site as archive. 

I had to stop allowing comments on this blog for the time being.  We were being spammed with ads for Christmas cards, among other things   I had to take down more than 700 comments today advertising various crap.  If you happen to have seen one of these things please never buy anything from them.

Those of you who know me can comment via email.   For others, I hope to allow comments again after the spam predator moves along.

I also have done two entries similar to ones you read here on the official State Deptartment site called blogs.state.gov (no www).  That one is interactive and I will post another one there soon.

I will still post on this site.  Unfortunately, you will not be able to talk back for a little while.  



December 09, 2007

An Ordinary Job in an Extraordinary Place

A couple of years ago my son Espen  came for a take your child to work day.  I still have the letter he wrote about his experience.  He was bored because I didn’t do anything interesting that he could watch.  He concluded correctly that I was in the persuasion business and it is not interesting watching persuasion being made.

Diplomacy is like that.  You meet interesting people and wrestle with interesting ideas, which is why I like the work, but you really do not DO very much interesting stuff.  I guess that is why they do not make television dramas, or even comedies, about diplomats and when we do appear we are usually slick sweet talkers.  That characterization is unfair, but I can well understand if that is the way others see us.  Much of the time we are transmitting messages and if we do succeed in changing minds, they will look no different and it may well be best for all involved if nobody acknowledges that a change occurred or why.

I thought working in Iraq might be different, but it isn’t.  I spent my career in public diplomacy.  Since first post in Porto Alegre, Brazil, I have managed staff, run programs, met people, written reports and been generally in the persuasion business.  In Iraq I do the same things.  Being a PRT leader is not substantially different from working as a public affairs officer in Krakow or Porto Alegre.  Of course, I work with vastly greater resources and in a less settled general atmosphere, but I feel comfortable doing the KIND of job I have been doing for twenty years.

I was about to write that another difference is that working in Iraq is more dangerous, but I do not think that is still true.  The security arrangements make it seem a lot scarier, but those same precautions also make is less dangerous.  Beyond that, the security situation on the ground had improved very much.  On the other hand, in Porto Alegre I shared the road with big trucks and bad drivers when I traveled on narrow roads around my district.  On one particularly narrow and curvy coastal highway, informally called the road of death, I kept count of fatal accidents I passed.  During one seven hour drive, I saw seven – one for every hour.  Similarly, on the narrow poorly maintained road from Krakow to Rzeszow in Poland, traffic fatalities were so frequent that Polish traffic accident terms were among the words I could recite like a native.  I believe that driving developing country highways is statistically more dangerous than working here in Iraq today.

It is harder to work here and much more uncomfortable.  After the initial excitement of traveling in helicopters and convoys dissipates, you have the tedium, noise and discomfort of traveling in helicopters and convoys and travel is unreliable.  It might take days to make a simple trip and you might get stuck for a long time where your only option is to embrace the suck. 

What I miss is most the spontaneity and serendipity that I enjoyed in my earlier posts, but I am afraid that is lost in much of the world – not only in Iraq - due to security.  Terrorists have forced us to hunker down all over the world.   In Porto Alegre or Krakow, my office was on the street.  Friends and contacts could and did just wander in to talk and I could just walk out the office door and find them. If I had business with the head of the university or the mayor of the city, I could just go over and talk with him.  You get a lot done in those situations and it is a pleasure to do.  Of course, I could speak Polish and Portuguese and I do not speak Arabic, but that is not the key difference.  What I could resolve with a couple of minutes and two cups of tea in Krakow or a small coffee in Porto Alegre now is literally a Federal case requiring days of planning.  More perniciously, the ubiquitous security complicates human interaction, destroys spontaneity and makes it very hard to achieve the kinds of solutions that create synergy by giving everybody more than they thought they would get. 

I do not know if we can ever get that back – anywhere.  We have become a world of guards, gates and barriers, even in our own home towns, even in our own homes.  Terrorism has stolen a part of our humanity.

I am drifting too far into the dark side.  Today is Sunday.  We only work a half day on Sunday.  I am going to take advantage of this sunny and cool morning to run down to the peaceful Al Asad oasis and think harmonious thoughts for a least a couple of hours.


December 06, 2007

Great, Glorious and Grandiose Aspirations


My father was a veteran of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and always spoke well of the experience.   I enjoyed the fruits of the CCC labors, as trees they planted came to maturity just in time for me and I have always had a special fondness for the whole idea of the CCC.  As a long time Federal worker, I am acutely aware of the limits of government, but the CCC was a big program that mostly worked. When I had my initial talk with our Ag guy Dennis, I told him that I wanted us to make a CCC style contribution, albeit a smaller one, to soil, water, flora & fauna of Iraq.  He has come up with a big project. 

Our area of operations is dusty desert with a ribbon of green along the Euphrates River.  We do, however, have a beautiful lake, called Lake Qadisiya, which I wrote about in an earlier post.  The waters of the lake provide for irrigation and produce hydroelectric power.  In this hot, dry climate, substantial amounts of the water are lost to evaporation.  The hot sun plays the dominant part, but dry winds have a significant supporting role.  A belt of trees planted perpendicular to the prevailing winds would, according to Dennis, reduce evaporation loss, trap blowing dust and generally ameliorate the local microclimate.  Date palms, being the most common tree around here, we thought of them.   The date palms have the added advantage of supplying marketable fruit in the short term, so they are the promise of the future and a blessing for today.

I was a little skeptical of the efficacy of such a scheme.  In the more moderate environments where most of us live, such things are less necessary or effective, so it is beyond my experience.  But Dennis has his PhD in Iraqi soils and I have to believe he knows what he is talking about.   Reid, our civil affairs person, confirmed it with a negative example.  He was assigned to Diyala Province during the 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom.  He noticed the incongruous presence of what looked like rice paddy infrastructure in the desert and came to understand that there had indeed been rice there before the 1980s.   Extensive groves of date palms had protected and improved the micro climate, preventing dehydration and increasing local humidity enough to allow rice cultivation. During the Iraq-Iran war, Saddam, fearing that insurgents or Iranian agents could hide among the trees, destroyed the groves and consigned vast acreage to the desert.

This will be a big project, one we can begin but never hope to finish, a generational task like the work of the CCC.  We are talking lots of trees to do the whole job, more than we can reasonably achieve, but it is better to start now than to wait for the perfect opportunity that will never come.  In time perhaps what now seems so improbably will come to look inevitable.  It makes sense.

Although once established, the trees will create the conditions for their own continued success, they will require irrigation to get them started, so it would be not enough to just get some guy to plant seedlings every two paces as you might be able to do in more benign environments.  The investment required to do this is well beyond our means, so we will be looking for partners.   The near term pay off in terms of the dates we hope will entice local cooperation.  It is easier to convince someone to do something by promising a cash crop in a few years than offering the satisfaction of having done something good for a future generation, but people are motivated by both and we will present a balance.

Maybe I should also include some windmills to tilt at.

December 04, 2007

A Place for Fred Sanford (& Son)

 Iraq junk pile

Anything you have “too much of” is not a problem; it is an opportunity.  In Iraq, junk opportunities abound.  In an earlier post I talked about the strange cases of sophisticated jet fighter planes strewn randomly around the desert.   They are just some of the more unusual components of a very large junk pile that is Iraq.

Debris piles are nothing new here.  Until 200 years ago, people were only vaguely aware of the great civilizations of Mesopotamia.  French and British archeologist were much more interested in learning about them than the people nearby and it was not until they got here that anybody started to study the big mounds of dirt and rubble that formed the most prominent hills in an otherwise pancake flat landscape between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. 

The ancient Mesopotamians built with mud brick. When structures were no longer worth repairing, they just smoothed them down and built on top, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Over time, town elevations increased. Each layer from a different time, so keeping track of precisely where particular artifacts were found makes a difference for the chronology. Before the 19th century archeologists arrived, people plundered the mounds for treasure and building materials, but rarely paid attention to the context.  As a kid fascinated by ancient history, I was puzzled that anybody could be so dismissive of the past.  I am beginning to understand, if not accept that perspective.

Heaps of junk and garbage are everywhere.  Most is the detritus of recent civilization.  Modern people produce more rubbish than their ancestors did and the materials are different.  Mud bricks made of dirt, pottery shards made of dirt and artifacts made of dirt are not that different from the dirt they are piled on.  In fact most people probably thought they were just dirt piles.  Nevertheless, trash of all kinds persists in the desert.  In humid climates, metal rusts; wood rots and minerals dissolve.  Above all, growing vegetation soon covers any garbage pile, integrating it into the living environment or at least obscuring the view. Not here.  In Anbar integration processes anticipate the advent of the next ice age to do their work and bide their time until then.

Trash heaps are so ubiquitous that you stop paying attention, even if digging in them might reveal history.  I suppose the native population of the region just became inured to them, as I have.  The first nearly complete Soviet MiG lying in the desert is interesting.  After a while they become about as remarkable as a derelict car on blocks outside a trailer park.   The types of junk below the fighter jet in the pecking order of interest fall even faster.

We need to make a distinction between junk, trash, garbage and scrap, BTW.  Scrap can be very valuable, especially with prices rising as the worldwide demand for metal climbs.  The Iraqis may not be sitting on a gold mine, but their scrap heaps are mines for all sorts of other metals.  The Iraqi government figured this out and outlawed the export of scrap.  They want to keep it here. Rebuilding Iraq will require lots of girders and rebar.

Some of the best scrap is the wreckage of war.  Good metal goes into weapons systems.  Wreckage of war is maybe not exactly right.  Saddam enriched Soviet, French and Chinese arms merchants buying war materials that he never properly used.  Everybody would have been better off is Saddam had just brought scrap from the Soviets or the Chinese and dumped it directly w/o the intervening steps.  There is no American scrap in Saddam era scrap piles. 

The widely held misconception that U.S. firms armed Saddam is …a misconception.  In actual fact, the U.S. supplied only 0.47% of his vast arsenal.  That is ZERO point four seven and that is why there is no pre-2003 U.S. scrap.  But we are making up for it now.  Our big bases feature big junk yards, but the difference is that U.S. owned scrap can be exported, so these junk yards are going concerns.  Iraqi scrap stays here.  

Iraq lacks the capacity to reprocess its iron mountains.   This is an opportunity, not a problem.    I can only imagine how fast a mini-mill company like Nucor could turn that junk into useful building material, but if they built a modern factory in Iraq, what would they do when they had worked through the supply?  There is already an overcapacity of steel production worldwide.  Since Iraq has no significant iron ore deposits and these giant piles of scrap will not last very long if efficiently processed, perhaps it makes more sense to export the scrap and import the metal.  Somehow I doubt that good sense solution will be the one chosen.   Everybody wants to be in the steel business. Unfortunately not everybody can make money at it.

December 02, 2007

Not All Iraq All The Time

 My trees

Above is a picture of part of my forest in Virginia, my 178 acres of private landowner contribution to the world's forests.  The picture is from 2006.  the litte trees in the front are much bigger now.  They grow up so fast.

Today I had the usual meetings and paperwork, but mostly I caught up on my reading.  I found an interesting article on Iraq  but I promised myself not to think only about Iraq.  And a good news article about trees puzzled me.  

According to the report, developing countries are leading that way in planting trees.  They evidently planted a billion trees last year.  UNEP spokesman Nick Nuttall speculates “… they more intimately understand the wider benefit of the forests from stabilising water supplies and soils up to their importance as natural pharmatives as well as the importance of trees in combatting global warming.” How nice and PC.  What was puzzling about this was that I remembered that Southern U.S. landowners plant more than a billion trees EVERY year and it does not make the news at all.  I found out that the U.S. produces around 1.6 billion seedlings a year - every year.

When you look at the big picture you have to wonder why something is so extraordinary in some places and routine in others. How best to make it routine worldwide?  The key but prosaic explanation is private property rights. In twelve southern states we routinely, every year, plant a billion trees and because somebody owns them. If the what the UNEP guy says about that intimiate understanding in developing countries is true, you have to wonder how they got in that treeless mess in the first place.

It is also one thing to plant the trees and quite anther to be ABLE to protect them. Big PR events and passionate speeches are great theater, but the best way to protect forest resources is through the protection of property rights. That is because when all the speeches are done, the party is over and the activists have moved on to the next cause, if you have property rights somebody still cares intensely and personally about each acre of trees. It is no coincidence that the worst cases of predatory logging occur on lands that are publicly or communally owned or where property rights are not well respected. It is a classic case of the tragedy of the commons coupled with the predatory mentality of transient firms, the cupidity of bureaucrats and the corruption of governments.

Property rights, protected by the rule of law, are crucial to the most kinds of progress. If you look at a list of the most pleasant and prosperous countries of the world, they vary in terms of types of governments, ideology, geography and culture. What they all share in common is that every pleasant and prosperous place protects property rights.

Strong property rights protect forests, human rights and other living things. I know this goes against some conventional TV-inspired wisdom, but it is clearly the case. That is not only the experience of the southern pine states, but also of the
U.S. in general as well as Europe, Australia and other countries with strong property rights protection.

Lest somebody make the extrapolation, protecting property rights to private forest land does NOT preclude the establishment of public parks or preserves. In fact, it enhances it. You can logically set aside special places that need to be protected only if don’t declare everything special. When everything is special, nothing is special and any talk or protection is just talk and no more. Many corrupt countries have on their statute books beautiful and comprehensive laws to protect natural resources, but you cannot find these rules manifest anywhere on the ground.

In fact, I have noticed that in general the very best sounding laws are in places where the rule of law is not protected. They can enact what they want, because they know they will not have to carry it out.

So protect forest property rights and enforce the rule of law and you will have forests now and forever. It will not have the same PR impact, but it will ensure forests for today and tomorrow.
As for the new tree planters, keep it up. Make it a routine so that it doesn't even get noticed by the media. A word of advice to the UNEP and the governments involved in this noble endeavor. If you want those seedlings to grow to be healthy mature trees, make sure you protect the property rights under them.

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