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August 31, 2008

The Haunted Temple

Looking NW on the Euphrates 

Above - The Euphrates looking north and west. 

Our Iraqi friends told us that there was an ancient temple, cursed & haunted by a gin/ghost nearby, so of course we had to go see it.  It sounds like the beginning of a ghost movie.  You know the story line.  The local guys warn us re the ghost.  We don't believe in ghosts and boldly go.  The ghost catches everybody one-by-one.  It didn't work out that way because there really are no ghosts, but maybe the gin got us after all.  It was a lot farther away than we thought, over wrenching roads.  But when we finally got there the view of the Euphrates was beautiful and the place interesting.

Below is the temple mound

Temple mound

Unfortunately, our hosts really didn't know much about the site.   They told me that it was not only that they didn't know, but that it was unknown.   Archeologist had not properly studied the place.  There had been some looting, however, and they did send some shards to Baghdad to be studied.   They told me that the shards were Assyrian and said that they were from around 2000 BC.  This means they are from the middle bronze age, what they call the old Assyrian period, when the Assyrians were establishing trade routes, but before they established their empire.  But I don't know if the information was reliable. 

View from temple mound

I studied ancient history, but I really don't know much re the practical work of archeology.  The site looked to me like the remains of an ancient city with maybe a ziggurat making up the highest point.  The soil underfoot was not like the nearby soil.   My guess (and it is only a guess) is that this is a multi-layered ancient city.   Around here, they built with mud brick.  When the bricks wore out and the city filled with trash, they simply leveled the buildings and built on top.  Over the course of centuries, the cities rose about the neighboring landscape.  Archeologists can dig into the mounds and date the artifacts according to layers.  Ancient Troy had nine layers.  When Heinrich Schliemann dug into the mound, he thought he found Priam's treasure.   He was mistaken - wrong level - but he did open the site to further exploration.

Below - this guy was interested in history and told us what local people knew re the place.

Historian at temple

Someday, I suppose, they will excavate this mound.  It doesn't seem like a very important place, but in ancient history you never know.   Sometimes seemingly small discoveries cause paradigm shifts in how we view history.  I saw lots of shards of pottery, pieces of bone and what looked like a shearing knife, but I have no idea if these things are ancient remains, the debris of somebody's goat grab from last year or some of each.

Euphrates looking south and east

It is currently protected only by its isolation, lack of remarkable appearance and the local legend that it is cursed and/or haunted.   That last thing still means something to many of the local people.   The isolation is easily overcome with four wheel drive vehicles.

The site commands a bend in the Euphrates and was probably a trade node and the natural location for a settlement.   Ancient people in small boats could charge tolls of people going up and down the river.  You can see the remains of a bridge on the far side of the Euphrates.  I wish I could say more about it.  I don't even have a name for it.   Our hosts said it didn't have one.   It is in the jurisdiction of Baghdadi.  That's it.

I am not Heinrich Schliemann.  I am only reporting what I saw today on the surface.  We didn't dig and we didn't take anything away.  I leave that to future experts and I hope they get to the site before the vandals.   We have cultural affairs liaison at the Embassy and I will inform him of what I saw. 

August 30, 2008

MRAPs, Travel & Detainees

 me and MRAP

MRAPs can resist IED explosions, but they are very heavy and uncomfortable to ride in.  You feel every bump, the air conditioning cannot keep the vehicle even reasonably cool on sunny days and there is no room to stretch out your feet.  I bet they will have to come up with a replacement for this vehicle, one that can go off road without making an omelet of everybody sitting in the back.

We went to see a police station.  In the jail they had some terrorists they had recently caught. I was happy to for the diligence of the local authorities.  I don't understand these guys  Some brag that they would gladly kill people like me along with dozens of the local children given a chance. I take no pleasure in seeing these guys in jail and I avoid going in if I can.  They are mostly young, stupid guys.   Some older, clever bad-guy has convinced them to do this evil thing and has ruined their lives and destroyed their futures.  It is sad all around.  The face of evil is not always ugly or easily identified.

Of course we have different sorts of terrorists.  The really bad ones are usually foreign fighters from various other countries around the Middle East.   They are professional.  Life has become shorter and much more difficult for them in Iraq and this is good.   Their goal is to hurt Americans and they will go where they think they can do so easiest.  If not here or Afghanistan, it might be Europe or America.   They are just bad and every one of them killed or captured in Iraq is one that won't be plying his nefarious trade elsewhere.  I have no regrets about them getting what they deserve.

The Iraqis involved in this sort of thing are often sadder cases.  They are usually dumb young men, whose families really had no use for them or, more cruelly but correctly stated, they had more value as dead martyrs than live losers.   Many don't seem to have actually figured out the real meaning of what they were getting into.  As the insurgency increasing overlaps with ordinary crime, they are coming more and more to resemble young gang members.   I am really glad that they are taken out of society and put where they can cause no harm, but the whole thing is a human tragedy on all sides and I cannot feel triumphant or vindicated in most cases.   I wouldn't make a good judge.

August 29, 2008

The Wisdom of Solomon

Below are coats of arms painted on the plywood walls of Camp Rawah

coats of arms 

It always amuses me that private businesspeople come to government officials for advice about business issues.  What do guys who work for the government, who never met a payroll and have retirements backed by the full faith and credit of the United States Government know about the risks & rewards of business?

Some authorities & businessmen in Baghdadi were at odds with a general contractor who does jobs around there and on Al Asad.   They all asked us (the Marines and me) to intercede.   In the interests of literally keeping the peace, we did.

The big complaints involved the contractor not hiring enough local guys, not buying enough from local vendors and not paying either vendors or workers on time.  It reminded of the ward/union boss problems you might face in an old industrial establishment.  I could almost hear the familiar accents.  I was "protected"  by Longshoremen's Local 815 when I loaded cement in Milwaukee (we inland residents loading cement onto flatbed trucks and railroad cars were longshoremen, BTW, because our products arrived on the waters of the Kinnickinnic River.)  Those guys with the big forearms would have understood this situation.

Below - More coats of arms

more coats of arms

We repeated a few platitudes and praise for all participants and the local guys went at it.   It was evident that the biggest single problem was the lack of a reliable banking function.  This is a cash-only-economy.  Workers and contractors are paid in actual currency, which is sometimes hard to get and move in large quantities.  Sometimes payments were late because there just was no cash available.   One of the Baghdadi guys said that Warka Bank was soon to open a branch in Baghdadi - WITH an ATM.  As the significance of this portentous development sunk in, attitudes softened.

After a couple hours it was clear that the problem was not really one of blatant bad faith or dishonesty, but just a failure to communicate.   One of the Baghdadi guys said as much lamenting that when the contractor comes to town, "he doesn't stop by and pay his respects."   Now I was picturing Marlon Brando in "the Godfather."

So much of business is just relationships with people.  We pretend we behave rationally and we often convince ourselves that we do, but we don't.   Something like conspicuously paying respects can mean the difference between smooth coasting and crashing on the rocks, between deals done and deals lost, around here maybe even the difference between living and dying.    

The lesson here is that people will often work things out among themselves if they are provided a safe venue and someone perceived as a powerful neutral party (like the Marines & me) who flatters one side and then the other and tells them how reasonable they are.  Maybe the Wisdom of Solomon comes mostly from just having Solomon's job... and the patience to listen for a long time to everybody's problems. 

August 28, 2008

String of Emeralds

It is not a surprise that Iraqis have plans to hold back their advancing desert and control the clouds of dust and I am glad that they “stole” my idea before I even had it.  We had an exciting time talking to like minded Iraqis.   All the differences of culture and history melted away when we talked about how to get trees to grow in the desert, hold back the sands and conserve water resources.   I guess I am a little nerdy that way, but so were my Iraqi friends.

Below – Outstanding in their field.  This is the experimental tree farm near Anah.  I am standing in front of a seven year old pistachio tree.   There are also olives, dates, poplars, cedars and pines.  So far, the olives, dates and pistachios are most successful.

John Matel at Iraqi experimental forest

Plans to set up a string of oases were put on hold by the many conflicts Iraq suffered and provoked over the last generation.  The old man I talked to got his agricultural education in Belgium a long time ago.   He lamented the lost time and the encroaching desert, but what he felt most acutely was the isolation.  Iraqi scientists lost contact with the rest of the world, during the Saddam tyranny and sanctions.   They were unable to properly contribute to and benefit from the advance of knowledge in preserving arid lands, so their level of expertise is more than twenty years old.  A lot has happened since then.


For example, the Iraqi scientist explained that the Chinese had done a lot of practical research in controlling moving sand dunes.  Sand dunes can swallow fields and whole villages.  Dunes are almost impossible to hold back by physical means alone.   You can build all the walls you want and they just crawl over.  Just shaping a dune with bulldozers is a waste of time; planting vegetation on moving sand is ineffective.  A combination of physical and biological means, however, can make hold them in place, or at least slow their movement. 

We talked about the dust.   As I mentioned in an earlier post, I suspected that the dust we experience in Anbar is not part of the natural environment and that properly managed and conserved land would not produce these sorts of dust storms.   The Iraqi scientist confirmed this.  They had figures that showed the effects of land management on the dust.   (The texts were in Arabic, but they assured me that is what they said.)  And they had a simple plan to counteract the worst of the problem. 

Below – the guy with the blue stripped shirt is the honcho of the project.   

The Iraqis want to do what we did.   During the great depression and the dust bowl, plans were made to plant a series of windbreaks from Canada to Mexico.   They never succeeded in finishing the whole plan, but the windbreaks did help moderate the erosion problem.   They experimented with trees that would grow on the bleak, windswept plains.    One of the relics of this is the Denbigh Experimental Forest in North Dakota, which was established in 1931 and is still growing today in a place where trees had not grown before since the end of the last ice age.  It is only around one square mile, but after 77 years, you might call it a success.

The Iraqis I talked to would like to plant a series of oases all across the desert around 20km apart.  They told me that they estimated that it would cost around $300,000 each to establish plantations the size of the one I saw near Anah.  They require irrigation and care until established, but once established they are more or less self sufficient.  As their experience grows and they see which trees do best in the environment, presumably the survivability will improve.  

Lots of countries have challenges of dry lands.   Many see shortages of clean water as the biggest predicament of the next century.   Now that the dark days of the Saddam times are finished, Iraqis can take advantage of what others have learned.  And when they share their knowledge with the rest of the world, we all we be better for it.

Our job, more specifically Dennis Neffendorf's job, will be to find contacts and put our Iraqi friends back in touch to the extent we can help.   My guess is that tree nerds and conservationists around the world will be excited and want to renew these contacts. 

It will be an easy sell.

August 27, 2008

Again with Anah

Several members of the ePRT and representative of the RCT made a follow up visit to Anah, since I promised the mayor that I would come back with some experts to address particular things we had discussed.  It is a follow up.  Some of this entry will be similar to my entry re a couple weeks ago. Bear with me.

Below is one of my colleagues.   His firm (RTI) gave him that gear.  I think it is Wehrmacht surplus.  It may have been a joke.  It is the Darth Vader gear and the black color soaks up the hot Iraqi sun.

Darth Vader

After Al Qaim, Anah is the best run city in our AO.   Some of the reasons are clear.  Anah's mayor is someone who is competent, honest and who loves his city. The people of Anah mostly have come from someplace else, if for no other reason than that Anah physically moved around twenty years ago when the waters of Lake Qadisiya inundated the old city site.  They are less tied to tribal loyalties and tradition than the inhabitants of most other areas in Anbar.

Below – Anah mosque.

Anah Mosque

During our last visit, the mayor mentioned that Anah do not suffer the energy problems endemic across Iraq.   I asked the mayor some follow up questions about how they do it.  Like every other city in Anbar, Anah draws power from nearby Hadithah Dam and like every other city in Anbar; it does not get enough to satisfy full demand 24/7 and must rely on local generation capacity.    At this point Anah differs from all the others in that the authorities meter the electricity and charge for it.   This both controls demand and increases supply by encouraging and paying for new capacity.

A contrasting example reveals contours of the situation.  The city council chairman in Hit, who cried to us about how the lack of electrical power was making the people of his city suffer and demanded that WE do something to solve his problem, told me that the people of Hit already pay what he considered a lot for electricity; they pay a flat rate of 2000 dinar.  With 2000 dinar, you can buy four cans of Coca-Cola equivalent at the market down the street, BTW.   Of course, a flat rate does nothing to encourage wise use and a flat rate that low, which most people avoid paying anyway, is a joke.   Unfortunately, it is a bad joke and it is told everyday across Iraq, but not in Anah.   The Mayor of Anah told me that a family in his city pays between 10,000 and 20,000 dinar a month AND it is a variable rate.    He does the same thing with water.  People get a basic amount free and after that pay a variable rate.

One weakness of Anah is its lack of bench strength.   Al Qaim has an excellent mayor, but he also has attracted and developed talented associates.   There are many people who could carry on.  Anah still depends too much on one heartbeat.   A related weakness is the dependence on the mayor's political leadership in general.  The mayor is a hands-on kind of guy who knows and is involved in all the projects going on in his community.  Many of these projects should not be managed by government at any level.   To his credit, the mayor understands this too.

Below – ePRT team member in Anah

Colleagues in Anah

We revisited some of the big projects such as the dairy farm, chicken operation, fish hatchers and ecological restoration (which I willl talk about in a future post).   We met some experts who were waiting for us at the projects and the mayor shared his vision of Anah as a center for agricultural and agricultural innovation.    One of the experts told us that Iraq has once produced enough chicken to satisfy 95% of the domestic demand.  Today that statistic is reversed, with Iraqi production accounting for around 5% of demand.  Iraqis are very fond of chicken, so this is important.   Everybody agreed that Anah could become a center for food production and that they have already made many of the first steps.  Unfortunately, so far this has been an all government sponsored enterprise. 

The Mayor said that he prefers private investment and that he hoped that sometime soon that private investment would take over.  For the time being, however, there is no private investment screaming to invest in Anah and the city might have to go through a kind of socialist stage.  Given the small size and local nature of this activity, Anah may avoid some of the most pernicious aspects of state sponsored enterprise and with any luck the politician can and will get out of the business at the earliest opportunity.

In the distance from the agricultural projects we could see the edge of Reyanah.  It will not be long before Anah and Reyanah will merge.   Reyanah is growing rapidly with influx and natural increase from the local Jughafi tribe.  The two cities have significantly differently problems and populations.  It will provide an interesting challenge for all involved.

Rawah is another interesting study in contrasts.   Rawah is a 45 minute MRAP drive north and west of Anah.  A drive in a normal car at a normal speed would get you there in fifteen minutes. We refer to the area as Rawah/Anah, but the two jurisdictions could not be more different.   The mayor is a man of substance; he evidently weighs more than 300 lbs.  He is jolly, laughing inappropriately - in a Jabba the Hutt style - to try to bridge over questions about his competence or honesty, but Rawah is a depressing place despite the advantages of its physical setting and in the surrounding countryside, which include excellent soil, access to water and a beautiful natural location.  The mayor has focused on agriculture and tourism as the keys to his city's future, but has taken no steps to encourage or facilitate either of these things except to ask Coalition Forces to build a hotel for the city.   CF declined the opportunity.   Eventually Rawah's natural gifts and its location between a thriving Al Qaim and a probably soon to be thriving Anah will come into play.  Perhaps the people can either get new leadership or trump the bad leadership with their energy.    

Political leaders really cannot create jobs or prosperity.  They can foster the conditions that will allow the people to do that for themselves, and some do it better than others.   They can also be strong barriers to progress when they don't do their jobs right.   Iraq has examples of both kinds of leaders.  I believe the good leadership and the energy of the people will determine the future, but the bad guys will be with us always too.   

In other word, Iraq will become a normal country in more ways.

August 26, 2008

Reservoir Dogs

Tell those terrorists we're coming ... and hell's coming with us.

No further comment.  We just liked the picture and it reminded everybody of that movie.  


August 25, 2008

60 Minutes

I understand the 60 Minutes episode I saw today about Hadithah originally aired in March 2007 and I suppose it reflected the situation at the time.  But it is amazing how much things have changed and some mention of that in the follow up segment might have been nice. 

Codel in Hadithah

The 60 Minutes segment shows the bad old days in Hadithah.  They said that most people in Hadithah are hostile to coalition forces.  Back then maybe; today things are different.  I walk through Hadithah a lot.  If people are hostile, they don’t show it.   People smile and wave at us.  I frequently stop to talk to shopkeepers and pedestrians.   Not only have I encountered no hostility, but many people thank us for the security we have brought to the place.  I have featured pictures of my walks through Hadithah on many occasions. 

Sometimes dumpy; no longer scary


The 60 Minutes episode is literally historical in that it shows history and a world that has changed.  Clearly the 60 Minutes team wanted to make things look as bad as possible.  The pictures of all the Marines were grainy black and white.  That is the old journalist propaganda trick.   Say what you want.  Show the picture and it trumps the words.  Nobody takes black and white photos anymore.  You know that 60 Minutes took color photos and made them black and white.

Hadithah dress shop

And they feature John Murtha.  What else do I need to say?

veg stand

A tragedy happened in Hadithah during a complicated and dangerous time.  Those involved will be forever scarred.  60 Minutes could have tried a little more fairness.  Anytime you see a black and white photo that isn't historical or something from an Ansel Adams collection, you know somebody is manipulating you.

Road to Hadithah

My Iraqi pictures are color.  They show you in full color what you see today when you go to Hadithah or places nearby.  It is not paradise, but much better.  I wish journalists would do some follow up on their stories, but that wouldn’t fit their story lines.   Sometimes their omissions are important.

Iraqi kids

BTW - Sorry I wrote fast.  The 60 Minutes just annoyed me and I had to grab some pictures I already had.  Next time I go to Hadithah I will take a full sequence.

Foreigners Loving America ... or Not

We were canc'd for our trip to Al Qaim by bad weather, so I am stuck at Al Asad w/o any new Iraqi stories to tell.   But I still can produce blog entries.

After Iraq I will go back to my job in public diplomacy.  I have been thinking about that in my spare time and when I think I write.  These are just my thoughts about some of the big trends.   We will soon be in a new administration and some people expect a big change in our image overseas.  I don’t.  Not in the long term.  We will get a bounce in January as everybody welcomes the new president, but it will be ephemeral.  I worked for Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush.  The only thing I have noticed about opinions of our presidents is that people always seem to like the last president better than the current one.  I have seen more continuity than change in both our policies and our image.  Many of the trends are long term.

British Lord Palmerston cynically noted that, "Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they have only permanent interests."  I find that depressing, but it is true that what we are will trump what we say in the long run.  

We were never as popular as some people remember nor are we as unpopular now as some people think.  Foreigners usually claim that they like the idea of America in general, but the often don't like much about anything in particular about its current manifestation.  This is a long term problem.  On the other hand, they also say that they don't like the current American government, but they like most Americans.  It is just a very complex situation.  The overall American reputation has clearly suffered under George W. Bush, but is our reputation so dependent on one man? Can Obama or McCain change that?

 I have been watching America’s image overseas for more than twenty-five years.  What I have observed is that some things have changed more than others. We have never been widely loved by the so-called intelligencia overseas, with a few exceptions, such as in Eastern Europe.  I was there.  I remember.  But during the Cold War their criticism could go only so far. European pacifists might claim that America and the Soviet Union were morally equivalent, but they knew they were lying. Demonstrations in those days were a kind of burlesque theater, with nice looking props and good displays of pseudo-emotion but not much real substance. They were well orchestrated, often partially funded by the KGB and featuring lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Euro-lefties wanted to harass and weaken the U.S., but not so much that we couldn't defend them from the power of the Soviet Union.

The collapse of the Soviet Union came as a surprise to everyone, although many now claim to have anticipated it.  With the benefit of hindsight, they can clearly see the cracks that were not apparent at the time. It took the world several years to figure out that it really had happened and that consequently the U.S. was unbound and the world’s only superpower.  A lot of books were written about it with about a five year time lag.  The French called us a hyper-power back in the 1990s, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment.  

During the Cold War, U.S. power was balanced and constrained by a nearly peer competitor in the Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Evil Empire, the U.S. was free to use its power.  In some ways, it was almost compelled to do something.  The excuse that U.S. action would provoke an overwhelming Soviet response was removed. It was disquieting.  

Iraqi Foreign Minister Tariq Aziz bitterly complained to then Secretary of State James Baker that the U.S. would never have dared attack Iraq if it was still a client of the powerful Soviet Union, and he was right, but that had changed by 1990.  

The U.S. also never would have intervened in Bosnia or Kosovo had the Soviet Union still been standing.  We would not have been able to invade either Afghanistan or Iraq. The Cold War created caution and a stability because thermonuclear incineration always lurked only around a half hour away. All of today's leaders grew up in this environment; it seemed permanent. Then, it was gone like the snows of past winters.  It was a welcome relief, but many people had grown comfortable with the constraint.

Historians and political scientist have long understood that if any single power emerges unchallenged it will be balanced by others, usually sooner rather than later and usually in by coalition of the weaker powers. In the 1990s, pundits and experts hopefully and probably sincerely declared that the U.S. was immune to the sorts of forces that had affected great powers throughout all of recorded history. We talked about the end of history.  What did that even mean?

Our intervention during the first Iraq War did not provoke great backlash (although it provoked a lot more than many recall today) because it was dressed up as a worldwide effort and - more importantly - it was a conservative and self-limiting enterprise.  The stated and real goals were to reestablish the previous status quo and leave everything - and everyone - else more or less intact. Bosnia and Kosovo made the Russians and the Greeks lividly angry and disrupted the NATO alliance, but we had the Western Europeans mostly on our side because we were doing their work for them and they were mildly embarrassed that they couldn't clean their own house.  

These adventures did sow the seeds of future troubles. In a small but telling episode in 2000, the French refused to sign onto Albright’s pet project, The Community of Democracies, despite its innocuous declaration that democracy was a good thing.  The only thing they really didn’t like about it was that it was greatly favored by America. 

George Bush blundered into a growing mess. We were already being accused to being unilateral and arrogant, with some justification. Bush made it worse. He was inexperienced in foreign affairs and it showed. Bush lacked the Clinton duplicity. Clinton had no trouble parsing words and letting people believe what they wanted to hear in them. I say this with admiration more than criticism.  Sometimes the sugar coating is all it takes to swallow the bitter pill.  For example, Clinton rejected Kyoto and objected to the land mine treaty, but nobody could really tell. Clinton never had any intention acting on these sorts of things, but he was wise enough to obfuscate. Bush told the Texas truth and that doesn’t go over very well in Paris salons.  

9/11 created a very interesting situation, one that should be studied closer. Except in places like the Palestinian territories were people openly celebrated, most of the world was sympathetic, but if you look closely at this sympathy you see the seeds of something else. America for the first time in its history was seen as a victim. The attacks seemed to humble the U.S. and bring it down to the level of ordinary countries. Temporarily, the U.S. was less threatening as the world’s superpower and in need of help from others. 

 This didn't last. Any American president would have reacted aggressively to the attacks. We are an aggressive people, after all, which is how we got to be so powerful. But the Bush Administration and especially Donald Rumsfeld talked a little tougher than was useful. They also made a big mistake in September 2001. The U.S. got all kinds of offers of help from allies and friends. We could have formed a broad coalition of allies who really had autonomy. However, these kinds of coalitions are messy from the military and logistical point of view. Rumsfeld understood that we did not NEED help from the military point of view and that potential helpers would probably get in the way. He was right from the narrow military point of view, but very wrong from a political one. I am not saying we acted completely alone, but the "my way or highway" attitudes came through a bit too often.

I have to add in my personal observation re public diplomacy.  In the 1990s, we unilaterally disarmed our information operations.  We were told that the Cold War was over and our sort of work was not so much needed anymore.  I saw it happening.  We closed our libraries and cut our public affairs staffs.  I had to close my library in Krakow; we got almost no speaker programs; we closed the consulate in Poznan.  And this was happening all over the world.  The number of officers in public affairs dropped by almost half and almost nobody got promoted from around 1993-2000.  It was a devastating time.  A lot of good officers reached their mandatory time in class and were kicked out of the FS.   In better times they would have moved ahead to bigger and better things.  My point is that after 9/11, when we needed a robust public affairs effort, we just did not have enough people or resources in the field to get the message out because of the cuts.  Colin Powell worked hard to make up for the deficit, with his diplomatic readiness initiative, but it takes 7-10 years to develop an experienced FSO.  We lost a generation of officers and it hurt.  Well, back to the main story.

A wiser political point of view would have been to consult and bring allies along in the process to bind them to the joint enterprise. The alliance would have been clumsier, but more robust. I lay the blame for not doing this at the feet of the President. George Bush was too inexperienced in international politics.  Of course, it is really easy to see this now.  In times of emergency thing are not as clear.  (BTW - Clinton was inexperienced too, but he was lucky to fall into the most benign international environment in history. That started to change in the late 1990s.  International experience is helpful.) Instead he took the advice of Cheney and Rumsfeld. They were indeed correct - to a point, but they were solving the current problem at the expense of a future solution.  A wise and experienced president would have looked beyond today’s solution to see tomorrow’s problem.  

I don't have the time here to talk about the further degeneration that happened as a result of Iraq, but I believe that the seeds of trouble were sown in September-October of 2001 and not a year later. I am not sure that we could have brought along the Germans or the French, who opposed us for their own domestic political reasons, but it would have been better to start from a stronger base.  

As a tangent, I believe that our evident victory in Iraq may make us ostensibly LESS popular because it will show that American strength can win even against an"unbeatable" opponent in the heart of the Middle East. But although the talk will remain acrimonious, maybe even get worse, many of the local power brokers will behave better in the presence of strength than they would have had we been defeated. It reminds me of when I see eagles fly. They are often surrounded and harassed by small birds. After it is all said and done, however, it is better to be the eagle than the pigeon.  

My original question was whether or not a new president can get us out of this mess. MY answer is that the American image problem goes way beyond one man, even the president. The meta problem is U.S. power. The president can mitigate the problem, but not by very much. On the plus side, much anti-Americanism is still often burlesque. I have traveled all around and not run into too much of it in REAL life. If Americans behave reasonably well, they are treated reasonably well. Some people have told me that foreigners are nice to me because they want my money. I don't really believe that but don't care anyway. If $5 can rent loyalty it is sure a small price and any hatred that can be expunged for a few dollars doesn't run very deep. Beyond that, our products sell overseas and our investments are welcomed. Thankfully, there is still more sound and fury to anti-Americanism than substance. 

 That is not to downplay the menace of anti-Americanism.  It constrains our policy choices in some very real ways.  We can mitigate it: we should mitigate it, but we cannot eliminate it.  Every place a person in the world turns, he finds Americans, often giving advice. It is no-doubt annoying. Ironically, our image will improve to the extent that our power wanes and/or as other rival centers of power emerge. We can see that happening already in the case of China. Significant "anti-Chinese" sentiment is building up among the chattering classes because of their positions in Darfur or Tibet and their heavy handed management of investments in Africa will soon create a further backlash.

When American is compared to an ideal, we suffer; when compared to something in the real world, we do okay.

The sad fact of human nature is that everybody has to have somebody to dislike and blame for their problems.  It doesn't really matter if it is true or even if they believe it deep down.  The political leaders of some crappy little country don't want to take the blame for the bad conditions created by their policies.  Easier to blame the ubiquitous Americans.  Even in a well-run country lots of things go wrong.  Need someone to blame?  The U.S. has served this role for a good many years and we will continue to do that, although we may soon have a little help from rising powers.

August 24, 2008

Alternative Energy: A Bridge Too Far?

Below is a contraption powered by an old Ford engine pumping irrigation water from the Eurphrates.   Doing the job for 70+ years.

 old engine

I knew about it & promised myself that I would avoid the trap, but I still fell into it.   In some ways it is the flip side of the confidence and sense of purpose I needed to do the job here.  When you have the power to spend the government's money and the broadly defined duty to help rebuild or even just build a whole region it is easy to use the discretion you have to do what you think it right - and be sure you are right.

Alternative energy has been an interest of mine since I was in high school more than thirty years ago  I really do believe that we have to transition into cleaner non-carbon-based energy sources, such as solar, wind and nuclear.  When I got to Iraq, I made alternative energy sources a preference.  I always asked if we could use solar or wind.  I was not alone in this.  I think many of us were beguiled by this possibility.   CERP money was spent on solar street lights.  We put extra money into QRF for alternatives.  I think we all felt good about it.  The people back home think it is great, so we get confirmation all around.   We feel virtuous.

But such things are not always appropriate everyplace.  I have begun to notice complaints when I do my foot patrols.  People look with a jaundiced eye on our solar street lights.  They would prefer electricity nearer their homes.   They often know the price of each light.  And the lights are not attractive.  Beyond that, the rapidly developing technologies will probably make them obsolete too soon.  I still believe in alternative energy, but I think we made a mistake in pushing it.  It was the trap of arrogance and the trap of applying my own cultural preferences and prejudices to the problems of people with different priorities and needs.

I am sure that I could make a very logical argument for alternative energy in Western Iraq.   I could win a debate on that position.  I am good with words.  But it just isn't the best solution in this here and now place.   The time is not ripe.   There are practical problems.

We have problems with dust, for example.  We get plenty of sun in Anbar and even more dust.  Dust settles on everything, including solar panels where it tends to stay in the absence of rain to wash it off.   The Anbaris have very little in terms of a maintenance culture.  It is one of the things we are trying to help them with, but they are not there yet.  Solar power is dispersed and decentralized.   It presents a particular maintenance challenge that I don’t think we/they can properly meet, at least in the near term.

The lesson I have learned, or should I say relearned, is that you cannot always get what you want - even if you are convinced it is right.  And having the power of the government to back you up exacerbates the mistakes you can make.   I guess the old saying goes, "To err is human, but to really screw up you need government support."   Fortunately, I don't think it is that bad.  We never pushed this program to the exclusion of everything else.  It was always in the nature of an experiment.   It was maybe even a good idea.   We have some success.  I - we - just got a little too enthusiastic about it and I am a little embarrassed.  Lesson learned - again.

I still think the alternatives are the way of the future.  When I build a new house, I will install solar and use the site to advantage, but I can do that because I have already satisfied other needs.   In many other situations, we will still need to rely on the “old oily energy” as a bridge us to the new.   We will get there faster if we recognize reality.

August 23, 2008

Prospering in Spite of the Politicans' "Best Efforts"

I spoke to merchants and pedestrians along the main street in Hit.  It was encouraging to hear their stories too.  Many of the businesses were new.  The proprietors told me that they had been in business a few months or that they had closed down and reopened recently.  Their complaints were no longer about security, as they had been only a short time before.  Now they had the usual prosaic problems such as traffic congestion, lack of electricity and general difficulty doing business around the dilapidated infrastructure of this city on the Euphrates.   If you sum up the complaints, you could say that their political leaders were failing to provide the basic building blocks of prosperity.

The picture shows a bicycle repair shop in Hit.  The best bikes sell for 85,000 dinar, around $85.  The proprietor told us that he was only 16 years old, but he had a talent for fixing bikes.  It is his labor and skills that he brings into the partnership.  His partner is an older, richer guy who provides the coin to keep the operation going.   Our sixteen-year-old friend said he was happy with the arrangement and hopeful for the future.  He had been in business for around three months and business was good.  Having a business based on the rugged & rubble strewn streets of Hit, he gets to repair lots of bent wheels and flat tires. 

Bike shop in Hit Iraq

We went to see the political leaders and met the problem.   The head of the town council greeted us with a question: "What do you have to give me?"   When I reminded him that we were seeking a sustainable partnership where he would work WITH us, he promised to make a detailed list of all the things he wanted us to give him.  There was an uncomfortable moment as we explained that we had no intention of just filling orders.  It was his town.  We would help; we would not do the job of the local authorities.  

The most frustrating people are those who are both indolent and demanding.

I should not be entirely negative. We are working well with some parts of the city.  Below constructing drainage in Hit with help of USG funds (CSP).  It just could be so much better.

drainage in Hit

Hit is the worst of major towns in my district.    The tragedy of Hit is that the people, the merchants and mechanics I met, were hard working and willing to take on more responsibility, but they were held back by the incompetence, cravenness and sometimes downright dishonesty of their political leaders.   The difference that good (or even just not bad) leadership can make is astonishing.  It is hard to hold back progress.  We see gains in Al Qaim, Anah, Hadithah and now even in Rutbah, which sits in the middle of nowhere getting little in terms of funding.   Hit's satellite city of Kubaysah is even doing well.   I wonder if the people of Hit can trump their leadership and make the transition to prosperity.

In general, this week's meetings (as I mentioned in yesterday's post) and travels provoked both hope and gloom.  I am filled with admiration for the brave Iraqis who stood up against violence and terrorism when there was no guarentee or even probability that they would win.  They have seen enough suffering and death for many lifetimes and yet still they persist.   When I talk to the merchants and businesses people, literally rebuilding Iraq, I cannot help feel joy at the resilience of the human sprit.   Yet they all stumble over the pernicious legacy of dependence and dishonesty left over from the socialism and tyranny of the former regime.    I am confident that these problems will be just be speed bumps on the road to prosperity, but we will certainly suffer a few more jolts.

August 22, 2008

Three Hard Men

I talked to three of the toughest men I have ever met during separate meetings this week. Each had fought the insurgents in his own way, taking great personal risks and having the wounds and lost family to show for it.   And each is trying to integrate into the new Iraq in his own way. 

Train Station in Al Anbar Iraq

One told us that he sees the future of Iraq as a country that integrates all sorts of Iraqis, regardless of ethnicity or tribe.   The Iraqi nation should stand over all.  He reminded us that he spoke also as a tribal leader when he said that the rule of law must come above the power of tradition and tribe.  The commitment, energy and bravery of the tribal sheiks was essential to staunching the violence in Western Anbar and they could still play an important role in the future, but that role should be based on their merit and abilities, not their power over tribal members.  

Below is a Euphrates River fish served during one of our meetings.  It is a carp, but tastes okay.

Euphrates River carp

We talked a little about why the tribes had been so important and agreed that in times of trouble people turn to more basic institutions such as religion and family.   The tribes were a place where people could better trust loyalties.  As the security and prosperity of Iraq returns, people will have other places to turn and there will be a natural turning to the institutions of civil society.  At least that is the hope.  The chief might be interested in running for political office himself, although he did not say so to us.

A senior police officer also told his compelling personal story.   He was a cop before the war and found himself out of a job after the fall of Saddam.  He says that he went into the vegetable business, i.e. growing and selling tomatoes, cucumbers and melons.  It fed his family and kept him out of trouble. 

He stayed out of the security game until AQI insurgents tortured and murdered his little brother. He seemed compelled to explain in detail, which I won't repeat.  After that he and his cousins started to "disrupt"  the insurgents during nighttime raids.  They would also report insurgent positions to Coalition Forces, enabling them to deal with forces too powerful for the family group to handle. As the IP became better organized, he returned to service and has been there ever since.  His aspiration in life is to do what he is doing: working as an honest cop.  It is not easy, he says.  He has lots of offers of money, but he is working hard to build a professional force.  

Our surprise visit to his IP installation seemed to confirm that.   They had just run down some oil smugglers and morale was high.   In some ways, this guy stands our like Eliot Ness in prohibition era Chicago. There are lots of bad guys still around, but he is making a difference. Below is one of the smuggler's trucks.  They call them Bongo trucks.  I don't know why.

Bongo truck

Our third friend made his name by telling it to all the terrorists.   He literally posted his name and where he lived and challenged the insurgents to come and get him.   They tried.  He is still standing; those who tried to take him down are not.  Someday they will make a movie about it.  His dilemma is one of how does a warrior integrate into a peaceful society when things settle down?   

The stories these three men tell point to the general challenge in Western Anbar.  Stability has come quicker than many people thought possible.  Some arrangements made during the dark and deadly times are not appropriate for the new day that is dawning across the province.  The old saying that yesterday's solutions are today's problems is applicable here.  And it is not limited to the questions of war and peace.   Everybody has to adapt to the new situation.

August 20, 2008

ePRT & Friends & Cetera

Iraqi kid, a little bored 

I like the idea of leverage.  Our ePRT is small, but we can do a lot by working with partners.  More and more we are using our money and expertise as "pump priming*" that gets other efforts going and funds flowing.   The ePRT money is reckoned in the thousands.   Our partners spend more money, but sometimes our involvement helps lead the way.

The biggest USG player in Western Anbar is the military with its CERP (commanders emergency response program).  In the last year, we have also seen I-CERP, which is the same program but using money allocated by the Iraqi government.   CERP is used mostly for reconstruction after war damage.  Since there is less of this left to be done and as our forces come home, there will be less and less CERP needed or available. 

AID funds some effective programs in Western Anbar.  The Community Stabilization Program (CSP) is a $544 million program designed to enhance economic and social stability in Iraq.  CSP has offices in Al Qaim, Hadithah and Hit.  In each place, they employ around eighty Iraqis to do various hometown projects.  Our other big programs are the Community Action Program (CAP), which  promotes grassroots democracy and better local governance and the Local Governance Program (LGP) trains local officials in the essential skills of governance and the delivery of municipal services.  All these programs put Iraqis out front.  I like the idea that our programs have an Iraqi face, but I also worry a little about that same thing.  I think that we Americans are often too willing -almost eager - to hide our good work.  I am willing to share credit;  I know we have to get Iraqis in the lead and I understand that we have to avoid the heavy hand, but sometimes I think we hide so well that nobody knows we are doing these things at all.  The guys at CSP et al assure me that the right people know where the resources are coming from; I am not so sure and people forget.

Sometimes I would just like to stamp the Great Seal of the United States into some of the concrete we pay to spread - have it set in stone.  Maybe I will make that happen, at least in a few places.   Memory fades; stone endures.

Some USG funded programs happen almost completely outside my purview, i.e. I am aware of them, but we rarely interact.  The one I like the best is Tijara, which gives microfinance loans to small Iraqi businesses.  Small loans were very successful in Eastern Europe (the Polish-American Enterprise Fund actually turned a profit while doing good) and a guy in Bangladesh won the Nobel Prize for his work there.  Small loans work in development.  Small loans are usually better than grants because they have the idea of pay-back, reciprocity.   People work harder when they work for themselves and make their own decisions.   The repayment rate for these loans is excellent.

The thing I like most about the small loan programs is the money goes to PRIVATE business.  One of the biggest faults of most government programs, ours included, is that they tend to fund government and non-profit projects.  

Most of the wealth of a modern society is created by the private sector.   That is why so much foreign aid actually causes more harm than good.  It puffs up the bureaucratic sector at the expense of the entrepreneurs.  In the most pernicious case, it merely creates a exploitive kleptocracy, living off foreign largess and playing the PC victim games.    I have been very careful here, but I suppose my record is mixed.  The nature of government programs creates certain constraints.  The loan program, in contrast,  has a natural check on its own behavior.  The guys taking the loans have to pay them back.  That means they must be in a useful or profitable.

Inma is the USAID funded agricultural program.  We are trying to get them to help with a green zone in Anah.  Beyond that, we have little interaction. 

The Iraqis themselves have begun to step up and the activity of the Iraqi authorities is growing rapidly.  In the last year, the Iraqis have outspent us 5.5:1 and their spending is rising as ours falls.  This is a good and natural outcome.   The Iraqis have piles of money from surging oil revenues and there are plenty of useful places to spend it around here.  What is really surprising and appalling is the poverty and the terrible state of the infrastructure.   Iraq was one of the richest oil producers for generations. With all that money pouring in over fifty years, they managed to build less and more poorly than a place like Jordan, which has no such resource.   I expect the new government to do better than the Baathists.  Geography and climate dictate that Anbar will never be a really nice place, but it could and should be better developed.  And Iraq should take its rightful place as the keystone of the Middle East.

Below - you can grow grass in Iraq, but I have never seen a lawn so green.

Green grass in Iraq

* BTW - I recently read the mindset list  re what college kids have experienced (or not).  This year's freshmen college students, for example, have never lived under a president who was not named Bush or Clinton.   Anyway, I am more conscious of the outdated nature of some of my phrases and analogies.  Priming the pump is a historical phrase and few of us have ever actually done it.   It means putting some water onto a dry water pump which helps create the suction to draw water from the well.  FDR used the phrase.  Yes, that was before my time too, but not so far back that I didn't know the phrase.

August 19, 2008

Making a Life In Iraq

Few comments, just pictures.   These are some of the daily life scenes from where our Marines live and work.  You can make a home almost anywhere.

Below - more comfortable than it looks


As good as Gold's Gym

As good as Gold's Gym

Rules posted for playing cards

pocker rules

 Perdition Road (AKA Road to Rawah)

 Road to Rawah

The best way out

Helicopter in Rawah

Arrival in style

Marine vehicles near Rutbah

August 18, 2008

A Lot Changes in a Year

I did a telephone interview today and some of the journalist’s questions made me think – again – about this year has meant.   A lot happens in a year.  As I think about what I have accomplished and what I still can do in my last month here, I understand that the inquiry is meaningless unless it is put into context.  I need to think about what WE - my team, the Marines, the people of Anbar and our country generally - have accomplished.  

Below is a rock drill, used to figure out where vehicles or assets should go.  They usually no longer use actual rocks, but it is nice to occassionally see the old ways.

Rock drill

We accomplished a lot.   We have created options.  At the end of 2006, it was hard to believe success in Iraq was possible.  Some thought that our only option was to get out as soon as possible – to end the war by accepting defeat.  I disagreed at the time because the consequences of failure in Iraq were too terrible to accept, but I admit that I did not see a clear way forward.  I greeted the news of the surge with more hope than real expectation.  By the time I volunteered to go to Iraq, about a year ago, I thought that things had turned around, but I expected to be thrust into the middle of a war and I was not sure we could be successful.  I never expected that only a year later we would have almost annihilated Al Qaeda in Iraq, neutralized the insurgency and seen such progress and prosperity return to the towns of Anbar - back then called the most dangerous place on earth.  Of course, I didn't really know the Marines so well back then and I didn't know the people of Anbar at all.  THEIR achievements have been astonishing.   

The next president doesn't have to promise to end the war in Iraq.  In fact, nobody can any longer promise to end the war.  We - the big we I referenced above - have done that already.  The United States faced down an insurgency in the heart of the Middle East - and won.  I cannot say exactly when this happened.  We had no Battleship Missouri moment.  We just kind of looked around and noticed that what we had here was no longer war.  We still have terrorism and we still have criminal gangs.  We still have big challenges going forward, but if we defined these sorts of problems as war, many parts of our country would be in that condition.

The opposite of war is not automatically peace and prosperity. These things take work to achieve and maintain.   One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to believe that peace just "needs a chance."   We are trying to build conditions that will assure a better outcome.  

Below is the Anbar sky looking straight up.  We don't get many clouds this time of year.

Anbar sky

The question now is how to use this victory and go forward.  We were too optimistic in the first part of the Iraq conflict.  We learned that lesson too well.  Now we are afraid to recognize legitimate success.  But correct action requires correct assessments, w/o too much pessimism or optimism.   A realistic assessment shows a situation still dangerous, but full of promise.

I am interested in history how big events pivot on small things during crucial times.  History is not determined.  There is no such thing as fate.  We all have free will.  We decide.  We make choices that determine the outcomes.  Our individual choice might be small, but we never know how much of a role we play and we all play a role.   I am more conscious of that now than I usually am.

Different choices made a couple of years ago could have resulted in a different and - IMO - a dreadful outcome for Iraq and the U.S.  Had that happened, many people would have seen that bloody and dangerous result as the natural, even inevitable outcome.  Conventional wisdom just a short time ago held that it was impossible to defeat an Islamic insurgency and that the attempt created more terrorists.  It was fatalistic position that might have led to fearful inaction.  It is true that the fight against terrorism can create more terrorists - if it is done wrong.  It is also true that weak responses to threat can also create more terrorists.  Everybody likes to be on what they see as the winning side and a successful insurgency brings more willing recruits too.  Now that we have been successful, the opposite trend is working.  And now that we are succeeding many people say our success in Iraq was just something that would have happened anyway.  This is wrong.

Bringing it back where I started - to my personal point of view - I think coming to Iraq was one of the best decisions I ever made.  I did NOT accomplish what I anticipated for me personally. I thought this would be my last assignment for the FS and that it would mark my transition to a new life.  This turned out to be OBE'd by my unexpected promotion.  I also thought time in the desert would change my outlook more than I believe it has, although that is hard for anybody to know about himself.  I feared that I would be hurt or that I would lose close friends.  Thank God, that has not happened, so far at least.  I feel good that I did my duty, but there are so many around here that have done so much more, I don't feel really satisfied.  I met a lot of great people and experienced extraordinary events, but I guess that after all the momentous events around here; I am more or less the same. 

August 16, 2008

Iraqi Falafel

Falafel in Hadithah Iraq 

The ordinary is the extraordinary in a place like Anbar.   I was reminded of that during a recent visit to a falafel stand in Hadithah.   Instead of the usual chow hall fare, we decided to go out for lunch.  It was a big deal, requiring a convoy, but I think it was worth it.  The shop owner was delighted to have us come in and I think we contributed to the general feeling that peace and normality is returning to this recently-war-torn city.  Reports of these kinds of gestures pass by word of mouth and have strong impact on local attitudes.  Of course, we are not the first.  The Marines at the nearby camp are the ones who told us about the shop, so they presumably have eaten here too.

Here I am with a can of Rani.  Rani is a very sweet fruit-float drink.   It comes in orange, peach, lemon, pineapple, and mango flavors.  With the exception of the mango, I like it a lot, which is why I posed in the semi-advert position.  I have not seen it in America.   We got fifteen falafel sandwiches, plus Rani, for 15000 dinar, which is around fifteen dollars.  The owner said that we could have the food for free, since he was happy with the safety he now enjoyed, but we insisted on paying, which I think was his real desire too.  It was nice that he made the courteous gesture.

John Matel with Rani drink in Hadithah

The owner of the falafel shop told us that he had come to Hadithah because he wanted to avoid the trouble in Baghdad, because there was more opportunity in Hadithah and because he thought it was generally a better place to live and raise a family.   This presents us with an interesting definitional dilemma.  

Is this man a refugee or an internally displaced person?  I would say no.

He is by the definition we commonly use and I am sure relief groups would count him among those they seek money to support.  But he did not flee any specific violence or persecution, according to what he told us and he does not intend to return to Baghdad, even if/when conditions significantly improve.  He is actually much more like someone who flees the crime and bad schools of a big city to start a new life in a small town.   This is not a refugee problem that will be solved because those actually involved are not really looking for a solution.  I have seen similar situation on other occasions.  It makes me skeptical every time I see a news report that set the numbers of refugees at x or y.  People move for lots of reasons and the line between a migrant and a refugee is often very broad and indistinct. 

An interesting digression involves the location of this falafel shop.   I remember the building well because it used to be the headquarters of Lima Company.  The Marines moved out a couple months ago and I guess this guy, among others, moved in.  I wonder if he is aware of the history of his location.  

My friend Major John Jarrard used to work out of this building.   He is a truly honorable man, a HS history teacher, part time Georgia farmer and Marine officer, who in the course of his tour of duty in Iraq saved a little girl's life with an extraordinary effort to get her the treatment she needed for a heart condition. 

The falafel shop seems a lot less heroic than the Marines who were there before, but maybe not.  The shop owner faced hardships and danger and now he is starting a new life and will in his small way contribute to the peace and prosperity of his country.

That too is heroism.

August 15, 2008

Awkward in Hadithah

Below - Congressional delegation (Codel) landing at the Hadithah LZ

Codel landing at Haditha LZ 

An awkward moment came when Hadithah Mayor Hakim announced that he hoped the Republicans would win in the fall elections.   He obfuscated a little when the Democratic Codel leader reminded him that three out of the four members of the visiting Codel were Democrats, but he didn’t back down.    His point was that he wanted America to stay in Iraq until the country was secure and he was spooked by the talk of precipitous withdrawal he heard from the U.S.   

Meeting with mayor in Hadithah

Back in the MRAP a colleague clarified what had happened.   He recalled that when he traveled in the Balkans in the late 1990s, he found that many people favored the Democrats because they feared the Republicans would cut support.   In general, they fear a change in the American policy that has protected them - in some cases literally saved their lives - and they remember the opposition to the surge came mostly from Democrats.   Their opinions stem from a misunderstanding of American domestic politics and, ironically, overconfidence in the veracity of political statements made publicly by politicians.   They think Amerrican politicans might mean what they say.  It is another concrete example of how our domestic political squabbles spill over into our foreign relationships.

It is sort of like a domestic dispute in the big house on the hill, with all the neighbors watching and some of them taking sides.

In any case, the Democratic delegation leader assured all those present that America would not abandon its friends no matter which party won the White House this fall. 

Mayor Hakim made other, less controversial, points.  He thanked America for saving his country and hoped that Iraq would now have the good fortune of countries like Germany and Japan who, in his opinion, benefited from American occupation and attention.   The mayor favors federalism, which he sees as the only way a country as diverse as Iraq can govern itself and make most people reasonably content.   (In any case, centralized decisions making has not worked out so well for the last … oh 5000 years.)  Maybe a more bottom up system would work better.  

The city council president agreed with his mayor on most things, but disagreed about federalism.  He thought that federalism was the slippery slope to disunion.  The mayor pointed out that this showed that they enjoyed democracy in Hadithah.   The mayor and the city council could publicly disagree and, referring again to his early comment on Republicans and Democrats, everybody could speak freely.

All the Iraqis seemed to agree that Iran was a threat to Iraq and a general menace to the peace in the region.    They feared that the day the last American left Iraq would be the same day the Iranians started moving in.  The U.S. had made Iraq too weak to defend itself, they said, and should remain here until Iraq was strong enough to defend itself.

Codel on Hadithah street


Following the meeting with city officials, the Codel went on a short walk through the market district of Hadithah.  Unfortunately, they could not walk through the main market because the streets are being repaved and sidewalks are being installed, with the help of the USAID funded IRD, BTW.   Of course, they COULD have walked past the construction, as most Hadithah shopper do, but this was precluded by security since the Marine vehicles following the pedestrians could not negotiate the construction zone.

Children in Hadithah with Codel

Despite not being the main market area, the streets were lively and the people friendly.   People expressed gratitude to the U.S. for helping make the city safe again.  One individual spoke in English, saying that he had been to London many years ago and had worked in the oil industry as a young man.    When asked about security, he said that he now felt safe to go out day or night.  Only six or eight months ago everybody had to hunker down even during daylight and going out after dark was completely out of the question.

Things are much better now.

August 13, 2008

Visit to Anah

Anah Ancient and Modern

Anah in Western Iraq

The mayor told us that Anah is a 5000 year old city built in 1985.  The site of ancient Anah now lies under the waters of Lake Qadisiya.   When the Hadithah Dam was built, the Iraqi government hired a French firm to design a new city on higher ground.   The result was a pleasant new city, with wide streets organized on Cartesian grid, which can be appreciated even through the detritus of war.  The first building was the mosque and the rest of the city was built around it.

Mosque in Anah in Western Iraq

I was surprised to learn that the mayor did not have an accurate estimate of his city's population. He said that people were beginning to return and that the population was growing.  Anah has long been known for its educated and effective workforce. These are the people who suffered most from the recent insurgency. The insurgents specifically targeted the best educated members of the population, who they considered corrupted, westernized not sufficiently pious, or all of the above.  As a result, many of the best and brightest are either dead or living outside the region or the country.   Making matters worse, during the 1990s, the city declined as a result of the general poor conditions in Iraq.  Anah's education level meant that many of its people COULD leave and sell their skills elsewhere, so the city declined even more precipitously than some others with less mobile workforces.  

The mayor doesn’t think the sojourning population will return anytime soon.  They have built successful lives someplace else and Iraq will offer them no corresponding opportunities in the near term.  In the longer term, however, he expects some return of the diaspora.  When people have made their fortunes, he hopes they will return to the pleasant city on the shores of Lake Qadisiya. 

The mayor was optimistic about the future.  In five years' time, he expects Anah to have prosperity levels similar to Amman, Jordan.  Amman is not to the level of a developed world's city, but it is significantly better off than Anah.  Anah has a long way to go, but considering how far it has come in the last couple of years, a smaller version of Amman may not be an impossible dream. 

 Electrical Power

Alone among all the cities of all of Western Anbar and probably in all of Iraq, the little city of Anah does not have a significant problem with electricity shortages, at least according to what the mayor told us.   How is this possible?

The picture below shows Hadithah Dam, which supplies much of Anbar's power and created the reservoir that drown old Anah.  Anah gets its power from the dam and from petroleum fueled generators.

Hadithah Dam

Anah spells relief from energy shortages m-e-t-e-r-i-n-g.  Anah is evidently the only city w/o a significant energy problem because it is one of the few to meter effectively and charge for electricity.   Most other places electricity from the grid is essentially free, or at least not properly metered.  People have no incentive to use it wisely.  In fact, those who limit their own use of power are just chumps, as somebody else will eagerly soak up the surplus they create.  Our visits around the province have found profligate use of electrical power, when it is online, followed by bitter complains when it goes down.  We have also noticed stores full of electrical devices ranging from small appliances to big screen television sets just waiting to absorb any new power that is generated. Anbar clearly has an electricity problem.  Just as clearly, it cannot find a solution by increasing supply alone.  Electricity currently is de-facto distributed by political fiat.   Local leaders demand, persuade, cajole and perhaps do other less savory things to get a bigger share of insufficient resource.  Demand for any free product grows as rapidly as supply can keep up or, as in the case of Western Anbar, even faster.  It will be great to build more capacity and Iraq has the money to do that and this new capacity will satisfy demand only when the rest of the country behaves more like Anah.

Pushing Back the Desert

In any climate as dry as Western Iraq's, water management is the key to success and even survival.   The Euphrates River is especially low this year from a combination of drought and increased diversions upstream in Syria and Turkey.  As you drive across the river, you can see that the bridge was built to span a much wider flow.  In some cases, the water is hundreds of yards from the evident previous banks and new islands have emerged in the middle, a profuse cover of vegetation and the presence of goat grazing it indicating that this may be more than an ephemeral anomaly.    

Low river levels create challenges for irrigation.  In many cases, pipes that once easily drew the water emerge onto dry land.  Authorities are digging wells and extending pipes as "temporary" expedients, but everyone understands that even when the rains return, upstream dams and diversions have permanently altered the shape and hydrology of the river.  The future of the Euphrates may be something like the Colorado.

New trees fighting desertification

But the people of Anah are not content to let the desert will expand.  We visited a project to plant trees to hold the soils and create a more benign microclimates.   Above and below are pictures of a one-year old installation and another nearby that has been growing for eight years. Our ePRT is helping these projects in a small way with advice and funds, but we cannot take credit for initiating them.  The oldest trees in this particular plantation are eight years old.   They include date palms, pistachios and olives.  The local arborists take seeds and cuttings from the most robust individuals and use them for nursery stock to expand the effort. 

one year old date plantation

The trees are currently sustained with a drip irrigation system, but once established they can usually get along on the stingy local rainfall, according to the Chief of Agricultural Engineers for the desertification reversal project.   This, BTW, is exactly what Dennis Neffendorf told me and the engineer and I had a good conversation about soils.  In many ways, the dust bowl we experienced on our own Great Plains is analogous to the current situation in Iraq.   Iraq is dryer, but as with our own case the destruction of perennial vegetation cover exacerbated a bad situation and damaged a fragile ecosystem.

The picture below shows seedlings growing in a lattice house, which protects them from the burning sun. 

lattice house near Anah, Western Iraq

We talked a little about goats, those pernicious desert making machines.   The engineer showed us perennial leafy plants (I didn't recognize it but it sort of resembled heather) that not only can survive moderate browsing by goats, but actually require it for sustained growth.  His nursery has been propagating these plants and is hoping to cover some of the dusty expanses of the country with this green food.  Some of these plants are non-native and I did pause to recall that kudzu, crown vetch and multiflora rose were once touted by our own government experts as solutions to problems, but looking up at the desiccated dusty desolation that lies outside any man-made green zone, I think that anything is an improvement. 

Potatoes, Cows & Fish

The Anah region grows substantial amounts of potatoes.  This surprised me, since potatoes are water intensive and grow best in a loose, sandy soil very different from the hard clays and hard pan we see in Anbar.  When they explained it to me, it still seemed like it was more trouble than it was worth, but they disagreed.   The soil is indeed not suited to potato cultivation, so they change it by bringing richer, sandier soils up from the river bed.   I took a handful of it and it looked and felt like those Wisconsin or Polish soils I had seen growing rich potato crops. Of course, they also bring the water up from the river. The potato farm supervisor, told me that yields vary greatly, but that they could get 3-8 tons of potatoes from an acre. 

Potato field near Anah, Western Iraq

I doubt that he understood my point of reference and may have been talking about an Iraqi donum, which is 0.67 acre, or he may have thought I meant hectare.  It gets worse, because an Iraqi donum is much bigger than a Turkish donum ... Suffice it to say, it makes a difference.  And did he think I meant short ton, long ton or metric?   Unfortunately, I didn't think of this until after I was headed back to Al Asad.  I just assumed.  Mea culpa, I should know better.  I was reminded how hard it is communicate not only in a different language but also in a different measurement culture.  Three to eight tons an acre is a very high yield and if indeed we are talking the same measurements, I guess it makes sense to grow potatoes in the desert.   But I realize that I have a meaningless data point in my notebook and must remember not to do that again.   It doesn't matter, since we are not doing a precise survey. All I need to know is that the Iraqis seemed satisfied with whatever yield they are getting from whatever area they are talking about and they don't think it is a problem. 

Their problems include the need for a shade tarp and the threat of aggressive goats.  Full sunlight is not a friend around here most of the year.  Growers put up shade tarps to protect garden crops during the heat of the day.   Our Iraqi friends mentioned that their shade tarp supports were damaged.  Something else they need is a fence to protect them from marauding goats.  This latter requirement may be less effective than it seems, since the marauding goats’ owners will open it up.  In any case, they asked us to help with a grant.  We will consider it, but are disinclined at this point, since it is something the Iraqi authorities can provide.

We also visited the site of a future dairy farm/creamery complex.   When completed, the facility will produce milk, cheese, yogurt and - after a suitable interval - hamburger. Initially they will get 250 head of dairy cattle and expand as demand conditions allow.  They are currently waiting on a "green zone", irrigated fields that will provide the fodder crop to feed the cattle.   This will be done with pivot style irrigation making those crop circles so prominent in arid places in our country.  They wisely want to get the feed production up and running before the cows come home.   This is not as clear a decision as it seems to most of us.   Planners often fail to put things in logical order and discover only afterwards that they missed a key step.   The Anah authorities have thought through all parts of the lifecycle, including proper use of manure.  The agricultural engineer also told me that they have plans to apply municipal biosolids to the pastures.

Dairy farm construction in Anah

The dairy farm didn't look like anything I remember in Wisconsin.  There will be no quaint red barns (the pictures nearby shows what the barn and milking stalls will look like) and there will never be verdant hill dotted with spotted cows.  This is much more like an industrial agricultural enterprise.  The only thing that caused me some concern was the source of management and money.  It is a state sponsored operation.   I don't have confidence that a state run enterprise can work better in agriculture than it does anywhere else, but at this time there are no other investors willing or able to take on this sort of challenge. 

Dairy farm construction in Anah, Western Iraq

We were scheduled to visit the fish hatchers and poultry farm, but ran out of time.   Briefly speaking, the fish hatchery is meant to supply stock for local fish farms and restocking of Lake Qadisiya. Anah authorities are interested in getting QRF money to help repair and restore the hatchery.  This is probably something that will be left to the Iraqi authorities.  

Our short trip to Anah revealed a well organized and well managed town with more strengths than weaknesses; more opportunities than threats.    There is reason to be optimistic. 

August 12, 2008

A Quick Look Around Western Anbar

We discussed the state of our districts at our recent team meeting.  The good news is that progress across Western Al Anbar has been astonishing, but it is still uneven and each of the sub-districts has its own particular conditions.   Here is a general look.

Al Qaim
The saying around here is that the sun rises in the west, since Al Qaim was the first district to throw off the insurgents.  Al Qaim, which includes the regions of Husaybah, Ramanan, Karbilah and New Ubaydi, was the most advanced economically and politically, but its progress has slowed in recent months.  Our LNO there sees this not so much a problem as a simple case of diminishing returns.  It is like what happens after a forest fire. Progress is quick in the early stages of recovery but naturally slows as the region approaches a mature situation.   Al Qaim both benefits and suffers from the legacy of state investment.  The region has a big phosphate plant and a cement factory as well as a railroad repair center.  None of them are working to full capacity.  The rail center is in the process of being demilled 

The Al Qaim region has some of the richest soil in the Middle East, according to our Ag Advisor.  Beyond that, the river water at this point carries less salt and mineral, so that it takes significantly less water to sustainably produce crops here than farther downstream, where more gallon of water must be used to avoid salinity. The ePRT is working to hold an agricultural conference in September to address some agricultural issues.

Rawah/Anah has a split personality, with Anah much better run politically and better managed in general.   However, they share the environment.  The region is heavily agricultural and agriculture has suffered from the long drought.  This is exacerbated by low water levels on the Euphrates caused not only by the drought but also by water diversions in Syria and Turkey.  The Euphrates will probably never reach the water flow it did a generation ago.  Many of the regions pumps and pipes no longer reach flowing water.  Updating agriculture is a priority here.

The Hadithah Triad, which includes Hadithah, Barwana and Haqlaniyah, is our success story.  When I arrived ten months ago Hadithah was a prime concern.   The RCT doubled down on the region and it became the biggest recipient of our QRF and other programs.  Earlier this year CSP opened and office there and has been very active.  Today it is thriving.  The biggest problem is growth.  We are trying to develop accurate figures, but it is clear that the Triad is experiencing a population boom.  Property values are rising and there is building everywhere you look.  Perhaps this is the bounce effect we say in Al Qaim several months ago, but for now the Triad is our shinning star.  Of course, I should add the caveat that everything is relative.   The region still suffers the paradox of high unemployment and a shortage of skilled labor, for example.

If the Triad is thriving, Hit, which includes Hit, Baghdadi, Kubaysah and Phurat, is its dark twin.  Hit suffers from especially poor and corrupt leadership at the top, which has been a significant impediment to our efforts.  The ePRT avoids all projects directly involving the mayor, which limits our reach.  On the hopeful side, the city council in Hit is basically sound and those in the satellite regions are good.  Beyond that, the rot at the top cannot hold back economic growth, which has been significant.

Our LNO in Hit reports that The attitude in Kubaysah is very positive and the people are content with the completion of several CF and ePRT projects and continuation of some others such as, the water network.  He also said that in meeting in Baghdadi with the district manager Muhanad and the city council chairman Mal-Allah both expressed their appreciation and thankfulness to the ePRT, the Marines, and the IRD for the projects and the development in the city.

Our biggest area geographically is Rutbah, which includes Nukhayb, Akashat, and the border ports of Waleed and Trebil.   The region borders on Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria.  Rutbah is several months behind in its development.  It recently got a new and dynamic mayor and it making progress.  The biggest issue for arid and sparsely populated Rutbah is water.   Rutbah owes its existence to watering holes, but they are not extensive. The modern city grew around a British fort built in the 1920s.  At that time there was a few hundred people.   Now the population is around 30,000 and growing rapidly, which is taxing the local environment.  Rutbah has access to wells, but the pipes are inadequate. There is a big western desert project that is supposed to bring water from the Euphrates.  See above about water in the Euphrates.   Besides sheep herding, the region is important for the POEs, the borders and phosphate production.  We only recently send a permanent LNO to Rutbah and he is closely assessing the situation.  His priorities are to make sure LPG training is done all over the region and to facilitate the establishment of a regional council.

August 11, 2008

Visit & Foot Patrol in Kubaysah

We visited Kubaysah to look at projects and meet with local officials.    Kubaysah is a sub-district of Hit.  Locals complain that it is a long neglected district.  Most of the people in the region are from the Kubaisi tribe, from which the town takes its name.watermelon shop in Kubaysah Iraq

Above - watermelons, odd shape, good taste


There is universal agreement that the big bottom line problem for Kubaysah is electrical power, follow by the related impediment of fuel supply.   While there is some uncertainty about precise numbers, everybody agrees that the population of Kubaysah has increased significantly since the 2003.  All these new people demand electricity.  Beyond that, each consumer is now pulling more power from the grid.  The mayor told us that a few years ago you could count the air conditioners in the city on one hand.   Today air-conditioning is becoming common and in this hot climate nothing stresses energy as much as air-conditioning.  Add to this all the consumer electronics you can see for sale in local shops and the challenge is apparent.    Supply will have trouble keeping up with demand even in the best case scenario and we are not dealing with the best case scenario.  Electrical generating capacity has increased only a little since the Saddam era.   It will take something like a heroic effort by Iraqi authorities to create the capacity to fill the burgeoning demand for electricity. 

The mayor of Kubaysah sees a simpler interim solution to his town’s problem.  He needs new transformers to properly take advantage of already available electricity. The town currently has a 10 MGW transformer. They need 20.   The mayor thinks the provincial government already has some.   All they need to do is bring a couple down and hook them up.   Provincial promised to do just that, but they don’t follow through. Resources pool and get stuck in Ramadi, he says.  He asked us to use our good offices to help him get what was promised.   We promised to help to the extent we can.  That is a big caveat.

man sitting on stoop in Kubaysah, Iraq

Above – this guy claimed he couldn’t stand to be in the house when the air-conditioning went down.   It didn’t look like that much of a hardship.

The energy shortage came up repeatedly in discussions at the city council as well as during our foot patrol through town.  We joked that the mayor had choreographed the walk so that everybody we met would reinforce his message.   In fact, this is nothing new.  We hear it always and everywhere.

You perceive the obvious impact it when you see people sitting outside their houses because it is too hot to be inside w/o air-conditioning or when you buy that warm Coca-Cola at the local shop whose refrigerator doesn’t work, but those are superficial impacts.    Uncertain power drives up the prices of goods and makes them less available.  For example, Kubaysah is a leading producer of chickens.   Commercial chicken operations are big consumers of electricity to keep large chicken houses ventilated.   If it gets too hot, the chickens die.    You also see an impact on fresh vegetables.  Nothing grows w/o irrigation.   When electric pumps stop, so does the life-giving water, which in this climate means that weeks of work can be desiccated in days or hours.


Our ostensible purpose of coming to Kubaysah in the first place was to check on some of our and CA’s projects.  The most prominent is a water project that will replace the old system of water pipes and bring clean drinking water to most of the city’s population.  

water tower in Kubaysah Iraq

Little in terms of infrastructure or maintenance was done during the last thirty years.   The water tower pictured at the end of the road is from 1963.   Saddam spent money on arms and extravagant palaces.  Low on the priorities list were water projects with results underground and out of sight. 

corroded pipes in Kubaysah Iraq

The Kubaysah water system dates from the 1960s and has essentially not been maintained since.   The population outgrew the system & pipes corroded, allowing sewage to seep into the drinking water.   The CA funded project you see in the pictures is addressing this.  

Sewage in streets in Kubaysah Iraq

The picture shows part of the problem.  That isn't raw sewage, but it comes close.  It flows until it evaporates or soaks into the ground & into corroded pipes.  

A Friendly Foot Patrol

sign praising US forces in Iraq

We wanted to see a place where the pipes were actually being installed.  The narrow streets of the old town did not permit us to travel by MRAP, so we got out and walked.   I always enjoy the foot patrols in any case and request that we do them whenever possible. I try to keep some Iraqi Dinars in my pockets and buy something at a local market.    It also gives us a chance to see and be seen, as well as check the pulse of the neighborhood.  I understand that this is not a scientific survey, but I also would say that I don’t trust the scientific surveys very much in Iraq. 

Polling in Iraq is problematic and unusually susceptible to bias.  Furthermore, I think some of those sponsoring some of the polls positively demand it.

Produce market in Kubaysah Iraq

The people of the town know who their benefactor is the U.S. and the atmospherics were great.   Everyone was willing to talk to us; all were smiling and friendly.   When our interpreter apologized to a driver delayed by our foot patrol, he commented that is was no trouble and thanked us for what we were doing.  

butcher in Kubaysah Iraq

I believe he was speaking in general terms and not specifically about the water project, but the presence of hundreds of workers doing something obviously of assistance can’t hurt.   The only caveat I can think of is that residents seem to have come to think of the U.S., rather than their provincial and national leadership in this role.   

watermelon man in Kubaysah Iraq

Markets were in open and the vendors claimed business was good and said that the produce, with the exception of bananas, was local.   As the picture nearby shows, the butcher shop also has fresh local produce.

Eternal Vigilance

I am acutely aware that we can play our role only because the Marines with us play their so well.   They are the ones who established this order that allows the flowering of peaceful commerce.  I think of it in terms of Maslow’s Hierarchy:  security comes before development. 

Marine patrolling street in Kubaysah Iraq

The Marines remain vigilant so our team can be secure in our work.  I think I would feel safe walking around hell if the Marines were taking care of me.


date palms

Earlier this season we noticed that few of the date palms around Al Asad had many dates and we feared that this could be a general condition.  Fortunately, our local problems stemmed from lack of care.  Nobody was cultivating the trees around base.  Date palms can pollinate naturally, but they do so inefficiently if not cultivated and planted in the proper way. There is not shortage of dates anywhere where anyone cares enough to care enough. 

Not Much Use if You Cannot Use it

sewage truck

This a new sewage truck the city of Kubaysah recently received as a gift from Columbia.  Everybody agrees that it will greatly enhance the city’s ability to treat its sewage – whenever anybody learns how to use it.   Our ePRT is looking into getting training for the city workers.

August 09, 2008

The Toughest Tribe in Anbar

A of the key components of sustainable power and influence is consistency.   If people understand that you will keep your word and behave in a consistent manner, they will respect you, whether or not they like you or what you are doing.  It is good to be loved; it is better to be respected. 

Unloading air assets 

Western Anbar is a place of tribes and extended families.  Each group and sub-group has a reputation as do each of the sheiks.  These groups are constantly vying for advantage and position.  The Anbaris have come to see the Marines in terms they understand - as a tribe with a history and a reputation, although outside the tribal system.   They have come to see the Marines as the toughest tribe in Anbar, the tribe with the longest memory and the one that will pay back in the terms used by the ancient Roman  Lucius Cornelius  Sulla (Felix) "No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full."(BTW - a good biography of Sulla is Sulla the Fortunate.  It was published in 1927, but I don't know of a newer one.   You could also go back to Plutarch, which is available in full text translation on Google.  Sorry, I can never resist the digression.)  This is good.  The Marines have won respect in Anbar in their own terms.    

The Marines provide consistent security which allowed the flowering of Anbar we are now seeing.  It is more than security from insurgents & AQI.  The Marines also provide a kind of impartial and honest outside force that helps guarantee the regional tribes and grouping against each other in their sometimes violent competion.  It is a smaller scale version of how the U.S. & NATO allowed the French and Germans to give up their ancient suspicions and hatreds since the security of an outside force eliminated incentives to stealthily surpass and surprise your opponent with a sudden, devastating, power.   The potential down side of what amounts to a hegemonic relationship is that it can break down if the outside force weakens or disappears before the embers of the ancient hatred and suspicion are gone.   With any luck, the people get to like working together better than destructive confrontation.   It worked maybe too well with the French & Germans.

This interrelationship would be an interesting subject for an anthropologist to study.   People always understand new development in their own terms and try to make sense of them in relation to existing structures.   It is not surprising that the Anbaris would see the Marines as the toughest tribe in Anbar.   

August 08, 2008

Family Reunion

team photo 

Our ePRT is unique because of its decentralization.    Our area of operations covers around 15% of Iraq; we have five separate districts and it is very hard to travel among them.   In response, we developed a system of embedded team members, who stay with the battalion task forces most of the time.  Well, that was the theory.  We only got it implemented within the last few months, as staff changes made it possible in practice.  The system works wonderfully, but it creates management and communications problems, since there is almost never a time when all team members are together in one place.  Today we had a general meeting.  Dennis Neffendorf is on R&R and three new team members are supposed to arrive soon, but I don’t think we will ever get a bigger quorum than we got today.

You can see the picture.  Of course this picture is not complete because it doesn't include all the Marines we work with.   W/o them, we would be able to do nothing.   Marines from the effect group were with us in the first part of our meeting and it was interesting for me to watch the interactions.   My team members introduced themselves and said what they did.  I was conscious of the great pride they took in their work.  I felt lucky to be part of such a team.  Every member is motivated to do his best work and we all are trying to learn from each other.  

In our small way, we are making history.  Our relationships with the Marines, the Iraqis and each other are new and, as I wrote above, our decentralized structure is unusual.   I think it is precisely this combination that accounts for the high morale, desire to do a good job and eagerness to improve.  Paradoxically, every individual feels simultaneously like an autonomous entrepreneur and an integrated member of a team.  All great things are based on contradictions.  High morale is also a bit of a surprise in a place like this, but I suspect that the good sprits are more because of and not in spite of the challenging conditions.    I am also just lucky to have good team members. 

This may be the last time I attend a meeting like this with almost everybody.  I will try to have one more in September when my successor arrives, but stuff can happen between now and then.   It is interesting to think re leaving. My perspective is changed.  When I first got to Al Asad, I thought I would never leave.  It was a very unpleasant place and I would have been very happy to leave early.  I would have probably called it a reprieve. 

Now I am not so sanguine.  It is true that Iraq has become more pleasant (or less unpleasant) as we have upgraded our offices and the violence is way down, but that is not the whole story.  I have gotten used to it.  The dust and heat doesn't bother me as much and I have learned to perceive subtle differences in the landscape, so it does not seem universally barren, as I saw at first.  More importantly, I find the work and the people I work with very fulfilling.   I also like being around the Marines.  Their sense of duty and honor is great.   I hope I have learned something from them.

I am making a small difference and that is important to me.   I would like to continue to contribute.  Beyond that, I feel a little guilty about leaving before the fight is done.  Others have to stay; I get to go.  Others have suffered a lot more hardship over here; my tour in Iraq was not bad.  I console myself with the belief that I will have done my duty, finished my entire time & kept my word.  You can always do more, but at some point you have to recognize that it is enough. I am certain that everything will go on fine w/o me, but this gnawing feeling mitigates the joy I feel about going back to my family and the green and pleasant places at home.

I am sure I will get over it in short order.  When I am not in Iraq, it almost seems an unreal dream when I think about it.   It is so different living in America it almost seems like I am a different person.   I can understand why ordinary Americans who have never experienced this life have trouble understanding it.  It is astonishing to think that one day soon I will get on a plane and a few hours later this will all be over for me.

August 07, 2008

War For Oil

Don't you wish the Iraq war REALLY was for oil as the conspiracy nuts told us?  Then we would have that $79 billion dollar surplus Iraq now enjoys.  The country earns around $90 billion a year in oil revenues and Iraqi officials face the unusual dilemma of not being able to spend money as fast as it comes it.  I wrote re this in an earlier post.

Meanwhile, we Americans are paying for development projects.   This is not how the textbooks describe empires.  When the Romans took over Carthage, Egypt or Gaul, they MADE money.  "To the victor belong the spoils", is what the Romans always said.  That was the way it was throughout history.  We Americans broke the mold.

The American method is more enlightened.   We started doing this big time with the Marshal Plan after World War II.  American generosity made possible the reconstruction of war-torn Europe.  Allies and former enemies alike benefited.  But it was actually enlightened self interest.  It helped us avoid the threats of chaos in Europe and still another rise of an angry and irredentist Germany.  Our leaders back then understood that American prosperity would be enhanced by prosperous partners and that prosperity would hold back the evils of Communism.   The often overlooked truth of a free market is that everybody is better off when everybody else is better off. 

The Romans could profit from the spoils of war because their world was different.  The ancient world was much closer to a zero sum game, where one person could gain wealth only at the expense of another.  Our world, with its market economy, is a positive sum game, where we can all get richer through trade and better production methods. 

We did both the right thing and the smart thing when we choose to help Iraqis to their feet rather than exploit the riches under them.   We could not have enjoyed success in Iraq had we not taken the more holistic and enlightened approach.  And American success in Iraq in establishing order is what made possible Iraq’s prodigious oil earnings.

We are on the way to a prosperous and stable Iraq that will be a partner of the U.S. rather than a menace to the world.  Nevertheless, each part of the journey has different challenges and opportunities.   A couple of years ago it looked like Iraq was spinning out of control and was greatly in need of proactive American generosity.   As Iraq piles up money from oil revenues, some of the variables of the equation change.  Iraq can pay for its own reconstruction and probably help more with the costs of maintaining its own security.

Since the day I arrived in Iraq, we have been working to help them spend their own money.  This is NOT a new policy.  But the sheer size of the cash mountain has added a new urgency to the efforts and created many new opportunities.   

Iraq is a rich country and until the 1970s was one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East, but in recent generations hydrocarbon wealth has been more a curse than a benefit as the oceans of oil fueled wars, facilitated tyranny and permitted mismanagement on a monumental scale.  No country w/o such wealth could have afforded to sink so low but still allow the rulers to be so threatening.  Iraq's conflicts were not FOR oil, but they certainly were ABOUT oil.  W/o the power oil could by, Saddam would have been someone on the order of Robert Mugabe - a horrible man and a local menace, but not a world concern.   Oil wealth boosts the opportunity to do good or evil. 

The money accumulating in Iraqi coffers must be used to produce good outcomes, to build infrastructure, to educate the Iraqi people and restore Iraq's rightful place in the world.   If it sits around too long, somebody will figure out how to steal it or employ it in some nefarious fashion.  There are lots of projects that need doing in Iraq.  In the recent past, the U.S. would have paid for them, but we are weaning them off American largess.  Iraq is unique among war-torn states and developing ones in that it has the resources to pay for its own development. It is time they did.

August 06, 2008

So Hot It Hurts

You usually think of breezes as cool and refreshing.   This is not always true.  I recently returned via Kuwait, where at the camp we experienced a steady hot wind that was actually painful. It felt like being in the stream of a hair dryer. The wind also sun backed hot dust.  It is really unpleasant.

I just think it is odd that you feel cooler when you protected from the breeze. It is a new and unwelcome experience.  I figured I would cool off with a shower.  The water tanks are outside, so the "cold" water was uncomfortably hot.  On the plus side, there is no need for a towel. You just put on your clothes and walk out.  You feel cool for a few precious minutes; then you are dry and a little dusty.

A guy from Nevada once explained to me that up in the north you don't go out in the cold winter.  It is same in the hot desert, just reversed.  Painfully hot and painfully cold are both dangerous.  In fact, a Minnesota winter will kill you faster. 

"desk" in tent in Kuwait

I took the good advice and hunkered down in my tent.  Unfortunately, the tent is a little on the depressing side, as you can see from the pictures.

john matel feet in tent in Kuwait

Being in Iraq is better than being in Kuwait.  I have my own quarters and my own stuff and- odd as it sounds - Al Asad is just better than Ali Al Salem.   We even enjoy cooler temperatures.  The high reaches only around 110-115 degrees and it is nice in the early mornings.  I know 110 sounds horrible, but it really isn't.  As they say, it is a dry heat and there is a big drop in temperature at night.   It just is not very pretty.  Below is some of the nice parts.

Iraqi desert fields

BTW – it is even nicer in Rutbah and Al Qaim, where you have something closer

A good routine is to be active early in the morning and hunker down inside during the extreme heat of the day.   I went running at dawn, which was around 0500.    The thermometer said it was 86 degrees, so it was a lot like a warm afternoon back home.  Not bad.  Taking advantage of the 0430-0730 time frame changes the impression of Iraq as hell.  This is also the cleanest part of the day.  The dust tends to rise a little after dawn.  It must have something to do with the hot sun warming the ground and changing the wind patterns, but I don't know.

Of course, following this happy routine is not always possible.  Sometimes you have to be out and travelling during hot part of the day.  It is then that you earn that hardship pay.  Most uncomfortable is flying in helicopters.  You get the unpleasant combination of hot air, hot exhaust, sun beating down on metal surfaces and the requirement to wear helmets and body armor.  Humvees and MRAPs have air-conditioning that works reasonably well.  It is still uncomfortably hot, but not so dire.  I pity the Marines who have to stand post during the day. 

Helicopter landing in Al Asad Iraq

A veteran Marine told me that Al Anbar was relatively green back in 2003.  Relatively is the operative word, but it was wetter in 2003.  A little bit of green would also create a different impression.  The general rule is 5-7 dry years and one wet one.  The locals call the wet year "normal" and complain re the drought during the other ones.

I guess the bottom line is that timing is important.   In the summer, you have to be out and active before 0730.  Forget about it after that.   On the other hand, winters have pleasant cool weather, and it is nearly perfect in Novembe-December & February-March, expect for the occasional duster.

August 05, 2008

Anbar Sheep Culture

Below is from a report by our Ag-Advisor Dennis Neffendorf.  It is more interesting than anything I have going on today, so I am posting it.  Our overall goal is to make the sheep herds healthier, more productive and smaller.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, we estimate that there are at least 1/3 more sheep on the range than the land's sustainable carrying capacity.

Ironically, low productivity, poverty and inefficiency tend to create a lot more destruction than prosperity.   Poor people tend to be bad stewards of the land because they need to take more desperate measures, like grazing too many low quality sheep, so we think that improving productivity and bringing shepherds more into the market economy is a win for the people, for the counter insurgency and for the environment.

QRF finds an Excellent Process to Train and Assist Sheep Herders in Western Anbar for Wool and Herd Management

Sheep herd in western Al Anbar 

Awassi sheep are the economic soul of Western Al Anbar.  There are three sub-breeds in the Al Asad area.  All produce productive lamb and are superbly adapted to the harsh conditions of Iraq's western desert.  Their fat tail is a key to their survival.  It functions as a reservoir of fat and moisture.  Other breeds have been tried and expensive research was done to try to find a better breed of sheep for the Jazira Desert of Iraq; all have failed.

The Awassi has an open face that permits efficient grazing the thorny plants of prickly dry grass.  Beyond that, the sheep can maintain excellent vision for grazing, but the absence of wool in the face allows the animal to maintain a cooler body temperature and adapt to temperatures well above 120 to even 135 degree F in the desert.  They also lack wool on their legs and under stomach, which in addition to keeping the animals cooler also contributes to its tremendous ability to move across the desert.  The tremendous fat tail provides a source of energy for the animal that allows it go for days without eating.  This tails allows the animal to drink water during the day.  Other breeds across the world can not handle the hot desert water.  This unique ability to drink this very warm water the secret is in the tail.

So when a Sheik offers you a piece of prime tail at his home he is offering you one of the finest secrets of the desert to survival of this harsh climate. 

Shearing tools sheep in Al Anbar

Shearing an art that has been done for many generations, here in Anbar much to everyone's surprise is still done with swords. Yes indeed swords! These swords are laid along side the belly of the animal and cutting of wool is done in a well designed pattern along the length of the body of the animal.  This process has worked for many years and it sure allows the herder to harvest his wool in parts of Iraq that do not have electricity.  This technique will take the shearer from 30 to 40 minutes to shear an animal and the only maintenance is the sharpening of the swords.  It is a laborious process and wool is mainly used within the confines of the community and not currently taken to textile mills or international buyers and marketers of wool.  The absence of commercial shearing in Western Anbar has created a negative effect on herd condition, health and has impacted the economic potential of the typical sheepherders in Western Anbar.  Without the use of current technology and techniques in wool management, shearing, tagging, grading and marketing of wool has severely degraded not only the economy of the sheepherders family but has further degraded the land resource base of the Jazira Desert.

Quick Response Funds set up by the Department of State provided an avenue for training, providing updated equipment and grading of wool.  Programs like this directly enhance the capacity of the Iraq sheep herders but provide a relationship with local wool producers that produce a friendship that will last for years to come.

The training program will provide hands on experience of shearing and proper use of lister equipment.  Once the wool is shorn, training will also be provided on body condition and fertility of producing ewes.  The wool will be graded out to International Standards to provide a competitive marketable product to textile mills.    Wool has many secondary uses not only the use of lanolin for oil but can also be used as an insulation material for homes and business.  This of course has to be properly processed. 

Sheep are one the few agricultural animals that provide two economic sources of income to the producer.  First the wool and then second a very desirable meat.  Bringing in animals for shearing and tagging allows the opportunity to check for parasites both externally and internally.  The consumption of healthier lambs is also a direct link to the healthier people that consume these meat products.

Other nice positive benefits of overall sheep and wool management is that wool can be shorn and corded to make their own thread, high dollar rugs and clothing material around the home.  It can provide additional household income and many of the handmade products lead to a more comfortable life style and economic growth.

Sheep shearing in western Al Anbar

Shearing is an art that takes patience, skill, keeping the lister sharp and not cutting the merchandise to avoid infection and other potential problems

Wool bag in Anbar 

After the wool is graded and sorted then it goes in the wool bag for marketing. 

August 04, 2008

Vanishing Iraq Coverage

I wrote the following letter to the editor of American Journalism Review.  Please follow the links for the original story and this link for the original letter to the editor.

I read your story "Whatever Happened to Iraq?" (June/July) because I am trying to figure out the same thing. Why did the news from Iraq disappear about the time the situation here started to change? I think the problem might be that the American success in Iraq doesn't fit the earlier defeat-and-destruction narrative that you mention in your story.

I don't think it is a conspiracy, but it is a syndrome. Journalists like stories that fit their narratives. Once they have found a narrative that other journalists consent to, they are loath to seek disconfirming evidence. My complaint is that the lack of news now has frozen American perceptions in the bad old days of 2006. So much has changed since then. I have seen it in my 10 months here; Marines who were here in 2005 and 2006 tell me that the change is simply unbelievable, which may be why journalists don't believe it.

The fantastic story, which will probably be told by historians and not current journalists, is that we faced down an insurgency in the center of the Middle East, in a place (Anbar) that al Qaeda had declared the center of its new caliphate. We have driven them to virtual extinction in the course of about a year and did what the pundits and many American politicians said could not be done. Why is that not a story?

Instead, it is big news when the odd bomber gets lucky and kills a bunch of civilians. It is a case of journalists truly missing the forest for the trees.

John A. Matel
U.S. Department of State
Western Anbar, Iraq

August 01, 2008

Doing Nothing All Day

Below is part of my bike/running trail.  It follows the old W&OD rail line.  I like to run on that gray gravel.  It is very pleasing to hear the sound of your footsteps and it makes a good base.  The bike trail is a great because it is essentially a very long park.

W&OD trail 

I spent my second last day at home doing prosaic things.  In the morning, I went running.  It was warm and very humid.  That kind of weather used to bother me, but no more, perhaps because I can always retreat into the air conditioned comfort in the evening.  I enjoy being out in the humidity.  I like the smell of Virginia at this time.  The humidity holds down and accents the various vegetation smells.  The sycamores are especially pungent and I can easily tell the difference between a loblolly and a white pine by smell alone.  I run up the trail and then walk back, so I have time to look at things and think about them. 

Chin bars at Navy Federal

At the end of the run is Navy Federal CU headquarters.  They have nice grounds and an old fashioned exercise area.  I like to do chin-ups, but I don’t use the other things, which are kinda lame. 

Construction near Cedar in Dun Loring

My neighborhood is being “in-filled”.   When Fairfax County suburbs grew initially, development jumped over my area.  I think it was because there was some light industry and a noisy highway interchange.   Even when they built the subway stop, development lagged.  Now they are making up for lost time.  The picture above is along the running trail.  It used to be a bunch of little dumpy houses.   Now they will be "luxury homes."  Below is another site for luxury homes not far from the Metro.  IMO they are too big for the average family and they charge too much for them around here.  In a place like Lacrosse or Southside Va these same house would be around 1/4 the cost. They got the land here ready last year, but the lots are not selling as well as they thought.

Dunn Loring Chase homes

When we bought our house in 1997, the development was just starting.  Fairfax County has plans to build a town center and allow denser development near the Metro.  That is all to the good, as far as I am concerned. If you have transit, you should have transit oriented development.  Below is a teardown.   There was an old apartment building it will be new condos.

Demolition near Dunn Loring metro

Below is across the street from the demo.  I suppose the new buildings will look like these built a couple years ago.  Progress.

Mariott at Dunn Loring

After my run/walk, the boys and I went to Olive Garden for lunch. We talked about things like Victor the Bear.  When I was a kid, they used to bring around a bear called Victor, who would wrestle all comers.  Big guys would try their luck, but Victor always won.  The boys don't believe me, but it is true.  Espen asked me to cut his hair.  Alex thought he was insane and made reference to my own hair, but Espen persevered.  You see the result, not bad.  Cheaper than a barber and we did it right there on the back deck. I only have three attachments.  It will grow back. 

Espen haircut

When Chrissy came home we went to Fudruckers.   As you can see, no great deeds and no great thoughts today, just a nice normal day.  As I prepare to return to Iraq, the normal and uneventful times at home are precious.

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