March 04, 2009


Soldiers smoking cigars in Iraq 

I am not a tobacco person.  My father could knock down three packs of unfiltered Pall Mall a day.  I always disliked the smell but I didn't know how bad it was until I went away to college.  When I came home a few weeks later for my first visit, I couldn't believe the smell.  All those years I smelled like stale smoke and never knew.  You get used to almost anything.  I suppose most of the other kids in school smelled the same.  Almost everybody smoked in those days.   I was never tempted to try cigarettes.  My generation came of age just as the dangers of smoking became clear.  Besides, I was on the swim team.  You cannot be a good swimmer if you smoke.

I am glad that smoking is no longer allowed in the office or on buses or airplanes. I remember how bad it used to be on long flights.   But I do feel sorry for those suckers who have to stand outside in the cold to get in their smoke.  We may have gone too far in the other direction.   Smokers are one of the only groups left that can be disparaged with impunity in this PC world.  Many of the farmers near my forests in Brunswick County still grow tobacco and it grows wild on my land. Tobacco was America's first cash crop.  The colonies around Chesapeake Bay probably would have failed if not for the noxious weed. Tobacco is hard on the soil, so its cultivation tended to push the colonists into exploring new land looking for new places to plant. Tobacco built Virginia, so its not all bad, but many of the soils still have not recovered.

I understand how much the troops in Iraq loved their cigars.   I wrote a posting about the Marines' love affair with the cigar.  Somebody read that post just yesterday and told me about the way his company provided cigars to the troops.   This is the link.

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.”

January 31, 2009

Another Victory in Iraq

Iraqi shop owners in Baghdadi.  We talked to them about ordinary problems.  

See also Victory in Iraq 

A purple finger in the terrorist eye.  

Elections went well in Iraq.   It looks like turnout was high. The Sunnis and Shia voted in large numbers.   The day was peaceful.   Iraq is the most democratic country in the Arab world today, thanks to the courage of the Iraqi people and the strength & perseverance of America and our allies. We didn't give up; we outlasted them.  Saddam didn't go quietly into that good night, but he is gone.  The terrorists did not give up easily, but they were defeated. 

When I volunteered to go to Iraq things were not so good. Most of the experts predicted defeat for us, chaos for Iraq and despair for the people of the Middle East. They were wrong.  

Town hall meeting in Hit, Iraq in May 2008

How far we have come!   

I know the pseudo intellections will solemnly ask “what does victory mean?”   I am kind of a simple guy, so let me explain it in simple terms I can understand.  It seems to me that overthrowing one of the world’s worst tyrants, helping create a democracy where none existed before, defeating an extremist terrorist group in the heart of the Middle East on a battlefield of THEIR choosing, sowing confusion among our enemies and just doing what they (the defeatists around the world and the terrorists themselves) said couldn’t be done - this is victory. 

John Matel with Iraqi patrons at a local restaurant in Hadithah, Iraq

Emerson said that people’s view of the world is a confession of their characters. Some people can never be happy.  If their team wins in the Superbowl tomorrow, they will just complain that it may be harder next year.  It is their character flaw, their misfortune and none of my own.  I pity them, but I cannot persuade them and I don’t need to let them pull me down.  Today is a good day for democracy, peace and good people around the world. Despots and dictators are feeling less secure.  Al Qaida and their retrograde buddies are crying in their caves. That doesn’t mean that problems have disappeared.  That doesn’t mean that we have achieved an ultimate utopia, but let’s celebrate this big step in the right directions; let’s celebrate a victory.

US. Marine shirts on sale in Iraqi shop in Hit

The Iraqi people have stuck their purple fingers in the eyes of the terrorists.  They are riding down to road to democracy with all its joys and challenges.   Hurray for free Iraq.  I congratulate all the brave Iraqis I met during my time. You did good guys and it was a privilege to be among you.

On the left are USMC shirts on sale in Iraqi shops.  The US Marines were popular in Anbar by the summer of 2008 because they protected the people.  I saw these in the marketplace in Hit. You would not have seen this picture in the mainstream media.  Of course, with only a couple of exceptions, they were not with us walking around in the markets so they didn't see this stuff. 


Follow this link to earlier stories and pictures on Iraq.

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 

September 30, 2008


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

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

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

September 20, 2008

Drunken John Matel

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Matel...
John Matel...

John Matel and flag


September 16, 2008

Horned Viper

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

Horned viper

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

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

September 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 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.

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 27, 2008

Again with Anah

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

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

Darth Vader

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

Below – Anah mosque.

Anah Mosque

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

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

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

Below – ePRT team member in Anah

Colleagues in Anah

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 26, 2008

Reservoir Dogs

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

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


August 25, 2008

60 Minutes

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

Codel in Hadithah

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

Sometimes dumpy; no longer scary


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

Hadithah dress shop

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

veg stand

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

Road to Hadithah

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

Iraqi kids

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

August 19, 2008

Making a Life In Iraq

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

Below - more comfortable than it looks


As good as Gold's Gym

As good as Gold's Gym

Rules posted for playing cards

pocker rules

 Perdition Road (AKA Road to Rawah)

 Road to Rawah

The best way out

Helicopter in Rawah

Arrival in style

Marine vehicles near Rutbah

August 06, 2008

So Hot It Hurts

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

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

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

"desk" in tent in Kuwait

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

john matel feet in tent in Kuwait

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

Iraqi desert fields

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

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

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

Helicopter landing in Al Asad Iraq

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

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

July 29, 2008

Lt.Col Jeffrey Chessani

Please see below.  I have no personal knowledge of this, but I do know Haditah and the Marines.  The Marines I know are honorable.  It was a difficult and confusing situation.  I have never come close to experiencing what they did, but I saw some of what was left.   I side with the Marines on the ground, which is why I am posting what I got in email today.  I am contributing.   I leave it up to you to make up your own minds.

Dear John Matel,

For the last two and a half years Lt. Colonel Jeffrey Chessani, USMC, has been investigated and prosecuted for his involvement in the so called “Haditha massacre” – a massacre that never happened.

Now – after devoting 20 years of his life to defend ours’ ─ he faces criminal charges as a result of a legitimate combat action taken by four of his Marines after being ambushed by insurgents in Haditha, Iraq, on November 19, 2005.

If convicted, he faces 2 ½ years imprisonment, dismissal from the Corps, and loss of all of his retirement pay.

You may have heard that last month a military judge dismissed all the charges against LtCol Chessani. 

But the government appealed. And yesterday they filed their brief.

Jeffrey Chessani is their political scapegoat and they’re embarrassed about the loss.

We now have 20 days to file a response brief. Your donation now (click here) sends a message to all our combat troops that you will stand with them when they need your help.

Your donation helps keep America strong!

It’s hard to believe the lengths to which the politicians in the Pentagon will go to convict an innocent Marine officer.  As you read on you’ll know why.

After all he has done for his Nation ─ for you and me ─ will you chip in $25 to help this Marine?  If you can give more, please do.  

He urgently needs your help – NOW.

Click here to donate to the LtCol Chessani Defense Fund.

Your donation is tax-deductible.

He has been defending our Nation for twenty years…often away from his wife and children… so that we could be safely with ours.

LtCol Chessani served three combat tours in Iraq.  He served in the First Persian Gulf War, and in Panama.  He is a committed Christian, husband, and father of 6 young children, ages 10 and under.  

I am certain that when you hear the facts, you will be as outraged as I am about what our government is doing to this courageous and loyal Marine.

So please read on…

On November 19, 2005, at approximately 7:15 a.m., a Marine convoy was rolling through Haditha, Iraq — a terrorist stronghold.  Suddenly, a roadside bomb went off destroying a Marine Humvee, killing one Marine and seriously injuring two others. 

The Marines immediately received fire from the ambushing insurgents, who were shooting from nearby civilian-occupied homes.

A four-man fire team responded as trained; they cleared several houses occupied by the armed insurgents, and in the ensuing room-by-room, house-by-house gun battle, it was reported that 8 enemy were killed.

Tragically 15 civilians also died ─ in urban combat, where insurgents purposefully use civilians as human shields, civilian casualties are tragic, but not uncommon.  In fact, sometimes the insurgents themselves kill civilians to achieve a propaganda victory by blaming the Americans.
LtCol Chessani was the battalion commander of these brave Marines ─ the 3rd Battalion (“The Thundering Third”), 1st Marines—one of the most decorated units in the history of the Marine Corps. 

As the Battalion Commander, LtCol Chessani was responsible that morning for approximately 2000 American and friendly Iraqi troops in an area of operations just about the size of South Carolina.
He immediately reported the deaths of the 15 civilian Iraqis to his superiors.  

Not one of LtCol Chessani’s superiors hearing of the 15 civilian deaths ─ including top generals ─ considered it unusual.  Not one ordered a further investigation.

However, several months later, an inflammatory Time news article accusing the Marines of massacring innocent civilians caused public hysteria.  The story was planted by insurgent propaganda operatives who knew too well that the liberal anti-war media hungered for such stories.

Anti-war Congressman John Murtha, who wields tremendous power over military appropriations, jumped in and echoed Time’s story.  

He appeared on major television networks and publicly accused the young enlisted Marines of “cold blooded” murder and Marine officers of a “cover-up.”  He blamed it all on the stress of being in Iraq too long. 

Incredibly, these accusations were made even before the investigation was completed.
It’s clear ─ the government has turned the prosecution of Jeffrey Chessani into a never-ending persecution. 

The trumped-up charge: failing to properly report and investigate the November 19, 2005 incident.
The government is doing everything it can to convict LtCol Chessani.  He is the political scapegoat they must convict to satisfy Murtha and the press. 

The vast resources of the military are at its disposal.  The number of military investigators is virtually limitless.  Government prosecutors can go anywhere, talk to anyone, and get anything, all at government expense.  The Marine command structure is mandated to cooperate. 

So far, the government has spent millions of our taxpayer dollars, employed over 65 Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) agents ─ the largest investigation in that agency’s history ─  and granted immunity to scores of witnesses, all in their attempt to make Jeffrey and the “Haditha Marines” political scapegoats.

But I’m sure you know that the impact of this case reaches far beyond the personal tragedy and injustice to Jeffrey and his family. 

You know it will drastically curtail the future ability of our combat men and women to defend our Nation.

Lt. Colonel Paul Ware, USMC, an Investigating Officer who heard testimony in several cases involving the charged enlisted Marines blasted the credibility of the government witnesses and expressed concern that the allegations were nothing but a tactic to erode public support of the Marine Corps and mission in Iraq.”

He went on to say:

“Even more dangerous is the potential that a Marine may hesitate at the critical moment when facing the enemy . . . .”

Retired General Thomas McInerney, former Joint Force Commander and Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, called the prosecutions of the Haditha Marines “despicable.”  He warned:

“We cannot fight a war like that . . . We’re not taking care of our people.”

Regardless of how you feel about the war, LtCol Chessani was in Iraq because his country sent him there.  He defended us, now we must defend him. 

Just to give you an idea what this Nation has lost by the prosecution of LtCol Chessani, and why he deserves your support, I want to give you a few excerpts from his official Combat Fitness Report.
This is a required annual evaluation of a Marine officer’s performance prepared by his superiors.  It covers the period of September 2005 to February 2006 ─ which includes the date of the incident for which LtCol Chessani is facing criminal charges:

  •  “Leads Marines from front in every operation.  Demonstrates moral courage everyday.  Doesn’t hesitate to report bad news fast or contest unrealistic plans/poor concepts.  Despite the complexity and size of his AO [area of operations], he always maintains a calm, cool demeanor.”
  • “Always seeks advantage over complex, diverse insurgent enemy.  Truly one of the finer thinkers in this COIN environment.”

  • “One of the top 3” infantry/cavalry battalion commanders “of 13 who have served with RCT –2 [the regiment] during OIF.  A superb leader, who knows his men, knows the enemy, knows his business.  Doesn’t attract a lot of fanfare; just gets the job done to an exceedingly high standard.”
  • “Long ball hitter; recommend selection for promotion to Colonel and TLS [Top Level School].”

The Reviewing Officer, Major General Huck added his comments: “Top notch officer with outstanding potential.  Promote and select for TLS [Top Level School].  Post TLS slate for Regimental command and subsequent joint tour.  Unlimited potential and value to the Marine Corps.  Capable of the most challenging assignments.”

One distorted magazine article has devastated the life and family of this patriotic Marine officer… and could adversely affect our military for years to come. 
Simply put…

This case is about how our military fights and will fight in the future.

LtCol Chessani has willingly answered the call to serve his country.  That’s why he deserves the support of every Patriotic American today.

Click here to Donate Now.

Sincerely yours,


Richard Thompson
President and Chief Counsel, Thomas More Law Center


P.S.  It is urgent you donate now.  We have 20 days to file our response to the government brief.  We must also prepare for the inevitable trial.  The successful defense of Jeffrey Chessani is vital to the security of America and to all our military personnel we place in harm’s way. Your donation is tax-deductible.

P.P.S.  Please share LtCol Chessani’s story with others who will realize the gravity of this important case.  Click here to forward this article to a friend now.

July 03, 2008

A Perfect Al Asad Day

Al Asad Iraq 

I spend some considerable time complaining about the weather here in Iraq and who can blame me if you look at the pictures of the nearly opaque red air?  But Al Asad has pleasant weather much of the year.  November is very nice around here.  Winters are a bit chilly, but never cold and usually clear.   It is churlish to complain all the time.

You just have to adapt.  For example, in the summer it is much too hot for any strenuous activity during the middle of the day.   The local Iraqis are active early in the morning and in the evening.  They hunker down in the shade in the middle of the day.  This bimodal activity optimal is probably the origin of the siesta.  If you follow a similar pattern, (IF you can) you too are okay. 

I have been getting my running in before 0700.  This time of the year, it gets light around 0430 and it is very nice at 0600.   I get up in the morning and look out the door. If I can see a reasonable distance (i.e. dust is not so bad) I go out and run.   There is an interesting aspect of the dust that I only figured out (maybe) recently.   On some days the dust is not so bad at 0600, but it gets thick and unpleasant by around 0700.   Some of this has to do with the nature of wind.  The wind tends to pick up around dawn.   I suppose it is because the earth heats differentially as the sunlight hits.  The wind picks up dust and a short time later it is a mess.  

Al Asad Iraq July 3, 2003

But not all the dust is natural.  Much is kicked up by our own activities.  Around 0600 the trucks & heavy vehicles start to roll in earnest; each creates a tail of dust and cumulatively there is a lot of dust.  All this dust has to go someplace and it doesn't settle very fast.   Most of the roads are paved with white gravel and I am pretty sure our activities are the source of much of the whitish "moon dust."  The red dust comes from farther away.   Our weather maps show massive clouds, sometimes covering almost all of Iraq.  The most recent attack of the red dust originated in the western deserts of Iraq and in Syria.  This kind of weather pattern is usually associated with a northeastern wind.  

Our local activities can create local unpleasantness, but the real dust storms are those caused by Mother Nature.  Of course it is not all Mother Nature either.  People have abused this land for >4000 years.   Much of this dirt would have been held down by the roots of plants had humans and goats not uprooted them.  I blame Dennis, our AG Advisor, for the current problem.   He has been here nine months and still not managed to cover the hills with grass and reverse the mistakes of the last four millennia.

BUT today is nice.   The air is clear and the morning was cool and pleasant.  We are supposed to have at least three days of this before the next clouds of dust obscure the horizon.   I have to get my running in while the running is good.

Al Asad Iraq July 3 2008

I made the three and a half minute trek to the highest mountain in Al Asad, an elevation of at least 30 feet,  and took the pictures.  This is as good as it gets around here. 

June 05, 2008

Tour de Iraq

Flag and map at Al Asad 

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

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

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

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

 Texas barriers in al Asad iraq

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

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

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

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

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

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

Below is our new office space.

ePRT office Al Asad Iraq

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

Below is my new office - sweet.

ePRT leader office al Asad Iraq 

Well, back to the old routine with somewhat better surroundings 

May 22, 2008

You Get Used to It

inside the wire 

I really have a sweet deal.  I get several R&R breaks and get to both go home and go to places I have never been.  In return I have to spend some time in Iraq, which is not as bad as people think.  You get used to it.  I am not saying I will volunteer to stay on beyond my time, but I am generally comfortable, the work is interesting and my colleagues are great.

On the other hand, I miss my family; I miss my home surroundings and I miss … nature   I know nature is everywhere, but there really is not much of what I recognize where I live in Al Anbar.  I just need to walk in the trees.  They are too few and far between.  I also don’t like the dry.

This is a pretty shallow posting, but I cannot seem to get any deeper today.  I am at the Baghdad airport, the same place I arrived in Iraq in September.  I have not been here since then.  It is plenty ugly.  Maybe if you were greeted with something a little more inviting, you would have a better first impression of Iraq. 

I saw some new guys coming in.  You can tell new guys.  They are not covered in dust and even if they have become dusty, they don’t have the covered in dust look of the veteran.   They also still have expectations.  They really think they will make sense of things.  I understand that this is not possible.  I accept and even embrace the ambiguity.   I have found that you can understand something enough to make it work w/o making sense of the whole.  There are some things I know to do to get certain results, but I really don’t know why.  I would like to know why and I often speculate, but this is just an exercise.  I have found it is better to know what to do w/o understanding why than knowing why but not knowing what to do.  If you have a good chow hall and a secure place to sleep, you got just about all you really need.  It is illogical, but THAT makes sense.

I met an interesting guy here who made me think about my next job.  He is working in the Consular section,  but before that got a JD/MBA and worked in emerging technologies.  My new job will be dealing with such things, so we had a good talk.  We exchanged book titles to read.  He recommended a book called “In Athena’s Camp”  I ordered that on Amazon, but when checking it out, I also found a book called “the Spider an the Starfish” re network organizations.   I downloaded the audio book and am listening to it now.  Seems very interesting.

He has a webpage too and if you want to get a different first hand account of Iraq, check out his link. 

I will relate one story from one of my colleagues. It happened a while ago.  I didn’t mention it until now for Opsec reasons, better not give the bad guys real time information.

He is a brave man.  He was walking down the street when he heard the sirens go off.  He ran toward some duck and cover barriers.  An Iraqi guy walking next to him ran in the other direction.  Neither made it to shelter.  A rocket came down just where they had been.  The angle of the impact shot fragments into the Iraqi guy and killed him.  My friend got a shower of debris, but suffered no significant injuries.  You just cannot predict these things.  Evidently they caught his escape on a surveillance camera.  Some of the security people call him the lucky rabbit.  He is back at work. As I said, he is a brave man.

That was a while about and in Baghdad, BTW.   Al Asad is safer.  Mostly just dust falls from our skies.

May 14, 2008

A Liberal Blogger

Jane Stillwater in Iraq

Above is Jane Stillwater, a self described hippie grandmother from Berkeley.   She dislikes President Bush with a passion, but she loves the Marines.   She is one of the few journalists we have seen out here in Western Anbar, so I have to give her credit for seeking the truth about Iraq. That is her above in Hit.  You can see her blog at this link.

Below is a town council meeting in Hit.

City council meeting Hit

I have closed comments on this posting because of spam.  If you have a comment, please go to the lead post link here.  Thanks.