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September 30, 2008


I am going to give a talk re infrastructure in Iraq.   I include the advert in the interests of shameless-self-promotion.  Please come if you can.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

 Section Meeting. Sponsored by the Younger Members' Forum, John Matel, leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) for Iraq's Western Al Anbar Province, will give a presentation on the successes and continuing challenges of rebuilding Iraq's government and infrastructure.  The U.S. Embassy in Iraq began establishing PRTs in 2005, and they are now a key element in the strategy for stability in Iraq by strengthening the Iraqi government's ability to provide basic services and to construct roads, water and sanitation projects, electric power infrastructure, and other public works.  See more information in the November E-Update newsletter.  Where: Sheraton Crystal City (Metro: Blue/Yellow lines, Crystal City) is located at 1800 Jefferson Davis Highway in Arlington, VA (one block from the Metro).  Registration and networking begins at 6:00 pm with the dinner at 6:45 pm, and the program from approximately 7:30 to 8:30 pm. Reservations can be made by e-mailing reservations@asce-ncs.org. Please RSVP by close of business on November 12, 2008.  The cost is $30 for members and non-members and $5 for students, which includes a buffet dinner. No free parking is available at the hotel for the meeting.  However, free parking is generally available on the street.

September 29, 2008

Disastrous Predictions Exceeding Disastrous Predictions

Now that I am back from Iraq, where we succeeded despite the dire prediction, I see that we are now having the same sort of scare re the economy.  People think it is wise to be pessimistic.  They are just silly. 

The good thing about the terrible predictions we constantly see and hear in the media is the most of them don’t come true.   The bad thing is that we usually don’t hear that part.  Somebody makes the big-bad prediction and then when it doesn’t happen, just moves on. 

We are now hearing the warnings of economic Armageddon.   This is not the first time we have heard it.  Remember the big industry in decline and doom books during the 1980s?  How about the S&L disaster that was supposed to pull us all to hell around 1990?  Do you know the government actually MADE money on the S&L bailout?  That contributed to the prosperity of the 1990s.

We have to go through adjustments.  Systems tend to get out of whack.  It is nobody’s and everybody’s fault, but we always have to look for the guilty parties.  Politicans make their careers out of leading the virtual equivalent of a mob of torch and pitchfork bearing peasants against the "monster castle".  Remember the old Frankenstein movies?  Now we do it online and through the media.  There is always plenty of greed and stupidity to go around, but that is rarely the cause of the trouble.   We will get through this if we don’t overreact and try to solve the wrong problem.  Some of the early programs in the New Deal actually deepened the Depression.  Strong action in the wrong direction is worse than none at all.

It is useful to remember that the property boom started in the 1990s and it didn’t start in America.  Places like the UK, Australia and Spain saw property values rise before we did, and they have fallen even more in some other places.  That property values could rise and fall in so many disparate places with such different  regulatory regimes indicates that it was not a particularly American problem.  That the boom started in the middle of the 1990s indicates that it is not merely a problem of the most current administration.   

We should also remember that Freddie and Fanny were doing what their masters in Congress asked them to do – push loans to low income people.  There is something about low income people that makes it harder for them to get loans.  What could that be?  Oh yeah – they don’t have much money.  They tend to default more often.  That is why Congress has to push lenders to put their money there.  Why does this surprise anybody?   Much of the problem is not in SPITE of the best efforts of government, but BECAUSE of it.

Despite all the gnashing of teeth and the real response that are required, prudent people were not much hurt by the swings.   If you bought your home before 2005, it is likely still worth more than you paid for it.  Maybe you felt richer last year, but you had paper profit.  If you sold you house, it would have cost you more to buy a new one.  Now both your house and the one you might want to buy are cheaper.  It is a wash.  If you didn’t take money out of your home with a refinance or equity loan, your payment is lower in real dollars than it was when you bought the place.   Over the long run, home prices rise not much faster than inflation.   In the short run they fluctuate.  That is why smart people don’t speculate. 

Many people have been living beyond their means.  It is not a bad thing to bring them back to reality.  This is not only natural, it is useful and good.   I understand that the government needs to stabilize the markets, but they should avoid the moral hazard of rewarding greed & stupidity.  That goes for the big guys who lend money to bad credit risks AND to the bad credit risks who are currently defaulting.   The only victims in this whole thing are the good people who lived within their means, didn’t buy what they couldn’t afford and now have to bail out the deadbeats. 

Remember the tale of the grasshopper and the ants.  Unfortunately, in modern times the grasshopper gets a bailout, but let’s not feel sorry for him.  He is still a deadbeat, not a victim.

BTW – for all the gloom re the U.S. consider this:  The United States accounts for 40 percent of total world R&D spending and 38 percent of patented new technology inventions by the industrialized nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), employs 37 percent (1.3 million) of OECD researchers [full-time employees], produces 35 percent, 49 percent, and 63 percent, respectively, of total world publications, citations, and highly cited publications, employs 70 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize  winners and 66 percent of its most-cited individuals, and is the home to 75 percent of both the world’s top 20 and top 40 universities and 58 percent of the top 100.

I won’t say, “don’t worry; be happy”  but the world will not end next year and we will still be #1 for a long time to come.

P.S.  Take a look at this article.   It seems the better things get, the more people complain.

September 28, 2008

Once & Future Frankfurt

Frankfurt was the first city I visited outside the U.S.  That was almost thirty years ago.  Time flies.  Things have changed in Frankfurt, but not that much.  I use Euro instead of Deutsch Marks and the city seems more international than German.  There are a lot of immigrants and Irish pubs.

I met three Irishmen in the youth hostel when I was here in 1979.  They had checked into a hotel and went out to get drunk.  That night, none of them could remember where their hotel was located and they still couldn’t – three days later.  It didn’t bother them too much.  They seemed to have money.  During the day, they walked around the city trying to recognize their erstwhile lodging.  At night, they went out and got drunk.   Maybe they got stranded permanently and founded one of those Irish pubs.

The Irish wandered Europe and the world in those days looking for work.  Germany was booming and they could find unskilled work.  Today the Irish economy is one of the most vibrant in the world and the Germans envy their low unemployment rate. Ireland used to have high taxes and a government unfriendly too business.  No more.  It is now easy to set up shop in Ireland and the country has one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world; it around 12% compared to the Germans’ (and ours) of around 35%.   Some things change. 

BTW – I heard that number on the debates today AFTER I wrote this.  I guess I am topical.

But a picture is worth a thousand words.  Below are some pictures with captions of less than a thousand words to explain them. 


I was hungry most of the time when I visited Germany in 1979.  I didn’t bring enough money, so I lost weight.  One of my favorite dishes was goulash soup at Weinerwald.   IT was cheap.  I loved it.  Hunger is the best cook and it doesn’t taste as good now as then, but I still eat it when I can, for old time’s sake.   Below is what I like to eat now.   This is breakfast at Courtyard. Much healthier food, but still enough fat to make it good. BTW - Courtyard Marriotts in Europe are great.  They are usually in nice, wooded locations and they are not too expensive.

Courtyard at Marriott Frankfurt breakfast

Even with my meager funds in 1979, I still could afford beer – liquid bread, cornflakes in a bottle.  My favorite beer was Heniger, a local Frankfurt product.  It still is good.  The picture is from the old town square.  It is great to sit in the sun on a cool day and drink a cool beer. 

Es gibt kein schoneres leben

Henniger Bier

You can tell a good beer by the “cling”.  Cling is the foam that adheres to the sides off the glass as you drink it down.  It should look foamy, with small bubbles.  If there is not much cling, the beer is too light.  If the bubbles are too big, it probably means that the cup is a little dirty.  Don’t order anything containing mayonnaise at that establishment.  Below is good cling.  The beer is Bitberger, with the slogan “bitte ein bit” – please a bit(berger).  It doesn’t translate so well.

Bitberger Bier in Frankfurt

Germany has a good street culture, with lots of sidewalk cafes an food shops.  This is typical of the bread and pastry shops.   I couldn’t stay in Germany too long.  The beer and chocolate would be too tempting.

Good Food

This post is getting a little long.  Let me continue in the next post.

P.S. It may seem like I drink a lot of beer.  I don't ...usually.  The Marines (and me) drink not a drop of it during deployment.  I do like beer and during my time in dry and beer free Al Asad I developed an aching hunger for the liquid bread.  As luck would have it, I spent a day in Germany on my way home.  I saw my chances and I took 'em.

Im Himmel gibt's kein Bier,
Drum trinken wir es hier.
Denn sind wir nicht mehr hier,
Dann trinken die andern unser Bier.

Ghost Busters

This is the first of the out of sequence posts from Frankfurt.  I will dump them in, but please look back a few posts when you come on these.

My sister believes in ghosts and she has what she purports to be a picture of one, so when I noticed the interesting – almost three dimensional – play of the light, I had to take a picture.  Maybe I can sell it to “National Enquirer.”

Ghost in Goethe's house

The picture above is from Goethe’s house in Frankfurt.  A believer in ghosts might well say that this was Goethe’s wife or maybe a serving girl.  It seems a little small, but I suppose people were smaller in those days, or maybe you shrink when you turn into a ghost.  You can easily imagine it as a woman in 18th century costume in profile.  What do you think? 

Who ya gonna call?

Come Safely Home

My year is finished.  I have accomplished all that I will and I have come safely home.   So … how did we do?

john matel team leader flag

It is always hard to judge one’s own success and I am not sure I can tell.  I am also not sure ANYONE can tell.  So many factors were at work and my role was so small.  If I crow about the successes achieved in Anbar, it will be a lot like the rooster claiming credit for the sunrise.   But if I just pass over the whole thing as though my efforts meant nothing, I am denying reality and denying the whole concept of free choice.  It is almost my metaphysical duty to brag on our achievements.  I did only what others could have done, but most others did not do them.   What a person could do, what he can do and what he actually did are often not strongly related.

I made a difference to the extent of my capabilities for Western Anbar and the security of the United States.  The environment is now more hostile to insurgents and terrorists because of the efforts of my team.  (The Colonel told me that it is easier for his Marines to eliminate “f-ckos” because my team has made it harder for them to survive among the people.  I consider that great praise indeed.)  Conditions are better for the people of the province. I cannot separate my personal achievements from those of the team, so what I am most proud of is that I created the conditions for team members to thrive and that I motivated and empowered them to do a great job, but as a result of this THEY did of the heavy lifting.   That is as it should be.

The better the team, the more the leader can & should act as a catalyst rather than a directive manager.   Being a catalyst for positive change is a good thing, but a catalyst by its very nature is never actually part of the transaction.   To the question, “What did you personally do?” I would have to answer, “Almost nothing.”  But if they asked, “What did you enhance or make happen?” I could answer, “Almost everything the team did.”

I learned that from forestry, which I have been sort of practicing since I planted my first trees back in 1966.  A little leverage and patience creates great things, but you never can point to a precise moment of accomplishment and you have to understand that everything depends on the synergy of forces, many of which you do not control.  

If I look at my early post re going to Iraq, I think you can judge if I met my own vaguely stated goals.  I like vagueness.  It is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.   There are things you just cannot predict or measure precisely.   Most big things are like that.

I consider it achievements that I have come safely home, that my team will continue to do its good work w/o me, that our activities made things better in Iraq, created confusion among our enemies and enhanced the security of the United States.   When we all do our small part, big things get done.  I am proud that I won the respect of the Marines and my team member colleagues.   Nothing else matters too much if you have those things.

Back safely home in Virginia, watching the gentle rain fall on green leaves.

John Matel

PS - I wrote some posts during the journey home and will post them here.  I will then archive this blog and continue on with more prosaic postings.  I will call the blog Matel-in-America.  If some of you want to come along on that trip, you are welcome.  If not thanks for coming along so far.

September 27, 2008

Electricity in Iraq: Explaining Shortages

CNN ran a report highlighting the failures in Iraq.  It is not hard to find troubles and even easier to imagine various things that COULD go wrong.  I suppose that is the job of journalists, but that is one reason why people are always anxious.  Most of the bad things predicted don’t happen, but by then the journalists are on to the next big potential disaster.    

Below is an Iraq village from the air.  Same scene as Hamurabi could have seen (if he could fly).  Notice the electical lines are not down.  There never were any.  Some things take time.

Iraqi village

I am getting sick of hearing about electrical shortages in Iraq.  Let me give you the ground truth that evidently escapes our intrepid CNN colleagues.  

Iraq will NEVER be able to supply electricity 24/7 until it does something fundamental – charge money for it.   Journalists never mention - maybe they don’t know or care - that electricity from the government grid is usually essentially free.   Even when it is not free, there is rarely a variable price.  No surprise then that electrical demand has skyrocketed.  Saddam didn’t worry about demand.  It was nearly impossible for people to buy new appliances or luxuries.  Since the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi people have installed thousands of air conditioners.  You see big screen TVs in the markets.  People have computers with internet.  All these things drain electricity.   

The grid supplies a little more electricity than it did before the war and it will supply more soon when we and the Iraqis finish fixing all the maintenance problems Saddam left.  It is like buying an old car that is ready to fall apart and then getting blamed for the breakdowns.   But in addition to the grid, there has also been an proliferation of small generation.  Our ePRT helped pay for some of them. With all these things, Iraq generates more electrical power than ever before.  But demand bumps up 12% a year – one of the highest growth rates in the world.   Much of that electricity is free and people feel free to waste it.  

What do you think would happen in the U.S. if you paid $2 a month and there was no additional charge no matter how much you used?  Would anybody turn down their air conditioning or flick off the lights when they left a room?    Do you limit yourself to the least expensive items at the all-you-can-eat buffet? 

When Iraqis and our intrepid CNN journalists (who I did not see during the entire year I spent in Western Anbar) talk about electricity, they usually mean the free stuff.   If you drive through villages at night, you notice that Iraqis have electricity.  Some if free or comes at a low flat-rate from the grid, but some of it they pay for – just like you and I do.   This is what happens: a town might get six hours of grid electricity.  Everybody plugs in everything he owns in anticipation of this happy time.  Why not?  It is free.  When the free electricity is finished and they pay for it people are more careful with the electricity.  

It is really the worst possible system.  What do you expect when something is provided free for a limited time?  Everybody uses as much as they possible can.  

You cannot blame the Iraqis.  We all would behave like this.  If you don’t waste it somebody else will.  If any individual saves power, he just gets less.   

Only one place I know of – Anah – meters and charges for electricity the way we do in the U.S. and  most of the world.  Anah has no significant shortages.  The leaders of nearby towns dislike Anah.  It makes them look bad.  It also proves the point.   

So next time you hear about electricity shortages in Iraq, keep in mind that this is nearly completely an artificial problem caused by what started off as well-meaning and generous government policy.  Well, maybe not that well meaning.  Saddam used free electricity to bribe the people, knowing that the lack of electrical appliances would limit demand.  No reasonable amount of investment will solve this problem because in its current form the problem is not solvable.   It is easy to demand more of something you get free. 

The electricity problem is a classic “hot potato”.  We made the mistake of defining it as OUR problems and took the blame for a stupid system we inherited from the bad old days.  We cannot solve the problem.  Nobody can in its current form.  We have to toss that hot potato back to those who can address the problem in the ways that will work.  And somebody should explain this to CNN.  I suspect somebody has tried.  Not everybody is teachable.  They prefer to look earnestly at the camera and list the failures rather than explain the solution is simple, although not easy.

September 24, 2008

Why the Surge Worked

I read a great article today about why the surge worked.   Many of the opinions I read are from those who don’t know.  This is different.  Please follow the link to the original.  It is based on an interview with General Jack Keane.  Below is my block quote summary.  It is mostly from the article.  I put my own comments in italics.

BTW - Also read this article in Foreign Affairs.

Trucks at train station in Hadithah

Talking about the first phase of the war, just after the invasion.  

Gen. Keane. "It didn't work. And why didn't it work? Because the enemy voted and they took advantage. The fact that we did not adjust to what the enemy was doing to us and the Iraqis were not capable of standing by themselves -- that was our major failure. . . . It took us all a while to understand the war and [that] we had the wrong strategy to fight it. Where I parted from those leaders [at the Pentagon] is when we knew the facts -- and the facts were pretty evident in 2005 and compelling in 2006 -- and those facts were simply that we could not protect the population and the levels of violence were just out of control."

President Bush chooses victory over popular politics. 

In late 2006, after the midterm election debacle for Republicans, pressure rose for a quick if dishonorable exit from Iraq. Gen. Keane met Frederick Kagan, who was putting together a report on an alternative strategy for Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute. On Dec. 11, both men found themselves at the White House to push the plan. Congress, the Joint Chiefs, Iraq commander Gen. George Casey and the Iraq Study Group all wanted a fast drawdown. President Bush ignored their advice. Gen. Petraeus was sent out in February to oversee the new, risky and politically unpopular surge.

We did what they said couldn't be done.

"It's a stunning turnaround, and I think people will study it for years because it's unparalleled in counterinsurgency practice," he says. "All the gains we've achieved against al Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency, the Iranians in the south are sustainable" -- a slight pause here -- "if we're smart about it and not let them regroup and get back into it."

This is the part I really think is true:

"I have a theory" about the unexpectedly fast turnaround, Gen Keane says. "Whether they be Sunni, Shia or Kurd, anyone who was being touched by that war after four years was fed up with it. And I think once a solution was being provided, once they saw the Americans were truly willing to take risks and die to protect their women and children and their way of life, they decided one, to protect the Americans, and two, to turn in the enemies that were around them who were intimidating and terrorizing them; that gave them the courage to do it."

This is what I saw in Anbar. This is what I think was important for us. This is why w/o the surge, our friends would be dead and the terrorists would be getting ready to take the war to us someplace else.  

The U.S. came "within weeks or months" of defeat in Iraq in 2006, he says. The consequences of that were "unacceptable" for the region, "not to speak of an institution that I loved." And what about the military chiefs who thought the extra battalions and extended service tours would be too much of a strain on American forces? "When people talk about stress and strain on a force, the stress and strain that would come from having to live with a humiliating defeat would be quite staggering."

Right!  Do read the whole article.

September 23, 2008

Almost Out

I am in Baghdad completing my check-out and getting ready to fly back to America.   I don’t expect ever to be in Iraq again.   I actually do have some fond memories of the place and I expect that they will improve over time, as the hardships fade and the good times are enhanced.  The mind works that way.   I made lots of friends in Iraq and I will miss them.  Already I am thinking how fast the year went.  I remember not thinking that at the time, but that is also the way the mind works.

It is quieter in Baghdad now, or maybe that is just my impression.  It may be because whenever I have been here before it has been part of some kind of conference, so there were always other transients around.  I have the luxury of a “wet” trailer (i.e. one with a bathroom) but I sort of miss Al Asad. With its Marines and its austerity, Al Asad is like Sparta.  Baghdad is more like Babylon.   

Frem og tilbake er like langt, but it really does make a difference which way you are going.  Last year when I was going into Iraq, I was a little fearful and apprehensive but excited.  Now that I am going out, I feel satisfied that my part of the job is done but still vaguely apprehensive.  

For almost a year, my life has been ordered by the mission and the interesting conditions of being in Iraq.  We worked every day.  I often forgot the day of the week.  I lived and worked with the same people.  We shared a purpose and a duty.  All that is finished.   

I return to home to an America that has largely forgotten about Iraq.  The economy is issue # 1 in the election.  I don’t think it should be.  The economy is a big deal, but the decisions of the president have limited impact on the economy.  

Graph of median income

If you look at a long term graph of economic factors, you see the waves are long and the incumbent president makes not much difference.   (This chart is ADJUSTED for inflation, BTW, and it is the MEDIAN, so it doesn't show that just the rich got richer.)  An economic upturn began in 1982 and more or less continued until today.  The terrible conditions of the 1970s are forgotten and we have not suffered anything like the turbulence of the decade following 1973.  The economy went down a little in 1991 and recovered in 1992.  GHW was president for both.  It grew a lot in the 1990s and turned down in 2000.   Bill Clinton was president for both.   It recovered in 2002, grew a lot 2003-7 and then turned down last year.  GW Bush was president for both.   What did the presidents do to cause these things?  Not much.  They reflected worldwide trends.  

Presidents don’t manage the economy.  They just get credit or blame.  And the candidates mislead the American people about what they are going to do; like roosters promising to make the sun rise, if they crow long enough eventually they are right. 

What happens in Iraq, on the other hand, depends on presidential decisions to a much greater extent. Foreign & security policy is where presidents have a dominant role.   That is how our system works. Maybe it is better that people don’t think so much about Iraq.  They usually get it wrong.  They either think it is a terrible meat grinder or a place we can just leave at our choosing w/o consequences.  Not many appreciate the work and sacrifice that brought us this far and the danger that all could be lost.   They even think this result could have just happened by itself.  People have their own affairs and I cannot really expect anything else.   I will answer the questions of anybody who asks, but try not to impose on the others.  It will be a challenge.   You can see how hard it will be.  I started to talk re being in Baghdad and drifted to this.

Anyway, I have not taken part in any of the luxuries (i.e. beer) available in Baghdad.  I figure I will wait a few more days until I clear Iraq.  I have a layover day in Frankfurt.  I bet I can find some good beer there so I don’t need it here.  And back home I can engage in the world’s ultimate luxury – being an American in America.

September 21, 2008

Victory in Iraq

Below is my last Marine Air helo.  It is in that cloud of dust.

Marine Air 

I am not sure what to do with this blog.   I enjoy writing and will probably keep on posting, but it will not be as interesting most of the time.   I cannot continue to use the title “Matel in Iraq.”  I was thinking of putting a period to the sentence and calling it “Victory in Iraq,” since that is what I believe America has achieved here.  It would be a stand alone, historical webpage.  One of my colleagues thought that would be a bad idea because it was too strident.  He may be right.  We have achieved success here, but victory has that WWII feel of having it settled and the war on terror is not settled.  Your suggestions are welcomed.

FYI – I will have left Al Asad by the time you read this and will leave Iraq entirely in a few days.  I have some free time.  I look forward to seeing my family again and just being in Virginia. I want to get up to Milwaukee for a while and Mariza and I will attend the national tree farmer convention in Portland, Oregon.   I also need to look at my own trees.  We are applying biosolids to 132 acres.  That should make my little trees shoot up next year and improve the soil stability. 

I start my new job as director of policy issues at International Information Programs in November, after taking the senior executive training course at FSI.  I think that will be fun.  I have to get my bike fixed so I can do that commute on the bike trail.   

john matel smiles It has been fun talking to you all for the past year.  This is not my last post, or even my last post from Iraq, but it is the end of the era.  The posts will just be more prosaic with more about forestry and living in the USA.  Of course, I still have to do my big looking back pontification.

Last year I thought I would jump for joy when I got out of Iraq.  While I am still very happy to look forward to the good things I mention above,  I have come to enjoy my work here and I will miss my colleagues and friends I have made here.   I have enjoyed the experience.  Whodathunkit?

September 20, 2008

Drunken John Matel

I think that I prefer "drunken" (from the original song) to "fighting", although I have done neither in Iraq.   The Marines sang the song below at my going away.  It is based on an old Johnny Cash song.  I am flattered that they took the time.   The Marines don't make fun of people they don’t like.


The Ballad of John Matel
John Matel...
John Matel...

Call him fighting John Matel
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

Gather round me people there's a story I would tell
About a brave old civil servant you should remember well
From the land of beer and bratwurst
In old Wisconsin land

Who joined the Department of State to serve his Uncle Sam
Now John served in all the world's hemispheres

The North, South, East, and West
It was his hardship tour in Rio
That he enjoyed the best

Call him fighting John Matel
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

John Matel volunteered to serve in harm's way,
In the country of Iraq
While his peers looked at him with a sense of awe,
As they chose to remain back
He served with the Marines of worldwide acclaim
In the Western Al Anbar Hinterland
Rubbing shoulders with Mayors and Sheikhs
In the dust, the dirt, and sand

Call him fighting John Matel
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

He traversed the battlefield in the air and on the road
Airborne in the Osprey, on road by MRAP
He was fine with the air-land insert,
It was the road movements he thought were crap

Call him fighting John Matel
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

Call him jumping John Matel
He won't answer anymore
Not the whiskey drinkin' Ambassador
Nor the Diplomat who went to war

Yeah, call him fighting John Matel
And his legacy will go far
With the Sheikhs, the Mayors, and common man
In the whole of Western Anbar

John Matel...
John Matel...

John Matel and flag


September 19, 2008

Sanctions, Mismanagement and Opportunity Lost

Processing Phosphate
Phosphate processing Akashat 

The Plant manager, who has worked the phosphate plant for thirty-three years and been the general manager since 1997, told us that the Phosphate Plant employs roughly 50-60 permanent workers. A full operating work force would be around 200-250 full time employees.  He explained how the plant works.

After the phosphate comes from the quarry it is crushed and mixed.  The various layers of phosphate have different levels of purity.  The Al Qaim phosphate plant requires a purity level of 20%, so the Akashat plant crushes and blends the material to reach that mix.   You can see the operation above.  This will be loaded onto trains and sent to the Al Qaim Phosphate Plant

A short digression: the phosphate quarry and primary processing operation was in business before the phosphate plant in Al Qaim, which got going in 1984.  Production there was seriously disrupted by the UN sanctions after 1991 and the 2003 war essentially stopped it from working.  It is now operating at around 10%.  The plant in Al Qaim is clean and still well kept (which is different from the Akashat operation), but there are serious structural and technology problems.  The Phosphate Plant is actually a complex of several facilities.  In theory, it produces phosphoric acid, sulfuric acid, ammonia, three types of fertilizer, aluminum fluoride/cryolite, and freon production.  The plant is working only at around 10% of capacity and fertilizer is the only product it still makes. 


After years of sanctions and neglect, it might make more sense just to build a new “greenfield” factory complex (although around here open fields are khaki.)  There is a lot of open space, after all. 

Short of War?

 Junk in Akashat

The phosphate quarry was largely undamaged by the Iraq war in 2003, but suffered mightily from UN sanctions in the 1990 until 2003.  We drove through ghost parking lots full of buses and heavy equipment. They originally stopped working for want of spare parts.  Many of them are now too far gone to repair, even if parts became available.  I assume all that scrap must be worth a lot, however.

Junk trucks

It does make you wonder about sanctions, however.  War is brutal business, but in some cases sanctions can cause similar or worse damage.  It might be better in the case of this quarry to start completely over.  The old equipment will just get in the way.

junk buses

In human terms, I have seen how sanctions caused breakdowns in the health and education systems.  People certainly died as the result of the UN sanctions, which prevented medicines and machines from getting to hospitals.  The environment was harmed as bad practices spread and new techniques were foreclosed.  This is Saddam’s fault.  There were ways to get food and medicine in Iraq, but Saddam Hussein abused & corrupted the oil for food program and refused to let the sanctions interfere with his political ambitions and he directed most of the money to his palaces.  How do you deal nasty and dangerous dictators short of war when sanctions hurt everybody else more than the bad guys?   Sometimes peace hurts more than war.

Model Railroad

Akashat train station

The railroad tracks stretch all the way east to Hadithah where they connect in the south to the Persian Gulf and northward eventually to Europe (remember the Kaiser’s Berlin to Baghdad RR dream).  But just west of Akashat they run into the featureless desert and that is the end of them.  The station in Akashat is deceptive.  It looks like a hub, but a terminus is what it is really. 

There are plans, actually at this point more like aspirations, to link this line to Syria and Jordan.  The director of the phosphate quarry told us that in the early 1980s there were firm plans to connect the rail line with Jordan, but the war with Iran, followed by the war with Kuwait, the war with the UN, UN sanctions and the invasion by CF derailed this project.  Saddam’s adventures were not good for business.

The tracks are beautiful.  They are well made, well installed and well maintained, or more correctly they require little maintenance out here in the desert w/o significant traffic.  Most of the people who ran the railroad are still around.   They have the skills to do it again.  The sleepers are concrete, each emblazoned with the Iraqi Rail Road logo.    The road beds are leveled and supplemented by the right size gravel.   You have everything needed to run a railroad, except running trains because there is nothing much to carry.

The phosphate quarry sporadically sends a trainload of raw material to Al Qaim.  Empty cars return.  Even if/when the phosphate and cement operations in Al Qaim are working full out there still won’t be much to carry.   The tracks leading nowhere often carry nothing. 

Practically, this situation is easily remedied.   If these tracks were extended west across Jordan to the Red Sea or the Med, Akashat would be in the middle and this track would carry a prodigious amount of freight.   I have heard estimates that containerized cargo going from the Med to Southern Iraq and the Persian Gulf could cut eight days off a trip through the Suez Canal around the Arabian Peninsula, not to mention the simple beginning of a distribution network for the whole of the Middle East.  Iraq is shaped like a keystone and it is the geographical keystone of the region.   Of course, political would far outweigh engineering challenges in this venture.

As I travel Iraq, I am always bolstered by the energy of people but saddened by the opportunity lost.  This country is rich in many ways - water, soil, location, oil - but so much was wasted by dictators and bad choices.  We did the right thing in removing Saddam.  I am certain of that.  I don't know if the people of Iraq, the region and the world will make the most of the opportunity we have now, but it would be a shame to waste it again.  

September 18, 2008

Akashat: At the Edge of the World

I was worried that Akashat was a place I would never see.  This would have kept me in the company of almost everybody else on earth with the only difference being that I wanted to go.   I planned to go to Akashat on a couple of occasions and ran into bad weather.  I went to Akashat today.  Hallelujah.  Life in Iraq is now complete and I have visited everyplace in Western Anbar that I heard was worth visiting.

We traveled in the Light Armored Vehicles, shown below.  You have to stand and look over the top.  They are good for short distances.  Notice the boat-like shape.  They float ... in theory.  Of course, there are no rivers or lakes anywhere nearby to test that out.


If the world was flat and there was an edge of the world, Akashat would teeter on that edge.  I would have to say that Akashat is worth seeing, but may not really be worth going to see.  It looked a lot like lots of other places in Iraq built along the railroad tracks.  It is nice (in the Iraqi context) but unremarkable.

Empty space in Akashat, Iraq

Akashat is a sub-district of Waleed, which is a sub-district of Rutbah, which is a district of Anbar, which is one of eighteen Iraqi provinces.  You get the idea.   In true sons of liberty style, however, the citizens of Akashat elected the town councils w/o approval from Baghdad, Ramadi, Al Qaim Rutbah or Waleed.  The council is more active than most town councils we have seen, but they are not recognized as legitimate by GoI, since Akashat is a company town - a fully owned subsidiary of the Department of Industry.  You have to respect their gumption.

We stopped into the city hall, which is being renovated with CERP funds, and met the City Council Chairman and his colleagues.   He is educated as a lawyer.  He seems very intelligent and honestly interested in the good of his people.   We also talked to a contractor interested in practical money-making enterprises.  He is a Kharbouli, which is the biggest local tribe.  This extends his power and his reach into city politics and development.

According to what we learned, Akashat gets a little shortchanged because it falls between jurisdictions.   It was built as an industrial village in 1985, attached to the local phosphate quarry and administered by the Ministry of industry.  As an official part of Waleed, Akashat gets its police, security and political direction from Rutbah.  Economically, however, it looks to Al Qaim, where it does most of its business and where its parent phosphate plant - the place where all the raw material from the quarry goes - is located. The director general of education from Al Qaim, not Rutbah, funds and supplies the schools in Akashat. 

Akashat also benefits from the ambiguity.  Local officials admit trying to get something from each jurisdiction.  The stakes are potentially higher than who controls the village on the edge of nowhere, since there are reports of massive nature gas deposits under the flat and forbidding local landscape.

We really don't have a precise idea how many people live in Akashat.  Officially there are around 5000.  I short look around the town indicates that is an inflated figure.  On the other hand, greater Akashat (there really is such a thing) is supposed to have 12000 residents.  I saw a couple of sub villages, such as the garden community of Sikak (below).  No matter which figure you use, Akashat is much bigger than its "parent," Waleed that has a permanent population of only around 500. 

Sikak, Iraq

Akashat is built on relatively high ground, so the climate is more pleasant (i.e. noticeably cooler) than most of the rest of Iraq.  Nevertheless, there is nothing there but the phosphate operation and the railroad.  This reason for the city's existence might not be reason enough for all its citizens.  

September 17, 2008

Phosphate & Fossils

Road into quarry 

We visited the Akashat phosphate quarry.  There are actually two separate quarries, one and five kilometers from the loading plant respectively.  We observed no productive activity, but there were fresh vehicle tracks, so some work had been done not long ago.


I am not an expert on fossils, but I did notice the Paleozoic brachiopods in the rocks.  They looked like the Ordovician fossils I used to collect when I was a kid.  I wouldn't bet on the dating, but there was a big extinction event that wiped out most of the species in the seas at the time, including most types of brachiopods.  They call tit the Cambrian-Ordovician extinction event and it took place around 488 million years ago.  It was one of five big extinction events.   The biggest was the Permian which killed (I just looked it up) 97% of all marine species and 70% of the terrestrial ones.  Gee, and there were no humans around to blame.

(BTW – further research indicates that I didn’t have any idea what I was looking at.    These deposits are from the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic Era.   I don't really know.

This is the clearest (believe it or not) I could find. 

Events Surrounding the Rutba Uplift in Western Iraq

 Saad Zair Jassim1

(1) GETECH, Leeds University, Leeds, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom

 The Rutba Uplift refers to a broad region covering W Iraq, NE Jordan and NE Syria and represents an Early Triassic inversion of a very pronounced Paleozoic basin in which the full Paleozoic sequence might be present. The shape of the uplift fluctuated between elonagted N-S and NE-SW high throughout the Triassic and Jurassic and ENE-WSW oriented high throughout the Cretaceous. Against the popular belief, the Rutba uplift is neither related to Mardin nor to Hail uplifts in Turkey and Saudi arabia respectively.

A combination of repeated tectonic uplift and eustatic changes in sea level charcterized the uplift from Late Triassic to Cenomanian. Tweleve transgressive-regressive cycles within the above time frame can be distinguished and correlated with basinwise sedimentary cycles.During Campanian-Maastrichtian to M Eocene, the uplift was influenced by N-S and E-W tectonism which was associated with upwelling and phosphorite deposition due to disturbance in the basin resulting from Late Cretaceous obduction along the Zagros suture. The uplift was finally abandoned by the sea from the Late Eocene and remained tilted towards the NE till the present.

Due to low Mesozoic and Tertiary sedimentary cover, only Paleozoic petroleum systems can be expected as proven by drilling in W Iraq, SE Syria and NE Jordan.)


Phosphate layers

Anyway, this shows how phosphates are deposited.  They accumulated in sedimentary rocks at the bottoms of ancient oceans and appear in the rocks in horizontal layers.  In this particular quarry the phosphates are located between limestone layers.  The limestone is a waste product; they call it overburden.  It other types of mining, they call it slag. 


Phosphate crumbles in your hands and you can break it off by hand.  When the phosphate plant was working at capacity, it had some big shovels and lots of trucks.  They also used explosives to knock down whole cliffs.  The big shovels and trucks are not working and they are currently not allowed to use explosives.  

Big shovel; small men

Those are some of the reasons why the quarry is producing only 5% of theoretical capacity, which is 3.4 million tons/year.  There is a lot of phosphate in the quarry.  The director told us that it would produce phosphate for at least fifty years at the theoretical capacity.  This quarry, however, has NEVER produced at theoretical capacity.  In its best years, in the middle 1980s, it produced 2.4 million tons.  Since the 1990s, it has not even come close to that.

Big shovel

Above - The behemoth sits powerless.  It has not worked for years and now is just a menace to travel on the road.

This is enough for the time being, since the phosphate plant in Al Qaim is not working at capacity.  But there is a great and growing demand for fertilizer.  The Akashat quarry has easy to reach deposits.  I expect there will be a lot of activity here a short time from now.

September 16, 2008

Horned Viper

One of the Marines saw a desert horned viper in the bathroom - the bathroom I use.  He came out of the stall and there it was.  Nasty looking thing.   He said that it reared up.  I did some research and they say that this kind of snake is shy.  I am glad of that.    They are also not very poisonous.   I am glad of that too, but I am a little concerned about the "not very" part.

Horned viper

I understand that they are good for catching rats, but I am not happy to have such things around. I am afraid of snakes that can bite and I am not particularly fond even of those that don’t.   

I have only seen snakes twice since I have been here.   I am not eager to see them again.  Next time I walk to the bathroom in the middle of the night in my flip-flops, I will be thinking about what I don't see and how they might be watching me.  Jeez.   I am narrow-minded when it comes to snakes.  I don't like anything that can give me a venomous bite.

September 15, 2008

Blood Red Sky

Yesterday the sky was blood red.  I never saw anything like it.  I thought of taking a picture, but I figured the camera couldn't capture it.  I would just look like I shot a picture through some kind of red filter.  The red dust comes all the way from Syria.  A person who knew enough about dust could probably tell you exactly where every storm started.

I cleaned out my can yesterday.  In anticipation of my imminent departure from Iraq, I swept out the whole place and mopped the floor with Pine Sol.   The red dust storm negated all that effort.  You can shut the door and all the windows and you still cannot keep it out.  This would have bothered me a couple of months ago, but no more.  I have gotten used to it and now that I will not have to experience it much longer, the various textures and types of dust merely amuse me. 

A few days ago we had a real wrath of God storm.  Columns of dust blew toward us, accompanied by a fantastic show of lighting bolts that walked across the sky in all directions.  When the storm arrived it rained mud for around ten minutes.  Then it passed and rumbled away in the other direction.

The day before yesterday was a non-dusty nice day.  I got up early in the morning and went out to run about 0600.  It is already around 80 degrees at that hour. It feels like a warm October afternoon in Virginia; you just have to time shift.   As I walked to the starting point and looked out over the low dirt bluffs, I appreciated the beauty of the sun and shadows on the different shades of khaki.   I was seeing beauty in the dirt that I had not seen before. 

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware.


That, of course, is from the "Rime of the Ancient Mariner,"  for no defensible reason, I once made the effort to memorize it.  These lines have some application to the subject at hand.  The Mariner for the first time can see beauty even of the ghastly water snakes.

Looking is a physical process, but seeing is an act of mental interpretation.   I don't think that I could see these colors and contrasts before.   I still think that this is an unpleasant place, but the brown desert of Al Anbar is not completely devoid of attractions and splendor of its own.  I wonder if I might have been here long enough.   I guess I have seen the elephant.

September 14, 2008

Anbar Reconstructs

The picture below is not related to the article.  The Marines let me play basketball with them.  It was the majors and above v the captains and below.  I was on the old guy team and we won.  Evidently experience and guile beats youth and energy.  Maybe we were just lucky.  I was just happy not to get hurt.

Basketball on Al Asad
A lot has changed in Western Anbar since I arrived here almost a year ago and as my assignment comes to an end, I can appreciate them.  

The first big difference is the physical appearance.  Last year much of this province looked like what it had recently been – a war zone.  Shops and homes were boarded up, in ruins or flattened.  People looked shocked and sullen.   Anbar is still not up to what most of us would consider acceptable standards, but improvements are phenomenal and the change palpable. 

Along the whole Western Euphrates River Valley (WERV) and into the desert oasis cities of Nukhayb and Rutbah markets are open; streets are busy; the shops are full of goods; things are happening.   We used to use a “banana index” where we looked at produce in the shops as a proxy for goods being available.  Bananas available that were not green or brown indicated a decent distribution network. Today that index is overtaken by events, since shops are full.  We now are thinking of going over to a “gold standard” since we now see gold and jewels in shop windows and assume that the owners must feel safe enough from both insurgents and ordinary crooks to be so confident.

Security is increasingly taken for granted by many people and now they are moving on to other concerns, such as economy, traffic and building their lives.

We have much more freedom of movement.   I didn't do my first market walk until January of this year.  Now we walk in the Iraqi markets on almost every trip, talking to people and finding out about their hopes and problems.

A year ago there were serious fuel shortages.  While problems remain (many resulting from government controls on prices and supplies), the refinery at K3 in Husaybah is up and running.  This seemed like an impossible dream when I first saw the place a few months ago.   K3 produces naphtha, kerosene, benzene and heavy fuel oil.  It is still not up to 100% production, but it is way up from ... nothing last year.  

The crude oil, BTW, arrives from Bayji by rail.  This railroad was not working and was not secure just a few months ago.  I remember flying over the rail/highway route in a Huey, with the narration being that it could work, but there were lots of challenges. Getting the rail system up and running is another great accomplishment of the past year.   CF are vacating a big rail yard in Al Qaim within weeks.  (This is a little sad for me, as.  Camp Al Qaim was the nicest of the FOBs in our AO.  It had a great chow hall.)  This will essentially clear the lines all across Anbar.

The rail network in Anbar is essentially intact, although there was heavy looting of stations.   This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Much of the equipment was old and the opportunity to replace it with much improved and new computerized gear will pay dividends in the immediate future.  There is nothing to stop heavy materials such as phosphate and cement from travelling by rail, and within a few years Iraq will certainly take its place as a transportation keystone of the Middle East. 

We have also seen a reassertion of the pattern of centralized order in Iraq.  When I arrived last year, I had more confidence in the ability of local authorities to get things done, and my perception of the society here was patterned more on my own previous experience than the experience of the Iraqis. 

It is a common historical pattern.  It happened on a bigger scale when the Roman Empire declined.  As government order breaks down, localism comes to dominate.  Last year, in the immediate wake of war, the people of Anbar had been localized.  They were more dependent on nearby authorities and institutions such as family/tribe & religion that were simpler and closer.   This looks like it was an ephemeral condition.  As order returns, so does centralization.  

We are seeing a reassertion of the top-down pattern, where the center controls the resources. Local authorities look to provincial authorities for resources and direction; provincial authorities look to Baghdad.  Mayors are administrators w/o an independent power base.  Everybody grumbles and does this somewhat grudgingly, but the system seems to be coming to life and working reasonably well, especially when pumped up by the steroid of vast oil wealth.   

This is not a completely positive development, IMO.  I personally don't like such concentrations of governmental power, but we have to recognize that Iraq will not be a bottom-up society, like the U.S.   It is not what most Iraqis are accustomed to, not what they expect and it is not what they want.   An ePRT like mine working at the sub-provincial level increasingly runs up against the power of higher-up Iraqi authorities.   These are the guys who make the decisions and these are the guys we need to influence.  I wonder if our time is not almost done, at least in our current incarnation. We did a good job and maybe this is it.

I am ambivalent about this.  After all, it is a bureaucratic imperative to perpetuate itself.  But a greater imperative is to know when your work is done and not hang around like a fart in a phone booth.  When the western hero is finished, he rides off into the sunset; he doesn't rent a bungalow in town and make himself a nuisance. 

In order to influence the Iraqi society and institutions, our organizations will need to mirror theirs, at least in an operational sense.   We need to act at the nodes of power, principally at the provincial and national level, so our ePRT will need to be integrated with the PRT in Ramadi, maybe absorbed, and through them to our colleagues in Baghdad.  This is coming.  I work directly for the Office of Provincial Affairs (OPA) in the Embassy.   My successor will work for the Team Leader of the Anbar PRT in Ramadi. 

I just don't know and I don't think I will figure it out in my last week here.  I will recommend changes in form and give my opinions.  It won’t be my decision, but I cannot envision this team still being here next year in anything like its current form. 

As it says in the Book of the Tao, "Withdraw, your work once done, into obscurity; this is the way of Heaven."

September 13, 2008

Evolution of Western Anbar ePRT

As I get ready to leave post, I have some thoughts & lessons learned on my job here.  Please indulge me. 

Euphrates river from Marine Air

PRTs and ePRTs were/are experiments.  There was no script to run my ePRT.  Its initial form was not well suited to our environment.  We learned by trying new things, eliminating the failures and building on success.  I could call it a plan, but it was more of a process.  The first rendition of the ePRT was a version of the main Anbar PRT.  We had experts on banking, budget etc.  We were centered in Al Asad and in theory we would make forays into the hinterland. 

This didn't work.  Our ePRT is different.  We had a lot more physical area to cover and a lot less need for specialists.  A full-time banking expert is not so useful when you have only a few banks and none of them are really independent.  We could and did bring in experts to consult on special projects, but we didn't need experts; we needed presence.   

Our ePRT is unique in its extreme decentralization.  We adapted to an area of operations the size of South Carolina and its arduous & uncertain travel conditions by developing a system of embedded team members, who stayed with the battalion task forces in each of our five sub-districts.  We effectively implemented this only in the last few months, as staff changes made possible in practice what we sketched out in theory late last year.  The system got our team closer to the U.S. forces doing counterinsurgency and to our Anbari friend.  You really cannot maintain a long distance relationship.  We have come to resemble a robust network, which is exactly what is needed for this place and time. 

This is not a novus ordo secclorum and we certainly did not invent this organization type, but I am proud of the role my team and I played in adapting it for Western Anbar. I had something like this in mind when I started but I admit that I am a little surprised how well my team and our associates took up the vision and how quickly it became OUR shared vision.   

I believe much of our success followed from this initial-state decision, which gave us closeness to our “customers” and ability to respond quickly and appropriately.  All our towns now have functioning councils and mayors who have received training from us in governance, finance etc.   Markets are open.  Infrastructure improving.  We have helped establish links with provincial authorities to help get Iraqi resources flowing to solve Iraqi problems.  In fact, the thing that makes me happiest is how we have been able to reduce USG money as we have informed, persuaded and cajoled our Iraqi partners to use their own resources as supplement or in place of ours.  This is the responsible and sustainable solution.

(I will add a caveat.  I think our particular network organization will need to adapt soon to change in Iraqi society and what I expect will be its return to a more centralized structure.   As team leaders, we need to be more catalysts for the work of others than directors.  I see what we have here today as transition and I don’t think my successor will just be able to pick up and carry on.  He will need to adapt to the rapidly changing Iraqi reality, as I did, and our solutions will not be the same.)

My team members are known, respected and trusted by our CF counterparts and the Anbaris.   I am familiar to many the Iraqis all around our AO and I believe my own optimistic diplomacy has encourage them.  My team and I got out among the people and in this stressed environment just seeing and being seen in "ordinary activities" made a big difference. 

I was personally flattered at a recent engagement with a police chief.  One of my RCT colleagues was about to introduce me, when the chief said "everybody knows him."   I had indeed met the chief on a couple of occasions, but we didn't know each other well.  What I think he meant is that people know of me, of us, at the ePRT.  We stand out - literally - on the streets when we do market walks.  I usually take off my helmet and my bald head stands around five inches higher than the average Anbari.  We are seen and talked about when we buy kabobs from the local vendors, or when we play politician by meeting and greeting everybody along the way.  Being there is important. 

Western Anbar will not be like Switzerland anytime soon, but we did a good job in a tough environment.  (I can tell you about the relative comfort level of almost every kind of military vehicle or camp type.)  We helped establish prosperity and the potential for democracy in a place where neither of those things has grown much before. This is the biggest thing I have ever participated in doing, the most challenging and the most rewarding.  I leave Iraq still glad that I volunteered and content with the part my team played. 

September 12, 2008

September 11

Roosevelt and Saud (national archives)


This is FDR and King Saud in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, on 14 February 1945.  Our relations with the Middle East go back to the birth of our republic, but our modern history with the region stems from relationships like this.




There was no operational link between Saddam Hussein and the Al Qaeda attacks on 9/11.   We have been fighting the organization - Al Qaeda - that planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks IN Iraq for the last five years.  Iraq and Afghanistan are both part of the struggle against terrorism and success in one enhances success in the other.  The surge could not have succeeded w/o factors such as the Sunni Awakening, but w/o the U.S. forces the brave Iraqis who stood up to Al Qaeda would have been beheaded and their families murdered.   Causality is usually complex with mutually reinforcing forces at work.  I don't understand why it seems so hard for many otherwise competent journalists and analysts to hold all these ideas in their heads at the same time?   Too often they are trying to find the one - clean - cause.  This is just childish.

In Iraq our forces and those of our Iraqi allies are killing foreign fighters and terrorists trained, ordered and paid for by Al Qaeda.   Al Qaeda a couple years back declared Iraq (specifically Anbar) the central front in their war against the West.  They came to fight us in Iraq hoping to take advantage of the opportunities available to establish their base in Anbar.  They boldly bragged as late as 2006 that they had indeed accomplished their mission and that from their bases in Iraq their screaming fanatics would spread their evil influence around the region and to Europe and America.  We kicked their asses in Al Anbar.  Now they are cowering in desert holes or laying dead there. Had we not done that to them, they would have succeeded in their goal. 

Al Qaeda is an international organization that seeks to extend its influence wherever it can.  It has to be confronted where it is making its moves.  We can seize the initiative and fight them where they are, but we cannot always choose the places where we must fight them. 

It is like the old story re the drunk looking for his keys under the street light.  When asked where he lost them, he points across the street.  "Then why aren't you looking over there?" the passerby asks.  "Because the light is better here."  We had to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq because Al Qaeda came to Iraq to fight us and and given the particular conditions of geography THIS was the most urgent fight.

During WWII, Franklin Roosevelt chose put more resources first into our fight against the Nazis, even though the attack against the U.S. came from Japan.   He did this because Germany was the more URGENT threat.   American generals in East Asia and the Pacific complained that they were not getting the resources they needed.  They rightly pointed out that they were not achieving the results they could if they had more men, ships and firepower.   But Roosevelt and Marshall knew that while we would need to fight both wars, Germany came first.

The same goes for Iraq and Afghanistan.   Both are important, but Iraq was more urgent.  As our victory in Iraq makes resources available, we can shift resources.   Of course, we all need to remember that you cannot just flood resources at a problem.  There is a carrying capacity for any place.  It is not necessarily true that 1000 men can accomplish ten times as much as 100 men.  We have to have APPROPRIATE numbers and missions.

There is a good garden analogy.  If you want to grow beautiful flowers, you probably need to apply fertilizer.  At some point, however, there is enough fertilizer and after that there is too much.  It won’t make the plants grow any faster than they have the capacity to grow and it may even be harmful or fatal.

That is another reason why you have to understand the connection between Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other places. 

I would also point out that the situation in Afghanistan would be worse if Al Qaeda had been able to concentrate its resources on Afghanistan from the start.   All those foreign fighters who died in the Western Deserts of Iraq would have been dispatched to the mountains of Afghanistan.  And if Al Qaeda had a secure base in Anbar, there would have been a lot more of them.  

Iraq under Saddam was a sworn enemy of the U.S.  Today we have many friends here and a good chance that Iraq will become a reaonably democratic and stable place.  This is good.


Terrorism is like piracy.   In fact, the two often overlap.  It is interesting that our country's first significant overseas intervention was against the Barbary Pirates, activities and ideology were remarkably similar to some of the enemies we face today.   Terrorists and pirates can never be eliminated entirely, but they can be controlled with diligence and vigilance.   When pirates or terrorists control states where they can establish bases and safe havens, their depredation cannot be stopped.   When their nests are cleaned out, you can control them. 

BTW - We Americans often forget that Stephen Decatur didn't have the final word against the Barbary Pirates.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century superpower - the British - punished them so severely that they curtailed (not gave up) their evil ways.  A lot of other social and technological factors were also at work.  It was that complex causality thing again.  No matter.  The world didn’t thank the Brits much at that time, just like we cannot expect the gratitude of the rest of world for the service are performing to make the world safer for good people and commerce … and freedom.     

September 10, 2008

Foreign Service Does its Duty

Last year I wrote a post, which got some attention, re FSOs volunteering to go to Iraq & Afghanistan.   As it worked out, we got enough volunteers, but not until a couple of cone heads grabbed national attention by bloviating in a town hall meeting about how they didn’t want to be forced to serve in either Iraq or Afghanistan.   I understand that only few people made most of the noise, but the media picked up on their caterwauling.  It was embarrassing the competent FSOs, who are worldwide available.

John Matel with Marine friends in Iraq

(BTW - FSOs were needed as part of the diplomatic surge that went with the military one in early 2007.  Next time somebody says that we cannot expect to win in Iraq by military means alone, remind that Einstein that we knew it already & did something about it back when they were still whining that the war was lost.   I really hate it when we get those sanctimonious fools pontificating about this when they don’t know what they are talking about.  Diplomats and development people came in the immediate wake of the military, but I digress.)

There will be no repeat of that this year, since the State Department has announced that it has already got enough volunteers to fill the Iraq posts.   I hear that there were several people trying to get my job.   I could speculate about the many and varied reasons for this happy result, but I think that the most probable explanation is the prosaic one that people just got used to the idea of these sorts of assignments and realized that they too were part of a normal FSO career. 

Star Trek

You have to have some tolerance for dust & danger, but that is certainly not the whole story.  My year in Iraq let me do more of the fun parts of diplomacy than I anticipated.   I was afraid that we hunker down behind the wire most of the time and have little contact with the people and culture of Iraq.  No way.  We were out and about all the time, as you can see from my blog entries.  I have almost daily substantive contact with Iraqis.   In fact, I think we have more regular contact with local people than many colleagues at more traditional embassies.  Beyond that, we get to do the full range of diplomacy, almost like the plenipotentiary days of old when diplomats could get involved in almost everything and got to make decisions on the ground

The only down side is that this is the first time in my career that I did not get the great training that I took it for granted.   The FS generally does a really good job of preparing us to go overseas.  (They gave me nearly a full year of full time Polish language and culture training before sending me to Krakow for example.)  Filling this post in Anbar, under the emergency conditions, they couldn't do that.  Too bad.  My biggest regret was that I didn't have the full range of regional, cultural or language expertise, but my years of diplomatic experience made a big difference even w/o those things.  State Department guys like me can make a real contribution in these situations.   

State can learn some lessons from our experience.  We may need to broaden our skill sets.  I found my forestry experience and my vicarious experience (when Chrissy was president) on the home-owners association at least as valuable as some of more traditional know-how.  In some ways it is back to the future to a time of the less specialized diplomatic corps.

Anyway, I think Americans can be proud of their FS.  My colleagues serve in hard and dangerous places all over the world and this year, as in years past, they have volunteered to fill the FS positions in Iraq. 

September 09, 2008


I suffered from Red Sky, which prempted my trip for a bridge opening in Baghdadi, so I was just thinking about and remembering times past and people gone.  It can be a little melancholy, but remembering family gatherings also brings along many good memories and some interesting insights.  At my family gatherings, we always had lots of beer.  I don't suppose that comes as much of a surprise in a German-Polish Milwaukee family.

Family photo

Drinking Beer is a tradition in my family.  I have been drinking beer since just a little before it was legal for me to do that.  (BTW - in those days Schlitz was the leading beer.  It soon went downhill as they fooled around with the brewing process.  Now Schlitz is owned by Pabst and they are bringing back the old Schlitz formula.)  As I travelled around, I learned to appreciate different sorts of beer.  The Germans have a superb Beer culture, but the Belgians have a wider variety of beer and the Czechs are the world's most dedicated beer lovers.  I even learned to like English beer served at room temperature, which, BTW, is not warm.

Beer connoisseurs generally have little love of American beer.  Paradoxically, American beers are among the world's top sellers.  In fact, this paradox is easily explained and doing so help s explain the general paradox of American culture, which is simultaneously coveted and reviled.

Major American beer brands developed in a large market with lots of diversity, choices and competition.  Like other producers in such a market, beer makers had to appeal to a variety of tastes. Beer drinking is usually a shared-social event.   The beer consumed must appeal to everybody in the group. It is a kind of consensus system that leads toward a lowest common denominator.  The beer that everyone accepts will tend to be preferred over one that a couple people love but others cannot stomach.   The more diverse the group in question, the less extreme the choices are likely to be.   Five guys with similar tastes might agree on a very dark bitter beer; a hundred people from diverse backgrounds will not.

For example, most people find Budweiser (the King of Beers from St Louis) inoffensive, although few love it.  Some people love Budweiser (from the Czech city of Budvar), but most people find it a little heavy and "skunky".  Beer lovers might object, but most casual beer drinkers prefer American Budweiser, which is even making inroads into the European beer market. 

America is good at producing products with mass appeal, which annoys those who consider their own tastes better than the ordinary people’s.  This means that many intellectuals and artists disparage the U.S. and its consumer culture, even as they live off its largess.

Adding insult to the injury they perceive, as the global mass market develops, the world is becoming more like America.  This does not mean that people are copying America in all or most cases.  It just means that the large mass market that helped shape American tastes and habits is now acting on people worldwide.  In the beer world, for example, we see the ascendancy of Corona, which follows the same pattern as innocuous American mass brews.

BTW - when Corona executives took their beer to be analyzed by a chemist, he told them that their horse had diabetes. 

Beer connoisseurs and lovers of distinction in all fields are encouraged by the counter trend, ironically made possible by globalization and new technologies made possible by the mass markets.  It used to be called mass customization.  In a very large and rich market, especially with the help of computer technologies, it is possible to assemble market worthy groups for all sorts of things.  Maybe a million people would like to drink some dark and heavy beer, but if they are spread across the whole U.S. they were so thin on the ground that nobody could afford to cater to them under the old paradigm.  Now there is more choice, as the marginal costs decline for producing variety and marketing it widely. 

We have passed through the mass undifferentiated market to a mass customization, with more choice and more variety.   The cooler of even local beer outlets now has a dizzying variety of brews.   The days when it could be technically accurate to say "When you're out of Schlitz, you're out of beer" are over.  The scary regimented socialism of the 1960s Sci-Fi never developed.

I am not sure we need all that choice, but that is not my choice to make.  That is the way its going to be for beer and everything else.

September 08, 2008

To Protect & Serve

We made an office call to the IP chief in Hadithah, and were fortunate to also meet the IP chief from Baghdadi, who was visiting his colleague.  This is the third IP office I have visited recently.  In all cases, the facilities were clean and well ordered and the individual IP officers in uniform, neat and professional looking. 

Although they both chiefs maintained that they would need the Marines to help secure Anbar for a long time, it is clear that the IP in Western Anbar have become much more confident and competent.   They are developing leads, doing investigations and catching bad guys mostly on their own with significant success.   The chief told us that we should feel completely safe in Hadithah and that secure conditions stretched generally from Al Qaim in the far west to Hit in the eastern part of the province.   They were less sanguine about Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah.  .  

They voiced the perennial complaint of many local officials anywhere in the world: they felt neglected by out-of-touch higher-up leaders and thought they could do a much better job if provided sufficient resources and allowed to do their jobs as they saw fit.  They had some specific complaints, ones that we hear all over.  The most persistent was that higher authorities did not provide them with enough fuel.  According to what they told us, they get enough fuel each month for only a couple days of serious patrolling.   They are also having trouble finding parts for their Chevy or Ford pickup trucks.  What passes for roads in Anbar is tough on vehicles.  Truth be told, however, we have noticed that the young police officers driving these trucks are sometimes very enthusiastic about driving and fearless of bumps, ruts and rocks.  

No matter the challenges, however, security has clearly improved to the point that most people no longer have to think about security all the time.   In Maslow's Hierarchy, people need to feel secure before they can progress to other pursuits, such as building their lives and their businesses.  They do and they are.

September 07, 2008


Landing in Iraq

After meeting with the troops and giving out some coins, General Petraeus flew off to his next appointment.    We went into the city of Husaybah for a market walk. The Mayor wanted to go along.  I am not sure if he adds value or subtracts.   The mayor is apparently popular.  He spoke easily with his constituents and they spoke to him about their problems and hopes.   While I enjoyed watching a good Iraqi politician in action, I tried to get away a bit and talk to citizens outside the glow of the leading local politician.

Husabah Street

Husaybah is obviously doing okay.   In addition to good produce in the shops, we saw lots of small appliances, clothing, rugs and even gold.  They said the much of the gold is 21-24 carat, which makes the jewelry more expensive and, IMO, less attractive because it is more of an orange color rather than the shiny gold you get with more alloyed metal.  This quality of gold is evidently the “gold standard” in the Arab world.  Of course, not all of it was of the first quality; however, so much gold displayed in the windows indicates both a feeling of prosperity and security.

Kids gold shop

We are a couple of days into Ramadan, which affected what we saw in the marketplace.  We were there about an hour before sundown and it was clear that merchants were preparing for a rush of customers who would show up when the sun dipped below the horizon.  I bought some pickles and an assortment of baklava, of course to eat later and not in the street during Ramadan.  The baklava cost 3500 dinar for a really big assortment of high quality product.  (I personally don’t like the stuff.  It is way too sweet and sticky, but plenty of our colleagues were happy to have it at chow when we got back to Camp Gannon II.  It is a good break from Pop-Tarts).   The pickles (made of assorted vegetables) cost 1500 dinar for a kilo.  I do like those things and they were high quality. 

Iraq kabob

I couldn’t find any kabobs that were ready to eat.  As I wrote above, merchants were busy cooking things up and preparing for the post-sundown rush and many were just beginning to fire up their grills.  LtCol McCarthy helped with some of the grilling, as you can see above.   The grill, BTW, is wood fired.  The flames you see are from the fresh wood.  After it dies down to coals, they move it into the kabob cooking zone.

roofed market iraq

Above is a roofed market where they sold a variety of products.  It reminded me of markets I had seen in Istanbul.   Inside it was already a little too chaotic for me; I can imagine how it must be when the people crowd in after sundown.   In this market too, you could feel the anticipation among the merchants.   Among other things, they were selling spices, but – unfortunately – I didn’t find any pistachios or dried apricots, which is what I was really looking for.   I don’t know how to judge this market.  If I compare it to Istanbul, it is very much less.  However, Husaybah is a much smaller and less important city.   Maybe they do not have those sorts of things in general.  It seems to have all the things that the local people could need.

Below – traffic is becoming a problem on the narrow streets.  As you can see in the background, they have ATMs, but they seem to work only during working hours.

ATM in Iraq

September 06, 2008

Architect of Victory

General Petraeus in Al Qaim

We went up to Al Qaim to meet and talk with General Petraeus.  Architect of victory – that is what they called General George C. Marshall in World War II.  The U.S. victory over the AQI and the insurgency in Iraq had many contributors, but David Petraeus was the architect who put it together.   Of course, he would never call himself that.  When asked whether the U.S. had defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq, General Petraeus told the media, "You will not find any military leader who will say this ... all we can say is al Qaeda is still dangerous."

I am not going to speak for the General or repeat anything said during the briefing.   There are plenty of media interviews and pundits you can read to get that.  I just want to say how great it was for me to be a small part of this and add my praise to this great man, who really is the architect of victory in Iraq, even if we still don’t use the V-word.

Last year about this time, the cone-heads were calling him names (remember the moveon.org debacle) and even some respectable politicians were implying that he was lying about conditions in Iraq.  He had composure to ignore the hysteria and the courage calmly and competently tell the truth.  What a difference a year makes.

Touring the POE

Mayor and Petraeus at POE 

General Petraeus, along with the Al Qaim Mayor,  the facility director and assorted dignitaries toured the Port of Entry (POE) at Husaybah.   I attended the opening of the POE back in November of last year.   There were great hopes and optimistic celebrations of the good times that would come with the commerce coming through the gates.  The good times they promised is not what we are seeing today.   The Syrians are not allowing much commerce to flow through the POE.   Eighteen wheelers do not pass through the POE and we saw no significant traffic in general.  

Local officials were unable to explain why, but speculated that the Syrians were satisfied with the traffic coming though POE Waleed to the south or that they wanted to punish the people of Al Qaim for rooting out AQI, but they really didn’t know.   The POE director claimed that he had decent relations with his Syrian counterparts, but that they could do nothing to mitigate the problem, since the decisions were made above their pay grades.

I am not sure how much traffic the POE could handle if a lot of traffic actually came through.  The whole operation has a kind of Mayberry feel.  Everything is clean and pleasant, but it does not have the feeling of a center of activity. 

Fertile Euphrates Farm Land near Ramanna

They predicted thundershowers in the afternoon.   While I didn’t believe it would actually rain this time of the year (and it didn’t), it was a good idea to set off early in the morning.   It took us nine hours to drive from Al Asad to Al Qaim, although some of that resulted from a problem we had with a tire and the slower speed we had to maintain because of the hot weather.  It is much nicer in the morning anyway.  The MRAP air conditioner can keep the vehicle reasonably cool until around 1400.  We set off at 0615. 

New land in Iraq

Our first stop out of Camp Gannon II was a new agricultural area.   This desolate land will be opened up by new wells and a power line paid for with CERP funds.  Our Ag-Advisor, Dennis Neffendorf, examined the soil and water and pronounced both superb, but that is not the only consideration. 

According to all I can find out, the land here is clearly demarcated – i.e. ownership is clearly documented and widely accepted.  This area evidently belongs to the Salmoni tribe and individual tribe members have their own allotments. 

BTW – We understand that tribal politics is still very important and tribal identity very strong.  When we help one tribe, others want their share.

Wslls in Al Qaim

Dennis tells me that last time he was at this location a couple of months ago it was mostly undeveloped area.   Now we find that some houses have been started and ownership has been marked with neat stone walls.   Planting season is late September to October.  In these plots, they will grow wheat, other grains and potatoes.  Dennis says that they can get 25 tons of potatoes per acre (although acre is not a measurement they use), which is comparable to a good yield in the U.S.   A very large variety of fruits, vegetables and grains can be easily produced on this ground.    This land is immensely productive when it is watered.  The soil has excellent drainage, a plus for irrigation. It does not retain excess water and is not subject to excessive salinity or waterlogging.  In any case, the water this far up the river is not yet heavily laden with salts and minerals.

Fertile farmland near Al Qaim

As we crossed the Euphrates into Ramanna, we saw what the land mentioned above may look like in a couple of years.  Everything is green and intense production is  possible.   Crops include wheat, sunflowers, potatoes, dates, pomegranates and citrus.   This soil and climate (it is a big cooler here than in most other parts of Iraq) can grow almost anything except tropic plants such as bananas or mangos. 

Look at the dates hanging from that tree in the middle.  They look like five-pound sacks.

Date palms in Ramana Iraq 

They grow a lot of fodder crops, especially alfalfa to feed to livestock.  We saw some healthy looking Holstein cows and a lot of goats and sheep.  The locals claim that the quality of their sheep is superior to all others in the area.  We would expect them to say that, but that opinion is evidently shared by many others.  There is significant export demand for sheep from the Al Qaim region.

We had to make an unexpected stop when one of our MRAPs damaged and overhead electric wire.  I think that the locals are actually pleased when something like that happens, since we pay to repair the damage and usually make it better by elevating the wire so that it won’t happen again. I took this serendipitous opportunity to look around this green and pleasant area.  It was still only around 0730, so it was pleasantly cool.  The air had a living farm smell and the country roads were busy with tractors, trucks and pedestrians.   This prime and unique farm land is as densely settled as an American suburb.  I would consider it a bit crowded.   It is astonishing to think that they can grow enough crops to support families and even have enough to sell, but that is true.

Farm land in Iraq

Kids smiled and waved at us, but we also got some disagreeable stares.   This is unusual in my experience.  One of the Marines told me that this area had recently been heavily insurgent, that not everybody around here was as favorably disposed towards Americans as we might like and that the relative absence of young men of military age was not mere coincidence. 

Kids in Iraq 

Since we were running ahead of potential bad weather and we had to make up the time lost by our mishap with the wire, we didn’t have time to look as thoroughly at the farmland as we intended.   We stopped at a field Dennis had visited a couple months ago.  At that time, he said that it was covered with wheat stubble.  Now it was cleared.   Evidently they let the goats at it, as evidenced by the gratuitous fertilizer spread liberally on the dirt, and they had harvested straw. 

plowed field in Iraq 

The bones of the land and the irrigation system were easy to see.   They use flood irrigation and fields are divided up into squares around ten yards square.   You can tell the soil is fertile just by looking at it.  It has abundant organic material and seems to be alluvial and/or loess, which makes it easy to work and provides good drainage.

fields in Iraq 

Below is Dennis talking about farming

Dennis Neffendorf talking agriculture in Iraq 

Below is a brick making operation. These are concrete.  We saw many others making brick from clay.  They employ hundreds of people.

Brick making in Iraq 

After a brief look around, we headed off for Camp Tripoli, which is under construction and almost finished.  Tripoli has a wonderful view of the river and of the verdant farmland along the banks.  Otherwise, the camp has little to recommend it at this time.  There is lots of moon dust. 

At Tripoli, we had a chance meeting with a Mr. Raghibassi, who is an electrician. He said that he had met me on two previous occasions, but that they were big events and I probably didn’t remember him.  He was right, but I think that I obfuscated enough to spare his pride.  I should have remembered him because he had some very interesting things to say about electricity and power generation in general.  I have his email.  I will be in contact with him re and write more later.

MRAPs on the road in Iraq 

We had an uneventful trip back to Al Asad.  It didn’t rain, but a very interesting dust formation did blow in right after chow.  

September 05, 2008

Western Anbar Progress Report

Sometimes you cannot see the forest for the trees and it might be that I am too close to the situation.  My information comes from talking to people and walking in Anbar.  I report what I see and what I believe to be true.  The caveat to my information is that it is raw material. The people with the big brains can check and aggregate all the information they get from me and others to draw the big picture.   Below is my assessment of progress in Western Anbar in September 2008.  


Governance has continued to improve.  City councils are in place in all our major areas and all have received training from USG funded trainers.  There are still significant differences among jurisdictions.  In order of effectiveness, they are Al Qaim, Anah, Hadithah, Rutbah, Rawah and Hit.   Rutbah has made the most impressive strides over the past period, but they started from a very low base.  An unmistakably positive trend has been the flow of Iraqi money to projects.  The Iraqis are now outspending us 5.5:1 and their trend is up while we are pulling back.  Soon they will be responsible for virtually all the big money.  The ePRT can play hardball with local communities who demand too much, because we know that they have access to GoI funds if they just do the paperwork and go through the process.  The presence of paperwork itself is a step forward, since bureaucracy is beginning to replace personal connections and visits by officials, who previously behaved like grand poobahs distributing public largess at and for their own pleasure.

Fuel delivery is meeting essential needs and has improved recently.  I include this under governance with some regret, since this more properly belong in the private economy.  It is government interference that is the biggest impediment to efficient fuel delivery, but as long as the state system is in place, we can report that it seems to be improving. As I wrote in the last assessment, the official price is too low compared with the fair market price and this central government administrative decision essentially preempts the establishment of legitimate private retail distribution of fuel. 

Our ePRT, CA or IRD has sponsored projects to improve sewage and water infrastructure and more importantly Iraqi money is flowing.  I could make the joke flowing down the sewer, but it is good that they are paying money and attention.  There is significant improvement in Baghdadi, Kubaysah, Hit and Hadithah.  Nevertheless, eating vegetables rinsed in local water remains an exciting game of probability. We usually win, but sometimes not. 


Al Anbar never had a significant religious divide, as it is overwhelmingly Sunni.   Local governments are seen as broadly representative of all groups.  But individual government official are still concerned with their own narrow interests, or often those of their respective tribes.  There are still occasional episodes of violence and intimidation, but less often.

A big challenge has and will be returning detainees.   While the numbers are not great (dozens per month, occasionally hundreds), they create serious disturbances.   Most detainees evidently reach some accommodation and reconcile. If they are unable to reconcile, the problem is usually solved at the thirty-two day mark, with a drive into the desert where more people go out than come back, which creates tension in terms of rule of law (see below).

What I wrote in the last assessment remains true.  This situation may have reached a steady state.  Mass releases of detainees may cause blips.  In general, however, the situation may improve incrementally but not dramatically since it accurately reflects long-standing local cultural and sociological preferences.

Anbar is receiving a significant number of people displaced from other areas.  We have no reliable measure of the numbers, but we see them whenever we travel.  The city of Hadithah, for example, has increased in size by several miles out into the desert.  People began arriving and setting up camps several months ago.  Now they are gathering together rocks and building more permanent dwellings.  We have been told that the local authorities are tolerating the influx and even helping them with land.

I would rate the reconciliation as performing, since it has reached a level that the local people consider acceptable and it is unlikely to change much into the near or medium-term future.

Political Development

When I wrote the last assessment, I expected that the fall elections would solve many of the problems.   I still think that may be the case, but the postponement of the elections not only postpones a solution, but makes a happy solution less likely.  We have heard some, but not too significant grumbling about the postponement. Unfortunately, I believe that this represents more resignation than acceptance. 

Political development is essentially on hold.

As I wrote in my last assessment, political parties are attempting to operate w/o recourse to violence, but it is still difficult for party leaders to understand that they should not develop militias.  The threat of violence against political parties is still real.  Insurgents have made attempts to attack some party leaders and facilities.  Sometimes it is unclear whether these are personal or local disputes or are specifically aimed at the political parties.

I also observed in the last assessment that ordinary people seem to feel free to express their political ideas and preferences.  When speaking with individual Iraqis on the streets, we are often surprised that when we tell them that they need to take matters to their local leaders, they tell us that they already have.   I would add that this openness has continued but that the results the people are getting from leaders have improved little, but they are improving.  Most of that improvement results from the increasing flow of money from GoI.  I guess any problem that you can pay your way out of is not a problem, it is just an expense, but time will tell. 

I really cannot rate this at the local level.  Last time I said it was developing, with the condition of the election.  That condition remains and bears more acutely. 


I have to divide economics into a variety of subgroups.   Progress has been uneven over Western Anbar.


There are some excellent roads, but overall they are in bad condition and not sufficient to support the economic growth Western Anbar needs.   Road building would entail considerable public investment, but is not difficult given the featureless topography and the ready supply of paving supplements.   Asphalt factories are working in Anah and the Hadithah region and with the expected supply of pitch from K3, they should have enough stuff to black top all the roads in Al Anbar and then some.

The rail network is largely intact and running in places.  The railroad supports oil deliveries to the K3 refinery and will soon service the phosphate and cement plants in Al Qaim.

Oil pipelines are still not functioning.  Although they suffered little war damage, they are easy prey to oil smugglers, who break into them along the route.  This means not only that the stolen oil is a loss, but it does not help maintain pressure and usually creates spills and stoppages.   This infrastructure problem depends more on security than economics.

Private Sector

Markets are usually well stocked.  Electronic devices are easily available.  Problems exist on the higher level of goods.  For example, it is nearly impossible to get good truck and car parts.

The most salient development of the most recent period is the proliferation of cellular phones.   These were recently rare, but are on the way to becoming ubiquitous.   I think this is on an exponential growth path.  We only started to notice them recently but the expansion is rapid.

Industrial / Manufacturing Expansion (including SOEs)

The cement plant in Al Qaim has been “sold” in an arrangement with a Romanian management firms.   We hear rumors that the phosphate operation may soon move into semi-private hands.  K3 is running and supporting ancillary businesses, such as asphalt and paving.   But there remain problems with getting medium sized plants working.   People are waiting for the state run dinosaur firms to come back into production instead of creating new ones.  There is a general problem with lack of investment capital.  While Western Al Anbar will support agribusiness and some extractive industries, principally phosphate, borax etc., these things require significant up front investment.

Construction is booming in the Hadithah Triad and Al Qaim and to a lesser extend in other regions.  This is more than a “dead cat bounce” and represents real progress.  There are actual labor shortages in some of the skilled and semi-skilled trades related to construction.  


Unemployment remains high because labor quality is low.   There are shortages of trained labor (see above) but much of the Western Anbar labor force is woefully unprepared for any kind of skilled work.   There is a great demand for vocational training, and IRD, ePRT and CA have helped, but this is a long term problem.  A more serious choke point will come when skilled workers at existing operations (such as K3 or the RR) retire.  Iraq has not trained enough skilled workers for at least twenty years.  That deficit is about to hit hard.  The good news is that there will be many opportunities for skilled and ambitious young people, since there will be a shortage.


Warka Bank has four ATMs in Al Qaim and others are expected soon.  The people and leaders of Anbar are ready for banking, and some rightly decry its lack as a major impediment to growth.   There is minor resistance to ATM and private banking because it will make skimming workers’ wages harder, but this should be overcome soon.   The bad news is that state banks may never expand to satisfy demand.  The good news is that this won’t matter if private banks such as Warka move in aggressively and are allowed to expand.

Rule of Law

IP are officially committed to the rule of law and our visits (sometimes surprise) to their facilities indicate that they are pushing the idea of rights and legality down to the level of the individual officers. The police apply the laws in doing their duty most of the time, but we still hear complaints of corruptions or favoritism.  Police usually have adequate tools, training and facilities to carry out their missions.  What they most often lack is fuel for their vehicles.  Police do not patrol to the extent necessary for this reason.

Tribal leaders profess their commitment to rule of law.  There remains some exercise of traditional law, especially in the case of released detainees whose crimes involve tribal revenge systems, but there is no overt support or encouragement from leaders.

Courts are open, and judges are applying the law with some tribal and other influences.  I wrote in the last assessment that this may have reached equilibrium level, i.e. it is performing in relation to local cultural and political standards, and that additional improvements will be incremental.  I believe that even more strongly today.  Civil authorities are trying to expand their influence in relation to traditional ones.  They are succeeding, but it will be an evolutionary process and certainly one not finished any time soon.

What I wrote in the last assessment about civil law remains true.  Civil cases are being addressed with some instances of discrimination.  Civil law execution is limited in many cases by poor record keeping.  For example, contracts and deeds are filed in no particular order.  For some properties, multiple sometimes contradictory documents may exist.  Unclear property rights may prove a major impediment to local development.  Fixing the problem is a prosaic, but long term task that will take years to work through the system. 

All these things together and the persistence of many aspects of the situation lead me to conclude that rule of law has reached the performing level, at least to the extent that we can influence the outcome.


This category should probably come first, since w/o security, nothing else is possible.  Improved security has given the people of Al Anbar the room to do the ordinary things people do, such as build their lives, families and business.

Our talks with people during market walks indicate a significant increase in confidence since the last assessment in May.   We often hear that security is not an issue, and people are more worried about things such as traffic tie ups or sewer backups.

What I wrote during the last assessment still goes.  The already good security situation in Western Al Anbar continued to improve.  Insurgents and terrorists have been largely marginalized and/or pushed out of the urban areas into the deserts.  While significant potential threat still exists, the numbers of attacks are way down.  Businesses are opening and people are rebuilding in the obvious belief that security is better. 

The IA is more professional and able to carry out independent operations with only some operational and logistical support from CF.  

PSF is aggressively going after terrorists and insurgents outside the berms.  They also have performed independent raids, which have disrupted and netted insurgents and prevented attacks.
The IP in Western Anbar have become much more confident and competent.   They are developing leads, doing investigations and catching bad guys on their own with significant success.  There are now plans to refine and improve cooperation and interoperability among local departments.  This includes links such as joint coordination centers, which will help the districts be responsive on regional issues and address the problems of seams, as well as integrate the IP, PSF and IA for better cooperation.


I believe that we have succeeded in Western Iraq.  That does not mean that our job is completely finished or that Iraq is finished. 

We will still need to provide “security of last resort”.  The Iraqis can maintain routine security, but they will still need help with big threats.  This is not necessarily an extraordinary situation.  We often overlook the fact – precisely because it is so pervasive - to this day most European countries, Japan, Korea etc do not have the capacity to handle ALL their security requirements.  America, for good or ill, is the security source of last resort for many countries around the world.  Iraq will be no different. 

Iraq is also not a developed country.  It will take a lot of investment and years of work to bring the country up to a level we would consider acceptable.   But this is the job of the Iraqis.  We cannot do it for them and nobody should think that we should even try. They have the resources.  Iraqis are intelligent and hard working people.  We can help.  We can act as partners, as we still do around the world.  Partnership is a two-way relationship.   The Iraqis can learn from us and benefit from the relationship and we can do the same from and for them. 

I often tell my Iraqi friends that partnership does not mean we agree on everything.  We are not insulted when they express opinions at odds with ours.  Sometimes they are right.  In a good partnership, each party benefits from the strengths and compensates for the weaknesses of the others.  If they were both identical, there would be no need for the partnership and it would produce no synergy.  Partnership is what we want with the Iraqis and I think that is what we are getting.

September 04, 2008

News From the RCT

I spent my day writing reports, but I have included below news from the RCT.   Enjoy the variety.

"Life is like a wheel"
Iraqi battalion takes the reins 

8/31/2008  By by Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson, Regimental Combat Team 5

AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq — A group of brave Iraqi men fighting to create a better Iraq recently assumed control of an area in western al-Anbar province from 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5.

Prior to assuming control of the area near the city of Rutbah, Iraqi soldiers with 3rd Battalion, 29th Iraqi Army Brigade worked hand and hand with 2nd LAR Bn.


Doctors visit Sudanese refugees 

8/31/2008  By Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson, Regimental Combat Team 5  

AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq — AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq  – A large group of Sudanese refugees living in tents here were visited by a group of friendly faces Aug. 25.

Marines and sailors with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 visited the community of Sudanese refugees near Al Waleed, Iraq, which is on the Iraq-Jordan border, to provide them with healthcare Aug. 25.


From ‘grunt’ to civil affairs, Marine shows commitment 

8/28/2008  By Lance Cpl. Paul Torres, Regimental Combat Team 5

RAWAH, Iraq — RAWAH, Iraq  -- The phrase, “Once a Marine, always a Marine,” usually refers to the discipline, high standards and work ethic that are carried on by Marines to the civilian sector when they depart the service.

But as Cpl. Darnell G. Liesinger, 24, a civil affairs team member with Civil Affairs Team 5, Detachment 1, 2nd Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5, discovered, this can also mean putting a hold on civilian life and returning to service.


Marines, LEP work together 

8/28/2008  By Cpl. Erik Villagran, Regimental Combat Team 5

HIT, Iraq — HIT, Iraq – Marines with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 and the battalion’s law enforcement professional is working closely to prosecute criminals in Iraq.
Roger Parrino, the battalion’s LEP, serves as the criminal investigator for the battalion and uses his background in law enforcement to assist Coalition forces. His 21 years in the New York Police Department helped him prepare for the job. He retired as the commanding officer of the Manhattan North Homicide Squad.


Mike Battery lights up the night 

8/26/2008  By Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson, Regimental Combat Team 5

AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq — The enemy can’t hide in the dark if the night sky is lit up like a light bulb.

Marines with Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marine Regiment, 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 support the service members conducting patrols through the city Rutbah, Iraq, by firing illumination rounds from M-777 Howitzers to discourage insurgent activity after the sun goes down.


Trackers shift gears, serve as heliborne reaction force 

8/25/2008  By Sgt. M. Trent Lowry, Regimental Combat Team 5

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq — AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (August 23, 2008) – Marines with Company A, 4th Assault Amphibian Battalion, Multi-National Force - West have epitomized the ability of Marines to adapt and overcome by serving outside of their normal military occupational specialty duties in order to bring safety and security to Iraq.

Marines with 4th AA Bn. are trained to operate the Assault Amphibian Vehicle in ship-to-shore missions and embody the Marine Corps’ amphibious approach to warfare.  Since deploying to Iraq, the Marines from this reserve battalion haven’t even seen an AAV in operation.


Iraq-Syrian border berm complete 

8/23/2008  By Cpl. Shawn Coolman, Regimental Combat Team 5

AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq — A new berm project, which stretches along the entire Iraq and Syrian border, was completed by Support Platoon, Company A, 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 Aug. 23.

Marines surveyed approximately 160,000 yards of ground and searched for gaps in the berm, which serves as a barrier, and added roughly 30,000 yards of berm to the border. It took Support Platoon almost two weeks to complete the project.


‘Warloards’ help city of Rawah grow 

8/25/2008  By Lance Cpl. Joshua Murray, Regimental Combat Team 5

RAWAH, Iraq — After nearly three years of Marine Corps units operating out of the Rawah Iraqi Police Station, the “Warlords” of Company F, Task Force 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 5 have officially demilitarized the building and returned it to the city Aug. 12.

The Marines have moved just minutes away to Combat Outpost Rawah and will continue to support law-enforcement operations here as needed by the local governing officials and Iraqi Police Force.


Route clearance: back to the basics 

8/22/2008  By Cpl. Shawn Coolman, Regimental Combat Team 5

AL-ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq — Treading lightly with eyes wide open is an essential ability to have while marking and detonating minefield locations in Iraq. 

Service members with Route Clearance Platoon, Company A, 3rd Combat Engineer Battalion, Regimental Combat Team 5 marked two known minefields and detonated six mines on the Iraq and Syrian Border Aug. 10-22.


September 03, 2008

Infrastructure in Iraq

More on Infrastructure in Iraq at this Link. 

I got an invitation to speak to the American Society of Civil Engineers at a meeting in Arlington, VA on November 18 about infrastructure in Iraq.  They still wanted me to speak even after learning that I was not an engineer.  I think it will be interesting for me and I hope for them.   There is a general misconception that Iraq is being rebuilt from war damage from the CF invasion in 2003.  The problem is older and deeper.

Kid swimming in Euphrates

Above is a kid swimming in the Euphrates.  Notice the old and picturesque bridge ruins in the background.  I don't know when that bridge fell down, but it was not recently.  Below is a recently built bridge. Notice the narrowness and temporary nature.  We were afraid out MRAP would fall through. The bluish tint is because I took the picture through the MRAP window.  We did not fall through.

bridge in Baghdadi

If damage from the 2003 war was our problem, the place would be much farther along.  Modern weapons are very accurate and there was nothing like the damage people imagine from seeing photos from WWII.  In fact, the most serious damage to Iraq's infrastructure came from mismanagement and sanctions, especially during the 1990s. 

This damage is less spectacular but more pernicious and a lot harder to address, not least because we are talking about the need to build and repair human, as well as physical, capital.  You can build a new plant in a couple of months.  It takes many years to "build" a manager to direct the business or an engineer to run the equipment.  And it may take a generation to create the maintenance culture that keeps it working.

The organizer asked me to write a brief intro & bio for their newsletter.  This is the unedited version that I submitted.  I expect they will change and improve it for their publication.   I will also do a bit more research for the actual presentation.

Reconstruction in Western Iraq

The U.S. is helping Iraq recover from years of conflict, sanctions, isolation and mismanagement.  The most obvious recent damage to Iraqi facilities comes from the Iraq war and the vicious insurgency that followed.  The rot had set in before that, however.  Iraq’s infrastructure was badly compromised by years of sanctions, socialist planning and lack of maintenance. Western Iraq has most of what it needs to move forward, but much of it just doesn’t work right.   Foreign contractors and firms built virtually all the infrastructure in Western Iraq, most of it before the mid-1980s.  Many of these contractors were from communist Eastern Europe, and we all know the level of quality during there at that time.  Add to that decades of neglect and you get an idea of the challenge. 

The last twenty years were lost decades.  Human and physical capital was neglected. Little was built or properly maintained and few people were adequately trained.  We often find that the only people with the skill to keep the machines and facilities running even at the today’s inadequate levels are already at or approaching retirement age with few competent successors in the pipeline.  The best thing for Iraq would be for competitive international firms to invest, bringing modern management methods and cultures of quality and maintenance, training Iraqis in quality control and maintenance methods.  Some of this is beginning to happen.  Coalition forces and various USG sponsored programs are also training a new generation and the Iraqi authorities are beginning to step up.  Rebuilding is happening.  Nevertheless, we face a gap. 

The oil bonanza means Iraq can buy materials and skills to upgrade its infrastructure.  The risk is that, as in the past, the central authorities might buy these things without internalizing the methods to produce and maintain them.   All things considered, Iraq is a rich country and I believe the Iraqi people will soon reap significant benefits form their country’s wealth, but progress will not be easy or uniform.

John Matel is a career Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State.  He recently returned from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq, where he served as leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Western Al Anbar Province, embedded with the 5th Marine Combat Regiment at Al Asad, Iraq.  Beyond the State Department, Mr. Matel owns and manages a small commercial forest operation in Brunswick County Virginia.

 Kid swimming in Iraq

Above - same kid in the river, closer view.

September 01, 2008

Profile in Courage

PIC ceremony Al Anbar  

Choosing to do the surge was really a profile in courage for George Bush and General Petraeus.  After the political passion, sound and fury calms down, I think that GW Bush will enjoy a revaluation, much like Harry Truman, and historians will say that in David Petraeus Bush finally found his general, much like Lincoln and Grant.   We forget how dicey it was in 1864 and how close we came to a different result in that conflict and how many of the arguments made today are not new.*   War is always hard and it is natural for people to look for faster ways out.  Sometimes these short cuts end my being the long way around.

Below - this guy has a sweet seat, but I wonder how fast he can turn his lazy-boy lounger if he gets in trouble.  I didn't see if he had the cup-holder feature.

lazy-boy lounger in police truck Iraq

This recent article from the NYT shows how dicey it was back in 2006.   “Expert opinion” said that we had lost.  Many people were calling for us to cut our losses and run out.  Almost nobody believed the surge would accomplish the stated goals.   The easy choice would have been to go along with that conventional wisdom.   That would have meant that many of our friends in Iraq would be dead and we would suffer a resurgence of terrorism, but conventional wisdom would have accepted that as regrettable necessity.

Interview with General Mills in Iraq

BTW - the article I linked is NYT, but that paper remains still defeatist on Iraq, as this editorial shows.  Of course, they are already modifying their understanding in the face of objective reality and I think that in the ripeness of time, they also will come around and pretend they always knew the truth.

Below is the signing ceremony with the gaggle of journalists

Signing ceremony in Anbar

Today I went to the Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC) ceremony in Ramadi, where we handed authority back the Iraqi authorities in Anbar.  Anbar!  In 2006 this province was a lost cause.  Today our ceremony just marked a milestone on path so well established I doubt that many people will even take notice. 

Below - you see that MRAP riding is not very much fun.  I try to avoid that seat.  I guess he just hopes the gunner didn't have tMRAP seathe burrito at chow.  

I would write more re the ceremony, but there isn’t really much to write.  I met a lot of my contracts there - saw & was seen.  Speeches were long.  It was really hot. Iraqis don't seem to have learned how to organize a good marching band.  You would think there would be something like that at an important ceremony, but no.  I have included pictures throughout.  I would have liked a little more pomp and circumstance, but it was a proud day for the Iraqis and a vindication for us.   I guess I am less excited about it because it is anticlimactic.  The turnover just made official what we (the Iraqis and us) were doing already. 

It is also the first day of Ramadan, so there was no meal with the ceremony.   That saved much time for all of us, but there is something about having a meal together that seems to finalize a deal.   We all just kind of wandered off and went home.  It seemed odd.

fire truck

BTW2 - A good article re Iraq came out in Foreign Affairs.  I recommend you read it at this link.

This is the good line from it:  "But if the United States can maintain a substantial force in Iraq through the critical period of the next two to three years, there is now a credible basis for believing that major drawdowns after that can be enabled by success rather than mandated by failure."

Below - Marines playing volleyball in 110 degree heat.  It is a dry heat and there is plenty of water.

Marines volleyball

Foreign Affairs also has a very good article re general American image and problems at this link.

Below is the Ramadi bend in the river from the back of theCH53

View from helicopter

* Follow that link to the 1864 Democratic Party platform.

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