March 17, 2012

A Brave Man Murdered in Iraq

I heard this morning that one of our friends and allies in Iraq was murdered execution style by Al-Qaeda gunmen in Haditha. I recall visiting his home, watching his little kids play in the garden. I also remember that the people of Haditha could live and work in relative safety because of him.  

Muhammed Hussein Shafir was a tough man and a warrior. His attackers knew that so they rolled in on him at his home with overwhelming force. Everybody knew who he was and everybody where he lived. There could be no isolation in a town the size of Haditha. This was the first violence in about a year in Haditha, but it was big. Twenty-seven police officers were killed in coordinated attacks around town. I am sure that I met some of them, but I don’t have details.

I did not suffer in Iraq. You get used to the dust and heat and there is beauty in Anbar. I especially like the turquoise colored Euphrates. Most important, Anbar province became relatively peaceful soon after I got there. I was lucky. But I knew people who were killed and more importantly I knew the danger threatening, not so much me - I had absolute confidence in the Marines - but our Iraqi allies. Something else I knew was that I was involved but our Iraqi friends were committed. My family was not at risk. Theirs were. After my year in Iraq, I knew I would go back to my country. They would stay in theirs. Twinges of fear and uncertainty that I felt sometimes wondering what was around a corner or hidden in a pile of trash up ahead, they felt always and everywhere. It would never be over for them.   

Their courage was fantastic, sometimes the courage just to open a shop or carry on ordinary activities. Al Qaeda could be unbelievably cruel and their violence could be up close and personal. I recall an incident when Al-Qaeda beheaded a man and his eleven-year-old son for the “crime” of selling rice. With his courage in standing up to Al-Qaeda, Muhammed Hussein Shafir helped make ordinary acts by ordinary people require less courage. He knew he was making himself a target for their hatred and vengeance and accepted the burden.

I was glad to get out of Iraq. I told myself that my job was done and I had nothing more to contribute. Others could carry on. I think I was correct in this, but I still felt guilty. Was I leaving too soon? Before the job was done? Anbar was becoming peaceful and prosperous in 2008 thanks to Coalition forces. The Marines had done good work. Of course, this kind of work is never done.

I no longer have ties with Iraq. It was one year of my life, an anomaly in my career, which otherwise concentrated on Europe and the Americas, places where I knew the languages and understood more of the culture and history. I didn’t want to continue in the Middle East & didn’t want to be involved very much in any sorts of security activities, in general. I still don’t. I am unsuited to them. You should do things you do well and security operations is not my strength. It was important work; I worried that the job I did in Iraq was inadequate but it was the best I could do. I don't think I could have done better. Maybe others could.

I knew two Hadithas. The first is the one I saw the day I arrived in Anbar. It was dirty and dangerous, still burning from the recent war. Then there was the one I saw in my last visit, full of life, activity and color. I told myself and I believed that this was “true” Haditha. I hoped that I had helped bring that about at least in a small way. What now?

I didn't know Muhammed well, but I knew him well enough and I knew Iraq well enough to mourn the passing of a courageous man and fear for the passing of a fragile peace for people I learned to respect. I really don't know what more to write.

July 05, 2010

Turning, Turning We Come Round Right

Marine greeting Iraqi boy“Vice President Joe Biden told POLITICO after a three-day trip to Baghdad that the American people will see President Barack Obama’s Iraq policy as a success when the “combat mission” ends on schedule on Aug. 31. Biden said the administration “will be able to point to it and say, ‘We told you what we’re going to do, and we did it.’” 

Yes. That is pretty much what we wrote about such things more than two years ago, when it was a little less fashionable.  

I like what the VP said. He is right. I think the title of my article two years ago could have had the same title, "We told you what we were going to do, and we did it."

I also wrote about two years ago, “The proper answer for the erstwhile surge opponents is to say that they were seriously wrong last year, but that they see the error in light of events and will work with conditions to take advantage of the success brought about by policies they opposed. “

April 18, 2010

Smell of Memory

Marines landing 

The helicopters landed today delivering the Marines for our exercise.  The noise, dust and smell of fuel are unpleasant, but they reminded me of those things in Iraq.  Smell is hard-wired into memory in a way other things are not.  Iraq sucked most of the time, but there were some interesting experiences and lots of great people.   After time has passed, things seem better.   It is much easier to see the joy in something retrospectively than prospectively.  

I can put myself back in that mind set, if I try hard.  I remember when I looked forward to a year of heat, exhaust, dust, boredom and danger.  It was not very inviting.   I remember my friend Reid Smith comparing our predicament to a prison sentence.  “We can't leave & what got us here seemed like a good idea at the time,” he said.  

April 16, 2010

Deadly Serious Games

I have never met a young man who doesn’t enjoy shooter games; at least once they have seen one.  But video games are more than just fun.  You can learn a lot from games.  Games implicitly embed various assumptions and incentive particular actions and behaviors. 

The Marines are taking advantage of the possibilities of gaming to help young Marines understand real-life combat situations. I think it will end up saving lives, as Marines will more effectively fight the bad guys and be better able to protect civilians in combat zones.

In this video simulation, Marines get to play both sides.  First they drive a simulated convoy through a dangerous part of Afghanistan.  Next they play the role of the insurgents and compete against their colleagues.  They can respond much more effectively when they see the situation through the eyes of the insurgents. 

We next went into a mock up of a village.  It was like a museum or a scansen. There were actors who played the roles of Afghan civilians and insurgents.  It was a very realistic. They even piped in the smells. I have never been to Afghanistan but I recognized some of them from walking around in Iraqi villages. The most obvious difference I notice was lack of live animals. They had stuffed chickens and goats, but in real life they are running around and getting in the way. I think that probably makes a difference if you are really walking the streets, especially if you are talking about trying to pay attention to subtle movements and sounds around you.

Afghan village 

The goal of these simulations is to make sure Marines can encounter these sights and sounds before they see them in the real-life dangerous situations. They even have an RPG simulation, where the rocket passes over your head and slams into a wall. It scared the crap out of me, even though I know it was going to happen. The shock and the smell is something you cannot properly imagine no matter how many times someone tells you about it. Of course, I can only imagine what it is like when it is a real explosive that could hurt or kill you.

I got to do the simulation handling the 50 caliber machine gun on the gun turret. I have been under the gunner on many occasions but it was different seeing it from the top perspective.   Suffice to say that I would not have done a very good job in the real world. I couldn’t keep track of all the things happening around me and I was especially bad about having a 360 degree perspective.   Even in the safety of the simulation, I developed a kind of tunnel vision.   I was also very clumsy on the reloading.  I suppose with practice I would get better, but I don’t think I could ever develop the alacrity of the Marines I knew.

March 10, 2010

Iraq in the Fullness of Time

Memory is never finally fixed. We are constantly editing our memories in the light of subsequent events. Sometimes meaningless event are explained in the fullness of time. Sometimes those events really were meaningless and they take on meaning only because we have jammed them into our narrative of memory.

That is why oral histories are unreliable and even things that are written down are subject to continual revision.Telling any story is always an act of choosing and even if we are being fair and thoughtful, our choices will always be subject to revision. We probably cannot arrive at THE truth, but we usually can come up with something useful or at least something that makes sense to us.

I have been thinking about these things as I prepare to address a class in public diplomacy at USC. They want to know about strategic communications at a PRT in Iraq. Lucky for me my blog provides a lot of contemporary impressions and pictures. I can see the evolution of my own thinking and my blog entries remind me of lots of things I would have forgotten. It seems like I am reading the experiences of someone else, but I know it was me because I can see the pictures.

My time in Iraq was the most meaningful work I have ever done. I am not saying that it was the most enjoyable or even that it was the best work I have ever done, but my job made a difference and my actions made a difference in a way they had not before. I am convinced that my activity saved lives. My PRT contributed to our success in Iraq and that is a world changing accomplishment. America and the coalition beat back terror and chaos, when many in the world and even in our own country had written us off. The alternative would have been horrible.

I don’t think we have told the story very well. Most people I talk to and read about in the papers have it wrong. They think that our success was based on good luck or that it would have happened anyway. This is very ironic, given the fact that back in 2007 most of these same people were convinced that we were so far down that road to perdition that we could never recover.

There is definitely a political dimension to this. Some people are knee jerk anti-war. They don’t want to believe that anything good can come from something is bad as the Iraq conflict. They dislike words like victory or even success. I don’t think anything can be done to change their minds, short of them experiencing what I did. Forget about them. But the broad American public should understand because there are lessons to be learned. We learned how to counter an insurgency. We beat an Islamist terror group right in the heart of their own region, on a battlefield of their choosing. Their growing power is not inevitable. History is not on their side. The future belongs to us, not them.

Iraq is a success story. I read an interesting headline in the paper the other day. It said that the Iraqi election was too close to call right away. When you have an election like that, it means there are actual alternatives. Saddam always got nearly 100% of the vote.

November 11, 2009

Grateful Remembrance

Most of the fathers in my neighborhood were veterans of World War II or Korea. I remember them mostly as middle aged guys with short haircuts, strong forearms and thick necks. They were like everybody else in our working-class neighborhood because they were the neighborhood. 

Non-veterans were rare.  We kids just assumedVeteran's Day at Navy Memorial we would go into the military when we reached manhood.  But I grew up just at a turning point.  They stopped drafting young men the year before I turned 18.  The new volunteer military meant that fewer and fewer Americans had any experience with the military.  Many young people today don’t have any close friends or relatives with military experience.  They take their impressions from Hollywood, which exhibits a systemic negative bias toward the military these days. 

That is too bad.  Today’s military is extraordinarily impressive, but many of those who haven’t seen it up close lately are stuck in the old stereotypes. You hear the prejudice when people say that the military is full of poor people w/o other choices. In fact, the opposite is true.  75% of today’s young people are not qualified for military service because they are too fat, too weak, druggies, crooks or dropouts and studies show that the average soldiers or Marines are better in terms of education, health and general attitude than the average civilian Americans of their age.

Until not long ago when I thought of veterans, I still saw those old WWII guys I knew as a kid. There service was twenty years in the past by the time I knew them.  It was distant, almost legendary. Their sacrifices and those of their comrades were equally remote. The Vietnam vets were only a little older than I was, but that war got compartmentalized, with student protesters and hippies taking the starring roles leaving the military as supporting characters, portrayed as victims, villains or psychos.   (BTW – I think that is one reason why movies like “The Men Who Stare at Goats” or “Brothers” infuriate me so much.  I fear that Hollywood is doing to the heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan what they did to those of Vietnam.)  In both cases, they were isolated from my reality.

But on this Veterans’ Day I realize that my views of veterans have undergone a significant change.  It is not only because of my Iraq experience.  Some of it is generational.   I am now older than most veterans and many of the older veterans are nearly my contemporaries.   I am now seeing veterans not as fathers, but as sons.   That has made it more poignant and I have seen it closer.

The death that affected me most was that of PFC Aaron Ward. He was only nineteen and had been in Iraq less than two months when he was shot and killed on May 6, 2008 as he stretched his legs outside his vehicle in Hit (that is the city name).  I knew the place but I didn’t know him or anything about him until I attended the memorial service. His friends described him as a friendly guy who liked to lift weights and joke with friends. Like everyone in Iraq, he was a volunteer who had chosen to serve his country knowing that he would be deployed to a war zone.  He seems a great guy and at the same time an average guy who did the things nineteen year old guys do.  I thought of Espen and Alex and I thought of Ward’s parents. And so this Veteran’s Day and every Veterans Day until the day I die I will pause to remember Aaron Ward.

Brave men and women put their own lives on hold and their own lives at risk to protect ours.  We mourn the fallen, but we should think of our military as heroes, not victims. Most come back healthy and alive.  They bring with them the skills, discipline, maturity and experience from their service to our country defending our freedom. They serve in the military for some years. Then they serve as good citizens for the rest of their lives.  Like those veterans I remember from my Milwaukee childhood, first they defend the country and then they come back to build it and keep it healthy. They deserves the honor and respect we give them on Veterans’ Day and every day.

BTW - Please see my note from last Veterans' Day at this link. 

October 26, 2009

Unlearned Lessons

Kayaks in Lake Michigan 

I participated in a seminar led by guy who had been on a CORDS team in Vietnam. CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) were supposed to do some of the development and coordination activities done by PRTs.  I was aware of CORDS but through talking to some older guys who knew about them. You cannot find much about them otherwise. It is the forgotten war and maybe the forgotten victory.

The professor pointed out that the insurgency in South Vietnam was decisively defeated after the TET offensive and CORDS cemented the victory.   After that, it became a problem of invasion from North Vietnam.  The popularly held idea that a bunch of insurgents, living with the people in the countryside, overthrew the South Vietnamese regime is just wrong.  We all remember the fall of Saigon, but we often forget that it was conquered by the armies of the North; big armies complete with armor and air support.  It wasn’t little guys in black pajamas.     

The successful counterinsurgency, including CORDS operation, was linked with the disastrous fall of Saigon and because we got the history wrong, usually w/o even thinking much about it, we were unable or unwilling to learn the lessons.  

The strategy associated with the surge worked in Iraq. We went from near defeat in late 2006 to a clear success (call it victory) a year later. I personally saw the change and felt its effects.  It was literally a matter of people dying or not. You can do all the academic analysis you want and round the words until they fit into square holes, but I am morally convinced that thousands of people are alive today because of what we did. PRTs were part of the surge and people like me contributed to the victory in Iraq. 

Our work at the PRTs may be following CORDS down the memory hole. It just doesn’t have many powerful champions and there are detractors. Some people are almost embarrassed that the surge worked, since they had so vociferously predicted its failure. Others have convinced themselves that success would have happened anyway.  Still others deny that we were successful at all since the situation is not a perfect as they could imagine. And then there are those who imply that victory or defeat in Iraq were/are just irrelevant.    

Some of the participants in the seminar asked me how State Department had taken advantage of the unique experience I had gained in Western Anbar. How had we absorbed that knowledge as a learning organization.  This is what they wanted to know.  I thought about it. I thought about it again.   The Marines invited me to Quantico to discuss my experience, several times, I told them. An independent scholar contacted me.  He had read my blog and wanted to see if I could tell him anything else.  At State Department … well, FSI asked me to present to classes of PRT folks going to Iraq.  I was on a panel with four other people and collectively we talked for about an hour.  That was good.  I sponsored my own brown bag lunch to discuss Iraq.   Five people came, all of them my friends just trying to be nice. I wrote a few entries on our State Department wiki, Diplopedia.  I don’t know if anybody read any of them, but information gets stale anyway unless it is converted to knowledge.

The follow up question was something like, “then how do you all learn?”  I mumbled about “reading in” to the cable and reports.

It is hard to be a learning organization because it is hard to turn experience into information and even harder to turn information into useful knowledge. We too often content ourselves with information on paper, or these days on computers.  We can gather all the numbers, metrics, whatever you want to call it, but it has to be converted to useful knowledge and categorized by human intelligence.  Creating useful knowledge usually means putting it into understandable context.  It usually also requires that the person digesting the information is also someone who can make decisions.  You cannot outsource your brains.

As a PRT leader, I had first-hand, primary knowledge. I sometimes didn’t know the significance of my information or how it fit into a bigger picture. It was helpful when someone had the secondary knowledge to evaluate and figure out what my information was part of. That is why a learning organization is stronger and smarter than the individuals in it.  If the information contained in individual minds remains un-harvested, the organization doesn’t learn.  It can be full of smart people who are adept at learning and improvising solutions, but it will lack the synergy of a learning organization. This is our problem.

I have been observing organizations for a long time.  You have to look at the organization as a whole with its own behaviors, not only at the separate individuals because groups are more than a the sum of individuals.  They develop a culture. We all know that individuals can learn, but so can organizations under the right conditions.

I see that many can be episodically learning organizations.  Much depends on characteristics of individuals in charge and the culture they engender. People have to talk and exchange information informally and non-judgmentally. The learning episode stops if anybody gets in trouble for being wrong, stepping out of line or presenting information that contradicts a agreed upon course of action.  But it is clearly a lot harder than just letting people talk and engage.  There has to be a way to evaluate information. Someone might be 100% honest and open, but still lack the perspective to create accurate or useful knowledge.  On the other hand, the old saying applies that even a broken clock is right twice a day, so you have to listen to everybody. 

The Marines in Iraq had become a learning organization.  I wrote about it at this link. Parts of State Department have been learning organizations during some periods.  I have been involved in some. It was exciting but those flashes of lights tend to flicker out when personnel or priorities shift. 

Maybe both personnel and priorities have shifted concerning PRTs in Iraq.  Maybe its just me.  Maybe the State Department has moved along.  Maybe the old Arab proverb applies, "The dogs may bark, but the caravan moves on. I don’t suppose my banana index translates very well anyway. It even stopped working in Iraq before I left

May 19, 2009

How Strategic Communication Helped the Surge Succeed in Iraq

Colonel Patrick Malay, my friend and colleague from Iraq, is coming to Washington and together we will make a presentation at the Strategic Communication Network (formerly known as Fusion Team) on May 29 about the importance of strategic communication in Iraq and how the Marines and the ePRT worked with the people and leaders of Anbar to help create stability and relative prosperity.  Below is more or less what I plan to say.

PIC ceremony Al Anbar

Every move you make conveys a message and actions often speak louder than words.   This is especially important in a disrupted and dangerous place like Anbar province was in 2007-8.   But the words and how you express them are also important.   You need a combination of talking and doing and that is what we were lucky enough to have in Western Anbar when the Marines, the State Department and other parts of the USG worked productively with the Iraqis to make the place safer and more prosperous.

I thought and wrote a lot about it at the time and I recommend you look at my webpage from the time.   The passage of time has strengthened my conviction that we achieved something special.   But I don’t think it was something unique and I do believe that the lessons of Western Anbar have meaning in other places and times. 

All Necessary; None by itself Sufficient

As with many successes and most failures, it seems easier to see the causes when you look back than it was at the time of the events.   We had a fortunate combination of factors.  None of them alone would have been sufficient to achieve success, but each of them was necessary.  

The most obvious is that the people turned against the insurgents and the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The insurgents and AQl, it turned out, really were bad.  When their promises were replaced by the reality of murder, mutilation, rape & destruction, the people of Anbar realized that letting them get established had been a mistake.  Unfortunately, standing up to the terrorists was dangerous and often fatal, not only for the brave individuals involved, but also for their family and friends. Early opposition ended up headless in roadside ditches.  AQI would often even go after anybody who tried to remove the bodies. This was an example of AQI’s strategic communication. A headless body makes one hell of an impression, especially if you think you might be next. 

Terrorism indeed created terror that paralyzed opposition.  So the second part of the puzzle was needed – the surge.

The surge was more than just an increase in coalition troop numbers.   It also coincided with a change in strategy.   In Anbar, it meant that Marines protected the people locally and went to live in Iraqi communities among the people they were supposed to protect.  They trained police & security forces and held the ground, but their most important strategic communication message was just being there.    For civilian populations in war zones, the perception of safety is crucial.  The perception of safety creates real safety as more people go onto the streets, interact with each other and begin to get the confidence to stand up to the bad guys or at least help others do so.

The supporting strategic communication message the Marines sent was consistency.    The people needed to know that the Marines would be there for a long time. If the population suspects that coalition forces will leave and the bad guys will be able to return to chopping heads, nobody will cooperate.  The only way you can create the perception that you are there for a long time is to be there for a long time and have the reputation for keeping your word.  Marines stayed and established a reputation for honesty and persistence.  

So we have two necessary parts of the puzzle.   The people have turned against AQI and the greater numbers of coalition forces are making it to be both openly against the terrorists and alive at the same time.  Both these things are necessary and probably in that order. But we still need something more.  

Although basic stability always precedes prosperity, stability cannot be long maintained if the people are miserable and have no meaningful economic activity. Stability and prosperity are symbiotic and mutually reinforcing.  This is where our ePRT came in.  A PRT certainly cannot create prosperity, but we could help create conditions where the Iraqis could build, or rebuild, their own prosperous community.   

We did this by emphasizing the structure of a civil society. These are the things that are so ubiquitous in our own society that we rarely even notice them anymore, things like a functioning court system, protections for private property, transportation, clean water, distribution of goods and a reasonable functioning financial system.

Let me say again that we did not, we could not, create this kind of thing.   We could, however, help the Iraqis do it for themselves.   We could and did make grants of money.  We sponsored training.   We (and even more the military) physically built things like schools, roads and bridges, but I content that the thing that made all these activities into a successful whole was strategic communications.   There is really not much we did for the Iraqis that they could not have done for themselves.  But the fact that we were out there encouraged them and paved the way for progress.

It is Better to Light a Single Candle than to Curse the Darkness

Dust storm at Al Asad Iraq near RCT 5 HQ

Let me give one example.  It is not the most important example, but it is the one I like the best.   I called it the “String or Emeralds”.  You can see more about it at the String of Emeralds Link.

John Matel at Iraqi experimental forest

Iraq is an arid country, plagued by dust storms and drought. But the dust storms and drought are not completely natural.   Some is caused by humans and livestock destroying the natural vegetation cover by bad farming methods and overgrazing.   This has been a problem for 4000 years and our PRT could not solve it.    But after 4000 years, we have learned something about soils.   Our PRT’s agricultural attaché was an expert on rehabilitating irrigated dry soils damaged by salinization (salts deposit is a big problem in dry Iraq). We also took the lessons from our own dust bowl of the 1930s.  Planting trees serves to slow the wind and catch some of the blowing dirt.   I looked for opportunities to help and I found some.  The Iraqis understood the need for this too, but the effort had been neglected under Saddam Hussein and collapsed utterly during the war. 

We went to some of the oases and raised the profile and that encouraged the Iraqis to think more about it too.    The strategic communications lesson is that when someone in authority just shows interest, things can happen. There is no real magic to it. It just takes effort. The trees will grow and the future will be better than the past.

This is my Western Anbar progress report from about the time I left. You can get a better idea if you look at the sections.

When does strategic communication work?  The short answer is when it is embedded in other things that are working. All the talking in the world could not have made Western Anbar safe if not for the Marines & our brave Iraqi friends.   But communications enhanced and spread the good news.  And by spreading it and making it believable the perception of security started to become more real.   Telling the right stories creates a reinforcing loop, a virtuous circle or just plain success.

March 19, 2009

Learning Organizations

The U.S. Marines are a learning organization.   During the year I was lucky enough to serve with them in Iraq, I was continually amazed at how fast information spread among them.   Then it would mutate, improve and become better adapted to the situation at hand.   The USMC skill and alacrity as a learning organizing was a necessary and key component of our success in Anbar province in 2006-8.   They adapted to changing circumstances and overcame obstacles.    

Marines talking to tribal leaders in Al Anbar province

Like all greatness, the USMC success is based on apparent contradiction. The Marines manage simultaneously to be hierarchical and egalitarian.   The also have very strict rules and at the same time very flexible execution.  The commander’s intent is very important even if it turns out that the specific instructions did not survive first contact.  Finally, virtually all Marines are intensely interested in helping other Marines, although this is sometimes masked by their tough exteriors.  Officers take responsibility and interest in their men.   They spend a lot of time mixing and talking with them.   This is one of the things that make them a learning organization.   A lot of information passes informally.  The leader, in one sense, provided the organizational connective tissue. Anyway, scholars have studied Marine leadership for literally centuries and I know there is a lot more, but those are the lessons I took and the ones I think apply generally.

The Marine organization I saw in action in Iraq contradicts many of the stereotypes we hear about them.  I realize, however,  that if I say that I want my organization to be more like the Marines, most people will conjure up an image far different from the one I envision.   So let me fall back on some other ideas that have stood the test of time and are similar but civilian.  

I read In Search of Excellence when I started my MBA in Minneapolis in 1983.  It is hard to recall now what a ray of hope that book was for me and my classmates.  We were coming off the terrible end of the 1970s and had recently suffered double digit unemployment, double digit inflation and mortgage interest rates that reached 20%.  Pundits told us that America could not longer compete in the world.  We were doomed to become the hinterland for the Japanese juggernaut.   Our business models were defunct, they told us, and we better get used to being second rate, or at best a clumsy dysfunctional giant.  This wasn’t how it turned out, but the future didn’t seem very promising when the book came out in 1982. 

In Search of Excellence came along and told us about American companies doing excellent things and succeeding and it told us how.  In some ways the ideas were revolutionary, but in most ways they represented the traditional American adaptively. It was our American wisdom encapsulated.  This is one reason In Search of Excellence became one of the best selling business books of all time and why it remains in the core of classics on management and organization.  

The book identifies eight characteristics of excellent organizations.

  1. A bias for action, active decision making - 'getting on with it'.
  2. Close to the customer - learning from the people served by the business.
  3. Autonomy and entrepreneurship - fostering innovation and nurturing 'champions'.
  4. Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
  5. Hands-on, value-driven - management philosophy that guides everyday practice - management showing its commitment.
  6. Stick to the knitting - stay with the business that you know.
  7. Simple form, lean staff - some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
  8. Simultaneous loose-tight properties - autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values. 

 Burgers of Calis in Hirschhorn garden on March 18, 2008

We can dress them up in terms more appropriate to 2009, but I think, precisely because they were distillations of successful practices, they still form the core of what a good organization should be like.   The only one I would explain is # 6.  It sounds less adaptive than it is.  The authors did not mean and I don’t think we want to stay with what you are doing now.   They were simply admonishing leaders not to just jump into the latest fads or spread themselves too thin with disjointed priorities.   They wrote the book at the tail end of the great merger mania, when giant conglomerates were making it difficult to identify core values or core competencies.  

I think the longer and updated version would be to branch out from core competencies rather than being distracted by every new thing that comes along.  I also think this should be modified with a little more systems thinking, but overall it stands.

February 27, 2009

Getting the Moving Finger

Nobody really cares about Iraq anymore.  A couple of colleagues and I did a “brown bag” seminar on our experiences there.  The few people who showed up did so mostly out of sympathy for me. It was nice of them and I appreciate the support, but Iraq is the past.  Media coverage mostly disappeared last year, just about the time things started to improve. Even I have trouble remembering that it was such a big deal not so long ago.

MRAPS at the end of the day in Mudasis Iraq in January 2008

Iraq is no big deal and that is a big deal. It might be useful to consider how that happened.   It did not happen because the problem just went away.  It happened because we solved it.  In a less timid age, we might have said that we won a victory there.

Only a couple years ago, most experts were predicting defeat and not just a little one. The view was that Iraq would collapse into chaos and civil war and that it would take most of the Middle East with it.  In fact, the more “realistic” pundits claimed that had happened already.  Their sage advice was to get out as quick as possible and leave the place to its unavoidable violent tendencies.

Fortunately, some of us didn’t listen to these hollow men and despite their heckling went on to victory.  I feel a little shy about using that term “we,” but I stepped up to do my part too and together we – Coalition forces, brave Iraqis and sometimes even hapless civilians like me – did it. 

But is important not to waste what we have accomplished.  Given Iraq’s strategic significance, the mission ceased to be a “war of choice” the moment American forces crossed the border in March 2003. Now we have no choice but to see Iraq through to stability.

Many of the same people who called for us to give up a couple of years ago, now feel vindicated that we can withdraw.   The logic goes something like this:  “Three years ago, we said the U.S. should get out.  Now the U.S. is going to get out (mostly).  See, we were right.”   This is indeed logical – if you ignore the events of the past three years and you forget the effects of time.

Let’s do a historical thought experiment.  WWII ended in 1945.  Count back three years and you are in 1942.   Now imagine a peace activist in 1942 saying that this Hitler guy and the Imperial Japanese Navy are not really very dangerous and we are just making them mad by standing up to them.  Three years later he says, “See, I told you so.  You didn’t have to waste all that time with D-Day or Iwo Jima.”

I am belaboring this point because I have seen this kind of historical credulity before.   The Cold War ended unexpectedly in 1989.   No matter how hard you look, you cannot find any expert who unambiguously predicted this outcome even two years in advance.  In fact, intellectuals had great fun ridiculing Ronald Reagan for thinking that bringing down the communist empires was possible or even desirable.   Many were shocked into humility by the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they quickly recovered their composure.  Now it is hard to find anyone who will admit that he did not see it coming.   In fact, the new intellectual fashion seems to be that the fall of communism was inevitable and they have gone back to ridiculing Ronald Reagan, calling him a mere bystander at best and perhaps even an impediment.   (“We whisper together; are quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass or rats’ feet over broken glass in our dry cellar.”) 

George Santayana said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.   I don’t know if that all that’s true.  What is true is that those who don’t remember history are doomed to be tricked again in similar ways. 

There are large forces at work in history and everything that happens has multiple causes.  Our choices are bounded.  Timing is important.   The strategy that achieves wonderful success in one situation may be an ignominious failure in another.   But the choices we make DO make a different.  The choices we make change the shape of the future.   We choose.  This is the lesson of history we should never forget. 


Iraq boy thanks US Marine and shakes hands in Anbar Province Iraq June 2008Looking down from the high summit of time, it seems like events are determined.   The more comprehensive a change, the more it seems inevitable.  But this is an illusion. 

We achieved a victory in Iraq. We stared down a radical insurgency in the heart of the Middle East and beat it back.   This is something they said could not be done.  We did it. Iraq, despite all its flaws, is now the most democratic country in the Arab world.  Someday soon – not today, not tomorrow, but soon – historians will see the spring of 2007 as an inflection point in Middle Eastern history.   It will be seen as the time when the old barriers to freedom and development were breached and a new freedom was painfully born and began to grow, fitfully at first, but inexorably   They will see it as inevitable and our choices that made it possible will be forgotten.  

“The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on.  Not all your piety nor all your wit can coax it back to cancel half a line, nor all your tears wash away one word of it.”

December 05, 2008

PTSD, Iraq & the Rime of the Ancient Mariner

ancient mariner 

Most of the time when the shooting start, State Department evacuats Embassies and gets its people out of harm’s way.  We were sent to Iraq in the opposite direction with the risks well-known and acknowledged.   This represents a big change that State is still trying to understand.   They are trying to find out more about how such an assignment affects the people involved, so the high stress out briefing I went to today at FSI has a double purpose: to help us reintegrate and to get some ideas on what happened to us over there.

They told us that employees often have more trouble coming home than they did going over.   Life is the war zone is exciting or at least active.   You feel like you are doing something special and that you are a big deal.  At home, you are just an ordinary guy.   You must also reintegrate the people you love.  Things have changed.    Experts identify a whole range of situations ranging from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to more mild forms of just feeling a little strange.    PTSD, BTW, is not rare even among people who have not been to war zones.  We were told that 5% of men and 10% of women NOT deployed in overtly traumatic conditions will still suffer from the symptoms. 

I was lucky.  I experienced few traumatic events and I think I have reintegrated fairly well.   I do feel some of the things they mention in the course.   I have a little trouble focusing and I lose track of the things I am doing more than I remember doing before.    But I think that is also the simple result of the ordinary changes I am going through.   I am still waiting for some of my clearances; I still don’t have my remote access and I am still not settled into my new job.  More precisely, I am kind of between jobs since I have the CENTCOM assessment taking most of my time when I am trying to check into my new job.   I will spend the next couple of weeks in Doha, which postpones the real start of my new job.   Anyway, whenever compare the first weeks of a new job to the last weeks of a past successful one, it will inevitably seem more confused and chaotic. Presumably you get better at your job so the end is better organized than the start.

An experience like Iraq reveals (if not builds) character. We all agreed that some people should not be allowed to come to Iraq and that our eagerness to get willing people at the posts lets some of them through the filter.   Some people are not emotionally robust enough for the stress and many are not physically fit enough.  You don’t have to be Arnold Swartzenegger, but you do have to wear body armor, carry your own gear, and jump out of helicopters & into MRAPS.  You also have to be able to take the temperatures and the pounding that comes from ordinary life and travel in Iraq.

The experts say that people returning from posts such as Iraq are sometimes crabbier, less engaged and they think life is less colorful or interesting.   This passes in normal cases.   I also don’t think this is a problem for me (although maybe I don’t notice my crabbiness.)    My time in Iraq made me appreciate more the things I had here in America.  I had a network of support in the family and I did a few things right, w/o even planning it.   My forestry interest tied me to something long term and rooted (literally) and the blogging was an excellent outlet.   The experts say that telling your story helps calm and put your mind straight.  I guess it is like the old man in the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” who periodically feels the need to share (inflict) his experience with somebody else.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

As a career FSO, I have come home several times.   I was happy to get out of Iraq.  I loved the job and worked with great people on an important job.  I regret leaving them and the sense of duty, but Iraq as a place holds no attraction for me.  Forget the war.  I like living trees and verdant hills.  I just don’t like barren deserts and I don’t like that extreme heat.  I felt no sadness leaving Iraq.  I really liked Norway and Poland and was sad to leave those places.  The hardest homecoming for me and the family was when we left Krakow.   That was an important job too AND I felt at home in Poland.   Beyond that, I came back to a job (in the ops center) that I didn’t like and beyond all those things, the family had some adjustment issues at the same time.   Even I could tell that I was crabby, troubled and troublesome back then.  I do agree with the general proposition that coming back is often harder than going over, probably because you think it should just be a piece of cake.

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

(Maybe those who read Coleridge don't really need the course.  He seems to have figured it out and expressed it better.)

December 02, 2008

Stability Operations

I got stuck in back of an old fashioned at-grade crossing on the road to Quantico.  This is not something you see too much anymore.    I didn’t like the wait, but there is something cool about watching the freight train roll by.   I watched dozens of truck trailers go by loaded on flat cars, as well as the usual box cars and containers.   Rail is a more efficient way to move freight.   It saves energy and gets lots of trucks off the road.

railroad at Quantico

I went down there again to take part in a stability workshop to help the next group of Marines prepare for their time in Anbar.   I told them what I could, but my Anbar is not the Anbar they will face.   There will also be a lot fewer Marines.  We have been drawing down over the past year and will continue to do this, so one of the big questions was what will happen when the Marines are gone or mostly gone.   I don’t know how much of my experience on the ePRT will transfer in this specific situation, but I shared what I could. 

We were successful over the past year.   I think the key to success was the close cooperation between the Marines and our ePRT members.   I couldn’t explain formal reasons for that.  I think a lot  of it was the serendipity of personalities that meshed well.   I also had the advantage of having an office across from the Colonel on the command deck.  We had plenty of opportunities to run into each other and talk informally.   We agreed that ePRT members must be full members of the team.  That meany going out with the Marines and among the Iraqis.   We are not fighters and we should not take unnecessary chances, but it is our job too to be out there, not hunkered down behind the wire.   

We, Marines & ePRT members, also developed good relations with the Iraqis because we got there at the right time and I think we genuinely got to like at empathize with them.   Most at least.  I told the group that I don’t know how to make that happen, but some attitudes help.

Sometimes perception is reality.   When ePRT civilians were seen in talking to people in marketplaces or on the streets, it gave the Iraqis a feeling that things were getting safer.    Sometimes just being there is the accomplishment.   If you hang around long enough and behave well, people just get used to you.   There is no magic, just persistence.

Iraqis in general are not hostile to us, but it is a hard situation when foreign troops are hanging around your country.   We need to show respect for the Iraqis and demand respect from them.  Failure on either side of this equation is a mistake.   We have to recognize that Iraq was once better than it is today.  That was a long time ago, but people appreciate it if you recall it to put the current situation in context.  It also gives hope for the future.   Eye contact is very important.  A simple think like taking off your sun glasses goes a long way.    I shared these and other little insights.   None of them is very profound, but taken together they form a decent tool set.

Partnership is the key: partnership of the ePRT with the Marines and partnership with the Iraqis.  Nobody accomplishes anything alone.    If you work with others in this kind of way, you usually don’t get exactly what you planned, but what you get is usually better.    Anyway, that’s the gist.

Follow this link for more details.

One more thing, somebody used an analogy of taking Lipitor to describe a quick fix solution, i.e. somebody takes Lipitor for cholesterol w/o addressing the root causes.   I disagree with the analogy.  I started taking Lipitor a few years ago and it did a good job of lowering my cholesterol.   I think of it as a ham sandwich surcharge.  For pennies a day, I get to eat many of those foods I like.  I see it as a sustainable solution.     I requested a different analogy.   

November 18, 2008

Infrastructure in Iraq

As the introduction says, I am a career Foreign Service Officer who recently returned from a year in Iraq leading a provincial reconstruction team (PRT) embedded with the Marine Regimental Combat Team in Western Iraq. 

John Matel on railroad tracks in Akashat

PRTs are an old idea made new.   My assignment was to help rebuild Western Iraq, a task much bigger than me.  I had a team of seventeen (17) experts to help.   I also had the cooperation of the Marines and other U.S. military stationed in Iraq and most importantly I could ride on the energy, talent and hard work of the Iraqi people in Anbar.   I think we were successful.   I feel a little like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise, however.   I arrived in Anbar at the inflection point when the war-fighting stage was largely over and the rebuilding was beginning.  The people of Anbar, with the help of the Marines and my team members, made great strides during that year and I was privileged and proud to work among them.

Let me tell you a little about how I would like to handle this talk.  I propose to lay out general principles and then fill in some examples. This won’t take very long.  After that, I would like to address your specific questions and concerns.  

A disclaimer.  I am not an engineer.  Leading a team called a provincial reconstruction team implies building and engineering.  This is not the case.  I cannot talk re specifications, materials or building methods. 

What I can tell you is what I saw in Iraq with my own eyes.  What I have seen may indeed make more sense to you when I describe it than it does to me.  Your training gives you insights I don’t have. My eyes and your expertise may create synergy.

Our PRT was tasked with helping rebuild – or in many case just build – infrastructure in Iraq.  Infrastructure is broader than roads and buildings.  You know that.  Infrastructure includes all those things that make a prosperous modern society possible.   

Roads, Bridges etc.

We start with the obvious things like roads, bridges and railroads.   W/o these things prosperity is not possible.  Then we move to factories mines and office buildings.  In Iraq, they had significant agricultural infrastructure in the form of irrigation and water projects.  All these things are clearly classified as infrastructure and can be built almost anywhere.  But there is more. 

Farm in Iraq


One of the hardest tasks in any developing country is the infrastructure of institutions.  We Americans often forget this because we have had a functioning country with rule of law, more or less predictable political system and functioning government bureaucracies for hundreds of years.  Iraq was lacking all those things.  W/o institutions, you can build all the physical infrastructure you want and still not create a modern prosperous society.

Societal Strength

Which comes first, a strong civil society or civil society institutions?   I don’t think you can really determine cause and effect.  They strengthen and support each other or pull each other down.   A key ingredient is trust.  Most of our transitions are based on trust, even those we think of as determined by law.   A prosaic example is when you go into a restaurant.   Your waiter trusts you pay for your meal and leave an appropriate tip.  You trust him not to tack on unreasonable charges and supply decent service and food.  Imagine if each transaction required you to check references and proactively defend your interests.  Trust in Iraq had been sorely tested and ripped apart by Saddam Hussein, his capriciousness and his wars.   The level of trust is still low and a society with a low level of trust is a weak society.   You cannot build a strong society directly.  It takes time.

Below - Iraq geography is like the moon with more gravity.

Iraqi road with Marines


We often take environmental services for granted.  It is like good health.  You don’t miss it until it is gone.   In the U.S. we suffered through the dust bowl years when we abused our environment beyond its capacity.   There are other examples, but the dust bowl is appropriate because that is what Iraq suffers.  Dust storms are part of the natural arid environment, but the fantastic dust storms I saw are the result of long term human degradation.  We started to help rebuild this infrastructure.   

soccer field in Iraq 

Human Capital

The most important part of infrastructure is human capital.   These are the technical skills, work habits, managerial capacity, entrepreneurial dexterity and even the good health of the people themselves. 

Human capital is harder to build and more important than physical capital.   My father was in the Army Air Corps during World War II.  They bombed German cities to rubble. When I went to Germany as a student, he asked me if they had rebuilt.  It seemed to me like a silly question, but it wasn’t.   Many countries that were underdeveloped twenty years ago are still underdeveloped today. Germany was completely devastated in 1945, yet ten years later the western half at least was among the world’s most prosperous countries.  People build and run things.  That simple fact is often overlooked by those who think they can just buy or give prosperity.

Or think of the more pop example. In the old television show MacGyver, the lead character would go into a situation with almost no tools.  He would make what he needed out of simple kitchen ingredients or thing he found lying around.   This is the power of human intelligence in real (Germany) and fictional examples. 

Iraq suffered mightily from the destruction of its human capital.  Millions of its best and brightest citizens fled the country during the decades of Saddam’s tyranny.  Many more never acquired the skills of a modern society because of the mismanagement and underinvestment in the education system and lack of opportunities.  Iraq during the dictatorship went from being one of the most skilled and literate countries in the region to being one of the worst.   Finally, the recent war and unstable conditions made refugees of millions, many have still not returned.   This is the longest term and most difficult problem that must be addressed.  Money can buy the beginning of a solution, but only time can bring it to fruition.

Let me give you some specific examples of each of the categories.   I want this part to be conversational.  Please feel free to ask questions as I talk.   A text of what I just said is available at my webpage at 

November 17, 2008

Backgrounder on My ePRT

This blog entry goes with my talk this week re building Iraqi infrastructure, what we did on the ePRT, and how civil-military cooperation worked in my experience.   I have included relevant links to other places on the blog that I believe illustrate various aspects of the work.   If you are reading this before the talk, I look forward to your questions.   If you are reading this after the talk, I hope this fills in some of the blank spaces and/or questions raised.   In either case, please feel free to post questions of comments. John Matel & LtCol Robert McCarthy at Al Asad

Why I volunteered to go to Iraq

Getting used to being at Al Asad

Notes on our ePRT

·         Evolution of the Western Anbar ePRT

·         Our team 1

·         Our team 2

Infrastructure in Western Iraq

Embracing local culture (goat grab)

Prospering in spite of the politicians

Achieving success in Iraq

Western Anbar progress report

Sanctions, mismanagement & lost opportunities

We did what they said couldn’t be done (can we use the V-word yet?)

Come safely home

The Marines and me

Marines (and a soldier) at Al Asad in Sept 2008

October 08, 2008

Iraq: After the Dust Washes Off

Pepe Le Pew

It is always like this when I come back from an overseas post. One day you are in the midst of a place, its events, culture and environment. It seems like the whole world. Then you are not. Iraq is like that, only more so, because being in Iraq is so unusual and so intense. You work long hours every day of the week, and you are immersed in it always. It gives you a special feeling of uniqueness, insulation and security. When I think back on the experience, it almost seems like I am remembering the events and details of somebody else’s life. But I know it was me, because I still have Iraqi dust on my boots.

For a year I was surrounded by Marines and team members who knew me or at least knew about me.   We were all members of one team, working together to accomplish a worthy goal.  We thought about HOW to overcome obstacles and achieve our purposes.  It never occurred to anybody to ask if we COULD do it. I miss the sense of purpose and the honor of being part of something big.   Back home people all have their own different problems.  Iraq has dropped off most of their radar screens. 

I never expected people to pay attention to all my stories.  I understand that I can talk longer than most people can listen.   But I am surprised at the general lack of interest in Iraq, which used to be and still is a big deal.   At first most people approach me sympathetically.  They thank me for my service and commiserate about the hardship of my ordeal.  They are a little disappointed when I explain that it was less exciting and not as bad as they heard.  And some seem almost offended when I tell them about the transformation that has taken place and the success we have achieved.   They really don’t want to hear about it.  I don’t think they believe me. 

Many Americans formed their impressions of Iraq based on the dicey and hard conditions on the ground in late 2006.  Rethinking their opinions in light of the vastly improved situation in Iraq hurts their brains.  They just want Iraq to go away and the possibility of success smacks of continued effort.  I am an intrusion into a comfortably settled belief pattern, as unwelcome as the skunk at a barbeque.

It will take a while before the significance of our success in Iraq sinks in and even longer for us to indentify and explore all the options it opens and the challenges it creates.  Iraq will difficult and dangerous for a long time to come.  Changing long established conditions is hard and it takes time, but the trends are definitely positive.  Real change creeps up on little cats’ feet and we are often surprised to look around and see that things are not what we thought. 

October 03, 2008


This blog records my experiences as a Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader in Al Al Asad, Al Anbar Province, Iraq 2007-8. My comments may be delayed several days. I invite your questions & comments. If you are reading for the first time, please refer to the first entry - John Matel Goes to Iraq - for background.

Contact John Matel at this link

Above is the original intro to this blog. Below is my flight out of Iraq. The planes are big inside.

Leaving Iraq

This blog had more than 20,000 visitors in September. I know that some are repeat customers, but it still shows some interest.   It is a record I will probably never again reach.   Being in Iraq was exotic; I am now going prosaic.

I tried to give an accurate picture of what was happening in Iraq.  It was not as scary or dangerous as I expected and certainly not as bad as we read in the media.  I was lucky to arrive at an inflection point, when violence was down and when we really started to win.

The Marines and our military in general are very impressive.  I ambcertain that there has never been a better military force in the history of the world.  They are fantastically disciplined. For example, our military personnel are not allowed to drink alcohol while deployed in Iraq and as far as I saw they didn’t.  

How amazing is that?  Our purpose was to respect Muslim customs.  I saw our Marines do that repeatedly in many ways.  They risked their own lives rather than risk the lives of Iraqis.  This is something special in the annals of war. When I tell people about this, I know some don’t believe me.  It is hard to believe.  

Sometimes people are just mistaking our military for their own prejudiced stereotypes.  Many Americans these days have no direct contact with the military, so they get their impressions from old TV shows like “M*A*S*H* or from the likes of Oliver Stone or Michael Moore.  Just say no to these things.  They are fictional accounts not designed to be fair or accurate.

I cannot blame the average guy.   Before I went to Iraq, I believed a lot of things that were not true.  In fairness, much of the bad news was true before the surge.  As I try to explain, the bad news is not wrong, it is just old and outdated. 

I learned a lot in Iraq about the military, the Iraqis, war, peace, leadership and myself.   It was a great experience.  I am very glad that I volunteered and also glad to be finished, but it is finished.  I will continue to write the blog.  It helps me understand when I write.   This will be the last “Matel-in-Iraq” entry.   And this entry serves as the official ending marker.  I will put a link to it in the intro to the new blog page.

If you are looking for “Matel-in-Iraq” just do back from this page.  If you are looking for “World-Wide-Matel” go forward.

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 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 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 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 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 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.,Marineshowscommitment.aspx

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.,LEPworktogether.aspx

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.,serveashelibornereactionforce.aspx

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 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.

August 31, 2008

The Haunted Temple

Looking NW on the Euphrates 

Above - The Euphrates looking north and west. 

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

Below is the temple mound

Temple mound

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

View from temple mound

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

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

Historian at temple

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

Euphrates looking south and east

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

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

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

August 29, 2008

The Wisdom of Solomon

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

coats of arms 

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

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

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

Below - More coats of arms

more coats of arms

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

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

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

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

August 27, 2008

Again with Anah

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

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

Darth Vader

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

Below – Anah mosque.

Anah Mosque

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

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

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

Below – ePRT team member in Anah

Colleagues in Anah

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 23, 2008

Prospering in Spite of the Politicans' "Best Efforts"

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

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

Bike shop in Hit Iraq

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

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

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

drainage in Hit

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

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

August 22, 2008

Three Hard Men

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

Train Station in Al Anbar Iraq

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

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

Euphrates River carp

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

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

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

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

Bongo truck

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

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

August 18, 2008

A Lot Changes in a Year

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

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

Rock drill

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

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

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

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

Anbar sky

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

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

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

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

August 16, 2008

Iraqi Falafel

Falafel in Hadithah Iraq 

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

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

John Matel with Rani drink in Hadithah

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

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

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

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

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

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

That too is heroism.

August 15, 2008

Awkward in Hadithah

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

Codel landing at Haditha LZ 

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

Meeting with mayor in Hadithah

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

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

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

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

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

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

Codel on Hadithah street


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

Children in Hadithah with Codel

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

Things are much better now.

August 13, 2008

Visit to Anah

Anah Ancient and Modern

Anah in Western Iraq

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

Mosque in Anah in Western Iraq

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

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

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

 Electrical Power

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

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

Hadithah Dam

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

Pushing Back the Desert

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

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

New trees fighting desertification

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

one year old date plantation

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

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

lattice house near Anah, Western Iraq

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

Potatoes, Cows & Fish

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

Potato field near Anah, Western Iraq

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

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

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

Dairy farm construction in Anah

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

Dairy farm construction in Anah, Western Iraq

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

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

August 12, 2008

A Quick Look Around Western Anbar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 11, 2008

Visit & Foot Patrol in Kubaysah

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

Above - watermelons, odd shape, good taste


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

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

man sitting on stoop in Kubaysah, Iraq

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

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

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


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

water tower in Kubaysah Iraq

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

corroded pipes in Kubaysah Iraq

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

Sewage in streets in Kubaysah Iraq

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

A Friendly Foot Patrol

sign praising US forces in Iraq

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

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

Produce market in Kubaysah Iraq

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

butcher in Kubaysah Iraq

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

watermelon man in Kubaysah Iraq

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

Eternal Vigilance

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

Marine patrolling street in Kubaysah Iraq

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


date palms

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

Not Much Use if You Cannot Use it

sewage truck

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

August 09, 2008

The Toughest Tribe in Anbar

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

Unloading air assets 

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

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

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

August 07, 2008

War For Oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 28, 2008

Wrapping Up

Iwo Jimi Memorial in Arlington 

I will go back to Iraq at the end of this week for my last two months there.  I have been thinking about how I can continue to add value up until the very end.  The two hardest parts of any posting are the first month and the last.   In first month you are overwhelmed trying to learn the new place, the new job and how to work with new colleagues; in the last you are trying to stay relevant, not check-out mentally before you leave physically and continue to plant those seeds you know you will never see germinate. 

Much of my energy will be absorbed by the transition to a new team leader.  It helps that my successor, Robert Kerr, is an experienced diplomat who has already served in Iraq.  We will overlap for at least a week - long enough to pass along my knowledge, but not my bad habits. Beyond that, my team works autonomously.  We all like to think we are indispensible, but I know from experience that soon after we leave a posting we gone like the snows of past winters.   We do our part in our time and when our time is done we do something else.   That does not detract from the importance of our duty.  Each of us is a link in the chain and as the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  I am gratful that I had the opportunity to do my part.

We need to build on the success given to us by the surge.  We can be grateful that we didn’t listen to the advice of the surge opponents a year ago, but maybe some of their current advice isn’t so bad.   A detailed timeline independent of developing condition in Iraq is just plain stupid, but an aspirational timeline, one that reiterates the U.S. desire to leave, may be a good idea.  

In my corner of Iraq, we have begun already.   The Marines are gradually drawing down.  They are responible for the peace we now enjoy, so leaving is tricky for all sorts of big reasons.  For us, their drawdown has the practical effect of giving us fewer travel assets, i.e. helicopters and convoys.   We also see our Iraqi friends are willing and able to take on more of the responsibility for their own development.  The transition is tricky.  Some of the locals have come to see us as a font of resources.  They think it is easier and better to get us to do something than to ask their own government or do it themselves.  We have to change this attitude and I have been trying to wean them off our largess, at least as pertains to our ePRT.  We don’t do anything w/o a local contribution.  The days of us doing for them are over.  We are currently in the partnership mode and I look forward to the day coming soon when they will do for themselves.  I hope with some U.S. investment and participation, but that will be private.

If we don’t succeed, I worry about the moral hazard.  When people get used to unearned entitlements it leads to dependency and indolence.  Beyond that, they come to despise those giving them the benefit.  Generosity is harder than it seems.  I think it has something to do with reciprocity.   W/o self respect, people cannot respect others and they cannot build self respect if they feel that they are not making a contribution.   Giving w/o expecting anything in return can take away the recipients’ self respect.  Their contribution need not be directly proportional.  It may consist of only the promise to do something for others in the future, but the donor has to insist of something, a contribution – reciprocity.  Otherwise there is a moral hazard that leads to pain for both donor and recipient. 

The old saying that it is more blessed to give than receive is incomplete.   The best for all around is generous reciprocity.

July 27, 2008

A Fish Story

Fishermen near Hadithah are pulling bigger fish out of the Euphrates than anybody can remember.   The fish got a chance to be so big because locals had been unable to fish during the late insurgency.  Coalition forces had limited or banned river traffic to prevent terrorists from using the river as transportation and a way to get away.  With the more stable situation, the ban was been lifted, but fishing did not return to its previous levels, despite the size of the fish population.  Why not?

Fishermen on Lake Qadissya

We thought of the obvious reasons, maybe the boats were not in good repair or that people were still afraid to take to the water, but this didn’t seem to be true.  People were fishing, but not so much.  They were fishing for their own or for very local consumption, but not for market.   Then we identified to missing link.  It was not the boats, river, fish, fish markets or fishermen.  The missing link was ice.

Fish are very perishable.  You can catch that big fish, but it is probably not a good idea to buy it or eat it after it has been sitting around in 110 degree heat in the sun all day.  W/o ice, fish mongering is limited to places very near the river where live fish can be maintained.

There was an ice factory nearby, but it was not in operation.  CF helped get it up and running and now fishing is returning.  All this makes our plans to help with fish hatcheries in Anah and Hadithah more urgent, but the hatcheries would have been ineffective and maybe even harmful if the ice problem had not been solved.

The lesson for me was a reminder of bottlenecks and how well the free market works if it is allowed to do so.    We (in this case essentially bureaucratic planners) didn’t think through the whole system.  No planners really can.  That is why the market works so well.  Individuals or groups identify a need and they fill it – IF they can.  The authorities’ role is not to do, but to enable. I think we did the right thing in enabling rather than providing.  Independently, CF are contracting with local firms for ice, rather than making it ourselves, which we are more than capable of doing.   This is helping build an ice infrastructure, which will be in place after we leave.  Ice is a big deal in this hot climate. 

I am glad that we caught on in time.   You accomplish big goals by a combination of applying pushing energy and removing obstacles.  It is tempting just to push harder because you have more ostensible control, but often the obstacle removal is the way to go.  Buying boats & nets, training fishermen etc would have looked good on our reports, but removing the obstacle and letting them do it themselves was the true key to success.

As the old Taoist wisdom advises, the best way to accomplish a task is when the people say, "we did it all by ourselves."

lake thar thar

FYI - In case anybody notices, I am still in the U.S. and this post is out of sequence.  I wrote it a couple weeks ago.  I just forgot to post.  The pictures are old ones too. The top one is fishermen on Lake Qadissya and the one above is Lake Thar-Thar.

July 23, 2008

Victory in Iraq Creates Options

The opposite is also true.  Below is the Griffon roller-coaster at Busch Gardens.  It reminds me of our perceptions of Iraq over the last years.

Griffon roller coaster

Iraq is getting play in the news again, but the narrative is wrong.   Some commentators – covering for their earlier dumb statements - disingenuously say that we don’t  know what would have happened if we had followed the defeatist advice in 2006 and pulled out instead of surged.   Anybody who has been to Iraq knows that we would be in a big mess today.   The proper answer for the erstwhile surge opponents is to say that they were seriously wrong last year, but that they see the error in light of events and will work with conditions to take advantage of the success brought about by policies they opposed.  I certrainly would not hold their earlier mistakes against them, but I don’t think I will hold my breath waiting for the truth.

The media correctly points out that w/o the Sunni Awakening and the decline of the Shiite militias we would not enjoy the success we do today.  Lots of thing contributed to success.  W/o the surge, however, Al Qaeda would have cut the head off Sunni leaders, as they did in 2005, and the Shiite militias would never have gone into decline.   When you win, you get some of the things you want.  That is what winning means. 

Some people just cannot understand joint causality and that some conditions are indeed necessary but not by themselves sufficient.   

I have lived in Anbar for awhile now and met people involved in the Awakening.   They hate Al Qaeda with considerable passion and we certainly could not have defeated the bad guys w/o their help.   But w/o our help, THEY could not have defeated the bad guys either.  Our friends would have been isolated and killed individually or in small groups, along with their families, and others would have been intimidated into silence.   I don’t have to speculate about this.  We saw that such things happened in 2005 and we still could see them happening on a smaller scale even in the time I have been in Iraq.

Let me be as blunt as I can.  The surge worked.   Those who opposed the surge were wrong.  I feel justified in being so nasty because of all the defeatism and negativity we had just a year ago – about the time I was deciding to go to Iraq myself.   I will not accept that those who told people like me that we were stupid for thinking we could win in Iraq – and chumps for volunteering - can now pretend that the success in Iraq would have happened anyway.   

I believe in looking to the future and I don’t dwell on this to justify the past.  Historians can sort out the details in the fullness of time.  But we are still in the midst of this project and we have to keep our eyes on the ball.  AQI and the bad guys are on the run, but they are not defeated.  They are like an infection that has been weakened by penicillin.   We are feeling good now and it is tempting to declare that all is well, but if we stop before the job is done, the disease will return, stronger and more deadly.

The success of the surge is giving us the options of bringing home troops – in victory – and of getting the Iraqis to share more of the burden.   But it is important to remember HOW we got to this point and don’t pretend that it was just luck.

Re Afghanistan –Foreign fighters that until recently headed to Iraq now are on their way to Afghanistan.  Why?  Because they know they are defeated in Iraq.   If WE had been defeated in Iraq in 2006, they would still be going to Afghanistan, but with greater confidence & resolve and in greater numbers.  Iraq and Afghanistan are not the same war, but they are linked.  Al Qaeda & other terror organizations send fighters and bombers to both places.  

Foreign terrorists fight us where they think they can hurt us.  That WAS Iraq when we were weaker there.  It may be Afghanistan now because our success in Iraq has made it too hard for the bad guys there.   It could also, BTW, be New York or Washington.   We control them by opposing them.  That is just true.  If we keep the imitative, we have more choices about WHERE we fight them, but we do not have a choice about IF we will fight them.

People who support extremists respond to the same sorts of pressures and incentives as other people.  When being a jihadist is easy and it looks like success is at hand, lots of people want to volunteer or at least be on the winning side.   As it gets harder or more dangerous, this support dries up.   Fighting terrorists does not create more IF it is done properly.  Please see my note from yesterday.  

Extremist ideologies decline only AFTER they have been defeated or discredited.  Nazism didn’t decline by itself.   It went into terminal decline after it was defeated by force of arms.  Until then it looked like the wave of the future.  In 1941 things looked different than they did in 1945.  A similar dustbin of history fate befell Soviet Marxism.  Although in their case it was primarily an economic and political defeat, these forces were backed by forty years of resolve and strength on the part of the U.S. and our allies, without which Soviet communism would have blotted out the sun of freedom over a much wider area for a much longer time.   Why does anybody think extremist jihadists would go away without a fight?  They are standing on the edge of the precipice.  Let’s make sure they fall off.

BTW – when we do succeed in this endeavor, let’s not think it is the end of history.  We went down that path in the 1990s and it didn't work out. 

July 22, 2008

Fresh Air on Counter Insurgency

I recommend a superb interview about Iraq with John Nagl, who helped write the COIN manual.  It is on Fresh Air on NPR.  This program sits on the soft left side of the radio spectrum, which is why this interview is so interesting.  The host obviously is a light-weight compared with Nagl.  You can hear in her voice and demeanor that she knows that too and is impressed with his knowledge.  She really seems to have learned something.  Her questions are sometimes leading and simplistic but his answers make it all work. 

Getting accurate news out on a venue such as Fresh Air is useful.  I suspect that many of the listeners are as badly in need of the education as the show’s host.  The popular stereotype of the Iraq conflict and the people fighting it are out of whack with reality, but too often on shows like this you hear “experts” repeating them in a self-sustaining circle.  A dose of reality will be a breath of fresh air.

Anyway, this is the link to the John Nagl Interview.     

July 21, 2008

Practical Anthropology

Below is the Marine Band playing at the Marine Memorial in Arlington.  They play every Tuesday evening during the summer.  I went to see them last week.  The picture is not related to the rest of the post, but I thought it was a good picture.  

Marine Band Arlington VA July 2008

I minored in anthropology as an undergraduate.   I don’t think about that much anymore, but an article from AEI reminded me of the usefulness of this sort of outlook.  Anthropologists study cultures and the interrelations within and among them.  This is useful in Iraq and Afghanistan as we try to apply leverage to help those places overcome the damage of insurgencies and terrorism.   I have spoken to anthropologist studying the cultural landscape of Anbar and we are always looking for better ways to understand the people we work with.  We call it “human terrain” and knowing the human terrain is as important as understanding the physical terrain of a battle space.  It saves lives and makes us more successful. It just makes sense.

The article I linked above is about an anthropologist who was recently killed while on duty in Afghanistan.   This guy was a hero.  What surprised me was that some professional anthropologists  disagree.   Some even say it is some kind of ethical violation for anthropologists to use their skills to help with human terrain projects.   I think maybe they have been watching too much Star Trek and they think the prime directive is applicable on our planet. It is one of those examples that shows that you can get a PhD and still remain a fool.

We apply our education – history, anthropology, business etc – to do our jobs better.   It would be unethical not to do so, IMO.  That is one of the purposes of education.  I cannot believe that there is a controversy about this among some academics.   Are they trying to prove that what they teach in the ivory tower really is useless? 

The article I mentioned refers to William Francis Butler who said that a nation that insists on separating its soldiers and its scholars will likely find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.  In our modern America it looks like we have given fools some of the thinking jobs too.

Social "sciences" such as sociology, anthropology and psychology are not sciences in the precise sense of the term.  That does not mean they are not worth study.  On the contrary, the disciplines used in these fields can help channel thought and help in the art of living life.  But social scientists have no right to stand apart from their societies in a way we might tolerate in a practitioner of a hard science.  Society IS their business.

I studied history & management in school, but I didn’t leave it in the classroom.   Whenever possible, I like to test assumptions and theories in light of actual events in the real world.  Thinking improves action and action improves thinking and the test of a theory is its ability to predict outcomes in the real world. No theory accurately applies to all aspects the real world, but some are better, more predictive, than others and all can be improved in light of experience.   I think that – the real world experience - is what scares some academics.  They want to protect their theories and their phony-baloney status from the intrusion of reality.  That is why they criticize colleagues who participate in reality, no matter what rationalizations they offer.   

The best professors I recall from my studies were those who had worked in business and/or consulted extensively.  They were a lot more reasonable than those who rarely or never ventured out.   But the pure academic types often looked down on experience - silly, but true.  It evidently still applies.  Let's hope the "purists" are not too strong.

July 19, 2008

Welcome Back to the Fight

Welcome back to the fight.  This time I know our side will win.Barack Obama is going to visit Iraq.   This is a good thing.   He is an honest man.  After he sees for himself the progress we have made, he will have to come around to a more sensible policy on the subject.  Let the dogs of the left howl.  

We have to look to the future.   I get annoyed at all the pea-brained fools who want to relive the events of 2003.  Yes, if we had it to do all over again we would make a different set of mistakes.  I think it was a good thing to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but no matter what our opinions of the past, we live in the here and now.  We can make decisions only in the present that affect the future.  

In the here and now we have an astonishing opportunity.   The next president, Obama or McCain, will have options.  This is what the success of the surge has achieved.  American resolve and courage has given the next president a victory.  The sooner we all recognize that, the better we can build on that success.   We can now withdraw some troops; we can now get the Iraqis to pay for more of their own reconstruction; we can further humiliate Al Qaeda.   These are the things victory gives us.

We achieved this victory because of our perseverance and hard work.  Already I notice that the media is implying that the turn-around (when they even notice it) results from luck or something we could have had w/o all the hardships if only we had been nicer to some of our adversaries.   

Before a big & difficult change, people say it is impossible.  After it has happened, they claim it was inevitable. This is a perniciously silly idea.  Giving up in 2006 would have been a disaster.  If we had relied on the kindness of the Iranians, Al Qaeda or the various regional bad guys we would be bloodied all over the place.   These guys have no history of moderation or generosity.  They stop only when they hit something stronger and more determined than they are.  Americans are generous in victory.   That is what secures peace.  But you cannot be generous until you have something to be generous with.  In other words, you can give peace a chance only AFTER earning it.  

I will be watching the news very carefully.  Lord knows, it will be easy to follow Obama’s progress since he has taken all the network news anchors with him. I eagerly await his turn around in Iraq policy.   I look forward to seeing how it is done.   I expect to learn a lot re spinning.

No matter what, however, it will be a welcome development.  It is sort of like what Viktor Laszlo says to Rick Blaine in Casablanca.   "Welcome back to the fight.  This time I know our side will win."

July 10, 2008

The Big Idea

I found the team leader conference in Baghdad very interesting and am trying to take some inspiration from it for my remaining time in Iraq.  I was especially attracted to what General Petraeus said about the big idea and how working toward them attracts talent as people want to accomplish these sorts of goals.

Below is a "gas station" in Hadithah.  Not much to look at, but there was no fuel to buy not long ago.

gas station in Haditha Iraq

It is easy to get discouraged around here if we look at the things that are still lacking.  But when I think about how much has been accomplished, the mood changes.  Places like Hadithah, which were wastelands of rubble less than a year ago, are now enjoying growing prosperity and stability, with full markets and lots of economic activity.  Our "good news story" is part of that, but only ONE part.   The Anbari people are resourceful and resilient.  They are going to make it and we can take great satisfaction that we helped.

We are beginning to notice the effects of more Iraqi government money funding projects in the cities of Western Al Anbar.  Projects are being built without our involvement.  For example, the Al Faraby Primary School in Hadithah was an ITAO project. When USACE went to do site planning they found a GOI project already in full swing.  Similarly I recently visited a youth Center in Rutbah.  CA was planning to renovate it and the ePRT was supplying some soccer field improvements.  I recently learned that our help was no longer needed as GOI was going to fund and work the project with a big budget. 

Below is Hit near the City Hall

Hit Iraq

The effects are still uneven but unmistakable and they are bringing a subtle change in attitude.  Local leaders are coming to understand that their own government, not coalition forces, is where they should look for resources.  Effecting this change in attitude has been one of our key goals, but I am not sure how much credit we can take for it happening, sort of like the rooster taking credit for the sunrise.  Certainly equally important are the fantastic oil revenues that the Iraqi government is earning as well as the perception among observant people that the U.S. Congress and the American people are less enthusiastic about continuing to push American money into a country that can well afford its own development.

Below is irrigation system near Rawah

I was a little concerned to hear that the elections may be postponed.  We hear from contacts that the people of Western Al Anbar are anxious to have their voices heard.  They learned their lesson from the foolishness of their earlier election boycott and now want more representative politicians in power throughout the area.  I am afraid that frustration will build as elections are delayed and people suspect that incumbent politicians are abetting in the delay to protect their own careers and prolong their tenure in their jobs.

 All tolled, I find many more reasons for hope than for despair.  Iraq still has a very long and steep road to travel, but it is increasingly prepared to make the journey successfully.

 Marine playing golf in Rutbah Iraq

Above is a Marine playing golf during free time.  You take what you can.

July 08, 2008

Perceptions of Iraq

My ePRT is on the edge of the world.   I realized this as we flew low to Baghdad in the Blackwater helicopter on the way to Baghdad.   Marine Air flies higher and straighter, so I don't see as much, but there is not much to see anyway on my usual Western Anbar travels, just shades of dusty brown.   As we flew toward Bagdad, I saw farm lands that were wider than a football field's distance from the river.   Some of the land looked very green and rich.   How different would my impression of Iraq have been if I had been somewhere else but Western Anbar? 

Baghdad from blackwater copter July 8

I went to Baghdad for the team leader conference.   The thirty-one PRTs in Iraq represent vastly different human and natural terrains.  Each of us sees part of the situation.  It is good to try to bring us together to discuss the bigger picture.

Below is our partner helicopter. 

Helicopter over Ramadi

Iraq has improved a lot since I arrive in September of last year.  Our meeting reflected this changed situation.   Back then it was sometimes hard to see a possible solution. Today I feel reasonably sure that we will succeed in helping this country become more democratic, stable and non-threatening. 

It gets lots less green near Al Asad ...

dusty hills near Al Asad

Our challenge now is how to help the Iraqis usefully spend their own resources on development projects.  We were always supposed to be working ourselves out of a job.  The preferred end state is a normal relationship between the U.S. and Iraq and we are well on the way.

... and a lot more green as you get farther from AA.

Green Iraq 

During the conference I got a couple different perspective about Iraq.   For example, Iraq had an excellent system of public health until the 1970s.   It declined in the 1980s and got worse and worse as trained professionals left the country and facilities were no maintained.   The promising news in this is that we are helping restore, not create a system.  This is true of many aspects of this place.  As one of the presenters pointed out, Iraq is not a poor country; it is a broken country that can and is being mended.   The other different perspective I got came from the simply flying over the country and talking to my colleagues.  There is more to Iraq than Western Anbar and there is a lot of potential. 

green iraq 

Above - animals grazing, palms growing along fields of grain.   My impression of Iraq will always be Western Al Anbar, but I have to remember that is not the whole country.

July 04, 2008

Courageous Journalists Needed

Picture below is from the Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City.

Cowboy museum in Oklahoma City 

I stay out of specific politics on this blog, but now that both candidates have come down to nuanced but similar policies of staying in Iraq as long (or as short) as the need exists, I feel a little freer to ask what the hell is wrong with the American media?

During the bad days in Iraq, not long ago, they were writing the American obituary.  They had no trouble finding and quoting experts telling why we couldn't win in this sort of environment.   Now they cannot seem even to notice success.  Isn't that an extraordinary story?  In the heart of the Middle East, on a battlefield chosen by Al Qaeda as their key front for their war against civilization, in a place where they proclaimed the beginning of their new caliphate we have driven them to virtual extinction.   As they cower in their spider holes, fearing the arrival of our Marines or our Iraqi allies, their frustration is palpable.  This was supposed to be their victory, not ours.   They thought they had the weight of events on their side; they were mistaken.   Why is this not story worthy of investigation and exposition by our esteemed journalists? 

My experience with journalists informs me that many, perhaps most, work from their existing models and do not actively seek out information that disconfirms them.  They have a narrative that is generally accepted by other people in the media and that tends to constrain their perceptions.   This is not something limited to journalists, but they are particularly susceptible precisely because they think they are not.  

The narrative that their conventional wisdom accepted was that Iraq was mostly lost and that we were in a holding pattern heading for a long term failure and withdrawal. They fixed the various data points around their narrative and the stories more or less made sense back in 2006.  This narrative is now unraveling but the MSM has yet to figure out a new one to replace it.   It is not a conspiracy, but it is a syndrome, a kind of a group-think.   It will take a lot of changed facts and a couple of courageous leading journalists to break out.  We have the changed facts on the ground; what we need now is the courage.  

BTW - I was reading one couragous journalist today.   People who have been here recently know a lot more.  Stay away from those pundits and bloggers who have been to Iraq years ago ... or never. 

June 27, 2008

Hazardous Work Sometimes


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

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

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

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

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

June 21, 2008

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

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

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

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


TOA in Fallujah Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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


Marines on target in Iraq

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

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

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

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

A Time for Peace

JohnMatel in MRAP Iraq

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


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


Fishermen in Iraq

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

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

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

PRTs, ePRTs and the Holistic Approach

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

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

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

backhoe working on water projects in Iraq 

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

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

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

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

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

What They Said Can’t be Done

Iraqis dancing

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

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

Our Iraqi friends deserve it. 

June 14, 2008

Various Subjects

Army Birthday

US Army 233 birthday cake Al Asad Iraq

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

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

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

Water: Toilet to Tap and Back

well water pump at Rawah Iraq

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

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

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

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

New Team Member

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

Al Asad Weather

Dust storm at Al Asad Iraq near RCT 5 HQ

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

June 05, 2008

Consent of the Governed

Signing of Declaration of Independence trumbull 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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May 12, 2008

Sorry Groucho

Euphrates river scene 

Above is a Euphrates scene 

A Combat Camera Presentation made me think of this topic.  You can download that presentation by clicking that link.

I am surprised how open and friendly Iraqis are to the Marines.  You might think that after a war people might be a little more sullen or at least indifferent, but they are usually very happy to see the patrols.   I like to go on “foot patrol” and walk through the streets of the towns in Western Anbar and see for myself what is going on.   The transformation is amazing.  Markets are full of goods, including highly perishable items such as eggs, fresh milk, fruits and vegetables.  Although I cannot see it at the marketplace, I know also that town councils are set up.  Courts are in session.   Things are better.

In some of these places, fighting raged less than a year ago.  Al Anbar was supposed to be the center of the new Al Qaeda caliphate.  Instead it is the place where our Iraqi allies and we have most completely defeated the retrograde forces looking to drag us back into the 8th century.  This is astonishing.

Whether or not all Americans are ready to accept it, our new strategy is delivering a victory in Iraq. Our forces faced down the bad guys at a time when conventional wisdom told us our best bet was just to get out and leave Anbar and its people to them.  I know some would say that it is too soon to claim success, and they are probably right.  I would keep my mouth shut if I had to talk about the big picture or carefully weigh the political considerations, but those kinds of things are above my pay grade. 

I am talking only about the things I know from my own experience.  From my position - standing with my boots on the khaki dirt of Western Anbar - it is very hard to overlook the objective reality of how much things have improved.  I think we are approaching the point of self sustaining progress.  The Iraqis are increasingly taking the initiative and moving forward.  They are smart, adaptive and sick of war.  After literally generations of oppression and conflict, they want to get on with the pursuits of peace, a peace made possible by the security umbrella the Marines provided. 

We did the right thing in Anbar and we generally did it right.  I am proud that my team and I have played a small part in the new strategy that is making this possible.  

When I read the media about Iraq, it seems very different from what I see being here.  It reminds me of the old Groucho Marx line (with the media playing Groucho), "What are you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"  Sorry if I choose to believe what I see myself.

April 11, 2008

No War for Oil

We did not invade Iraq to take the oil.  We are not trading blood for oil, but conspiracy buffs have been saying we did for years now.  I think we now have definitive proof that these guys were wrong.  As I reread my note from yesterday, I realized the proof was before us.  I even mentioned it, but I cannot resist expanding a bit.

War opponents have changed arguments.  They now acknowledge that we are achieving success in Iraq.  All that talk about defeat, so common last year, is gone.  Now they are complaining that it costs too much.  They also point out that Iraq is rich enough to pay for its own reconstruction.  They have a point on both issues.  But consider the implications.

If you call upon Iraqis to pay more, you have to assume they CAN.  What does this say about your confidence in the capacity of the Iraqi government and economy?  You cannot simultaneously believe that Iraqi is collapsing into ruin and that they can afford to pay billions of dollars. 

The other thing that it says is that this was not a war for oil.  If CF went in to take the oil, we would not have to worry about asking the Iraqis to pay more of their own way.  It would be like somebody robbing a liquor store, not taking any money and in fact using his own money to help fix the place up.  I don’t think we would call that a robbery.

I am just getting sick of this war for oil crap.  It is juvenile.  Let me explain.  There is no doubt that w/o oil we would have been unlikely to have a strong interest in this country or region.  But that does not make it a war FOR oil.  Oil in a resource that allows those who control it to wield power.  If you have a tyrant in a poor country, he is a local menace.  Somebody like Robert Mugabe is a good example.  W/o the big money provided by a resource like oil, guys like Osama bin Laden and his followers would just be a nutty bunch of desert bandits.  Add oil to the equation – lots of oil – and you get lots of trouble.  A local psychopath can become a global threat when you inject the steroids of oil wealth. In some ways, therefore, the war is about oil but not for oil.  That distinction is very important. 

The oil curse is also the curse of easy and generally unearned wealth.  It tends to corrupt the recipients and it can make them dangerous. This is a variation on the point and don’t want to belabor it.  Those who know me understand that I sometimes can rant a bit, but now that rhetoric has changed from defeat in Iraq to success in Iraq is costing too much - and that Iraq can and should pay more - it should at least let us dispense with one of the more annoying pieces of disinformation.  There was no war for oil.

April 07, 2008

Measuring Success in Iraq (Banana index)

Two separate groups of people came to see me about measuring progress in our area of operation and gave me an opportunity to pontificate in my very best style.  I am doing my best to deploy all my skill and experience on how to assess and measure.  I am delving way back to my MBA days when I studied marketing research, but Iraq presents a researcher with almost the perfect storm of confusion.  I am not sure how to measure progress in Iraq and I am not sure that information is knowable even in theory.

One of the guys who came to visit was a practicing anthropologist.  I didn’t know they had that kind of career path, but it makes sense.  Anthropologists study relationships between people, institutions, traditions and society.  The skills of an anthropologist are more appropriate in Iraq than those of a public pollster.   I don’t believe the usual polling methods can produce valid results in a place like Iraq. Figuring out the situation here is more an art than a science, more anecdotal than analytical. My study of marketing research methods gave me a good feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of statistical studies. 

Graphically Misleading

The most misleading sort of study is the pseudo-scientific one, with lots of numbers and graphs w/o valid grounding in reality.  Such things are usually based on a kind of snowballing of the power of a few guesses.  A few people make estimates that are locally valid for decision making but not scientific.  For example, “How much traffic is there on the road?”  “Lots.” You could make a decision based on that, but it is a soft estimate.  Somebody aggregates these guesses and gives them numerical weight.  As the aggregations get farther from the original sources, they get less and less related to reality BUT more and more impressive in terms of certainty of numbers and presentation.  

In my traffic example, if you aggregate traffic information from downtown Manhattan and rural Wyoming, you might conclude that traffic is a moderate concern in both places and you could produce graphs and charts to support your position. I learned a long time ago that if you want to enhance the power of your own gut estimate, you should put it into writing and if possible draw a chart or a graph. I know this works, but I also know that it is primarily a presentation ploy.  Even in the best cases, it is used to simplify information and make it easier to understand.  In the process, we trade some degree of accurate detail for presentation. Anyway, I think we are demanding more of the information we have than it has to teach us and much of our precision is unjustified. 

Spock Trap

I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.”  How stupid is that?  That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed.  It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap.  It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent.  BTW - my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers.  For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  (Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.)My feeling about the part of Iraq that I know best, the places I have actually set foot and looked at with my own eyes, is that things are much better now than they were when I arrived six months ago.   I use the word “feeling” because that is what I have.  I have observed that people seem friendlier.  Markets are fuller.  There seems to be less fear.  Local people were once afraid to talk to us or work with us.  Not any more.  It just feels better.

Dreadful Conditions

I am convinced that conditions here are better than our measurements will be ever able to detect.  Iraqis have a long history with oppression.  Smart people learned to hide their prosperity from predatory authorities.  If Saddam’s henchmen found out you had something good, you might not be able to keep it.  We also saw the age-old desire to hide assets from the tax collectors.  As a result of all this, people have become accustomed to lying to anybody asking questions and trying to make conditions seem as dreadful as possible. 

Sing the Body ElectricA good example of a statistic we cannot use – but we do - is electricity.  Iraqis get some hours of electricity from the grid.  This power is essentially free, since the authorities have generally lost the capacity to meter and charge for it.  Naturally, everybody wants as much of this free power as they can get and when the power comes on they plug in everything they own.  It makes demand appear much higher and shortfalls more acute. If asked, people complain bitterly about the lack of power.  BUT if you fly over Anbar or drive thorough a city at night, you see plenty of lights even when there is ostensibly no power.   The fact is that many communities and even individuals have generators.  They prefer not to use these generators because it means that electricity is no longer free.  However, when they say that they do not have electricity, they really mean that they do not have FREE electricity.

Demand for electricity in Iraq is growing at around 12% a year, as people buy more things like refrigerators, microwaves and DVD players.  Supply can never catch up with demand as long as electricity is de-facto free.   I am convinced that if/when the authorities figure out how to meter and charge for it, the “problem” of electricity will be mostly solved, or more correctly it will stop being a problem and become an expense.

Fear v Greed

There are some sorts of statistics that I think we might be able to use IF we could assess them.  One is the risk premium that contractors and others demand.  Six months ago we had to pay relatively more for services because people thought it was risky to deal with us (i.e. they were afraid the insurgents would target them in retaliation). They charged us more to compensate.  Now the prices we are paying for our projects are dropping.  Of course that could be because we are getting better at knowing local conditions and negotiating better deals.   I think that if I could figure out a reliable way to estimate the risk premium, I would have a very good measure of improvement.  It is a kind of greed v fear measurement.

Banana Index

One of my own assessment methods is a “banana index”.  I observe fruits in the market especially bananas.  No bananas are grown locally.  They all have to be imported from somewhere else.  It is very hard to get a banana to market exactly at the right time.  They will usually be either green or brown.  A banana stays yellow for only a short time and if it is mishandled it gets easily bruised.   If you see lots of good quality bananas in the market, you know that the distribution system is working reasonably well and that good are moving expeditiously through the marketplace. Anyway, I shared my methods with the researchers. They are just rules of thumb, but if you call them heuristics they sound almost scientific. 

Measuring Success in Iraq

Two separate groups of people came to see me about measuring progress in our area of operation and gave me an opportunity to pontificate in my very best style.  I am doing my best to deploy all my skill and experience on how to assess and measure.  I am delving way back to my MBA days when I studied marketing research, but Iraq presents a researcher with almost the perfect storm of confusion.  I am not sure how to measure progress in Iraq and I am not sure that information is knowable even in theory.

One of the guys who came to visit was a practicing anthropologist.  I didn’t know they had that kind of career path, but it makes sense.  Anthropologists study relationships between people, institutions, traditions and society.  The skills of an anthropologist are more appropriate in Iraq than those of a public pollster.   I don’t believe the usual polling methods can produce valid results in a place like Iraq. Figuring out the situation here is more an art than a science, more anecdotal than analytical. My study of marketing research methods gave me a good feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of statistical studies. 

Graphically Misleading

The most misleading sort of study is the pseudo-scientific one, with lots of numbers and graphs w/o valid grounding in reality.  Such things are usually based on a kind of snowballing of the power of a few guesses.  A few people make estimates that are locally valid for decision making but not scientific.  For example, “How much traffic is there on the road?”  “Lots.” You could make a decision based on that, but it is a soft estimate.  Somebody aggregates these guesses and gives them numerical weight.  As the aggregations get farther from the original sources, they get less and less related to reality BUT more and more impressive in terms of certainty of numbers and presentation.  

In my traffic example, if you aggregate traffic information from downtown Manhattan and rural Wyoming, you might conclude that traffic is a moderate concern in both places and you could produce graphs and charts to support your position. I learned a long time ago that if you want to enhance the power of your own gut estimate, you should put it into writing and if possible draw a chart or a graph. I know this works, but I also know that it is primarily a presentation ploy.  Even in the best cases, it is used to simplify information and make it easier to understand.  In the process, we trade some degree of accurate detail for presentation. Anyway, I think we are demanding more of the information we have than it has to teach us and much of our precision is unjustified. 

Spock Trap

I remember in the old Star Trek when Spock would say something like “impact in 10.5 seconds.”  How stupid is that?  That is why I prefer Picard. By the time he says 10.5, the number has changed.  It is unjustified precision, but it is easy to fall into the Spock trap.  It is attractive and makes you seem intelligent.  BTW - my own experience in using deceptive numbers is that you are much better off using precise odd numbers.  For instance, 97 is a more credible number than 100 or 90.  (Remember that Ivory Soap was 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, not 100 %.)My feeling about the part of Iraq that I know best, the places I have actually set foot and looked at with my own eyes, is that things are much better now than they were when I arrived six months ago.   I use the word “feeling” because that is what I have.  I have observed that people seem friendlier.  Markets are fuller.  There seems to be less fear.  Local people were once afraid to talk to us or work with us.  Not any more.  It just feels better.

Dreadful Conditions

I am convinced that conditions here are better than our measurements will be ever able to detect.  Iraqis have a long history with oppression.  Smart people learned to hide their prosperity from predatory authorities.  If Saddam’s henchmen found out you had something good, you might not be able to keep it.  We also saw the age-old desire to hide assets from the tax collectors.  As a result of all this, people have become accustomed to lying to anybody asking questions and trying to make conditions seem as dreadful as possible. 

Sing the Body Electric

A good example of a statistic we cannot use – but we do - is electricity.  Iraqis get some hours of electricity from the grid.  This power is essentially free, since the authorities have generally lost the capacity to meter and charge for it.  Naturally, everybody wants as much of this free power as they can get and when the power comes on they plug in everything they own.  It makes demand appear much higher and shortfalls more acute. If asked, people complain bitterly about the lack of power.  BUT if you fly over Anbar or drive thorough a city at night, you see plenty of lights even when there is ostensibly no power.   The fact is that many communities and even individuals have generators.  They prefer not to use these generators because it means that electricity is no longer free.  However, when they say that they do not have electricity, they really mean that they do not have FREE electricity.

Demand for electricity in Iraq is growing at around 12% a year, as people buy more things like refrigerators, microwaves and DVD players.  Supply can never catch up with demand as long as electricity is de-facto free.   I am convinced that if/when the authorities figure out how to meter and charge for it, the “problem” of electricity will be mostly solved, or more correctly it will stop being a problem and become an expense.

Fear v Greed

There are some sorts of statistics that I think we might be able to use IF we could assess them.  One is the risk premium that contractors and others demand.  Six months ago we had to pay relatively more for services because people thought it was risky to deal with us (i.e. they were afraid the insurgents would target them in retaliation). They charged us more to compensate.  Now the prices we are paying for our projects are dropping.  Of course that could be because we are getting better at knowing local conditions and negotiating better deals.   I think that if I could figure out a reliable way to estimate the risk premium, I would have a very good measure of improvement.  It is a kind of greed v fear measurement.

Banana Index

One of my own assessment methods is a “banana index”.  I observe fruits in the market especially bananas.  No bananas are grown locally.  They all have to be imported from somewhere else.  It is very hard to get a banana to market exactly at the right time.  They will usually be either green or brown.  A banana stays yellow for only a short time and if it is mishandled it gets easily bruised.   If you see lots of good quality bananas in the market, you know that the distribution system is working reasonably well and that good are moving expeditiously through the marketplace. Anyway, I shared my methods with the researchers. They are just rules of thumb, but if you call them heuristics they sound almost scientific

April 05, 2008

The Fobbit

Bunks Above shows accommodations down range.  These are nice ones, but the snoring can be intense.

Camp Ripper is a forward operating base – a FOB.  A FOB has some of the comforts of home, including a good chow hall, toilets that flush and cans with electricity instead of tents.  You also have access to laundry and shower facilities.   FOBs are comfortable and some people never – or very rarely – leave the FOB.  They are called Fobbits.

I don’t know the exact numbers, but my guess is that around half of the guys in Iraq are Fobbits.  I am a semi-Fobbit.   I spend most of my time on the FOB, i.e. I endeavor whenever possible to return at night to the comfort of my own can.  However, I do regularly travel away from the Shire and sometimes get stuck at some outpost or tent city where conditions are less comfortable.  

Fobbit is a term of some derision among non-fobbits.   Some people love the FOB and there are others who evidently like to be out in the deserts eating MREs.  I prefer the semi-fobbit life.  I go out when my job requires it and do so eagerly and happily.   I always enjoy getting away from Al Asad and most of the blog-posts I write are about those experiences.  However, it doesn’t take long for me to satisfy my sense of adventure and I like to get back to the cans of home. 

I am getting too old for this.  Most other places are either too hot or too cold and I sometimes worry - irrationally - about scorpions, camel spiders and snakes.  (I say irrationally because I have seen only one scorpion and no snakes, but I know they are laying in wait – stingers and fangs poised.)Besides, you usually have to sleep among people who snore loudly.   I also have the sense of guilt since I know that I snore too and am inflicting this on my colleagues.  Of course we all have earplugs.  Better to be in your own can.

March 05, 2008

Aida on Rails

Some bandits robbed a train last week.  I thought that only happened in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” days.  Unfortunately in this case no horsemen came galloping out of a boxcar to chase the miscreants.  They got away with some oil bound for the refinery at K3.  I really don’t know any details of the circumstance.   It was probably just an inside job and a lot less picturesque than I imagine it.  But I have been learning a little re the transportation network in Iraq.

Iraq has the biggest rail network in the Middle East.  Rail lines reach from beyond Mosul in the north, west to Al Qaim and south to the Persian Gulf.  During the early 20th Century, the Berlin to Baghdad railroad line (part of which was the famous Orient Express) was an irritant in German-British relationship, as the Brits thought the Kaiser in league with the Turkish Sultan, who controlled Mesopotamia, would use the rail network to threaten access to their colony in India.  Iraq was in the middle of things then and geography has not changed.

In a reasonably peaceful Middle East, Iraq will serve as a gateway from east to west, north to south.   I am told that container ships could offload their cargos in the Eastern Med ports onto railroad cars, which could then go overland through Iraq to the Persian Gulf where they could either serf local markets or be transshipped.  Goods could also go the other directions.  It would cut shipping time by about a week over going through the Suez Canal and save millions per shipment.   Containerization of cargo makes this a profitable venture. 

The Iraqis recently ran their first passenger train from Baghdad to Basra.   This is more of a political than an economic endeavor.  Passenger rail loses money.  This trip to Basra cost around $6000 more than it made in revenue, even fully loaded.  I personally love passenger rail, but the economics are tough. 

Tougher than passenger rail are prestige airports.  Iraq has lots of airports.  Saddam Hussein built them for his vast air force, which he never used.  Some people say that they should be converted to civilian use.   The is easier said than done, or put correctly cheaper said than done.  Most big passenger airports also lose money.

In the case of both rail and air, the freight tends to make money and the passengers lose money.  It is not widely appreciated that the U.S. has one of the best rail systems in the world.  I found an interesting webpage re.  It is overlooked because ours is mostly a freight rail system.   The Europeans move people; we move goods.  One is easier to see than the other, but the efficacy of our rail system is reflected in the less expensive goods we can get.

Waleed trucks

Away from the ocean or big rivers, what doesn’t move by rail usually moves by road.  It is best to take as many trucks as possible off the road, by putting their loads on rail.  I prefer to ride my bike or take a train, but I know that most people prefer to drive.  If the choice is between taking the passenger car or the big truck off the road, I think taking the truck off is the obvious choice.  

The realization that container cargo could be sent throught Iraq like this was a surprise to me, a paradigm shift.  Ferdinand de Lesseps would also be surprised and perhaps a little chagrined that his great creation was being outclassed by something as mundane as freight rail. Maybe they should play the chorus from Aida as they load the first rail cars.

February 28, 2008

Rolling Down Perdition Highway

Road to waleed 

No real  road connects the border forts along the berm that separates Iraq from Syria and Jordan.  There is a sort of track, which in its better sections resembles a bad dirt road, but sometimes you cannot tell where the “road” starts and the flat desert floor ends.  Fortunately, the desert is naturally hard and more or less paved with gravel.  The bad news is that it is full of axle-busting ruts and tire piecing rocks. 

flat tire

As we rolled down the perdition highway between the border crossings at Trabil & Waleed, one of our Humvees got a flat tire.  I was impressed at how fast the Marines deployed into defensive positions and got to the job of fixing the tire and moving along.  Colonel Malay pitched in and helped with some of the heavy work. I took advantage of the unscheduled stop to make a head call.  I took a canine-like pride in marking this section of featureless desert.  

We stopped at a border fort commanded by an enlisted man.  He took justifiable pride in how well his men cared for their weapons and generally maintained operations, but he was in a tight spot.  He had not been receiving sufficient supplies of fuel, so he could not patrol as much as he might have wished.   His diesel generator was turned off to save power, so there was no electricity.  They were taking advantage of the weak sunlight and you could still see within the fort, but as shadows of evening spread over the place, it was getting harder. 

 broken cars

His vehicles are in terrible shape.  I remember as a kid watching the Baja Challenge, where off the road driver raced across the that rugged desert in a vehicle survival contest. The winner was not the fastest, but the one that made it to the finish line.   This is what our Iraqi allies face every day and you can see from their vehicles that they are not always making it to the finish.  The best thing anybody could do to make life better for these guys guarding the border would be to pave a road along the berm.  This is their lifeline.  (The Syrians have a asphalt track on their side of the berm.)  It would probably pay for itself on saved vehicles and fuel within a short time.

Below is the berm taken from the window of the Humvee.   It is certainly not Hadrian’s Wall or even Offa’s Dike, but it does deter anybody who wants to drive over the border and inspections can reveal breaches where people have crossed.

Berm syria/iraq 

Morale at the fort we visited was surprisingly high.  I just don’t think I would take such conditions so kindly, especially because many of the troops are evidently from Baghdad where it doesn’t get so cold.  The sharp breeze blowing across the desert reminded anybody who needed the hint that we were not in Baghdad anymore.  They seem to have decent food.  We saw a goat carcass (at least the lower half) being readied for supper and rice was boiling in a big pot.  I suppose good chow is helpful. 

One of the Marines was telling me that when they go out on a joint operation with the Iraqis, our guys report that they have whatever day’s worth of MREs, water etc.  The Iraqis report that they have enough of that flat bread they eat and Pepsi-Cola, the drink of choice among the Iraqi forces – after tea, of course.  I suppose you can always count on finding a goat if you really need one.

John Matel on roof in Iraq

The picture is me on the roof of the fort.  Off to the distance on my left is Syria; off to the right is Jordan.  You have to wonder why anybody would even bother to set up a border on a place like this, but I suppose you have to have some demarcation.

February 21, 2008

Sanded Down by Red Sky.

Red sky Al As "Red sky" just means you are not supposed to fly.  There is red, yellow and green like stoplights. In this case, the sky was a little pink.  The picture above is from my window.  It was taken around noon.  By 2 pm, I had to turn on my lights.  Beautiful backyard I have, don't you think?

Yesterday was a down day.   Sandstorms grounded our helicopters aborting our visit to Al Qaim.  I was looking forward to the trip.   We were planning some battlefield circulation as well as appointments at the vocational school and microfinance office.  I have heard a lot about these things, but never actually seen them.  I almost got to the microfinance center, once, but some clowns starting shooting in the air (celebratory fire) and we had to flee, as I wrote in an earlier post.

So I went back to my office to find my computer had crashed.  (It is fixed and mostly restored today, BTW.)  There is not much I can do w/o a computer, no email, no files no nothing – go home.  Most days I could have taken advantage of this breakdown to either run or work from my home computer.  But I hit the breakdown trifecta.   My home computer didn’t work because we lost electrical power to the cans.  I can run the computer on the battery, but not for very long and the electrical breakdown stops the Internet connection.  What about running?  I would like to take a long run, but not today.   The same red sky sandstorm that grounded by helicopters made me unenthusiastic about running.  Actually it may not have been possible.  It was hard to breath and the dust stung my eyes.  I think that if I tried to run I might well have filled my lungs with concrete and more of less turned to stone.   Not willing to risk the Medusa syndrome, I searched for  non-electrical, non-physical alternatives. 

I ended up cleaning up my desk and reading a book.  The desk cleaning was an exercise in futility.  I cleaned it really well & good last night.  This morning it was dusty enough again to qualify as Addams family office furniture.   

The reading was good.  I have a book called “1453” about the fall of Constantinople.  Alex gave me the book for Christmas.  It is a good complement to another book I just finished reading called “Sea of Faith” re Muslim & Christian interactions in the Mediterranean. 

The lost world of the Byzantines interests me. I have been to Istanbul twice and I would gladly spend a month there.  I think it is one of the most interesting cities in the world.   Edward Gibbon short changed the Byzantines and largely thanks to the two-century success of his “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” the English speaking world thinks of the Byzantine Empire as merely a thousand-year decadent & effeminate postscript to the virility of the Romans.   (Of course the caveats that Gibbon never used the specific word Byzantine to refer to the Eastern Empire and to the extent that anybody thinks about it at all.  Kids these days don’t know nothin’ about the Byzantines.) 

Gibbon is beautiful as literature; less attractive as history.  I think it is fascinating how his formulations and prejudices shaped historical views even among people who never heard his name or know that Constantinople was the capital of the Roman world for a thousand years.  Gibbon’s assessment of the effect of Christianity and his obvious admiration for pagan philosophers like Julian the Apostate has crept into our comparisons of our own society to that of the late Roman Empire.  It demonstrates the power and persistence of “spin”. You don’t have to know the source to be in its power.

These are the kinds of things you think about when you are sanded down, your computer is crashed & your can is electricity free.

February 15, 2008

Iraq Perceptions Out of Date

This is a post I wrote for the State Department blog (  It is a little more policy/pr than many of my posts, but I include it FYI.

Public perceptions of Iraq are not wrong; they are just out of date. Media coverage of Iraq has dropped in almost perfect correlation with progress made toward peace and stability. As a result, the picture persists from pre-surge 2006 but it is not 2006 anymore. It is post-surge in Anbar Province where a significantly more secure Iraq exists rebuilding, learning, governing, producing and starting to make huge strides along the road to prosperity.

Members of my ePRT recently made a visit to Al Qaim, near the Syrian border, and this provides a good example of what I am talking about. Back in 2006, Al Qaim was a bloody battleground, with AQI cutting off heads and hands while insurgents moved around the province with near impunity. This is the picture we all saw in 2006 of Marines fighting building to building and making gains street by street is the one unfortunately far too many of us still recall. The picture in 2008 shows an area of growing prosperity, with markets full of people and things to buy, homes and businesses being rebuilt and people looking to and planning for their future.

During the visit, ePRT affiliated trainers were just finishing up a course for city managers and local officials on project development and anti-corruption efforts. About forty officials attended the four-day program and even on the last day of the training they were involved, excited and animated. A four-day course will not solve Iraq's governance problems, but at least these officials had the ability to imagine and work toward a future better than the past.

Not far away is a vocational training center, run by a USAID contractor. It is graduating its second class of students since it was founded just over a year ago and a third class is already oversubscribed. Young Iraqis are learning all sorts of useful basic skills, such as electrical work, heating and air conditioning, appliance repair, auto mechanics and many construction trades. Students are enthusiastic and are already giving back to the community. For example, in the wood working classes they are assembling desks and bookcases for local elementary school rooms. Graduates are hired by local firms eager for employees with proven basic skills. They are offered good wages, apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Demand for graduates far exceeded supply in the first two classes and there are plans to expand the program and make it self- sustaining by getting the businesses that benefit from the program to help fund it.

Iraq's various wars and the late insurgency took a heavy toll on the men of Al Anbar leaving many widows and orphans. One of the ways we are helping address their situation was by opening women's sewing centers, where they are offered training in sewing and tailoring. This is not a temporary fix. These skills can provide basic income and the chance to start a small home business. Graduates get a sewing machine and some basic materials upon graduation to get them started. Empowering women even in a small way that enable them to prosper in specially heartening given the plight of so many widows and orphans across Western Anbar.

A proven way to jump start small businesses is with small loans (microfinance). The microfinance program in Al Anbar made its first loans last November. The number now has reached 211, totaling almost $500,000 and 100% of the payments have so far been made in full and on time. Our team met the owner of a small tire repair shop who benefited from the loan program. He bought a computerized tire balancing system, which increased his customer numbers several fold while saving him time and allowing him to do a better job faster. We talked to another small merchant/manufacturer who creates custom steel rebar and angle iron for construction. When we asked him how his business would have been w/o the small loan program, he told us that he would clearly and simply not have a business at all without the program.

Iraq is certainly no paradise and but what is important here is that it shows what has been done, what can be done and what continues to need to be done here in Iraq. Behind the thriving shops and busy markets are wrecked buildings and damaged lives. Terrorists continue to lurk in the shadows looking for weak spots and openings. But Iraq today shows an unquestionably brighter picture than in 2006 or even back when I arrived just a few months ago in September 2007. The Iraqi people are proving resilient in the face of enormous challenges and demonstrating every day and many ways that if given a chance to improve their lives, they will take it and they will grasp at this new life with a vigor that we often do not see in even more developed situations. The people of western Anbar risked their lives to break free of the grip of AQI and the insurgency. Now they are building the lives they fought for. In our small way, we are helping.

February 09, 2008

A Million Here ... A Million There

John Matel at K# When I was a kid, I used to play in the abandoned industrial area near the RR tracks.  It kind of looked like this, except in Milwuakee we had tall grass, bushes and trees.

The K3 refinery and pump station can produce 16,000 barrels a day when it is working, but it is not working and it does not immediately impress the visitor with its orderliness or its up to date technologies.  The British built the installation in 1948 and did not use even the cutting edge technologies available in 1948.  After that, it was not always managed to high standards; the refinery was run flat out during the last years of Saddam Hussein with minimal maintenance and it has not been in operation at all since September 2005, when a shortage of crude oil shut it down. 

Still and all, this place has potential because K3 sits in a favored spot, sort of the Gettysburg of this part of Iraq, at the intersection of rail, road and pipelines as well as in the catchment point among geographical features such as the Euphrates River and Lakes Qadisiya and Tharthar.  Oil can come down from Bayji by pipeline, road or rail or up from the south.  Oil and oil products can transshipped east to international markets via Syria and Jordan or used to satisfy local demand.  

Byproducts of oil refining also have immediate local uses.  Crude from Bayji yields a great deal of pitch.  Disposing of the pitch is a potential problem, or would be except that local asphalt factories can absorb as much pitch as the refinery can reasonably produce.  This asphalt is essential to rebuild and expand the road network in Anbar and in Iraq more generally.  Another byproduct is heavy fuel oil (HFO), which is … heavy and hard to move, but would be used as fuel source for a nearby projected thermal electric station at Tahadi, immediately across the Euphrates from K3.  Iraq needs the electricity generated at Tahadi, so reopening the refinery and pump station at K3 would go a long way to addressing pressing fuel needs and crude oil either refined or transshipped could provide significant income, especially when energy prices are high. 

If this all seems too good to be true, it is.  That is why we talk about potential instead of achieved.  Oil thieves damage the pipeline in literally hundreds of locations by tapping oil and war damage rounded out the trouble.  That is why the plant ran out of crude in 2005.  Alternative methods of supplying the refinery with crude, either by truck or rail are more expensive, but viable alternatives if/when the roads and rail lines are secure. 

The logical course of action is to create enough redundancy in the system that failure in any one part will not break the whole.  According to the plant managers, the refinery has enough storage capacity to keep the operation going for 7-10 days.  K3 does not produce gasoline since it lacks the machinery to blend in the octane increasing element.  I don’t know much about these things so I trust their word, and the Marines have engineers that verify it (trust but verify.)They also say that for a small investment in repairing and replacing equipment, the refinery can begin to produce naphtha and kerosene almost immediately.  Coalition Forces have been working to get the refinery up and running again.  Our ePRT has agreed to make small funds available to jump start the process and eliminate little stumbling blocks, with the hope that once the wheels start moving and people see that it works, momentum will build to get other parts of the refinery on line and begin to expand and update operations.

Some people say that for an investment of only around $80 million everything would be working just fine, but a couple million here, a couple million there and pretty soon you are talking about real money.  Decisions about these things are made above my pay grade.  Besides, this is now an investment for the Iraqis to make.  It is their oil after all.  The jobs and income from the refining itself and all the related activities could be significant and go a long way toward stabilizing the region, so we all hope the right decisions are made. 

Getting this thing going again has been the subject of much discussion since I arrived in Iraq and people tell me before that too.  I do believe that something will finally be happening at the plant by next week.  It is a small step forward, a down payment on future success, and I hope the start of something big.

January 25, 2008

The Meaning of Our Victory in Iraq

This post draws on and fleshes out some my earlier more random thoughts.   It represents only my personal opinion.  Call it my blog editorial.  

RCT2 Marine TOA

Above is the TOA (Transfer of Authority) ceremony, where Regimental Combat Team 2 (RCT2) transfered responsibility to RCT5.   

We are on the verge of achieving the impossible: defeating an Islamic terrorist movement in the heart of the Middle East on a battlefield of their choosing.  Tens of thousands of Takfiri streamed into Iraq for the opportunity to become martyrs and coalition and Iraqi forces obliged them.  Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been essentially annihilated in Al Anbar, the center of what they boldly declared as their new caliphate eighteen months ago.  Tribal leaders who once fought us are now on our side and former insurgents are giving up and reconciling.

It may take a while for the magnitude of this to sink in.  I can walk around in the same places where heavily armed American & Iraqi forces could not safely walk only months ago.  Here the debate has shifted to providing everyday services such as sewer, water and electricity.  Marketplaces where insurgents dumped headless bodies last year are now crowded with shoppers.  Children are returning to school instead of being abused by terrorists and coerced into deadly activities.  What a difference a year makes!

Sometimes you just have to win. Some conflicts just need to run their courses and some bad guys just need killing.  Nazi ideology was not discredited UNTIL it was defeated on the battlefield.  No amount of peaceful persuasion or appeasement worked.  People thought communism was a viable alternative to the free market UNTIL it ignominiously collapsed.  Massive economic evidence and even the presence of a very large and deadly wall running down the middle of Berlin did not convince the believers to abandon their failed ideology.  Earlier forms of terrorism from the Barbary Pirates to the Bader-Meinhof didn’t go away until they were defeated.  We tried appeasement in the 1930s and we tried ignorance in the 1990s.   These things did not work.  

Ideology is weakened AFTER its defeat.  That is often the direction of causality.  In our recent case, more people are drawn to be takfiri when being takfiri is easier and more beneficial.  People are attracted to success and avoid losers.

The war against terrorism is not won since a final victory is not possible.  This is one of those "eternal vigilance" propositions.   Our nation's first foray into foreign policy involved fighting the Barbary Pirates; whose behavior - adjusted for the technologies of the times - closely resembled those of today's territorially based terrorists.  That was in 1804 and obviously the job is never done.  But terrorism can be contained.  As with the Nazis and communists, their ideology is compromised by setbacks and real world defeats.

Media coverage of events in Iraq has moved inversely to our success here and so many American's perception of Iraq is based on events of 2006.   Journalists like to cover carnage and many of them absent mindedly wander away when the mundane work of reconstruction takes over.  Nevertheless, my brave colleagues' efforts will be supplying a victory in Iraq and even the media and the chattering classes will soon come to recognize it.  Let’s nor squander it.

November 22, 2007

With the U.S. Navy in Iraq

Euphrates below Haditha Dam

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

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

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

Back boat

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

Island in iraq

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

November 12, 2007

The Rest of the Iraq Story

New Hampshire Lake 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 11, 2007

An Uneventful, but Full Day in Al Asad

Today I did not go anywhere.  Travel is arduous, so I am glad to stick  around.   It was not a nice day, however.  It was a bit humid AND dusty.  I kinda thought those two things would not go together.  We are also getting some bugs and, although I have not yet seen any,  it is snake & scorpion season.  Evidently in summer it gets too hot even for those nasty cold-blooded creatures.  So now with the advent of the cool (the term is relative) weather, they begin to slither or crawl around more energetically.

I had my medical briefing.  The doctor wondered how I could have left the
U.S. w/o all the shots.  He was also surprised at my relative lack of medical history.  I told him that my father had been to the doctor in 1945, the early 1970s and when he died a quarter century later.  I am not sure that last one counts, seeing as he was already dead.  Anyway, that was enough for him. I had already been much more often.  I had to get an anthrax shot today.  It stings for about ten minutes.  I have to get three more.    I also need tetanus, smallpox and yellow fever.   The doctor says those things are not really around here very much, but it is a requirement.  He warned about the scorpions, however.  Three of the local species can be deadly.  They are rarely really a problem, he says.  Just a nuisance.  In our "cans" they are not found.  I guess they eradicate them periodically.  I do not feel sorry for them.

Marine culture is interesting, very different from State Dept but I find much to admire.  They have lots of meetings, but people are very well prepared and nobody wanders off topic.  They are also very aggressive and they DO seem to believe all that stuff they talk about.  When they are attacked, they respond.  I can see how it can cause trouble in some PC circles.  If a Marine gets killed or even shot at, they all want to go out and catch the bad guys.

The Marines treat me with respect.  I think I am doing okay with them, but we are very different in our worldviews. My tolerance of ambiguity is something strange among them.  They like plans and they like to make specific progress against those plans.  But, they seem to recognize my particular skills and the need for some ambiguity in what we are planning.  They are coming around and talking to me one-on-one.  I guess it is the same for me.  I recognize the need for their skills and outlook.  I think we can work together well.  I got some mileage for being physically fit, not as good as they are of course, but they can recognize it. It is really a big deal for them.

One guy told me that the way they see it Marines are carnivores and State Department is made up of vegetarians.  I do not want to eat nothing but red meat, but I want to show I am not a "tofudobeast" either.

I talked to the base commander.  Everybody assumes he will make general after this, and he deserves it.  I told him that my job was to make his job easier in development, public diplomacy and peace building.  He liked that.  We agreed on almost all the priorities.  The thing I like about the Marines is that they are very truthful – maybe blunt.   I used to think I was like that, but now I see I am not.  He showed me all the operations on a big map.  He knows it all in great detail. He was proud of what his Marines had accomplished and it is a grand accomplishment.  The new strategy worked.  They take the ground and then they send some Marines to go live there and hold it.  After that comes the building stage, where I hope to make contributions. Conditions at these forward bases are atrocious.  The Marines consider our situation at Al Asad the height of luxury, and I guess it is.  We have AC and hot food.  At these little forward bases, the snakes and scorpions are not eradicated.

Speaking of luxury, I moved into my predecessor's can.  It is a double wide, literally twice as big. I like to have a little extra space, but that was not a big problem for me before.  What I miss is being able to go out among the trees, even things like sitting on the deck and enjoying the green.  It is also noisy all the time.  Helicopters fly around.   We have the sound and smell of generators.  Trucks roll by.  I am adapting.  The conditions are bad, but the work is good. 

Now comes the time of paperwork and bureaucracy.  I have a bunch of projects to approve, or not.  I can approve up to $25K.  After that, up to $200K we need to have
Baghdad approve.  In some of the projects I am afraid that we are getting ripped off.  I really do not mind if that is a cost of doing local business and influencing people,  but I do not want us to be seen as weak or stupid negotiators.  I am asking to go back and get better deals.  I think that will cause of bit of consternation among our guys, but I think we will get more respect from the locals if we do it AND we will get a better deal for the taxpayer.  Nobody likes a cheapskate, but nobody respects a wimp.  I think we have to play the local negotiation game.  That is why we have local specialist and making sure it gets done is where I add value. 

I am also trying to get alternative energy considered.  When we do local power generation, I always ask about solar.   The sun stares unremittingly on this land anyway and shines the most when people want air conditioning; we may as well make some that hot light into electricity.   I think it will work. Even in this land of hydrocarbon, actually getting fuel to remote places is difficult and expensive.  Solar works here.  I hope to make it work more. 

Although riding in helicopters is more dramatic, I have to admit that I have more of the pencil necked bureaucrat than the warrior in me, a talker, not a fighter.  My sort is needed here too.

October 09, 2007

River City Charlie

That is the term when private communications on the base – phone & Internet – are shut down.  When I saw the message on my office computer, I knew that it usually lasts 12-48 hours and usually it means that someone has been killed.  That is what it means this time.  I do not know other details, but I know someone died in Al Qaim.  Communications will be restored when the military has notified the next of kin.  If are reading this communications are open again because the loved ones know that they have lost a son, daughter, husband or wife.   

Although I was in Al Qaim the day before yesterday, I doubt if I met the guy who died.  Still I feel a profound sadness.  I remember the young faces and the energy of all the Marines I met and talked with.   They are the ages of my kids.  It is more personal now.  The Marines take it hard when any of their own is killed.  I cannot feel their sense of family but even in my very short time here I begin to feel closer now that I have slept next to their cots, heard their stories, and rode with them in helicopters & humvees.  

The Marines never forget.  They set a place in the chow halls for the missing and I have observed how they treat these places with reverence.  Next to my office stands a helmet on a rifle hung with dog-tags of the fallen.  The Marines have a strong culture that can be very hard for a career civilian like me to understand.  They never forget, but they go on.  They never forget, but they do not dwell on the loss.  They take it personally, however. 

River City Charlie is becoming less common here in western Al Anbar.  I am grateful for that.  I am starting to take it personally too.  Like the Marines I live with, I want to get this job done and I want all of us to come home safely.