• Visas for our Iraqi Translators and ‘Terps

    November 8, 2011 // 10 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    US Immigration law is denser and longer than the US federal tax code, and likely screws over more people. We’ll offer you today a short history of the programs to give visas to the Iraqis who worked with the US Government as translators and ‘terp (interpreters). The story is amusing, as changes to once-obscure visa laws mirror the situation on the ground in Iraq. For those in a hurry: most Iraqis who helped us are marked men and women at home, targeted as collaborators and the visa program isn’t going to help many of them.

    Beginning

    The images from the end of the Vietnam war are iconic: desperate Vietnamese, clambering to board the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people fleeing Vietnam. An enormous number of Vietnamese were resettled abroad, many to the US, many for their own safety after having been accused of being American collaborators.

    This is not what the Iraqi visa program was supposed to be about.

    During the first few years of the war, the official vision in Washington was that the war would transform Iraq into a happy land of prosperity and democracy. Iraqis hired by the US to translate for us were the lucky ones, nailing down a job that paid cash while getting their foot in the door for the new system. Since almost no Americans spoke any Arabic and thus could only conquer Iraq via mime, these early translators were very important to the effort.

    Congress, imaging these early ‘terps as our own Gurkas, loyal brown people serving our fat white asses, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created an early visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).

    The SIV had been used by the State Department abroad for many years. Locally employed nationals, say a French accounting clerk working in Embassy Paris, who provided loyal, exceptional service to the US Government for more than 20 years could be rewarded with a Green Card, immigration to the US. The idea was that such a prize would encourage locals working with us to stay around for the full 20 year career. A perk.

    Congress had the same plan for Iraq. The Iraq SIV would encourage long careers of good service. Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, authorized the issuance of up to 50 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually to Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters working for the US military. The cap was set at 50, because the visa was intended as a prize for the very best, and besides, the ‘terps would mostly want to live in their newly prosperous and democratized countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Oops, what seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their Iraqi (and Afghani) helpers murdered in their homes, labeled traitors by the growing insurgency that they acknowledged, even as Washington pretended it did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their ‘terps apply by the hundreds. An early decision was made in DC that the 50 visas meant 50 actual visas, not visas for 50 families. Thus, if Mohammed (not his real name) the ‘terp, his wife and their six kids were approved, the yearly quota dropped behind them to only 42.

    Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. Changes were made that saw SIVs issued to a ‘terps’ spouse and children as not counting toward the 50 limit. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year for FY 2007 and FY 2008 only. Still, to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the critical “Letter of Recommendation.” That still had to be signed by a General, Lieutenant General, Major General, Brigadier General in the Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps; Admiral, Rear Admiral in the Navy; or the Chief of Mission in Baghdad or Kabul.

    Middle

    As awareness that the wars of terror were nothing but a huge cluster fuck seeped into the heads of Washington lawmakers, something needed to change with the SIV program. Designed to reward 50 of the best ‘terps, the program quickly evolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Therefore, largely through the efforts of Senator Edward Kennedy, Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, authorized the issuance of up to 5000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually through fiscal year (FY) 2012 to Iraqi nationals who have worked for or on behalf of the US Government in Iraq (Afghanis got no such relief). The Act opened the SIV process to Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more, and specifically added the dubious requirement “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical “Letter of Recommendation” no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be signed by the Ambassador (Chief of Mission, COM) but in fact would be based on something written by a lower level supervisor. The recommending supervisor would normally be the US citizen who directly supervised the ‘terp, or even one who supervised the company that employed the ‘terp (most Iraqis worked for a middle man contractor, and not directly for the Army or the Embassy). Spouses and children were not counted against the 5000 yearly limit.

    The Letter needed only to include a description of “faithful service” to the US Government, nothing more formal. Better yet, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was only that the ‘terp write a brief statement describing the threat faced as a result of US Government employment in Iraq. Visas out of the 5000 not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year to increase the pool. Procedures allowed for documents to be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassy inside the moated Green Zone, a deal breaker for common Iraqis. The final, required, in-person interview could be done either in Baghdad or for those who lives were too much in danger to visit their own capital city, Amman or Cairo.

    Though not a refugee program per se, Iraqi special immigrants are eligible for the same resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and other benefits as refugees admitted under the US Refugee Admissions Program, for up to eight months after being admitted to the United States. SIV families could also participate in the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program, which covered their first 90 days in the United States. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the US.

    As a special treat for the ‘terps whose lives were in danger, under some circumstances their spouses and kids could still get the visas even if the ‘terp was killed before the family completed processing.

    The State Department has a helpful PDF summary of qualifications; be sure to scroll down to the end, where family ties are illustrated with stick figures with happy smile faces.

    The SIVs for Iraqi ‘terps are wholly separate from other US programs, including US programs to admit Iraqis as old-fashioned refugees. As with the SIVs, however, US refugee policy mirrored US views of the war. In fiscal year 2006, just 202 refugees from Iraq were allowed to resettle in the United States. The US finally kicked the program into high gear under Congressional pressure, and admitted over 18,000 Iraqi refugees just this past year.

    End

    So it seems like everything was pretty sweet for those Iraqis who, despite their country now being a democracy and all that, were under death threats.

    Except it didn’t work.

    The New York Times reported that the program has proven to be a bureaucratic failure. Of the 15,000 slots available since 2008, the US government has only granted 2145 visas.

    The Times reported that what should have been simple steps devolved into dead-ends. Minor issues — like whether the applicant provides two letters of recommendation or one letter that is co-signed, or whether the letter comes on the appropriate letterhead — have delayed applications for months. The regular delays in immigration processing were magnified given the communication difficulties with Iraq and the increasingly desperate situations of the applicants. A ‘terp being helped by his American supervisor to navigate the bureaucracy could suddenly find himself alone when the supervisor rotated back to the US and forgot all about the problems of Iraq.

    The recent arrest of two Iraqis in Kentucky on terror charges have reportedly also caused delays, as gun-shy Embassy bureaucrats grow more reluctant to grant security clearances.

    Things are no better, in fact they are much worse, in Afghanistan. The NY Times reports since the SIV program began in 2009, about 2,300 Afghans applied for visas, but the American Embassy in Kabul has finished reviewing only two cases. One was rejected. “The record is not great,” said David D. Pearce, deputy chief of mission at the embassy in what has to be something of a record for State Department understatement.

    It can be expected as the US winds down the current chapter in Iraq, with the bulk of the Army leaving by the end of this year, that the bad guys will have more of a free pass on settling old scores and killing off ‘terps who worked with us. All-around bad guy Sadr has pledged to kill Iraqis who collaborated with the US, albeit via offering those who only played minor roles a pardon if they swear new allegiance to his cause. For the ‘terps left alive in Iraq, as their American supervisors pack up and go home to their wives Betty and Wilma, getting those all-important Letters of Recommendation will become more difficult.

    We may yet end up concluding another war with people on the rooftop, scrambling for the last helicopter out of Dodge.



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  • Help for Iraqis Who Helped Us: The List Project

    February 4, 2012 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Military

    A good friend of this blog asks that I include this “guest” posting, following up on my own articles about the situation facing Iraqis who worked as translators for the US military and State Department during the Occupation, and who now face death threats in free Iraq.

    I also wrote an Op-Ed for the New York Times on this same sad subject.


    The List Project, which was founded with the belief that the United States Government has a clear and urgent moral obligation to resettle to safety Iraqis who are imperiled due to their affiliation with the United States of America.

    The List Project has been the main organization that has advocated and helped Iraqis come to the U.S.

    The Executive Branch has no contingency plan in place to help Iraqis, adopting a policy of wishful thinking.

    Due to the lack of progress in bringing threatened Iraqis to the U.S., the List Project has embarked on a new project. They are now reporting and making public recent threats and killings against U.S.-affiliated Iraqis.

    Learn more at The List Project.


    (The photo above is for illustration purposes and does not depict any Iraqis who worked for the US)



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  • NYT Falsely Tries to Tie Afghan Visa Problem to Trump Travel Ban (Two Aren’t Related)

    March 12, 2017 // 25 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Trump




    Here’s a NYT article that goes out of its way trying to tie the lack of Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs; for former U.S. military translators) to the Trump travel ban executive order.


    The two are not related, and it would have taken the New York Times exactly one Google worth of journalism, or even reading elsewhere on their own website, to understand that instead of publishing a misleading piece. For a newspaper claiming its work stands between us and fake news, this is just sad.


    The article includes these lines:

    — Afghans who worked for the American military and government are being told that they cannot apply for special visas to the United States, even though Afghanistan is not among the countries listed in President Trump’s new travel ban.

    — It was unclear if the visa suspension was related to the president’s new ban.

    — Officials at the International Refugee Assistance Project… said “Our worst fears are proving true.”

    — It is unclear whether the reported suspension of new applications was related to the number of available visas or to the president’s order reducing refugee intake generally, or to a combination of the two factors.

    — Afghanistan was not included in either of the president’s travel bans, but his decision to reduce the overall number of refugees accepted by the United States would affect Afghans as well.


    To be clear, the Trump travel ban and visas for Afghan translators have absolutely no connection. None.


    Afghanistan is not included in Trump’s travel ban at all. Afghans translators are not refugees under the law. Like its now-defunct sister program for Iraqi translators, the Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) was set up to provide immigrant visas (Green Cards) to Afghans who helped U.S. forces. Congress, not the president, sets numerical limits on how many of these visas are to be made available each year. When the limit is reached, the program goes on hiatus until next year. Congress is free at any time to expand the number of these visas available. That’s it.


    Now, how could the Times have uncovered these facts? Journalism.

    The Times could have Googled Afghan Special Immigrant Visas. That would have shown them a State Department page explaining things.

    The Times could have contacted any number of advocacy groups that also have online explainers about all this. Most competent immigration lawyers would know, too.

    The Times could have looked at its own archives from 2011.

    Or, the Times reporters on this story could have read their own website. Because elsewhere in the Times was reprinted a Reuters story that pretty much accurately explains the problem.


    That’s it, that’s really all that was necessary to publish an accurate story. But that accurate story would not have included the attempts to link the Afghan problem to Trump, which is the takeaway rocketing around the web.

    And for the haters, my own article here is not “pro-Trump.” The reason? Because the Afghan story has nothing to do with Trump.




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  • Dark Threads of Immigration in America

    February 8, 2017 // 90 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump



    For those who say “This is not who we are,” well, look again. It all seems to be exactly who we are and have been.

    President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers, immigrants and refugees from seven predominantly Muslim countries is only the latest twist of dark threads that have always been present in America and its immigration policy. The executive order is not unprecedented. It is evolutionary, predictable, nearly an inevitable step.



    The Seven Targeted Countries

    Begin with the targeted countries, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. America has bombed or used drones and special forces in six of them, and attacked the seventh with cyberwar. The Muslims there have suffered far in excess of a travel ban at the hands of America. Indeed, many of the refugees leaving those nations became refugees as a result of American war-making, often under the guise (Libya, Iraq, Syria) of “protecting” those people from an evil dictator, some Sunday morning talk show version of genocide, or a red line few outside the White House could see.

    The countries in Trump’s executive order have long been singled out for special treatment under American immigration law.

    Though Trump in his crude style talks about “extreme vetting,” such a process has been in place since the George W. Bush administration, continued under Obama, and is operating today. It has a nicer, if somewhat Orwellian name, “administrative processing.” On the list of nation affected: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. People from these nations, and a few others, go through an alternate visa processing procedure that delays their travel. The process involves various intelligence agencies vetting the traveler. Some applications are left to pend indefinitely, a de facto travel ban.

    The seven nations also were a part of the Bush-era Muslim registry, known as NSEERS.

    Trump’s seven nations also appear on an Obama-era list. That list, the equally Orwellian-named Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act, disallows use of America’s visa-free travel program to persons who even once visited the targeted nations. So, for example, a British citizen otherwise eligible to enter the United States without a visa must instead appear for questioning at an American embassy abroad if she, for any reason, even as a journalist, stepped foot in Iran.

    That nations long-held to sponsor terrorism such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are not on Trump’s list is not surprising. They haven’t appeared on most of Bush’s or Obama’s lists either.



    Refugees Not Welcome

    Following Trump’s directives aimed at refugees it quickly became almost mandatory for celebrities and pundits to come up with a personal story or two about their family’s immigrant ties, and preach a bit about the Statue of Liberty and freedom.

    Left unsaid was that the number of refugees admitted to the United States is small compared to many other nations.

    The U.S. admitted a record number of Muslim refugees in 2016, some 38,901 of the nearly “>85,000 total refugees allowed into the U.S. Go back to 2006, and the total number of refugees admitted drops to under 50,000. Though there have been refugee “surges” into the United States such as Holocaust survivors following World War II (650,000 people) and the Vietnamese “boat people” (100,000) after the end of that war, Americans historically feared refugees, not welcomed them. Since 1980, the United States has accepted less than two million refugees overall, and 40 percent of those were children accompanying their refugee parent(s). The U.S. sets an annual ceiling on refugees admitted, currently 85,000. Refugee number 85,001, no matter how desperate her case, must wait until the next year.

    In contrast, among Syrians alone, Canada in 2016 took in about twice as many refugees as the United States. Some 25 percent of the entire population of Lebanon are refugees. Germany expects to admit 300,000 refugees from various nations in 2016, following close to one million in 2015.



    Discrimination by Nationality

    Following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, 8 U.S.C. 1152 Sec. 202(a)(1)(A) makes it unlawful to ban immigrants (i.e., Legal Permanent Residents, Green card holders) because of “nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.” The law however allows banning nonimmigrants such as tourists or students, as well as refugees, for almost any reason. Challenges to this are near-impossible. American courts have consistently upheld that they cannot exercise judicial reviewability over visa decisions made abroad in the specific, and more broadly, generally do not extend the protections of American law to foreigners outside the U.S. The Supreme Court has also long-acknowledged immigration law’s “plenary power” doctrine, which generally immunizes from judicial review the substantive immigration decisions of Congress and the executive branch.

    And even though legal immigrants are not banned by nationality or place of birth per se, restrictions on the number of legal immigrants from certain nations are limited to the point of near-virtual bans. For example, the restrictions are such that some Filipino and Mexican relatives of American citizens face a 24 year wait (another Orwellian term, “priority date”) for a Green card. It is not uncommon for applicants to pass away before their turn comes.



    Fear Itself

    However, the most evolutionary aspect of Trump’s executive action on immigration, and the inevitable hardening and expansion of such positions, is the underlying driver of it all: fear.

    The government of the United States, from September 12, 2001 through the present day, has constantly fanned the flames of fear of terrorism. Despite the well-known statistics of how an American here at home has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a terror act, that following 9/11 only a handful of Americans have fallen victim to acts of terror inside the United States, and despite the fact that few of any terror attacks inside the Homeland were committed by the poster child of fear, the foreign terrorist who infiltrates the U.S. specifically to do harm, Americans remain terrified.

    For over 15 years, three presidents have used fear (they called it security) as a justification for, well, nearly everything. And Americans bought the line nearly every time. Fear of the smoking gun being a mushroom cloud. Fear of terrorists slipping through the net justifying NSA spying on Americans. Fear of more terrorism justifying torture, drone attacks, leaving Guantanamo open, militarizing Africa, having us take our shoes off at the airport, not being able to bring a bottle of water on a plane, no longer being able to enter a growing range of buildings without some sort of security check and bag search, background checks, showing ID, and the No-Fly list. 30 American governors said they’d refuse to accept Syrian refugees into their states if they could.

    Trump’s use of executive orders to accomplish his immigration goals is also nothing new. Both Bush and Obama did the same. In fact, Franklin Roosevelt used an executive order to establish the World War II Japanese internment camps.



    The Ugly Truth

    Of course nothing Trump has done or has proposed regarding immigration will realistically make America safer. That is true, and it is irrelevant. Like much of the security theatre that has become normalized post-9/11, safety is not the point. Keeping fear alive and maintaining the politically-driven myth that government is on the job protecting the Homeland is what matters. Trump knows this, as did Obama and Bush.

    The ugly truth is despite the airport protests, a large number of Americans remain afraid of foreigners and want what Trump did. The ugly truth is there is unfortunately nothing here unique to the Trump era.



    BONUS: Those who focused last weekend on the two Iraqis who translated for the American military in Iraq at great risk to their lives and were detained at a New York airport may wish to read about the decades-long struggle of translators from Iraq and Afghanistan to escape those nations for fear of their lives, and the poor treatment they have received at the hands of now three administrations.


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  • America’s Response to the Middle East Refugee Crisis? Buried in Empty Rhetoric

    October 2, 2015 // 8 Comments

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Iraq, Libya, Syria




    As the Middle East refugee crisis enters its fifth year, a single image of a child dead on a beach serves as its symbol. Yep, we’re gonna look at that kid again.


    But why is it that those that create refugees are the least likely to help them? The answer lies in empty rhetoric from those who begin America’s wars in the region under the guise of humanitarian intervention itself.

    A searing image of a refugee child lying dead on a beach finally alerted the world to a crisis now entering its fifth year. Awareness is never bad, but here it too easily bypasses the question of where all the refugees come from, in favor of a simpler meme. One is reminded of Malala, one story that pushes aside millions.


    Such narratives bait a familiar trap: the need to “do something.” That “something” in the Middle East is often the clumsy hand of military intervention under the thin cover of humanitarian rhetoric. Cries answered that way have a terrible history of exacerbating a problem they ostensibly set out to solve.

    The scope of the problem is staggering. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than three million Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Inside Syria itself, over 17 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including those internally displaced. Only 350,000 Syrians are estimated to have traveled to Europe. They are the ones you see on television.

    In Iraq, some 1.8 million people were displaced between January and September 2014, a declared United Nations emergency, and Iraqis are currently the second-largest refugee group in the world. Yet even now the New York Times speaks of a “new wave” of Iraqi refugees, driven in part by “years of violence and unmet promises for democracy by a corrupt political elite.”

    The situation in Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere is much the same.


    There is a common denominator behind all of these refugee flows: they are, in whole or in part, the product of American “humanitarian interventions.”

    In 2003, President George W. Bush declared the goals of the United States in invading Iraq included freeing its people. In case that was not clear enough, in 2007 Bush proclaimed the American military the “greatest force for human liberation the world has ever known.” Yet by 2007 the number of displaced persons in Iraq had grown by some 50%.

    President Barack Obama used similar rhetoric in 2014, when he revived the United States’ war in Iraq in response to a “humanitarian crisis that could turn into a genocide” for the Yazidi people. “One Iraqi cried that there is no one coming to help,” President Obama said at the time. “Well, today America is coming to help.” A senior administration official went on to explicitly describe the action as a humanitarian effort.

    Some 5,000 airstrikes later, that humanitarian effort is now a bloody war with Islamic State, metastasized across multiple nations, exacerbating the refugee flow. For the Yazidis, long-forgotten by Americans as the no longer needed casus belli, the war enveloped them in Islamic State’s slave trade.

    The conflict in Syria remains connected to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, in the form of militarized Sunnis, the elimination of any effective border between Iraq and Syria and, of course, Islamic State, birthed in the Iraqi sectarian conflict. American intervention in Syria ratcheted up seemingly on a schedule, all around the theme of saving the Syrian people from their dictator, Bashar al-Assad (similarities to George W. Bush’s 2003 wording in reference to Saddam Hussein are noted.)

    After it appeared Assad used chemical weapons in 2013, it was American Secretary of State John Kerry who insisted that it was “not the time to be silent spectators to slaughter.” Airstrikes were forestalled for a time, then popped up in 2014 aimed not at Assad, but at Islamic State. Chaos has gone on to drawn numerous foreign powers into the conflict.

    With Libya in 2011, there was again a “humanitarian effort,” lead by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Clinton sold intervention as a necessity: “Imagine we were sitting here and Benghazi had been overrun, a city of 700,000 people, and tens of thousands of people had been slaughtered, hundreds of thousands had fled. The cries would be, ‘Why did the United States not do anything?’” That “doing something” helped push Libya into failed state status, feeding the refugee flow and bleeding conflict into neighboring countries.


    It is foolish to claim the United States alone “caused” all of these refugee flows; multiple factors, including the aggressiveness of Islamic State, are in play. But it would be equally foolish to ignore American culpability, directly in Iraq and in Libya, and via arms flows and the fanning of flames, in Syria and Yemen. The common element is a stated intent to make things better. The common result is the opposite.

    To many, particularly outside the United States, political rhetoric is just the aural garbage of imperialism. But inside the United States, military “humanitarian” intervention generally enjoys robust support. It may look like a shoddy product to some, but people continue to buy it, and thus it continues to happen. Politicians seem to know how to feed the public’s demands to “do something” triggered by an emotional photograph for their own purposes.

    There exists an inverse relationship between those that create refugees and those who help them. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted only 1,500, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.

    But that was then, pre-photo.


    Post-photo, with no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”

    Right on schedule following Kerry’s remarks, President Obama promised, per the New York Times headline, to “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.” With the problem seemingly solved, albeit only 10,000 out of millions, the plight of the refugees disappeared from America’s front pages.

    Left unsaid was the emptiness of even such non-military humanitarian rhetoric. President Obama did not mention, nor was he asked about, the reality that refugees to the U.S. are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years (the average out of Syria is two years at present), indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed. If a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been left behind.

    There also remain voices calling for another escalation of war in the Middle East to deal with the “root causes” of the refugee crisis, loosely defined for now as Islamic State’s continued existence.


    There is an immediate need to do more to help the refugees moving into Europe, and those still in the Middle East. That, and that alone, should comprise the “do something” part of a solution. Long term, if the primary response is simply more military intervention in the name of humanitarianism, or more empty promises, the answer is best left as “doing less.”



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  • Don’t Believe America About Syrian Refugees

    September 15, 2015 // 8 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Syria



    The world finally noticed that one Syrian refugee kid drowned on a beach, after failing to notice the Middle East refugee crisis has been an ongoing disaster for almost five years now.

    Same for the U.S.; Obama just announced he wants America to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, so this is all fixed now, we can go back to Miley and Katy, right? No.

    The Day Before

    Here was the state of affairs as of the day before Obama’s announcement.

    The United Nations High Commission for Refugees referred 15,000 Syrians to Washington for resettlement over the last four years; the United States accepted 1,500, with formally announced plans to take in only another 1,800 by next year, citing, among other issues, concerns over terrorists hiding among the groups.

    With no apparent irony, United States Senator Patrick Leahy stated the refugee crisis “warrants a response commensurate with our nation’s role as a humanitarian leader.” Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States is “looking hard at the number” of additional Syrian refugees it might accommodate, given America’s “leadership role with respect to humanitarian issues and particularly refugees.”

    Many in Washington likely felt that was enough. A token increase, some nice, high-flying language, a little sprinkle of freedom and respect. I think we’re done here.

    The Day After

    But, after seeing that it was a slow week and the media was still showing sad pictures of refugees on the TV box, it seemed more (rhetoric) was needed. So, on September 10, President Obama announced, per the New York Times headline, he will “Increase Number of Syrian Refugees for U.S. Resettlement to 10,000.”

    Well, that’s good, right? I mean, the estimates are that there are some four million Syrian refugees already out there, with another 10 million internally displaced, so even if it is 10,000 that’s hardly anything but still, better than nothing.



    What He Said, What He Meant

    Maybe. But let’s dig down one level deeper.

    To be precise, Obama did not say the U.S. is taking 10,000 Syrian refugees in FY2016. He did not say if the 10k were part of the U.S.’ overall 70k refugee cap, or in addition to it, meaning other refugees could be left behind to favor the flavor-of-the-moment out of Syria. Obama also did not explain that the United States processes refugees abroad (if the person is somehow in the U.S. physically, that’s asylum, different thing, done while the person is in the U.S.)

    Actually, have a look at the exact wording from the White House spokesperson (emphasis added): “The president has… informed his team that he would like them to accept, at least make preparations to accept at least 10,000 Syrian refugees.”

    Refugees are processed, not accepted. That processing can take years, indefinite if enough information on a person’s security background cannot be amassed; there remains great fear in the U.S. government about terrorists sneaking into refugee flows, and so if a positive “up” decision cannot be made that a person is “safe,” then the default is indefinite pending status. Such a conundrum has, for example, stymied the applications of many Iraqis and Afghanis who served as translators for the American military and fear for their lives, only to have been stuck left behind.

    As Representative Peter King said “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists. We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”

    There are also medical and other checks before a refugee is approved. With all the variables, there is no average processing time, but post-9/11 we can say the average is s-l-o-w. In the world of suffering, slow can often mean death.



    Bottom Line

    It appears the White House is taking full advantage of the media’s ignorance of how refugee processing works to create the appearance of doing something when little of a practical nature is being done, all sizzle and no meat. There is little help coming from the United States for any significant number of Syrian refugees. Sorry guys!



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  • Save Our Terps! How (and Why) to Write Congress Now

    September 28, 2013 // 12 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    From time to time I offer this space to guest bloggers with something important to say.

    Today, our guest is long-time friend of this blog, Charlie Sherpa. Sherpa runs his own blog at Red Bull Rising. It’s one of the best milblogs out there, and always worth your time. This guest piece tells of how we can help save some of the Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters (‘Terps to the trade) during our adventures in their countries. These folks saved regular Americans’ lives in many cases, and helped us make the best of the crappy situation our national leaders flung us into. Many of them did this at great personal risk, and they were promised in return that they would get visas to the U.S. for themselves and their immediate families. This would save their lives from the revenge and retribution that is even now sweeping through their countries as the U.S. once again grows tired of another quagmire and abandons it.

    Not such a surprise as much as an expectation, America’s promise to give them visas had as much validity as what drunk men say to drunk women they pick up from a bar. The next morning it all seems embarrassing and awkward to even bring up those promises, at least to the man. The woman’s opinion is usually not given much air time.

    I’ve written myself on this topic in the past. A core problem is that this program was set up to do one thing, circumstances changed, and the program became unattractive to the government but was never canceled. State has always given out Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), typically to foreign nationals who had worked in our embassies, and typically at retirement. The SIV program for Terps was intended the same way, a thank you for what was expected to have been years of service. This of course presumed the U.S. had won quickly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and service to the U.S. there was similar to what it was in London, Kenya or Bonn. When the wars went a different way, the SIV program morphed into a way to save the lives of Terps, which a) flooded what was supposed to be a limited pool of older, well-vetted applicants with many young less-known people and b) was an embarrassment to the USG, a daily reminder of all the good we failed to accomplish. Congress was afraid to just do away with or radically change the program and generate bad PR while the wars still dragged on, and State had no bureaucratic interest in sticking its neck out to approve what it saw as risky cases. Now, with Iraq a distant memory and Afghanistan about to be, the plan in Washington seems to be to just allow the program to fade away, sorry to the Terps. Hence, a human quagmire.

    Not leaving a comrade behind does not just apply to fellow soldiers. According to Charlie Sherpa, here’s how to help.


    In the days before the Internet, I pulled a few short stints in the offices of a couple of U.S. senators. A couple of times as an “intern,” one time as a “Congressional fellow.” In such capacities, not only did I get opportunities to open the daily mail and prepare internal media summaries, I regularly answered letters from constituents. I even learned to use the machine that signed the senator’s name—before some idiot co-worker started writing and signing his own job references.

    Through those experiences, I learned that a letter “written by a senator” on behalf of a constituent was often like applying the Penetrating Oil of Helpfulness to the Stuck Machine Bolt of Bureaucracy. I helped get retirees their Social Security checks, veterans their missing medals, and school kids their answers to social studies tests. Small and concrete victories. Democracy in action. Your tax dollar at work.

    To this day, I still write business letters like a certain senator from Iowa:

    Dear CONSTITUENT NAME:

    Thank you for contacting me regarding PROBLEM X. I am glad to be of help. […]

    I have a sent a letter to AGENCY Y regarding this matter. I will contact you again when I receive a response. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to let me or my staff know if I may be of additional assistance. Keep in touch!


    Later, after I’d joined the Army, I was on the receiving end of a few of these Congressional inquiries. Troops would write their representatives about pay concerns, food quality, or other matters. No matter how seemingly silly some of the questions were, the military put an emphasis on quickly investigating and responding to each query. Whether because of the legislative power of the purse or the War Powers Act, when Congress calls, soldiers listen.

    On Capitol Hill, constituent letters also factored into senators’ legislative calculations. So-called “legislative correspondents,” specialized research staffers who kept up-to-date on where their senators stood on matters of policies and politics, were more likely to respond to such letters. The whole office would see the weekly contact summaries, however—that was our feel for the pulse of opinions back home.

    Usually, responses to individual constituents were kept non-committal. A letter about a hot-button issue like gun control, for example, would likely receive a boilerplate response, blandly marking out the senator’s current positions. The response to a “pro” letter would often be very similar to the one for a “con” letter. In one senator’s office, we called such letters “robo-letters.” I preferred the more-punny term “Frankenmail,” a nod to Congressional members’ power to send official mail without paying postage.

    Staffers would tally letters and telephone calls they the senator’s office had received on given topics. Letters from constituents mattered more than letters from out of state. It didn’t matter whether a constituent identified themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent: A constituent was a constituent. We were all in this together. We called it “representative democracy.”

    Letters that were obviously written by individuals, citing specific examples and requesting specific actions, were valued more than fill-in-the-blank form-letters. The latter were considered more as evidence of Astroturf by special interests than actual grassroots support. Bottom line: Constituent contacts were like straw polls. People who write letters are people who are motivated to vote. A senator might not vote your way every time, the thinking went, but he or she was bound to listen.

    Despite the gridlock and partisan gameplay that generate so much of today’s headlines, I’d like to think that Congress, fundamentally, still operates that way. Our legislative branch has to listen, right?

    If it doesn’t, what values are we fighting for?

    Write an Email Today

    I was recently inspired to dust-off my letter-writing skills (developed at taxpayer expense!) regarding the plight of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who are seeking to immigrate to the United States. These are men and women who have risked their families and their futures to help U.S. forces. Troops call them “terps” for short.

    I’ve posted my letter below, as an example. I am sending similar letters to other U.S. senators and representatives—and note that many Iowa and Minnesota members (“Red Bull” country) of Congress are involved in immigration policy.

    Check out who’s on the senate House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, for example, or the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.

    I hope that you might be similarly motivated to voice your own opinions to Congress, whether about this or other topics.

    For more how-to-write-Congress tips, click here. There’s also a list of Congressional e-mail and contact info here.

    Dear Senator Grassley:

    I am retired Iowa Army National Guard soldier who deployed under Operation Enduring Freedom orders in 2003. In 2011, I also traveled to Afghanistan as civilian media, during the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard soldiers since World War II. I am writing to you regarding the need to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to granting special visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who have fought alongside U.S. soldiers, and who have placed themselves and their families at great risk on our behalf.

    It is my understanding that an extension of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 and Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2013. Without extension, these programs will soon expire. In your response to this correspondence, I would appreciate an update regarding the status of this and other efforts to deliver upon America’s promise to our allies.

    According to recent news reports, including those in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, the U.S. State Department has failed to effectively or efficiently implement the special immigrant visa program authorized by Congress. According to the above-cited news reports, as of late 2012, only 32 visas had been issued. As of June 2013, only 1,120 visas of the 8,750 authorized had been issued.

    I am not going to suggest that all interpreters are saints. To be honest, some seemed suspect in their actions, attitudes, and interactions with U.S. soldiers. Others, however, were shining examples of Afghan bravery and American ideals. All are worthy of consideration, and safety after we leave Afghanistan. We owe them that.

    Please help our citizen-soldiers—past, present, and future—deliver on our country’s promises.

    Thank you for your attention. Keep in touch!

    Respectfully,

    /Charlie Sherpa/




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  • Washington Post War-Mongeringapoloza

    September 16, 2013 // 9 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy

    The Washington Post (slogan: We Still Type Well, now Powered by Amazon!) this weekend out did itself in jingoism and war mongering, throwing in some puke-colored pablum about American Exceptionalism to complete a pile that resembles the doggy mess I scoop up every morning using the plastic bag the Post comes in (the bag is so perfectly sized for picking up poop that I still subscribe just to get a new one each morning.)

    Dana Milbank Teaches American Exceptionalism

    We begin with “journalist” Dana Milbank. Dana was of course a Yale Bonesman, which equipped him to properly catch as Washington politicians pitch him. Dana also fancies himself a sometimes “humorist” in the vein of Mark Twain, assuming Twain had suffered from syphilis or, had it been available, dropped a hell of a lot of bad acid.

    Dana leads his “piece” on Putin with a zinger in the tradition of the greats Murrow and Cronkite:

    I know I speak for many American people when I congratulate you on your English. It was flawless, with none of those dropped articles that plague so many of your countrymen. Please don’t be offended, but I have to ask: Did Edward Snowden help you with your letter?

    Now that’s yer journalism right there ladies and gents! Be sure to tip your waitress.

    Dana then drops some Google Translate knowledge on ya’

    This makes your [Putin’s] crack about “American exceptionalism” all the more perplexing. “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional,” you wrote… But I’m guessing what went wrong here is your translators let you down when they defined exceptional for you as luchshyy (better) rather than razlichnyy (different).

    That’s a funny. According to Google (see, I am the journalist too [or is it to?] “funny” in Russian is smeshnoy. I can Google it in other languages if you like, because that’s my job, to Google stuff for you.

    But Dana saves the best “material” for the whip-snap turn from “funny” (smeshnoy) to a Serious Point:

    When we say we are exceptional, what we really are saying is we are different. With few exceptions, we are all strangers to our land; our families came from all corners of the world and brought all of its colors, religions and languages. We believe this mixing, together with our free society, has produced generations of creative energy and ingenuity, from the Declaration of Independence to Facebook, from Thomas Jefferson to Miley Cyrus. There is no other country quite like that.

    Americans aren’t better than others, but our American experience is unique — exceptional — and it has created the world’s most powerful economy and military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world. When you question American exceptionalism, you will find little support from any of us, liberals or conservatives, Democrats or Republicans, doves or hawks.

    (Does anyone else still use the terms “doves and hawks”?)

    (Wiping patriotic tears from my eyes) Ah yes, the immigrant experience, like America is the only country with inbound immigration ever in the history of the world. And hey, isn’t Russia made up of a bunch of different nationalities anyway? No mind, the Declaration of Independence stands beside Facebook, as does Jefferson beside Miley, as proof of our exceptional Exceptionalism. That of course is stupid enough, but what Dana did not apparently learn at Yale is that America’s immigrants quickly turned to slaughtering the Native Americans they displaced, even using biological weapons (typhus infected gifted blankets for the win!) In between Miley’s birth and descent into TV slut-for-pay, American Exceptionalism kidnapped and enslaved millions of Africans and still today treats them as second class citizens (it was only within my own lifetime that Virginia legalized interracial marriage.) Of course all those immigrants– the Dagos, the Hunkies, the Kikes, the Polacks, the Micks, et al– were welcomed with open arms and no discrimination.

    As for that American Exceptional “military, which, more often than not, has been used for good in the world,” one guesses there are few Vietnamese, Grenadans, Libyans, Iraqis, torture victims, indefinately detained people and assorted drone victims in the circles that jerk Dana enters.

    Dana, a quick comment: anyone who goes around telling everyone else they’re exceptional isn’t. Same as people who go around saying they’re funny, or handsome. It works best when other people acknowledge your specials, not when you bray about it yourself.

    But There is More: Sebastian Junger

    Appalling in the same pages of the Washington Post (slogan: We’re Still Dining Out on that Watergate Thing, now Powered by Amazon!) is Sebastian Junger. Junger was actually was a real journalist at one time, though as of late his best effort is a U.S. military hagiography piece Restrepo, where Afghans appear only as targets for the plucky Americans, joking one minute, machine gunning some rag heads the next, a sad retelling of every WWII war movie where GI Joe shoots some Japs or Krauts before sitting down for a Lucky Strike and a black and white letter (Google Translate: email) from his bestest gal back home.

    Junger’s article is pretty basic White House talking points reiterated, the need to Protect the Children as long as they are foreign children on the side we support and their deaths are well-covered by media. Nothing real new there. There are however a couple of true blue winners tucked in among the boilerplate:

    We are safe in our borders because we are the only nation that can park a ship in international waters and rain cruise missiles down on specific street addresses in a foreign city for weeks on end.

    First of all, at a minimum, the Russians, the Chinese, the British and the French can rain cruise missiles onto foreign streets if they like. They just don’t do it all the time like America does. Our safety within our borders is arguable, not only for the odd acts of terrorism, or the near-constant gun violence in our cities, but of course for the total abandonment of our freedoms to “secure” us.

    There’s more. Junger, likely dripping with his own manly juices as he dictated the next line to his “valet” Manual, said:

    I find it almost offensive that anyone in this country could imagine they are truly pacifist while accepting the protection and benefit of all that armament. If you have a bumper sticker that says “No Blood For Oil,” it had better be on your bike.

    First, I for one did not ask for the U.S. military to go around the world killing foreigners on my behalf. Second, I do not believe that constantly, aimlessly killing people who are not threatening us does much more than create an endless cycle of revenge and thus more war and of course, that oil thing. Junger my man, why does the U.S. have to bleed for oil? Let’s pretend we didn’t– what would the oil producing states then do, drink the shit? No, capitalism is a reliable tool. Nations with oil would continue to sell oil, because they like being very rich. They would sell oil to countries with money to buy oil. What would be different is that American companies would not control the oil flow and would not assure themselves of obscene profits. So the slogan isn’t No Blood for Oil (you can’t put a bumper sticker on a bike anyway), it is No Blood for Corporate Profits.

    Another Jungerism:

    The United States is in a special position in the world, and that leads many people to espouse a broad American exceptionalism in foreign affairs. Even if they’re correct, those extra rights invariably come with extra obligations. Precisely because we claim such a privileged position, it falls to us to uphold the international laws that benefit humanity in general and our nation in particular.

    Riiiiight, those darned international laws. Like not torturing people. Like not indefinitely detaining people without due process. Not not violating other nation’s sovereignty (Google Translate calls that an “invasion”) with drones and special forces. Like not refusing to sign the landmine and cluster munitions treaties. Like not rendering people. Like not possessing our own chemical weapons. Like not being the only nation in history to use a nuclear weapon, twice, against civilian populations. Like not withdrawing from the International Criminal Court because we’re afraid they will prosecute our leaders for these crimes. Like not invading Iraq for no reason but empire and spite. If you are going to set yourself up as the International Law guy, you can’t cherry pick which laws you’ll uphold and which you’ll trod upon.

    As for all the wonder we accomplsihed in the Balkans (including bombing the Chinese Embassy in violation of international law) there are those collateral damages (Google Translate: Slaughtering innocent people who got in the way of our Exceptionalism). Junger’s got that covered:

    The civilian casualties where there were strikes were terribly unfortunate, but they constituted a small fraction of casualties in the wars themselves.

    See, that’s exceptional. We can kill innocent people as long as we keep the head count (ba bing!) to whatever Junger decides is a small fraction. But least he is consistent. As for that thing about 100,000 already dead in Syria but 1400 dying by gas is a reason for war:

    The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people essentially one person at a time, which is clearly an abomination, but it is not defined as a crime against humanity.

    See, it is all about how you say things. Words are important, they teach that in journalist school, even the online ones Washington Post (slogan: We DOn’t Have Editoors ANymorer, Powered by Amazon!) writers attend.

    We’ll give Junger one more line:

    At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide.

    Dude, dude, another thing they teach in J-School is not to plagiarize. The correct line is “War is Peace, and Peace is War.”



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  • Speaking Truth to Power

    March 22, 2012 // 4 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq

    (This article by William Astore originally appeared on Huffington Post)

    When you dare speak truth to power, the reality is that power already knows the truth, doesn’t want you to share it, and will punish you for your trouble.

    That’s the clear lesson from the State Department’s persecution of Peter Van Buren, who dared to tell the American people about the failures of Iraq reconstruction in his book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (2011). His “crime” was his unflattering portrayal of misguided and mismanaged U.S. projects in Iraq, from American books translated into Arabic that were never read to a high-tech chicken factory that never worked to sewerage systems that grew worse rather than better despite infusions of machinery and countless millions of dollars.

    Van Buren deserves a commendation for his honesty. A true servant of the American people, his cautionary (and often wryly amusing) tale should teach us that so-called nation-building efforts are difficult to implement and even more difficult to sustain. Even more: the resource-intensive, high-tech approach of U.S. government officials and private contractors is rarely well-suited for places like Iraq and Afghanistan, whose resource- and knowledge-base is less well developed, at least by American standards. Approaches that work, Van Buren suggests, are those that are better tuned to engaging and empowering the locals within specific cultural settings, an approach rarely followed by American “experts” and corporations, eager as the latter were to make a buck while trying to show quick results.

    My own experience with winning the hearts and minds of Iraqis was limited but illustrative of Van Buren’s conclusions. Back in 2004, an American official in Iraq contacted the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, where I then worked, for help in translating a Peter, Paul and Mary song about tolerance. The idea was that Iraqi schoolchildren could be inculcated with a love of diversity, or at least a tolerance of the same, if they were taught the lyrics to this song. We engaged our Arabic translators, who quickly advised us that the lyrics to this touchy-feely American song would likely baffle Iraqi schoolchildren even when translated into Arabic. The American official at the other end of our conference call was very disappointed to hear that her bright idea to promote tolerance in Iraqi schools by translating feel-good anthems to diversity was a cultural non-starter.

    A great strength of Van Buren’s account is to show how we Americans delude ourselves into believing that our approach and our culture can be grafted successfully onto Iraqi and Afghan situations. Intentions may often be good but results are mixed at best because U.S. providers want to show rapid progress even as they’re encouraged to allocate resources as quickly as possible (often a formidable task, given the bureaucratic red tape involved). Can-do spirit is frustrated by the realities of contractor and indigenous greed, cultural differences, and the short-term mentality of American managers who rarely occupy the same position for more than a few months.

    Van Buren explains to us why the dedicated efforts of individuals like himself made so little difference in Iraq. His is a cautionary tale of waste, mismanagement, and hubris, one that should serve to discourage (or at least to inform) current efforts in Afghanistan.

    It’s not that our government doesn’t want to hear that message; the powerful already know how much we’ve bungled these “reconstruction” efforts. It’s that they don’t want you the American people to know how much they’ve bungled these efforts.

    Van Buren shines a light in places that many would prefer to remain dark. And that, sadly, is rarely rewarded, even less so today in an administration that’s determined to silence whistleblowers from all quarters.



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  • State Department Talks Chicken in Iraq

    February 13, 2012 // 6 Comments

    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq

    Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Thomas R. Nides may have set an actual world record for the most number of ridiculously wrong claims in a single government briefing. His topic was the State Department’s presence in Iraq. Here are a few of his statements:

    We have stood up a robust police-training program, which is doing a terrific job working with the local police in training and developing a program, which I think will pay enormous dividends, too.

    The New York Times reported “One State Department program that is likely to be scrutinized is an ambitious program to train the Iraqi police, which is costing about $500 million this year — far less than the nearly $1 billion that the embassy originally intended to spend. The program has generated considerable skepticism within the State Department — one of the officials interviewed predicted that the program could be scrapped later this year — because of the high cost of the support staff, the inability of police advisers to leave their bases because of the volatile security situation and a lack of support by the Iraqi government.”

    FYI, State Department police training is also off to a robust start in Afghanistan.


    We’re working on economic development, because as you know, they’re producing almost a million two barrels a day out of Basrah.

    This is pretty much the same amount of oil that Iraq has always produced, since the 1980’s. Nothing to crow about for sure.


    And as I’ve pointed out at the beginning is, we’re fully and completely engaged on the political deployment.

    Prime Minister Maliki has an arrest warrant pending for his own Vice President, who has fled to Kurdistan, where Maliki’s own government troops cannot touch him. Sectarian violence is on the rise. Many ministers are boycotting Parliament.

    For more than one year, the security ministries have been in the hands of acting ministers – Maliki himself for interior, with close allies at defence (Dulaymi) and national security (Fayyad). Two main attempts at having them filled through parliamentary procedure (March and May 2011) both failed. One of the few likely results of the upcoming national meeting in Arbil could be the appointment of a Sadrist deputy interior minister.

    State has been backing away from responsibility for the post-US military withdrawal chaos.


    And principally, our goal has been to shift our reliance on contractors to basically hiring local Iraqis. This is what the Iraqis want, and quite frankly, that’s what we want because it’s cheaper.

    The Embassy tried hiring Iraqis back in 2005 or so. Many could not pass security checks, and most who did start work either were gunned down outside the walls or quit after threats of violence toward them or their families. Most Iraqis who worked for the US during the Occupation are in danger, and the State Department is delaying the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) that would allow them to escape to the US.


    We’ve had an unbelievable cooperation from the Iraqis, okay?

    The New York Times reported instead that “At every turn, the Americans say, the Iraqi government has interfered with the activities of the diplomatic mission, one they grant that the Iraqis never asked for or agreed upon. Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s office — and sometimes even the prime minister himself — now must approve visas for all Americans, resulting in lengthy delays. American diplomats have had trouble setting up meetings with Iraqi officials.”

    The Iraqis have also objected to State’s 5,500 person mercenary army.


    I think many folks thought that it was a difficult mission set and we – I think arguably – could suggest we’ve had a very successful mission… So I am – feel quite good about where we are.

    OK Tom. If you’d return my calls, I would love to know how you define “successful mission.” I guess never mind about the State Department helicopter mishap or the arrest of the State Department mercenaries. And hey Tom, by the way, how’s the gravity on your home planet?


    One more thing, and here’s where maybe I can help. Tom said “If I can get food purchasing – more food purchasing done in Iraq and not have to bring it in, that will dramatically decrease our dependency on contractors to do food service.” Food service is important, because there is no Baghdad Safeway open just yet for America’s robust diplomats to shop at. Indeed, some of those robusted diplomats were caught out complaining in the New York Times about food shortages at the Embassy cafeteria. One instance cited was chicken wing night, where wings were rationed at only six wings per dip.

    Hey Tom, while I was a PRT Team Leader the US government spent over two million taxpayer dollars to build a chicken processing plant just outside Baghdad. The story of that plant’s failure is chronicled in my book, in a chapter called Chicken Shit, also available online. Maybe you could get the Embassy to re-reconstruct that plant to provide wings?

    While the Embassy in Baghdad may lack chicken, the State Department in Washington certainly is well-stocked with Kool Aid.

    Up next: Tom Nides explains how State won the war in Vietnam using flying pink unicorns.



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  • Here you go America, another snapshot of your legacy in Iraq…

    January 29, 2012 // 6 Comments

    Tags: , , ,
    Posted in: Democracy, Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    I received this comment to an earlier posting about the problems Iraqis who had worked for the US Military and State Department were facing obtaining Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) to flee Iraq:


    Since I started working as a TERP for US Army back in 2003, I never had a normal day of life, specially I got married in 2004. I’m always having problems with my wife and relatives. I quit in 2004 before I got married as a condition to get a wife. But since I did, I could not get a job or look for a one, because I had to keep home to be safer and my family. I could not take any more, so I decided to get back to my TERP job in 2009. I moved my family to a village outside Mosul where I’m from, which is the stronghold of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The people in this village are very savage and they are ignorant that they comment on haircut most of times. The funny thing that they do not know about my job yet. I wonder what are they gonna say and do if they did?.

    Any way I’m unemployed now as the last unit I have worked with left, and the base closed last November 2011 and I’m bleeding money on the SIV application and hard life requirements in the semi safe village I live (no power-no safe water-far school-far markets-high prices for everything as a safe zone in Mosul-no JOB). I started working on my SIV application on January 2011. Scheduled to have US Embassy in Baghdad interview January 2012 this is one year and probably I’m gonna wait another year to get the visa this is if they issued one due to million rumors we hear about delaying and cancelling visas every day. I wonder what is going to happen to me and my family the comming time?

    I think everyone understands the fear from future and unknown and the stress outcomming from it. I will leave the comment to you. Thank you very much.


    So there you go America, another snapshot of your legacy in Iraq.



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  • Nasty Contractor Business from Iraq

    December 2, 2011 // 1 Comment

    Tags: ,
    Posted in: Embassy/State, Iraq, Military

    Here is a letter (not written by me) about one American that has also been faxed to Hillary Clinton, Janet Napolitano and Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice L. Jacobs.

    I have no way to verify the allegations made against a single contractor—of sexual harassment, fraud, retaliation and more—but reprint this in its entirety to illustrate the complexities of our war in Iraq, in particular the use of so many contract employees subject to, essentially, no authority or system of law.

    Whether or not the specifics below are true, it was clear from my own time in Iraq that the mix of military, civilian government officials, contractors and local Iraqis subject to no single authority created exactly the type of problems you would expect with such unequal power relationships without proper supervision.

    The deletion of all the names below makes this a bit hard to read, but I encourage you to give it a try. You’ll learn more than you care to about how ugly things look when you turn over the rock and expose what’s underneath to daylight.

    Peter

    —————————————–

    Enclosed is extensive documentation detailing visa fraud, abuse of authority, retaliation against witnesses, filing and doctoring of official reports, and intimidation committed by Mr. Xxx, Junior Counter-Intelligence Officer with the Department of Defense through a contract with Xxx. I received initial information about this abuse in 2010 from U.S. Army Colonel Xxx and Major Xxx. The victim of the crimes of Mr. Xxx is an Iraqi national who worked as an interpreter from 2003 to 2009.

    We have been working on this case for more than three years, and I will not let this matter drop. The personal safety and security of an ally of the United States is at stake, and the injustice perpetrated upon her by one of my fellow American citizens is too revolting for me to ignore. Over the past year, I have sent this information to senior officials in the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, and State. In addition, I have been in frequent communication with the offices of Senators McCaskill , whose staff has filed a request for an IG/DoD investigation. As you will see, the Washington Post covered this story on the front page. I have also filed IG reports at the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, along with a case at the USCIS Ombudsman.

    The crimes committed by Mr. Xxx that are detailed in the attached documents are a serious breach of law, and the unconscionable inaction by the U.S. government to redress the situation of Xxx, while facilitating the relocation and effective absolution of Mr. Xxx, is a serious breach of even the most simplistic understanding of the legal, moral and ethical duty that the United States must have for the foreign nationals it employs, whether directly or through its subcontractors.


    Specific allegations against Mr. Xxx.

    Compiled by Colonel Xxx:

    1. Abusing his authority by pressuring local national females into having a sexual relationship as a condition to pass or avoid the security screening process;

    2. Abusing his authority by seeking revenge or retribution against local national females (e.g. by firing from employment, threats of firing, threats against family members, threats to stop SIV Immigration, threats to release confidential information to unauthorized persons to break or destroy familial relationships) who do not respond to his overtures for a personal relationship, or who try to break away from him after having a personal relationship;

    3. Having sexual relationship with local national females with whom he was charged with conducting the security screening process;

    4. Retaliating against all persons who are potential witnesses against him, who fight the process and try to retain the local national employee, or who bring Complaints of Misconduct against him.

    5. Releasing confidential and sensitive information to unauthorized third persons, outside the security reporting channels, in order to cause harm to or intimidate local nationals (primarily females) into compliance with his request for a relationship or to prevent them from having a relationship with another, or to keep them silent as witnesses against him and others in the office that may be complicit in his activities.

    6. Creating, “doctoring” and filing false reports, or placing filing reports in a way to place the local national in a “false light” to the military units with whom they were employed, of security concerns against local national employees or potential employees in order to coerce them into an improper relationship or set them up for firing and expulsion from the FOB and the International Zone in order to cover his misconduct and eliminate witnesses. (Many times this is done when one unit is leaving and a new unit comes on board because the new unit doesn’t know the history and character of the local worker and is most easily influenced by information provided).

    7. Bringing onto or making alcoholic beverages accessible to residents of FOB Prosperity and other contractor employees. Consuming alcoholic beverages at social events (some allegations he also leaves the IZ for these parties) involving foreign nationals, local nationals, and other DoD contract personnel in a manner that compromises his professionalism and sets the conditions for personal misconduct in the performance of his duties.

    Potential Evidence/Witnesses to Support the Allegations:

    Because these allegations were so serious, and because a common theme began to emerge with most of the affected local nationals, I decided to ask some questions myself of persons who may be in the “know” about the reports of misconduct before deciding to file a formal request for an inquiry. Here is what I found:

    * I personally spoke with one of the local national translators alleged to have had a sexual relationship with Mr. Xxx because I have known her for a long time. She admitted to me that she and Mr. Xxx had a sexual relationship that arose either during the time he was supposed to be responsible for conducting her security screening, or he met her during that time and it developed as a result thereof. She said he then helped her get her SIV to the States, paid her way and either traveled with her or met her there. After a short time, she tried to break away from him and she returned to Iraq (where she currently resides) and she said he is giving her and her family a very hard time with threats to bar her and them from coming or returning to America. Although she is nervous, I think she is available to talk about this and, in fact, she may have already met with folks from your organization before these complaints surfaced to report the situation.

    * I corresponded via email with Xxx, a former supervisor for Mr. Xxx, and, as you can see from the attached email excerpts, he confirmed that the above allegations were true against Mr. Xxx. He also made reference to a Regional Manager that may be able to confirm the allegations as well.

    * I was contacted by local national translator nicknamed Xxx who was recently terminated abruptly because of an adverse screening result from Mr. Xxx that resulted from an argument she had with one of Xxx’ co-workers (DoD Iraqi-American Xxx female named Xxx). Xxx had reported her fear that she would be fired because of this incident to me and to her POC almost two months before her firing and right after the incident occurred for which she filed a complaint with Xxx against Mr. Xxx. She reported that Xxx confronted her in one of the female latrines on the FOB and made disparaging and discriminatory remarks about Xxx and other Muslim women (an allegation other translators have also made against Xxx) and their personal hygiene practices. Later, Xxx was joined by Xxx who made it clear he was Xxx’s friend and co-worker and that Xxx might have a problem the next time she was screened. She also noted Xxx had made a comment to her with words to the effect, “You should have spoken to me in the DFAC when I was trying to be “friendly” with you—now you will see”, which made her believe he was threatening to fail her in her screening because she refused to have a personal relationship with him and as revenge to protect his friend.

    * Another recent firing involved a local national female translator named Xxx. Xxx was supposedly fired because she was found to have a “fake” Jinsiya during the screening process. I have known Xxx since 2007 and have always known her to be honest, loyal, and a hard worker for the CF. Apparently during the time in recent months when she had continuous and regular duty at one of our JSS’s in Baghdad, she asked someone to renew her Jinsiya. The Jinsiya had all the correct information about her and there was no attempt on her part to deceive anyone, but apparently it was not an official Jinsiya (although that question remains) and she was fired for this reason after all those years of loyal service. So, what is her connection to Xxx issue. Well, she is good friends with Xxx (above referenced translator who had the run-in with Xxx and Xxx) and she, like Xxx were eyewitnesses to Xxx’s personal relationship with Xxx and another local national translator named Xxx because of proximity to their CHUs. So, it is not unthinkable, given what Xxx’s former supervisor said of him, that Xxx is one of the potential witnesses against Xxx that needed to be eliminated from the FOB and IZ.

    * I know you are familiar with the situation with respect to Xxx and her situation regarding the Iraqi Wide badge and being requested to take a polygraph test (which I understand she took and failed today). As you can see from Xxx’s email, much of Xxx’s problem stems from Xxx’s personal bias against her and it is likely he would go to any length to make her fail her security screening. I think Xxx has also related to you, or through her current employer or previous POC, that Xxx tried to press her for a personal relationship and she refused to respond and that is when her trouble started (specifically Xxx’s bias) painting her in a false light.

    * Just today the BMET (co-located with us) was told that one of its local national translators (Xxx —whom I have known for about three years and have never seen anything untoward from or with respect to him from a security standpoint) failed the security screening and they were told he must leave the FOB immediately, however, they didn’t specify any reason for the firing. But, apparently there was a question to him about knowing another translator that was recently fired (that I think worked for your organization—his nickname is Xxx) as a possible basis for his firing. It is my understanding that Xxx was having personal trouble with Xxx and the yet unverified allegation was Xxx was pressuring Xxx to give false evidence against other local nationals or others on the FOB—so again a possible connection to Xxx that goes beyond the fact that Xxx works for office that does the screenings.

    * I was also informed that another local national female translator Xxx has a similar situation with Xxx. I also believe she was recently fired or left her employment under adverse conditions and is living in the red zone afraid of Xxx. As I understand her story, she had a sexual relationship with Xxx for sometime after which she left him and married a U.S. soldier with whom she had a child. During the time she was still on the FOB, Xxx was seen at her room having heated arguments with her. Sometime during the process her room was subject to inspection and information was found on her computer showing she had the relationship with the US soldier and apparently had pictures of their wedding and honeymoon in Turkey. Xxx was angry and jealous (so the allegation goes) and threatened and continues to threaten to release information to her husband about his relationship with her in order to break their relationship and cause her husband to stop her and her child’s visa process for immigration to the states. She is laying low in the red zone waiting for the immigration process and trying to appease Xxx from releasing the information to her husband. (Note: I know Xxx but have not spoken directly to her about this story and I don’t know where she is currently located, however, I heard the same story from people close to Xxx and who know the situation. They say Xxx is afraid of Xxx and afraid to come forward to tell the full story).

    A security check was done on Ms. Xxx in 2009 and no derogatory information was found. Mr. Xxx was dating a local translator who did not like Xxx and, along with his rejected advances, he was able to insert derogatory information into her file. He was known as manipulative, devious, and a womanizer amongst fellow employees and allied Iraqis.

    This harassment also happened to a number of other female employees, in addition to men whom Mr. Xxx did not like.



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  • Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part I)

    July 11, 2011 // 2 Comments

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Other Ideas

    What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three languages? Trilingual. Only one language? An American.

    If you had to reduce diplomacy to a single function, it would be “talking to foreigners.” The Department of State talks to foreigners. We talk with them about nuclear treaties, we talk with them about Americans in jail abroad, we talk with them about who the President will visit with and, in Iraq, we talked with them about reconstruction. We talked about what we thought they needed, we talked with them about whose brother-in-law would get the next contract, we talked with them about not killing us at checkpoints. We talked a lot; it is what we do.

    The problem is that we talked to Iraqis almost exclusively in English, or at least we spoke English, and relied on a rogues gallery of so-called translators and interpreters (the Army called them ‘terps and therefore so did we). The fact that very, very few Americans involved in either destroying Iraq or rebuilding Iraq spoke any Arabic was a huge problem. No one will ever know how much of our failure in reconstructing Iraq was caused simply by bad translation, but it would be a decent percentage.

    This was and is a significant problem, with two nasty sides to it.

    The first side is that even now, ten years after 9/11, very few people in the Department of State speak decent Arabic. Of the approximate 7600 Foreign Service Officers, only 380 speak Arabic at a “general professional level,” a language test score of 3/3 for you Foggy Bottom insiders. This score means that the individual is “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics. Nevertheless, the individual’s limitations generally restrict the professional contexts of language use to matters of shared knowledge and/or international convention.” So those folks speak Arabic pretty well, but nobody is saying fluent. In fact, in US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about US foreign policy in Arabic.

    (How does the State Department test languages anyway?)

    However, on average, only 64 percent of FSOs are overseas at any one time, so of those 380 Arabic speakers, only 243 are outside the Beltway today. Because of State’s whacky assignments system, there is no assurance that an Arabic speaker will be assigned to an Arabic speaking country, or a Chinese speaker to China for that matter. All sorts of things can affect assignment, including that many native speakers of a language (say a naturalized Pakistani-born FSO) often are not assigned “home” for security reasons. Whatever portion of those 243 Arabic speakers who are abroad are spread across 23 posts in the Middle East. Lastly, of the subset of officers, statistically over 35 percent have less than five years of service with the Department—so-called entry level officers—and typically are assigned visa work or other junior tasks. That knocks out a few more, leaving us an estimated 130 or so FSOs who can have a semi-professional conversation in Arabic.

    No one knows the numbers, but you will need to also deduct a few for people not medically qualified to serve overseas, those in jobs that limit them to inside the Embassy and a couple who might have gotten the right test score but don’t actually speak Arabic all that well in practice, book learners.

    That latter variable is no joke—the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found substandard skills in 31 percent of the approximately 3600 FSO jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, up from 29 percent in 2005. In Iraq, 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Overall, forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions. Doh! Doh! again, however you would say it in French.

    So not very many people in the State Department can speak Arabic. In fact, on both of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) Peter led in Iraq, not a single subject matter expert, contractor or FSO spoke a word of Arabic. No one in our parent Army units did either. We all used translators, the ‘terps.

    Most Americans’ don’t speak a foreign language, and have only had their high school French or Spanish as a guide. In reality (Peter speaks Japanese and Mandarin at the general professional level), it is really freaking hard to learn a foreign language as an adult. There is something biological to all this; kids pick up languages well, but adults really sweat it out to get beyond simple greetings and memorized phrases. You can’t just order up more Arabic speakers. It works both ways, for Americans trying to learn Arabic and native speakers of Arabic who are trying to learn English (Quick test. If you think you speak a foreign language well, translate this out loud, respectfully and persuasively: “Unlike as we discussed at the council session, changes to our fiscal plans meant that the dike was be built upstream of your farm, unfortunately flooding your pasture. We are unable to pay compensation for your deceased goats.”). The very few who can really handle languages fluently get big bucks and work for the White House or the UN, not at a remote PRT, even if that’s the tip of the spear in the war on terror.

    The majority of our ‘terps were Iraqi-Americans. They had immigrated to the US and become citizens years ago. Most were from Detroit or Chicago, recruited by subcontractors for their alleged language skills. Most of our Iraqi-American translators were employees of an Alaskan Native-owned business. This business had one employee in the US, an Alaskan Native far away in Alaska, and subcontracted to some other business that recruited Iraqi-Americans in Detroit or Chicago and sent those people to us in Iraq. To help support minority businesses such as those owned by Alaskan Natives, the US government offered them an advantage in the otherwise competitive bidding process, a sort of contracting affirmative action, even as they subbed out 100 percent of the work and lent nothing to the company but their name and ethnicity. It seemed like a get-rich-quick internet scam, but this one apparently worked.

    The Iraqi-Americans made six-figure salaries, got free trips home and the sweet benefits that all contractors hauled in. Many of them had not lived in Iraq for years yet we used them as cultural advisors. Some had lived entirely within Iraqi-American communities in the US and spoke poor English, yet served as translators. Some were Kurdish and/or Christian, which no doubt impressed the Muslim Arabs we primarily interacted with. Trust and personal relationships are critical to doing things in the Middle East (as well as in Iowa, really) and we had the tools to establish neither.

    It gets worse. Most ‘terps used by the Army, and often the PRTs, were hired locally. Typically this meant a young man (most women still stayed home in free Iraq) who had learned some English somewhere who could pass security vetting. Often times the kid was good-hearted but knew relatively little English. His manners were rough and tough, making interactions with older government officials, educated sheiks and those who thought themselves important lame exercises. Between the bad English and the bad manners, very little got done.

    Though Iraqis will shout their opinions at you in the street and wave their hands like a crack-crazed aerobics teacher to make a point, it was hard for us to sort out what they said from what they meant from what was what they thought you wanted to hear. Add in a bad translator who reduced three minutes of spittle-flying speech to “He disagrees but loves all Americans and Obama President” and you often had no idea what was going on.

    Not knowing what was going on became sort of a problem in our efforts to rebuild Iraq. It meant having no way to verify what was being said around you—did your amateur translator make a grammar mistake or did he ask for a bribe? Are the frowns because your offer was too low or because the English slang ended up being mistranslated as something rude in Arabic? We did not know. We had no way to know. We just had to live with it, because there was no other way. Not to beat a dead horse, but while we meant well, we acted foolishly in a way that preordained failure.

    It had to end poorly.




    See Part II of this article…


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