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June 30, 2008


Meeting with Rutbah Police Chief

The Police Chief says that he tells everybody about his problems in hopes that the weight of his persistence will convince someone to solve them.

The Rutbah region that is his area of responsibly is vast and thinly populated.   It includes the Syrian and Jordanian border areas and the POEs at Waleed and Trabil, the village of Akashat, Nukhayb as well as the Saudi border region and POE Ar-Ar. It takes a lot of police officers, vehicles and fuel to patrol a place like this.  Unfortunately, Iraqi government resource allocation decisions are based on population w/o sufficient concern for area.

trucks in Rutah

The chief says he has only 280 IP out of authorized strength of 620.  He doesn't expect to see more any time soon. His patrol fleet consists of sixty-one pickup trucks of various sizes, Chevys and Fords.  Even when there is fuel to keep the trucks rolling, they are often inoperable.  This is a land of axel-busting roads, when you are lucky enough to find a road.  He says that he has people trained to fix the vehicles, but they lack parts and tools to do the job.  They used to have their vehicles fixed at Al Asad, but that service recently stopped.


The Hammurabi Academy, located on Camp Ripper, has trained around 400 Iraqi police from Western Al Anbar since it was founded in July of last year.  Classes are small, with a student/instructor ratio of around 7/1.  Only leaders are trained.  They are supposed to go back and pass their information to the ordinary police, so it is a train the trainers proposition.  They learn a variety of tasks such as basic investigation, logistics, administration and evidence gathering techniques.   It is not exactly CSI-Iraq, but it is a start.

Colonel Stacy Clardy of RCT 2 set up the academy to produce a leadership core for the Iraqi Police (IP) of our district.  It is important to recall that back in July 2007 Al Anbar was just coming out of the terror of the insurgency and significant fighting still raged.  My first helicopter landing in Al Anbar was on a soccer field, where I was informed insurgents had rounded up and murdered the local police some months before. These kinds of things were still fresh in the memories of recruits back then.  It took courage to volunteer to be an Iraqi cop and I suppose that they must have felt a little relieved to get some training on Camp Ripper, protected by U.S Marines.   Now they talk about moving the academy off the base and that will probably happen by next year.

The Marines host the venue, provide some logistics and act as advisors.   Most of the funding comes from the government of Iraq and gradually, as equipment is replaced, the Hammurabi Academy is evolved into an almost wholly Iraqi institution.

My impression was that we had U.S. instructors teaching classes with interpreter.  I was wrong, or at least out of date.  Most instructors today are Iraqis who speak directly to the classes in Arabic.  One of the successes of the last year is precisely the development of the human capital to make this work.  Iraqi police of the past were often good at being cops in many ways, but not so good at following the rule of law & evidence.  Now they are becoming a modern police force.

June 29, 2008

Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Pipe to Link

Below are solar street lights in Rutbah, a CF project.  They work okay, but are not, IMO, aesthetically pleasing.

solar street lights in Rutbah Iraq paid for by US forces 

The Regional Engineer of Rutbah is a modern man with little patience for religious extremists or excessive tribalism.   He hates what Saddam Hussein did to his country.  He told me that in some towns essentially no new schools were built between the end of the 1970s and the liberation, despite big population growth.  As an engineer, he decries the general lack of maintenance.  Instead of building infrastructure, Saddam bought expensive weapons systems from the Soviets, French & Chinese (the U.S. supplied only 0.47% of Saddam's stuff). The fruits of big buying spree litter the deserts around here, MiGs that never fired a shot in anger, tanks that never went anywhere.  They decided it was better to abandon them than to fight a real enemy.

It was worst during the sanctions.  When Saddam had less money, he spent what he had on palaces, but enough of the past.

Rutbah's future depends on water.  As I mentioned earlier, water is in short supply in the region.  There have been some grandiose plans occasionally touted to pipe water over the desert from the Euphrates.   It is a long way to pump water and it is all up hill.  Beyond that, the Euphrates has been running lower because of dams in Syria and Turkey.   In The long pipeline solution is proposed by people who do not understand geography, hydrology, gravity or politics.   Besides those things, it is okay.

Below - They have more success with sunflowers than I did.

Sunflowers in Rutbah

Fortunately, according to the engineer, the solution to Rutbah's water woes lies only eighteen kilometers away in Al Dhabaa wadi.  He says that twelve wells already exist and that hydrologists have mapped out the groundwater.  There is more than enough for a city twice the size of Rutbah.  Eighteen kilometers is only around 11 miles.  Why, I asked, were people complaining about water when water was so easy to get?

Some of it goes back again to the lost decades of the Saddam tyranny.  There are no reliable pipes to bring from the wells across those eighteen kilometers to thirsty Rutbah and much of Rutbah just doesn't have access to water pipes period.   They were never built.  Our friends says that Rutbah had good zoning laws, but they were enforced sporadically so that there are some pretty big buildings sitting on some pretty dry land.  Well, it is not completely dry.  There are no sewage lines either, but what is soaking into the ground is not something anybody wants to drink.  Retrofitting whole neighborhoods is extremely costly and time consuming.   It may be years and it may be forever before these things are done.  Given the ramshackle quality of these buildings, it is probably a better idea to start again from the ground up, but people already occupying these places are less enthusiastic about this sort of solution. 

The other reason for the water shortage involved the great bane of Western Iraq - fuel.  In this, perhaps the world's greatest repository of liquid hydrocarbons, fuel for pumps and/or electricity to run them is inconsistent.   When the pump goes on and off, it begins to lose siphoning pressure.  After a while it is sucking up air or mud.  Steady and predicable is what is needed.   I don't know that much about pumps.  It doesn't seem to me that should be such a problem, but the engineer tells me that indeed it is and he seems to know about these things.

In any case, on the one hand, Rutbah's water problem is solvable and solvable soon in the general case of water for the city.  On the other hand, it may be solvable never in the specific situation of some construction that went on w/o the benefit of zoning.   Life is tough all over, tougher for some.  It is mostly a matter of organization and choices.  Most of the choices are simple; some are not easy.  

Osprey in Rutbah Iraq

Above is our ride home.  Ospreys are good for longer trips. It is still a thrill to ride, but the joy wears off when you hit some turbulence, which always seems to happen on the way to and from Rutbah.

June 28, 2008


I don’t know why anybody likes soccer.   It is about as exciting, IMO, as watching grass grow.  But Iraqis like the game a lot and we get some significant public relations mileage out of building and/or rebuilding soccer fields.

The soccer field is in back of the kids.  In Iraq, you don’t even get to watch the grass grow on the soccer fields.  All they do is smooth out that dirt and put in a kind of a sub base.  We are going to fix this soccer field up.  The local kids are excited about it.  When we got out of our cars, they all came running over.

The kids in Rutbah are a little less spoiled than some others.   They were friendly w/o expecting too much candy.  It is funny because kids are similar all over the place.  We asked them if they got to use the field very often.  They said it depended on whether bigger kids came along to run them off.  I remember exactly the same experience.  We used to play football in Humboldt Park.  We got to use the flat, good places to play until some bigger kids came and ran us off.  On the other hand, we would run off any groups who were smaller than ours.

Now that I think about it, the big kids never actually had to run us off and we never actually had to run off any littler kids.  You would see the group coming and make a general estimate of their total mass.   If their total mass was greater than ours, we would pick up our ball and run away.   Kind of an interesting system.  Prepares you well for adult life.

In any case, we have done soccer fields before and will do this one in Rutbah.  I told my guys that I want to see it done before I leave and that I want a few drought tolerant trees nearby, so that people can sit in the shade and not only have to watch soccer.  The kids will  be happy.

June 27, 2008

Hazardous Work Sometimes


Recent deadly bombings around Iraq, one involving State colleagues, reminded us that this is still a dangerous place, despite the astonishing progress Iraq has made over recent months.  I was reminded on a local level during a foot patrol. 

The crowd in general was okay, but one guy (he is not in my picture, BTW) was obviously none too happy.  I won't go into details.  Suffice to say he was supposed to get compensation for a mistake but when he went to the local authorities to get it they ripped him off, he says. In these situations all you can do is smile and keep in talking/letting them talk, while trying to figure out how to get away.  My colleague, Sam, is an excellent interpreter and was able to keep the guy from going too crazy.  I am glad the guy had a chance to seek justice and it will probably be good public relations, especially if he is treated fairly.  It does, however, point up the dangers inherent in our work and why we must not become complacent.   I always worry about some weirdo in the crowd or a guy with a PBIED. 

It is very important to go among the Iraqi people to show them we know they are not the enemy, that we are not afraid and that we want to hear what they have to say, sweet and bitter. I bet they will be talking about this particular engagement for a long time to come.  The Iraqis present were also surprised and concerned over this man's anger. I believe our interpreter Sam and I did our duty representing our country in a favorable light and the Marines calmly addressed the situation.  Nevertheless, this was a wake-up call about how fast a situation can deteriorate. 

We have reviewed our security procedures and our team members and I will be much more circumspect in the future.

Nobody is afraid to complain to us. They are usually reasonably happy with Marines and somewhat unhappy with local authorities.  While we take some pleasure in being popular, we have to avoid the impression that we are the problem solvers in contrast to local authorities.  We will be gone soon.  The local authorities will abide and the people have to learn to abide with them. In many ways, they are asking too much too soon from their governments, most of which are newly established after the defeat of the insurgency, but the people are generally on the right track and their requests are legitimate.  People always ask about fuel and electricity.   They want their streets to be clean and their homes to be secure.  Most of all, they want no longer to live in fear.  They are also concerned re water.  It is a desert, after all.

June 26, 2008

Mad Dogs & Englishmen

The picture below is a fort built by the British in sometime around 1927.  The British ran Iraq as a League of Nations Mandate until 1932, when Iraq became an independent monarchy under King Faisal, of Lawrence of Arabia fame. Even after independence, the British maintained bases here.   I don't know if this was among them.  In fact, most people don't think much re this fort, but it is still in use as a police HQ.  The British built to last.

British fort in Rutbah Iraq

When the fort was built there was nothing around it but desert.  Rutbah's claim to significance is that it is a "wet spot"  that gets around 4.5 inches of rain a year, and it had a well. The Fort guarded the road that connected Amman with Baghdad and the oil pipeline.   If you didn't have to stop for borders or checkpoints, you could drive from Amman to Baghdad in around 16 hours.  Rutbah and the fort are around the half way point.  It goes to show how much has changed.  Back in 1927 the fort was in the middle of nowhere.  It is still in the middle of nowhere today, but around 50,000 people live in and around Rutbah.  

I can only imagine how isolated it must have been in the 1920s.  I can picture those Brits with their khaki and pith helmets.  My friend Tim R bought me a pith helmet as a joke.  Of course I cannot wear it here, but I wish I could.  They are really good for keeping you cool.   Air moves easily inside and if you soak them in water the evaporation over a couple hours really helps lower the temperature inside.  They are very good for hot and dry places, which is probably why they were so popular.  But they have the unmistakable connotation of old-fashioned empires.  Both pith helmets and old fashioned empires are out of style these days.

mural at police station in Rutbah

When I was trying to confirm that date of the fort, I ran across this interesting article about Rutbah a few years ago.   It sounds familiar.  Above is a new mural on the police station wall.  Our ePRT helped pay for it.  I read in this article that this once had a Saddam mural.  We painted over it.  All these murals kind of look alike.  I don't like them, but I suppose the blank wall bothers people.

June 21, 2008

We're Gonna do What They Said Can't Be Done

kid and Marine in AnbarYou don't learn from experience unless you pay close attention.  Failure focuses the mind.   We ask what went wrong and identify improvements.  As often, however, we don't fix the problem but try to fix the blame. This absolves everybody else and lets us all continue business as usual.  We can find individuals who made poor decision, but the only way to systematically improve is to look at the whole system and analyze the interactions.  If you have a dysfunctional system, changing the players doesn't help.

There is a currently popular saying that "doing the same thing and expecting different results is the definition of insanity." This is simplistic.  It is possible to flip a coin ten times in a row and get all heads, but still expect the probability of the next toss to be even, at least after checking the coin.  A good system with good people may produce poor results. That is why you study the processes. If you can identify the factors the led to the result and they are not likely to recur wholesale changes are unjustified.

Success brings less soul searching than failure. We point to good results and are unenthusiastic about checking to see if they were deserved.   But just as it is possible to fail for reasons beyond our control or factors unlikely to recur, we can succeed for the same bad reasons, so success should be as closely scrutinized as failure.  There is no shortage of talk about failures in Iraq, although much of it is designed to fix the blame not the problem.  As it becomes clearer that we are succeeding, we should learn from what went right and how it might be transferred elsewhere. I have a couple ideas from my own point of view.  Keep in mind that I have personal knowledge only of events in Western Anbar and so I emphasize factors and people acting here.  My list is not comprehensive.  


TOA in Fallujah Iraq

Had Abraham Lincoln had stuck with General George McClellan, or the American people elected "Little Mac president in 1864, we might well need a passport to cross the Potomac. Leadership changes the course of human events and a change in leadership was essential to the turn around in Iraq.

It does not follow, BTW, that previous leadership was incompetent (remember fix the problem, not the blame), just not appropriate.  McClellan was a superb general.  In a defensive posture, he was great.  He just didn’t grasp what he had to do to win and didn’t have the temperament to do implement it.  

That task eventually fell to Ulysses S. Grant.  Lincoln found his general in a man who had been unsuccessful in his earlier endeavors but had the appropriate skills, talents and temperament to handle this job.

General David Petraeus was the right man for the new strategy in Iraq in 2007.  He wrote the book on counter insurgency and recruited a first class-team to help him with the changes.  He also had the support the new Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, to make the needed adjustments.

BTW - the COIN Manual is itself a great example of the flexible strategy it advocates.  It is a living document, almost a wiki. As new experience is analyzed and digested, it changes and evolves. 

The right leadership with the right strategy was essential to success, but causality is never so uncomplicated. 


Marines on target in Iraq

The USMC was employing the "new paradigm"  in Al Anbar before it became part of a new strategy. Marine commanders were well familiar with the theory and practice of counter insurgency, but as importantly the Marines in Al Anbar constituted a learning organization.  As experience about what worked and what didn't passed through the organization, Marines adapted and improved their responses.  The Marines have a long history with counter insurgency and working with indigenous forces going back at least to Presley O'Bannon on the shores of Tripoli, where they earned the Mameluke sword Marine officers still carry.  And they have been a learning organization all that time.   

Another advantage is the Marine's rotation system.  Marines tend to come back to places near their last deployment bringing with them their experience enhanced by the perspective of their time away. Beyond that, when Marines go back they share their experience with their colleagues coming out, both formally and informally.  It is hard to envision a better system for learning and adapting. 

Many of the Marines in Anbar today were in Fallujah or Hadithah during the bad times a couple years ago.  More than others, they see the progress and understand what still needs to be done.  Those who are here for the first time have heard and internalized the stories.  

Beyond that, Marines in Anbar did what they do well: eliminating bad guys & breaking their stuff; making friends in that unique Marine Corps way; adapting & overcoming.  When the surge came, the Marines were ready with a receptive environment they helped create. 

A Time for Peace

JohnMatel in MRAP Iraq

"To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven ... a time for war and a time for peace."  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).  Early in the conflict, proud and martial Anbaris allied with Al Qaeda and other insurgent forces to fight against the American invaders.  It was an understandable, if mistaken response, but by the close of 2006, they were tired of war; they had come to understand the folly of working with retrogrades such as Al Qaeda and their sense of honor was satisfied and slaked by the casualties they had suffered and those they had inflicted.  Al Qaeda told them that the Americans would cut and run.  Marines don't.   Anbaris learned to respect CF forces.  As importantly, they came to understand that CF forces had come to respect them and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.


You cannot achieve success if you do not stick around long enough to achieve it.  Difficult and unexpected circumstances in Iraq provided many excuses to give up.   Leading experts, pundits and even members of the U.S. Congress told it straight-out that the U.S. was defeated.  They were wrong, but they could have been right if we had acted on their advice.  In other words, a lack of resolve on our part would have made their prophecies self-fulfilling.  In the event, the U.S. stayed for the turn around.


Fishermen in Iraq

Risk can be controlled but never eliminated and pure uncertainty lurks beyond all the risks we can calculate.   Even the most exquisite plans must run the gauntlet of random chance that can devastate a perfect plan or vindicate a dreadful one, which is why we have to analyze the process and not judge strictly by results, as I said above.  

Early in the conflict, many things turned out worse than we reasonably anticipated.  Now things have changed.  Our enemies turned out to be poorly organized.  Often incompetently led and ideologically myopic, they made stupid mistakes that turned local populations against them.  Fighting an insurgent enemy can be like playing whack-a-mole.  It is a frustrating game, but it is easier if the moles are not very clever.  I don't want to take this too far.  Many of our opponents are committed, deadly and dangerous and even in small numbers a ruthless adversary can inflict severe suffering, especially if their goal is to attack civilian populations.  But these very tactics erode their support.

The big piece of good luck is the flip side of some very bad luck for the rest of the world - soaring oil prices.  Iraq recovered its previous ability to produce oil almost at exactly the time world oil prices spiked.  During Saddam's time, Iraq earned oil revenues of around $20 billion a year.  Experts anticipated revenues at this time of around $35 billion.   Last time I heard, they were looking at $80 billion and the number keeps on growing.  Oil money lubricates and more and more often Iraqi funds can pay for the needed infrastructure upgrades and improvements in Iraq. 

PRTs, ePRTs and the Holistic Approach

Of course I have to talk about my own stuff.  You cannot win a modern war by military means alone.  COIN Manual says that some of the best weapons do not shoot.  Military units have long had Civil Affairs (CA) teams and Commanders' Emergency Response Funds CERP.  These improved conditions for Iraqis and certainly saved many lives.  Building on this success and experience in Afghanistan, in November 2005, Secretary of State Rice established Provincial Reconstruction Teams  (PRTs) in Iraq.  In January 2007, President Bush announced the establishment of embedded PRTs, who work directly with military units such as Regimental Combat Teams.

These were civil-military teams of experts who engaged provincial and local Iraqi officials as well as ordinary Iraqi citizens.  Some of their work was old fashioned diplomacy, meeting people, talking to them and listening to concerns.  But unlike diplomats in many other contexts, PRT members have access to concrete resources.  This development aspect, helping rebuild or in many cases just build for the first time is not entirely new, but putting it together with the interagency team of experts that made up a PRT is breaking some new ground.  

PRTs are led by a senior State Foreign Service Officer with a deputy from USAID or a military colonel often as an executive officer.   Included on the team are experts on budgeting, industry, law and agriculture, among others.   

backhoe working on water projects in Iraq 

In rebuilding Iraq, damage from the 2003 invasion is often the least of our problems.  Iraq has been in a state of war and/or sanctions for nearly thirty years.  Many things decayed during that time and other things that could have been done never were.  The Saddam Hussein regime did minimal or no maintenance on the plant & equipment.  The whole country suffered the kind of socialist mismanagement seen in former communist regimes, but with an additional layer of sanctions and war. It might have been better if some of the facilities had been destroyed by CF bombs and could be rebuilt from scratch.

The physical damage can be repaired more easily than the damage to human capital.  The late despotism actively destroyed most aspects of civil society, anything that might insulate the people from the dictates of the state.  In former communist Europe, it was possible to find functioning civil organizations, as the fiercest aspects of Stalinism were generations in the past.  In Iraq, the destruction was more recent and in some ways more though going.  Ironically, sanctions and isolation helped finish the demolition Saddam started.  The only viable non-governmental structure left were family/tribes and religion.

Iraq has a significant, if now distant, tradition of reasonably competent officials.  PRT experts work to revive this and build on it.  Iraqis are responding very quickly, considering the conditions.

The most popular expert in Western Al Anbar is our agricultural advisor.  Iraq was once a bread basket and still has wonderful soils, available water and a skilled population.   Unfortunately, some of the best agricultural lands has been abused for thousands of years.   Saddam's mismanagement exacerbated it, but I digress.

COIN talks about the need to clear, hold & build.   CA, CERT & PRTs have helped build physical infrastructure as well as relations.  The Iraqi people increasingly have a commitment to their own future and freedom.  They will not easily give it up when terrorists come calling.

What They Said Can’t be Done

Iraqis dancing

The U.S., CF and Iraqi accomplishment is astonishing, especially when you consider the near-death experiences of 2006.  The Middle East is more secure w/o the murderous Saddam Hussein in power and it is immensely better off than it would have been had we failed in 2006.  I believe this will be seen by future historians as a paradigm shifting event.  For awhile many people feared that the initiative had passed to the bad guys or at least to the forces of chaos.   The apparent disintegration of our position in 2005/6 seemed to confirm that impression.  It was never as bad as it seemed or as bad as it was portrayed in the media, but the trend was unmistakable. 

Today we have come out of the darkness into a new morning. It is still a little too dark to see clearly all the features and it is still full of challenge and fraught with dangers but also full of opportunities. For the last generation and arguably since the end of World War I or the Sykes-Picot accord, this region has been unstable and dangerous.   Maybe we can help make the future better than the past. 

Our Iraqi friends deserve it. 

June 20, 2008

America Supports Us

Below is one of our local friends.  The big black ones are not as dangerous as the little yellow ones.  I didn't check closely, but it looks like this one is harmless because the stinger is broken.scorpion 

We don’t have to buy coffee and there is no shortage of cookies and other sorts of treats.  Generous Americans send piles of these things.   Sometimes they go through organized groups; others just send things on their own.

I especially like the Duncan Donuts coffee.  The guys at the Civil Affairs unit have a big coffee making machine.  They fill it every morning with the Duncan Donuts brew and let me have some.   The only thing I have to do in return is be nice to them.  There is lots of sharing around here.  I will not miss the dust and heat when I leave Iraq, but I will miss the friendliness and feeling of shared mission.

Of course there are limits to generosity.   Our ePRT has a couple of non-tactical vehicles, which we use not too often.  We let others use them when they are needed.  When word got around that there were “free cars” available, the situation got a little out of hand.  

We still let people use our vehicles, but now we keep the keys in the desk drawer and require that they ask. 


June 18, 2008

Success in Iraq: Thinking about our Team

Below is our team member Allen Gifford meeting with farmers in the Rawah area north of the Euphrates

.ePRT meeting with farmers Rawah Iraq 

Sometimes they expect more than we can give.  Usually we can do something. 

Our ePRT was part of the diplomatic surge that went in soon after the change in strategy that produced the military surge in early 2007.  The initial team was hastily assembled with short term contractors. My predecessor was a senior State Department officer, but he staying in country only six months.  The last of the original crew is set to leave in a couple of weeks, which made me think about how much had changed in the last year.

I didn't get to Iraq until September 2007, so I rely on what others have told me and what I could see when I arrived.  It was a lot harder back then, much more constrained and a lot more dangerous.  The team could not move as safely as we can now.  They could not talk to ordinary Iraqis on the street, as we now can do routinely.   They did not have access to the quick reaction funds we now enjoy.   In short, their job was to "hold the fort" and prepare the base on which others (i.e. we) could build.   I have to give them a lot of credit, as I sit in relative comfort and safety. 

It is also easier to work in general.  When the ePRT was established it was sort of accreted onto a Marine regiment.  Nobody really knew what sort of role the ePRT should play.  I think there was a little hostility among the fighting Marines to a group of know-it-all civilians.   This was exacerbated by the restrictions in team activities and movement I mentioned above.  I felt overwhelmed when I arrived by the uncertainty.  How could our ePRT add value?    I can only imagine how the first team members must have felt, landing on what was then considered the dark and bloody ground of the Sunni Triangle.  What a difference a year makes!

I had a real running start, provided both by the team members that smoothed the way for me and by the foresight of the Marines of RCT5.  I did not fully appreciate it at the time, but Colonel Malay sent his executive officer and some of his key officers to the Foreign Service Institute to train with us.  This helped them understand us and gave us an insight and relationship into the Marines.

We now enjoy a seamless relationship with the Marines.  My office is on the command deck, across for Colonel Malay's and next door to the executive officer.  My team sits with the Marine civil affairs team and it is hard to tell where my team ends and theirs begins. 

I am very lucky in that my team is largely self managing.   We form ad-hoc groups to address particular issues and each team member feels free to call on the help of other team members and Marines who can contribute.  The task groups are led by whoever is most appropriate at the time and much of the decision making is collaborative.  I think it was Henry Ford who said that asking who should be in charge is like asking who should sing tenor in the choir.  I find that works in my group, with particular team members talking the lead when their talents and expertise are foremost.   Our team and our groups have fuzzy fringes.  It is not clear where our team or the subgroups begin and end.  Maybe I violate some management precepts about clear hierarchy, but I figure in a group the size of ours with the necessity to form fuzzy teams with people I do not control, including Marines and our Iraqi friends, there is not much option.   It seems to work.  We get a lot done and morale is high.   I think that is an achievement in an environment as challenging and tough as ours.

That point about not controlling is important.  I influence. The authority to write those performance reviews is the source of most power in government bureaucracies.   I don't have that, so I have had to pay more attention to other elements of influence.  This job has tested my belief that the boss cannot expect to be GIVEN respect but has the responsibility to earn it.   I still believe it, but I appreciate more the other side of that equation - the team.  It is much easier to win the respect of those who respect themselves and my team members do.  

Of course, things are not always so gloriously uncomplicated.  We have our difficult personalities and difficult moments, but I think the challenge of being here and the responsibility of doing something important tends to concentrate people's minds.  Maybe teams like ours run on adrenaline.  Maybe that is why people tend not to be able to keep it up too long.  Maybe these sorts of teams are not appropriate in the more settled environments where a machine bureaucracy can perform at its best.  I don't know.  I have only a few months left here, so I probably will not understand it.  The team is so fluid in terms of membership and our tasks are so protean that it is hard to hold it down long enough even to get a good look.  It works now and that is good for now.   Next month I will figure it out again for then. sunflowers near Rawah Iraq

Management experts will study PRTs.  Some have started already. They may even study ours and our contribution to a better Al Anbar.  I think they will determine that the concept worked and that we did what we were supposed to do.  We didn't always go in a straight line, but we helped consolidate success in Iraq.  If they are really smart, maybe they will figure out how.   I want to read the report.

Above is a field of sunflowers near Rawah. They are better at growing the things than I am.


June 17, 2008

Change: Real & Imaginary

We have had sandy skies that stop us from traveling and make it unpleasant to run.  In general, there is not much to do around here, so I have had time on my hands to think.  I have been thinking about change 

I think it is important to think about these sorts of "irrelevant things".  It makes for better decisions if you have already thought through some of the boundry conditions.  Anyway, below are some thoughts.  Read them if you like.  They are not particularly about Iraq.

Below - Separating the wheat from the chaff the old fashioned way near Rawah on the Euphrates.  Some things chage faster than others.

separtating the wheat from the chaff in near Rawah in Iraq

Change: Real & Imaginary

Change is constant and inevitable. Being "for change" is meaningless and childish w/o explaining what change you want & exactly how you hope to achieve it. Some people don't understand that society is a complex system. Disturbing one thing, even a bad thing, will have unexpected consequences throughout the system.

Take a concrete example of a man dying of thirst. If you just give him as much water as he wants to drink, you probably will kill him. His body can process about a liter, maybe little more, every hour, no more. You can make changes but not on your timetable. And the most direct and "obvious" action may not be the most appropriate.

The general rules are that abrupt changes create strong reactions. There are many things you cannot have, at least at the same time, and the time lags are important in any decision.
Good leaders in our modern complex systems are catalysts for change.  I say catalysts because that is often the best way for government to effect change. It allows the people themselves to decide the details and do the actual innovating. The nation and the state are not the same things. Conservatives recognize that most effective and constructive change comes from citizens, scientists and entrepreneurs, less often from command and control of politicians and bureaucrats (like me - good cautionary tale).

Politicians outline tidy programs that purport to create comprehensive and well-planned solutions. The untidy fact that they often choose to ignore is that when people are free to pursue happiness the usually do not want the same things the planners think they should.

The private sector is the source of almost all innovations. Here I have to point to the difference between innovation and basic research which often depends on government resources and rightfully so. Basic research creates options. Innovation involves taking those options and packaging or developing them into something people want. The process is not automatic. There are many examples of societies possessing some great knowledge and never creating the innovations that put it to practical use.

(Of course government can innovate within government when there is a similar competitive environment for those sorts of ideas. In the ancient world, we had Greek city states, with their various mixes of democracy, oligarchy, monarchy and tyranny. In our times, U.S. states are good examples.

The ancient Romans had the basics of things like steam engines, engineering skills and water power networks, but never made the jump to the industrialization. In the late 18th Century, the Chinese had the requisite skills to make intricate machines, but used those skills to make mechanical novelties for the Mandarins.  Whole books have been written about why the Middle East just stopped innovating about 400 years ago, after making a real promising start.  Getting innovation out of the lab, into the workshop and out in the market is not easy and it is not been the most common thing in world history.

What often seems to be the common denominator is that a powerful centralized state, w/o significant competitors, stifles innovation. Conversely, messy, contentious and competitive systems with loose connections produce innovation.

The United States has been extraordinarily innovative following this general pattern. Our states have been the laboratories of democracy. Good innovations are copied; bad ones are limited. Our free market welcomes ideas, and for most of our history people, from around the world. Foreigners often brag that their particular former citizens create so much innovation in the U.S. The interesting question is why they had to come to the U.S. to do that.

We have enjoyed this wonderful system for a long time now. Nevertheless, it is possible mess it up.

So when some politician promises change, it might be a good idea to inquire re the type of change he is proposing AND the mechanism he plans to use to achieve it. Emperors in Rome and China (as well as lots of other places) were confident in their ability to order change. As a result, not much changed in these places over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. If you were the emperor, life was okay. The guy covered in sh*t using the same basic technologies for a thousand years was probably less enthusiastic.

Change directed from the top was not the change they could believe in.

Adam Smith published the "Wealth of Nations"  in 1776. He was not so much advocating an ideal system as describing the one that was emerging in the Atlantic world. It was the beginning of the market system where diverse communities were linked by an emerging world market, where governments did believe they had the right to regulate every aspect of life and the economy, as they had in most places whenever they could since the dawn of history. For the first time in history, a large number of people came to believe that THEY owned the government rather than the other way around and an autonomous private sector was developing. It was a new paradigm, which conveniently coincided with the birth of the novus ordo seclorum that same year.

Even after 233 years, the old paradigm dies hard. It is very difficult for most people to think systemically. We are accustomed to hierarchy where somebody is in charge. In a market economy, lots of people have influence, in a state of constant change, but nobody is in charge.

We perhaps can understand it better now that we have things like Internet and Wikis. Who commands those things? I read an interesting book "The Starfish and the Spider" here the author talked about investors demanding to see the "President of the Internet"

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclites used to say that everything flows (πάντα ρει) and graphically illustrated his point by explaining that nobody could step twice into the same river. Flowing water is an excellent way to understand change, the time it takes and the unexpected consequences of making changes. You shore up one bank with rocks, only to find that the current undercuts someplace else. You clear a channel and find two weeks later that you have changed the course of the stream a half mile UPstream. How can that happen? The simple direct solution is usually wrong and often the person who seems most in charge isn't. He just talks the loudest - a good lesson for those who want to mess with markets.

You CAN make changes to a system like a market, just like you can to a stream. The trick is to make haste slowly. It is usually better to remove obstacles than to try to push more of your own energy into the system with direct solutions. With this approach, you often do not get what you expected. Usually it is better.

June 15, 2008

The Study of History

Bay View tavern and Schlitz globe 

I didn't have a picture to go with this post, so I fished this out of the files.  It is from Milwaukee near the lake.  On top of the old building is the Schlitz globe.  This is an interesting historical study.  Schlitz was once the world's biggest brewer, but it declined and disappeared in the course of around ten years.  I used to think it was because my father, a big beer drinker, switched from Schlitz to Pabst and ultimately to Bud (which is not really beer, since it is made from rice) but I suppose there were other reasons too. 

Its former headquarters are now yuppie condos. I think they call them "Brewer Hill."  Milwaukee no longer gets that sweet smell of fermentation I recall riding my bike past the place in the early mornings on my way to a job at Mellowes Lockwasher factory on the north side.  

Schlitz became famous and "made Milwaukee famous" in 1871, when Joseph Schlitz sent wagon loads of beer as a relief measure to the victims of the great Chicago fire, better than the usual donations, IMO.  The other historical curiosity involved in this is that most people have heard of the Chicago fire.  Fewer know anything about the great Peshtigo fire, which happened about the same time.   The Peshtigo fire was the largest fire in North America.  It destroyed thousands of acres and didn't stop until it hit Lake Michigan.  These guys didn't get any beer. 

I have not been to Peshtigo in more than thirty years, but I still remember that you could see the mark on the ecology even a century later, with the relatively even aged old growth.

The Study of History

When I talked about big Arnold in college I meant Toynbee, not Schwarzenegger.  Arnold Toynbee started off as a classical historian and developed a comprehensive theory of history.   I think he was the last serious historians to try such a thing.  Nobody dares do that today.  Any comprehensive theory will be wrong in some specifics.  Legions of grad students and professors will find and amplify those errors until they are like a festering bucket of puss on an otherwise glittering career.   Today they will be joined by an even larger group of internet searchers who like nothing better than to enhance their nerdy little status by pulling down somebody big.

Professional historians today study esoteric fields where nobody has bothered to go before (often for good reason), preferably ones dominated by obscure sources or oral histories (which are usually protean and riddled with error but impossible to debunk).   Today's great historians, such as David McCullough, Joseph Ellis, Victor Davis Hansen or the late Stephen Ambrose, are often derided by the cognoscenti as popularizers.    It is too bad.  People, ordinary people, are hungry for the sweep of narrative history.  That is why "The History Channel" is so popular, why "Band of Brothers" sells so well on DVD or why even semi-historical series such as "Rome" are watched by millions.

I am not arguing against being correct and careful.  I am the first, as many know, to complain about mistakes in historical detail. The trick is to know that something is not perfect and know that it is still useful and good at the same time, and not just throw the babies out with the bathwaters.  "Rome", for example, is wrong on many (most) details, but it is still worth watching for some insight into an ancient world.  It makes you think and that is worth the effort.

Victor Davis Hanson commented on "the 300", which was literally a comic book version of that great confrontation at Thermopylae.  Sure, he said, it was wrong in details, but the idea of it was right (I paraphrase).  But it was better to get history into popular culture than to leave it completely out.  Serious people will check the facts and it might be the start of a life-long interest.

I fear this malaise has spread through the general culture.  We check, recheck and second guess every statement and decision, so that nobody can any longer be bold. Even if you are not wrong, the constant investigation will take its toll.  The Lilliputians will pull down any Gulliver; the hammer of public opinion will pound down anybody who dares stick up for any reason beyond mere vacuous celebrity, which ironically seems exempt probably because it doesn't smack of true effort and is therefore non-threatening to the indolent.

Any comprehensive theory of history must be wrong because such a complicated system is unknowable by mortal man in all its details.  That does not mean the effort of finding one is frivolous.  W/o some kind of mental model, history is just a meaningless jumble of one darn thing after another.    We all understand the world through mental models that are simplification of reality, maps of territory.  You need the map, but you know it does not include all the details.  Everybody has and uses mental models.  Most of them are unconscious.   Just because you do not study history or think through a model does not mean you don't have one.  It is just that you picked it up inadvertently and you have not thought about it. For example, most Americans have a mental model of Roman history based on Edward Gibbon's "Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire."  Most people have never heard the book and almost nobody has actually read it, but this is the model they have unconsciously accepted for Rome and to some extent erroneously extrapolated to the modern United States.   Gibbon was not right in many respects and it is better to make a conscious choice. In the metaphysical sense, no model is complete or right, but some are useful and some are more useful than others.  We should not stop striving for the useful truth even as we understand that the ultimate truth is beyond our beyond our capacity to understand.  It is best to use a kind of scientific method, constantly testing and refining our ideas and adapting them to changing circumstances.  One more thing re the Lilliputians who refuse to allow greatness, no individual is consistently great or great in all aspect of his life.  Close scrutiny will reveal the flaws and the small minded take significant pleasure in pulling down those who boldly try to stand tall.  Internet makes this easier. 

I was thinking re one of the greatest men in history, George Washington.   Today he would be out of luck fast.  The incident at Jomonville Glen (when he failed to stop his Indian ally Half King from bashing the brains out the French commander) would have ended the career and probably the freedom of anybody today.   Washington was not a great man his entire life, in everything or to everyone.  He was great during several key times, sometimes key MOMENTS, such as putting on his reading glasses and stopping the Newburgh conspiracy from subverting our Republic.   Those couple of seconds were enough. 

I don't have my own theory of history.  I have cribbed from Toynbee and accreted lots of modern management and decision theory.   I don't know if I would be bold enough to assert my own comprehensive theory; I am reasonably certain that I am not smart enough to develop one, so I am stuck with my hybrids.

I do worry that we, as a society are often mired in minutia and not seeing the big picture and we have to criticize everything about our most prominent members.  It is hazardous. 

June 14, 2008

Various Subjects

Army Birthday

US Army 233 birthday cake Al Asad Iraq

Today is the 233rd birthday of the U.S. Army.   The U.S. would not be the land of the free if it were not also home of the brave. 

The chow hall had a better than average meal with roast beef as a tribute.  They also had a special cake and a marzipan diorama. 

When the Marines had their birthday, we all got two beers.   As you recall, we cannot have beer or any alcohol out here in Al Anbar, but the Marines get a two-beer exception on the Corps birthday.   No such luck with the Army, unfortunately. 

Water: Toilet to Tap and Back

well water pump at Rawah Iraq

We live in a desert so it should not surprise us to know that we have a water problem.  Currently at Al Asad, they suggest that we don’t waste water.   It is becoming harder to waste water in some of the bathrooms and showers since the tanks are running dry because they are being replenished less often.

I am not particularly fastidious and I don’t have a job that makes me sweat too much, but I do like to take showers after I run, so I am interested in some kind of solution.  If I can predict when water will be available, I can adjust my schedule and use less, but right now I am just confused. 

Dennis is helping try to find water up in Rawah.  Aquifers are there, but a prolonged drought and a lot of tapping is emptying them faster than they are filling up.  If you pump out too much, the whole thing can collapse.  The picture above shows a monitoring device.  Dennis just uses a watch and sees how long it takes to fill a 5 gallon bucket.  This very expensive technology pictured above does the same thing, but it looks better doing it.

One partial solution to water shortage is reverse osmosis.   Water is forced at high pressure through a filter that takes out almost everything except the pure H2O.   It takes a lot of energy to make it work, however and while they say that these systems can go from toilet to tap, most people do not have the stomach for that, even if it works.  But we could and do use that water for things like showers and toilets. You are not supposed to use the tap water to brush your teeth.

New Team Member

We got a new team member called John Bauer.  We should call him Jack, both because of the 24 series and because otherwise there are too many Johns.  He has a lot of experience in city planning, budgeting and capital projects and specifically worked for many years on waste water treatment and water projects in general.  His skills are exactly what we need in places like Rutbah.  I think he will be a good addition to our team.

Al Asad Weather

Dust storm at Al Asad Iraq near RCT 5 HQ

We get some dust storms and it is very hot during the afternoon, but I am happy with the weather in general.   I have started waking up around 530.   It is pleasant around dawn and if it is not dusty I can go running.  You have to hunker down during the middle of the day, but it could be worse.   Iraqi weather from Mid-October to May is very pleasant, even a little on the cold side in January.   November & March are almost perfect, with cool evenings and warm, sunny days, except when there is a lot of dust. Of course, it will get hotter.  Even now, temperatures do not dip below the middle 70s even during the coolest part of the day.   We have around a 30 degree difference between the highs and lows.   When it highs get to be around 120, which they will next month, it will only dip into the 90s and that is pretty hot, even if it is a dry heat.

June 13, 2008

Into the Desert

The helicopter ride from AA takes around an hour.  You need around forty-five minutes to convoy from our base at El Dorado (formerly COP Norseman) to the Village of Nathara near Rutbah.  The ride there was bumpy and a little unpleasant.  The trip home was even worse.  I felt queasy, as did the others on the flight, but nobody got sick.  The EXO told me that should I ever actually become sick, I would be called "Chunks" from then on.  It is a powerful incentive to avoid messing up the helicopter floor.

CH56 landing Al Asad Iraq

We went there to deal with a local matter involving Marines.  This is a barren area in a barren region.  The township covers 172 square kilometers of dirt and gravel on top of a plateau around 700 meters above sea level.  The elevation and topography mean that it is not as hot here as in the WERV.    Besides that, however, it enjoys no advantages.  Houses of the village are widely spaced.  I have no idea why they do that.  There is nothing between them and the spacing makes it difficult to get around.   I suppose everybody wants his space.  Buildings are made of a kind of a plaster/mud/concrete mix with facades of stone.  Most of the houses are small, but there are lots of people per unit, since most of the local men have more than one wife and lots of children.

Locals in Narthra Iraq

We shared the MRAP ride with Mayor of Rutbah and his associates.  They talked a little about the regional problems, not surprisingly sheep, water and fuel.  We hear that trinity of trouble everyplace we go.   The problems are interrelated and most likely unsolvable in the short run and beyond our control in any case.  Rain will mitigate the sheep/water conditions; fuel will require market prices.

Along the way we had to drive thorough a dry wadi to bypass a collapsed bridge.  CF had destroyed it early in the conflict as part of the shock and awe campaign.  The mayor pointed out that it was not very shocking and inspired little awe since this particular bridge was so isolated and it was relatively easy to drive around.   I don’t know much about bridges and as I looked at the supports I could not tell how easy it would be to repair the structure, but I am not sure they need a bridge there at all.  I suppose that is why there is no urgency about making repairs.  On the rare occasions when it rains, the wadi would be impassible for a couple of hours, but I bet culverts could take care of that.  

Marine trucks moving in

We met the local sheik and his entourage when we got to Nathara.   The imam also showed up.  We had not expected him because he was reportedly sick, but he insisted that when he heard about our visit he had to come to see his friends.  He evidently has some kind of bronchitis, but didn’t seem very sick and whatever ailed him did not interfere with his socializing.   He greeted our Chaplin very warmly and with genuine affection.  They spoke a little about Christianity, Islam and Judaism all being Abrahamic religions making all of us brothers.  This brotherhood thing is very important around here.  It is used fairly loosely and I am uncertain of its real significance.

medical meeting Iraq

The Marines took the opportunity to set up a local health screening.   Iraqis do not have access to much heath care.   Even the rich sheiks like to get American medical opinions.  The poorer people we served on this visit may never have seen a competent doctor.  Men brought in their sons.  A big challenge is women’s health.  That is why we brought female doctors.  This is a conservative area and women are not allowed to talk to strangers.   Colonel Malay asked the local sheik and the neighborhood imam to help get women to come.  Both promised to do what they could, cautioning however that women might choose not to come.  The imam even promised to preach re during Friday services in his mosque, but we don’t expect a high turnout.

Below is stonework in the buildings.

Stonework in Iraq

The imam mentioned that he personally could use a checkup and maybe some medication to help with his breathing problem.

building in Rutbah Iraq

Villagers were friendly and local leaders are supportive of the Marines, who they know protect them from insurgent attacks.  They told us that they recognize any outsiders trying to infiltrate into their area and report what they know.   Bad guys are still hanging around in the deserts and the wadis and some are crossing the borders.  The vast distances and sparse population make this a good place to hide, but the atmosphere is much improved.

Local authorities were anxious to talk to me because they knew that our ePRT had helped with wells and animal health in nearby places.  I will ask Dennis to assess potential here, but my own observations tell me that we will not be able to do very much.  A short observation of the local soils and topography did not make me sanguine re the prospects.   The land falls off in all directions from the place we were standing and a look at the map does not reveal any likely sources for an aquifer.  Dennis told me that there is indeed water in the area, but it probably not sufficient and it is 250-300 meters down.   Beyond that, the water to the west is evidently so full of dissolved salts that it is brackish and unsuitable for consumption.  The soil looks okay, seems to have a lot of iron, but it is just dry dust.  It would be wrong to say that there is not a blade of grass, but there is not much more than that.

This situation in Iraq’s western desert is emblematic of a coming world crisis in water.  It is just more acute here sooner.  In the 1940s, Iraq had a population of less than five million.  The land and its water resources could sustain a population that big.  Now there are twenty-eight million Iraqis and the population is expanding fast, fastest out here in the western deserts where there is not much to drink even in a wet year – which we see only once in every 5-7 seasons.   The population of sheep and goats has expanded along with the population.  The number of animals is well above the carrying capacity.  We can advise on improvements and make things better, but trying to find more water for more sheep as well as more people and more irrigation is not a sustainable solution in the long run in all places. 

The natural condition of this desert is to be mostly empty.   There is little here that would attract population and maybe it should stay that way.   Don’t get me wrong.  I firmly believe in making improvements.   Some parts of our AO cry out for just a little water and some smart agriculture.  Along the WERV there are Eden-like places that could supply high quality fruits and vegetables sustainably and in very large quantities.  All they need is the initial investments and better management.  The high desert we were in yesterday is not such a place.   Sometimes you need to recognize what shouldn’t be done.

All that said, we CAN help with a well and we probably will.  It will enhance Nathara’s prospects at least a short time.  Perhaps it will buy enough time for the people to make an adjustment.  No, I don’t think so easier, but hope is trumping experience.  On the plus side, one of the local leaders complained that the sheep herds were significantly smaller and that people were being forced to sell off large parts of their herds.  Of course, that is exactly what must happen.  I regret that hardship is creating this solution, but it is nonetheless the right direction. 

Below is not Iraq.  That is lake Michigan, Grant Park in South Milwaukee  Lots of water and very pretty.  I just put that in for contrast and because I like it. 

lake Michigan

Most of the people no longer depend entirely on sheep.  Many are truck drivers, who spend a lot of time on the road, evidently showing up at home enough to keep their families growing.  Rutbah is sort of like Barstow, California.  It is a trucking and communications center in the desert with little else to recommend it.  Perhaps if we think of the mud and stone houses like trailer parks, we can fit this into an American mental model. 

June 11, 2008

Department of Silly Hats

John Matel and silly hat 

When you are "in charge" of the helicopter, you get to wear the goofy hat.  I caught the CH46 to Ramadi to consult with the PRT there and to deliver our agriculture advisor Dennis and our rule of law advisor Burt Brasher to meetings.   The advantage is that if I go we can get same day service, i.e. we can leave in the morning and come back the same evening AND we can leave from the Ripper landing zone, all of which makes life a lot easier for us.   I get this special treatment because my SFS/SES1 rank is finally paying off.   I am the highest ranking USG civilian in the AO.  Of course there are not many of us around here. 

I will try to use the one-day service once a week.  We can bring several members of the team to each engagement and get many of our appointments done at the same time and then get them back to AA.  This will save us literally day of waiting at landing zones & sleeping in those interesting advance bases.   We – almost everybody on my staff – are getting a little old for that sort of thing.  It will give me better opportunity to do the oversight and diplomacy job I am supposed to do.

CH46 landing

Until now I got to use priority assets only when I went with Colonel Malay or with one of the generals.  These are always great opportunities and I think I add value to the delegation but it will be good to be able to deploy our ePRT resources independent of other people’s travel when appropriate.

This is good.

June 10, 2008

The Oil Curse and the Patronage Trap

Stories that begin with somebody winning the big lottery usually end sadly.  I suppose it has to do with the corrupting power of unearned/unexpected wealth and the frailties of human nature.  Oil wealth can be as bad as a lottery win because not only does it often shoot more money into a country than it can usefully absorb, but it also empowers governments and encourages both centralization and corrupting patronage.

Let me hasten to say that I am speaking only my opinion and it is not based on any special knowledge, but as we see Iraq’s oil revenue jumping from around $20 billion under Saddam to $70+billion today.  I fear we may have a lottery winner. 

Oil revenues past helped destroyed Iraqi agriculture and retarded local initiative.   It doesn’t make intuitive sense that good fortune could be such a curse, but the influx of so much easy money crowds out other endeavors.   It cheapens hard work.  The lottery winner feels like a chump if he keeps on working just as hard.   Local initiative is stifled more directly, as money from the central government supplants local funding until the only guys left standing are those from Baghdad.

Oil wealth also creates a feeling of entitlement.   People think they deserve "their" share and start getting angry when that share is too small in their opinion … and eventually it always is too small.   It really is true that money cannot buy happiness and bribing people with gifts is a losing proposition.  Over the long run (or even the not so long run), resentment & irritation always trump gratitude and satisfaction in these sorts of uneven relationships.    

All this is much beyond my pay grade and since I have no ability to influence the outcome, I feel free to speculate.  Take it for what it is worth.   I think it is a stroke of good, but dangerous luck that Iraq is taking in so much more oil revenue.  The money will allow Iraqi to rebuild and recover from the damage done by so many years of war and mismanagement.  The caveat is that the oil wealth helped create the mismanagement and waste in the first place.  To adapt an old saying, to err is human, but to really screw up you need the steroid power of oil wealth.

I hope that Iraq will spend that windfall on infrastructure upgrading and maintaining what they already have.   There are certainly many places that could use such investments.  Infrastructure investments that do not include governmental management of the economy are usually a good thing.  Another thing that could be usefully done is to distribute revenues directly to the people, like the State of Alaska does.  This is not perfect, but it gets some of the money out of the control of the bureaucrats.  I fear there will be pressures to “do something positive” such as subsidize the dinosaur state owned enterprises and spread patronage from the central government.  Actually, I suppose it will be a mix of both hope and fear.  Let’s hope the hopeful part predominates.

But this is really above my pay grade.

June 09, 2008

Dennis Can't Find a Date

Below are the date palms at our oasis.  We have been having a little dust lately.  This picture was taken at the middle of the day.  

date palms & dust at Al Asad Iraq 

Iraq has 12-16 million date palms.  This is down from 30 million in the pre-Saddam times but it still makes Iraq the world’s largest producer of dates.  In Western Anbar, however, dates are not producing properly this year.   Dennis and I did a local check out in the grove in our oasis and could not find even one producing tree.  We are trying to figure out how the extent of the problem why it is happening and what Iraqis can do about it. Last year’s crop was good.  Even a partial failure of the date crop would be a big problem, so we are very interested is making accurate assessments.

In the longer term, there is a lot Iraqis can do to improve their date production.   Some of the techniques they currently use go back to Babylonian times.  They are not wrong, but could use some adjustments.  Most of these improvements would be easy and organic.   For example, planting a cover crop of ladino clover under the trees would help control water absorption and regulate humidity, as well as improve soil.  Another management fix is to plant the proper mix of male and female trees.  Date palms have gender.  Each male tree can pollinate around fifty palms. Pollen is distributed by wind so location makes a difference.  It is also useful to plant the male trees on the sunnier part of the grove.  Of course there are also the issue of irrigation scheduled to avoid salinity, better genetic quality of palms and modern use of nutrients.  Iraqi farmers need to learn some of the new techniques and often relearn some of the more traditional ones.

Dennis also did a field survey of around 10,000 donum (6,000 acres) of irrigated farmland in the Ubaydi area of the Al Qaim district.  Things have fallen apart.  The tragedy is how easy it would be to remedy the situation IF it could be properly managed.  For example, a twenty foot section of a pipe that draws water from the Euphrates is broken.  The system could be fixed for a few hundred dollars and an afternoon’s work.  Unfortunately the people farming the land don’t own it.   The owner is no where to be found.  Word is that they have left the country and the uncertainty is freezing developments.

There is also the problem of bureaucratic inertia.   In all our districts we find warehouses full of agricultural equipment and fertilizers local farmers need, but bureaucrats representing the authorities are unwilling or unable to release.   Some of it related to the problem of who should get it and the land tenure problems I mentioned above complicate every solution.  Our ePRT is trying to broken agreements, but our work is made awkward by our incomplete understanding.  I am not sure that anybody really knows the answer, but we are looking hard.

There are some things we can and have done on our own initiative.  For example, we equipped an agricultural laboratory that will help with things like soil analysis.  We are also looking to fund some solar powered water pumps and a we are helping buy some tractor for an equipment rental operation. 

In ancient times, Iraq was a phenomenally rich agricultural region.  It will be again after we all pass through this rough patch.

June 08, 2008

Step-by-Step We Achieve Our Goals

Below is part of village in the Abu Hyatt region just outside one of our camps.  Not a pleasant place, IMO, but I guess people like the place they live and get used to it after a while.  The stone work is kind of interesting.  When you fly over these places, you see some patches of green that are not evident from ground level, so it is not as bad as it looks.  (reminds me of what MarkTwain said re German opera - it is better than it sounds.  Actually, I like the music where the fat lady sings, but the comment is funny.) Nevertheless, despite all the beauty contained in the various shades of khaki,  when I leave Iraq this fall I will not come back.  Some people like deserts and they can have them.  I like trees and grass too much.

Abu Hyatt villiage Iraq 

Abu Hyatt was still hot and dangerous when I arrived in Iraq eight months ago.  Insurgents and terrorists passed through it and used it as a sort of safe haven.  RCT 2 made cleaning it up a priority and RCT 5 has followed up.  Today it enjoys a tentative stability.  People are returning and rebuilding.  A representative from Abu Hyatt sits on the regional board and our ePRT is working on projects and public diplomacy to help solidify the gains.

Sixteen villages comprise the district.  Most of the people work in agriculture.  They grow dates and citrus, fodder crops and sunflowers.  Of course, there are the usual sheep.  Some people also work at the local refinery at K3.

Since it so recently came out of its time of troubles, Abu Hyatt still suffers a lot of insurgent related damage.  The Marines are repairing schools and bridges, but there are some problems that were around before the late unpleasantness. One challenge is clean water.  We are helping install some solar powered water purification systems in one of the villages.  If it works well, more can be installed; we are eager to share our experience and expertise, but prefer using Iraqi funds for the next steps.

One thing working well is our application system.  It is a form of intellectual property that helps us and helps the Iraqis.  We want to ensure that all the projects our ePRT funds are worthy and sustainable, but it is hard for us properly to vet all of them.  To address this, we developed an application process, which we make available in easy step-by-step form in both English and Arabic.  It requires the approval of those who will actually make the project work and requires that the Iraqi side make significant contributions in kind, labor or money.  We also want to ensure that the Iraqi authorities are not planning to do the project already.  Many would prefer to spend our money before they dip into their own pockets.  This makes it harder.

Our application system also puts the onus on the Iraqis to organize. I don’t like the idea of going to visit someone and just getting a list of demands or needs.  We get a lot more done and a lot more respect when we work as partners not mere providers.  We do not fund most projects, but our contacts have told us that the organizing and planning they have done to prepare the proposal helps them make priorities and proposals for their own authorities to consider and fund, so the process has the salutary effect of providing real world, hands-on training.

Iraqis are competent people.  We should treat them that way, which means requiring them to hold up their side. 

I also got an interesting insight re Iraqi officials.  I just had not thought about it, but after the fall of Saddam the highest ranking officials lost their jobs and were barred from coming back.  Some of these were bad guys, who got what they had coming.  Others were just technocrats.  In any case, they were the ones with the experience and insight to run things.  Often we had to go down to the third or forth tier of leadership to find a politically correct guy to run things.  Some of these guys just needed an opportunity; others had been third or forth tier for good reason.  In any case, it is taking Iraqis some time to develop or redevelop the capacity for bureaucratic leadership.

Sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not give money, but rather the stimulus to exercise leadership and provide some methods that help develop it.

helicopter landing at Abu Hyatt Iraq 

Above - everything happens in a cloud of dust.

June 07, 2008

Bodily Functions

Some things speak for themselves; this requires a bit of explanation.  If you are squeamish, please read no further.  I don’t want to offend anyone.

wag bag toilets in Abu Hyatt Iraq

The things that most affect the quality of life are often little ones and just as often things we rarely talk about.  Bathroom issues score high on both counts.   Those easily grossed out can skip the rest of my musing on this subject, but it is an important one.

We live pretty well on the FOB.  We have an excellent chow hall and bathrooms that are fully functional, if a little constrained.  This is not the case universally.  If you are at one of the smaller bases, you are lucky to have one of those plastic port-a-potties and your chow is not so good and sometimes in short supply, at least the hot main courses. Sometimes you are not lucky enough even to get these luxuries and you are reduced to MREs (boxed meals you cook yourself) and "wag bag"  toilets.

The wag bag is exactly what the name implies.  You are allowed only to go #2, since otherwise the bag would be even grosser to handle and dispose of by burning. You can see from the picture that the facilities are makeshift plywood.  It is not good.

As long as you are with me so far, I can also tell you that the local guys don’t use the sit down toilets at all.  They prefer a hole in the ground.  If you go to a local toilet, you see a porcelain hole with a couple of places to put your feet.  It might still flush, but it doesn’t work well.   We in the Western world owe a great debt to Thomas Crapper, who did so much to popularize the flush toilet we know and love.

We have a small but significant problem in our own facilities, as non-U.S. contractors prefer to squat on top of our toilets.  They break the seats and that is why you see the incongruous sign, "do not stand on toilets"  posted on the walls.

convoy leaving Abu Hyatt Iraq

Above is just us going back to our convoy after a visit to one of the outlying posts.

June 05, 2008

Consent of the Governed

Signing of Declaration of Independence trumbull 

Our significant task for the summer & fall will be to help Iraqis hold free & fair provincial elections.  It is a narrow path for us to walk.   The elections clearly belong to the Iraqis and it is important for them really to be theirs AND be perceived as theirs by all the world and the people of Iraq.   On the other hand, we can provide experience as well as technical and security support that will make the elections fairer, safer and more generally more successful.   We can easily help too much or too little. 

Actually I don’t think there is a Goldilocks “just right” solution.   We will get criticized no matter what result and we just have to accept that we will get much of the blame and none of the credit and be ready for it to happen.

Preparations for the elections will begin in earnest on July 15.  We still are not sure of the date of the elections themselves.   They could be as early as October 1 or as late as December.  There is a lot to do.  The Iraqis do not have accurate census numbers for their local populations, so making accurate voting lists will be difficult.  When you consider the significant trouble we Americans, with hundreds of years of experience, have with the practical job of holding election, you can imagine what the Iraqis are in for.

The people of Anbar are very enthusiastic about voting and I expect a big turnout.   They largely boycotted the 2005 elections and they learned a valuable lesson about Democracy:  non-participation doesn’t work.   They will not make that mistake again. 

The Anbaris have also come to believe in the power of the people to make changes.  Their belief and enthusiasm is a refreshing antidote to the pessimism that says “these people” are not ready for democracy.  They will get what democracy provides.  In the words of Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

I prefer the first past the post form of elections, the one we have in the U.S. where every elected official represents a specific district and whoever gets the most votes wins.   Our system, however, is considered old fashioned by much of the democratic world.  The part most often criticized is what I consider the key to our stability and prosperity. Our winners take all approach forces compromise.  A group that wins less than a plurality of the votes has only one right.  They can try to get more votes next time.   That means they have to change their platform to appeal to more people or give up. 

Making elections proportional (e.g. 10% of the opinion gets around 10% of the authority) is in theory a fairer way to go, but it has often been the road to ruin when candidates win by a plurality that is significantly a majority (50 %+) of the votes.  Adolph Hitler and Salvador Allende, among others, were elected by only about a third of the voters, for example.  Extremists can often fool some of the people all of the time, but they have a harder time fooling a majority.  A U.S. style system excludes them.  Proportional representation gets their foot in the door.   But I am being old fashioned.  “Our” system tends to predominate in Britain and former British colonies.  Other places not so much. 

The Iraqi election system resembles those of continental Europe or Latin America.  I suppose that is a necessary component in a country as diverse as this one.  It has some complications designed to make it “fairer”.  Let me explain it as simply as I can.

A province gets twenty-five delegates for the first 500,000 people and then one additional for each 200,000 people over that number.   This is an advantage to Anbar, with a relatively low population, since it gets a little extra representation.   You could say it is like our system in the respect that if favors the small.  Wyoming has a population of around 515,000.  It has two senators and so does California with a population of almost 37,000,000. 

Anbar has a population of around 1.3 million, so it will get 29 seats.   All members are “at large” i.e. they do not represent a particular distraction.  Candidates run both as individuals and as party members.  This is how it works in an easy math example.

Stipulate that there are 100 voters and ten seats available.   The election commission determines that a candidate needs 10 votes to win a seat.  Anybody who individually wins 10 votes wins a seat.   But some candidate might win 20 votes.  His “extra” votes are transferred to his party to bring up the total of another of his party’s candidates.   They has a similar system in Brazil when I was there for my first post.  It enhances the power of political parties over candidates and one very popular candidate can pull up a lot of marginal ones, so you don’t always know who you are voting for, but it sort of works.

We are not quite done yet.  There is a proposal that at least 25% of the representatives be women.  In this case, the election commission would determine the number needed and then replace the lowest winning males with the highest losing females until they got the numbers they wanted.

Complicated as this all seems, it looks like it will produce an outcome that at least will approximate “consent of the governed”.    Nevertheless, a great deal of uncertainty remains.  Working in this ambiguous situation will be tough, but I guess that is why we get those big bucks.

I think we all are honored by the opportunity to see and be a small part of democracy at work in the Middle East. 

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Tour de Iraq

Flag and map at Al Asad 

I did catch that flight to Kuwait, but it was diverted to Ballad, where we all got off as the plane did some kind of medivac.   In Ballad, I heard that there was a flight to Al Asad with a 0325 show time, so I went to try to get on that flight.   I got on the waiting list, but at show time they told us that this flight would be for freight only.  No passengers.

The next flight to AA was on Wednesday, but I thought that was the best I could do, so I decided to look for some temporary billeting.   Unfortunately, the guy I asked, although very nice, directed me to general camp billeting.   It was a long way off, but I found it with the help of a guy in a pickup truck.  When I got there, they told me that I could not get that sort of billeting and that I needed to return to the air terminal and get temporary quarters. 

I asked the woman at billeting how to get back to the terminal.  She very helpfully pointed out the door toward a light shimmering in the pre-dawn gloom through the dust.  She told me to go toward the light and I did.

The Texas barrier below are at AA, but they look the same everywhere.

 Texas barriers in al Asad iraq

It is very depressing to walk around these places.  There are lots of sandbags and Texas barriers.  A Texas barrier is one of those concrete free standing walls.  It is like the smaller Jersey barrier you see along roads at airports, but it is around ten feet high.  In the gloom of night, they make you feel very constrained.  I wondered if I would ever get back and mentally kicked myself in the keister for just not staying put.

It was longer walk back w/o the help of the pickup truck guy, but I found my way through the dark and got to the building at about the time it started to get light.

To my surprise, the guys I had come in with still had not left.  They had evidently been having even a more frustrating experience than I had.  While I was walking around Ballad, they were going to the flight line on buses and then coming back.  I was able to get in line again, just as though I had never left, and get on the plane for Kuwait. 

The people at the terminal were very helpful in this bad situation.  Of course, they had taken me off the list when I told them I was going to AA, but they put me back on when I explained my sad story.  I notice the woman suppressed a smile.  I didn’t really mind.  It was kind of funny and I am sure I looked comical.   I had been just about everywhere around the base and in the end I finished exactly where I would have been if I never left.   To me, that was a victory. I was  back on the  bus.

The flight to Kuwait was uneventful.  I arrived and finished processing through just in time to miss the chow hall, which closes at 8 am.  I put myself on the waiting list for a flight to AA.   The next flight had show time of 2035.   I got on w/o incident.  We finally were off at a little past midnight and got to AA around 0200. 

I knew we were back in AA as the back of the C130 opened allowing a cloud of dust to come into the plane.  I caught the shuttle bus back to Camp Ripper.  It is funny how much the old can feels like home. 

Below is our new office space.

ePRT office Al Asad Iraq

We are also out of the tents and back in the offices.  My office is actually very nice now.  They put in central air and plugged up a lot of holes, so the dust doesn’t get in as easily.   The office where my colleagues sit now has a couple of Plexiglas windows, so they have some natural light.

Below is my new office - sweet.

ePRT leader office al Asad Iraq 

Well, back to the old routine with somewhat better surroundings 

June 01, 2008

Medieval Castles, Crusaders & Returning to Iraq

View from Ajloun castle jordan 

We drove from Jerash a dozen kilometers and eight centuries to the castle at Ajloun.   It was built in 1184 by the Muslims to secure local iron mines and as a counter to the Crusader castle at Belvoir, across the plains.  They say you can see Belvoir from Ajloun, but the day was a little too hazy in that direction for that, or maybe we didn’t look in the right spot.  If you notice the picture up top is very clear sky. That is looking NE.  I don't know why there was so much haze to the west.

Ajloun castle jordan

Ajloun never fulfilled its original purpose.  Saladin defeated the Crusaders at the battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1189, which was the beginning of their expulsion from the region.  Castles are interesting to look at and sometimes beautiful, but it is well to remember that they were part of a military technology.  Before the advent of accurate cannon, it was very difficult to capture a well defended castle.  It was a real force multiplier and also a potent psychological symbol of the power and control. 

View from window Ajloun castle Iraq

This castle looks like others I have seen.  It is a little less sophisticated than those I saw in Poland or Germany since it is an earlier version than most of those.  The most sophisticated castle I have ever seen in the Teutonic Knight’s castle at Malbork in Northern Poland.  That one is made of bricks, however, not stone.

below are some pines on the landscape. I think they are Turkish or Alleppo pines, but I am not very good at identifying such species.  Some of them almost look like my loblolly pines.

Pine trees in Ajloun Jordan

Ajloun is situated on a hilltop with wonderful views of the surrounding area.  The area here is semi-arid, but it supports olive, apricot and pistachio groves as well as significant pine forests.  As you can see from the pictures, it is a pleasant countryside.

As I write this, the pleasant countryside is a pleasant memory.   I am on my way back to Al Asad.   Right now I am stuck in Baghdad, in the Internet café waiting.  I have learned that I cannot get a flight to AA until Tuesday and then I have to go a circuitous route, on rotary wing, so I figure there will certainly be a dust storm somewhere to strand me in some shit hole along the way.   I have decided to go down to Kuwait instead.   I have a good chance of getting there tonight and then I have a better chance of catching a fixed wing flight to Al Asad.   The longer way sometimes leads faster home.  Wish me luck. It is going to be a long trip no matter what.

I am looking forward to getting back to work at Al Asad.  The work is usually interesting, even if conditions are sometimes challenging. There is still a lot for me to do in my last months.  I read the news about improvements in Iraq.  Casualties are way down for both Iraqis and Americans.  I think we are going to succeed here in Iraq put we have to finish our job and I have to finish mine.  Less than four months to do.  Hard to believe.  Time flies when you are having fun.

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