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. 

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 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 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. 

Police in Iraq

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. 

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 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 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 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 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

John Matel at votech Iraq

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. 

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.

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.

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.