I had the pleasure of speaking yesterday at George Mason University alongside Christopher Coyne.
Chris is the author of an excellent new book, Doing Bad by Doing Good: Why Humanitarian Action Fails. This book should be required reading for every U.S. government employee headed to Afghanistan and beyond. I’ll have a full review online soon.
My thanks to the students, faculty and staff at George Mason!
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
The We Meant Well wrap-up of the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion was unfortunately tainted by several gallons of bile spilled on to my keyboard as I typed. It is important to note that while most of the U.S. Government people involved in Iraq well-deserved all the bile spattered their way, there were those who did try. So thus I owe a bit of an apology for the slam dunk I took on the Special Inspector General for Iraq, SIGIR, a few days ago.
Fair is fair; I wrote:
SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
The people at SIGIR, who clearly held the least-loved jobs in all of Iraq, were kind enough to write to me and point out that they were trying hard to be part of the good guys. They also ran at something of a profit. SIGIR wrote:
SIGIR pointed out that in its final report it stated that the financial benefits accomplished by SIGIR’s work included more than $1.61 billion from audits and over $191 million from investigations.
That works out to $2,329,268 recovered for the U.S. taxpayers per investigation, which is a pretty good return on investment. That is not counting perhaps another approximately $100 million we expect to recover by the time SIGIR closes.
I hasten to add that the scale of bad money collected by SIGIR is important not only for the dollar amount itself, but also as a sign of just how much freaking money was being spent/stolen during the Iraq campaign. The mind spins.
And for those in the Washington DC area, the SIGIR Inspector General Himself, Stuart Bowen, will speak today, Wednesday, March 27, 1:00 – 3:00, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Conference Room B1 A/B, 1800 K Street, NW, Washington DC, 20006.
If you can’t make the speech, you can read Learning From Iraq, A Final Report From the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction online and weep quietly alone at home as I will be doing.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
It was with great fanfare a few years into the American invasion of Iraq that plans were announced to build America’s largest embassy, in the Green Zone in Baghdad. The embassy itself would cost over one billion dollars, and occupy more land than the Vatican. The U.S. ambassador of the time boasted it would be seen from space. As America’s largest embassy, no, the world’s largest embassy, it was to be a symbol of American might and power dropped smack dab into the heart of the Middle East. That it sat on land conquered– taken– from Arabs was part of the point.
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad was also a symbol that the State Department, left out of the Neocon fury of 2003, was going to be a player in Iraq’s future, and indeed in America’s broader plans for the Middle East. The military would soon withdraw (they thought) to a string of permanent bases large and small across Iraq, but the embassy would stand proud and big in Baghdad forever, full of important State Department staff doing important things for the United States. Daddy liked the State Department once again, and to make up for all those bad, bad things Daddy once said, had bought the State Department the world’s largest embassy as a welcome-back gift.
As the Iraq War crumbled underneath America, State still clung to the plan. Thousands of diplomats and contractors were flown in to fill the embassy which, even at its massive size, was still too small to house them all. At one point the State Department had close to 20,000 personnel on its pay roll in Iraq.
The war ended (for America) and the mighty U.S. military quietly slunk out of Iraq. The Obama administration began pretending like Iraq never really happened, devoting it no intellectual capitol and no bandwidth as it turned its attention to “winning” in Afghanistan. The Iraqis returned the favor, turning down American training programs and sidelining U.S. diplomats in favor of their Iranian counterparts. Everybody seemed to be reaching a new normal.
Everybody but State of course, which continued to staff the Baghdad Embassy as if it was the epicenter of the American Empire instead of an awkward mistake. A year ago State still had some 16,000 people in Baghdad. Even on the sad tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, State somehow still has 10,500 personnel on the ground. Finally, now, State has caught a glimmer of reality and ironically on the tenth anniversary date itself, announced that they will cut the head count to 5,500, of which over 4000 will be contractors and cooks. It is still a huge number of people, but it is slightly closer to the typical size of such a mission.
With personnel soon down to about one-fourth of capacity, one wonders what life in the sprawling U.S. Embassy compound must be like. With three empty offices for every occupied one, for a huge cafeteria and gym designed to serve thousands now catering to only hundreds at a time, the place must feel like one of America’s decayed downtown old cities, like Buffalo or Louisville. In the Green Zone, have they boarded up windows? Thrown white sheets over the furniture? Do they turn off street lights in some parts of the compound, as they do in abandoned neighborhoods in Detroit to save money?
The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, once intended as a monument to American power in the heart of conquered Iraq, now looks just like our own decayed U.S. cities. Now there’s your symbolism, and while the State Department may not fully get it, the rest of the world likely does.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State does not approve, endorse or authorize this blog or book. Follow us on Twitter!
Because of this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who also participated in the reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most writers are civilians, a few military. With the writer’s permission, I publish some of the letters here.
Today’s I publish to call attention to the very real issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of us suffer from it, some more than others, some more aware of it than others. For me, I benefited from good care (which I had to pay for myself but it was worth it). I have also found most veterans’ groups I’ve run across welcoming– it takes all of 30 seconds to establish that we civilians experienced most of what they did and have more in common than we have apart. To be frank, writing the book and blog are also part of my catharsis. To anyone out there suffering, get help. It makes things better. Anyway, here’s the letter.
I’ve been reading your blog since its inception and ordered your book while serving with a PRT in Afghanistan. While devouring your book in my “hooch”, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everything you reported on in Iraq was happening AGAIN in Afghanistan. You actually saved me the time of writing my own book “How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people”. I felt as if I had found the Holy Grail and ran around my PRT encouraging others to read We Meant Well. My State Department colleague was less than thrilled and was busy bidding on her next assignment while my PRT military colleagues were so burned out (due to multiple deployments) that they either didn’t care or knew that in true military tradition they were there to follow orders and helpless to do anything about the hellhole we found ourselves in. I was stunned that no one appreciated what I had found. They wanted me to quit talking and just do my time (i.e..stop being a trouble maker). Some members of the PRT were in denial and believed COIN was working while others knew that we were failing and didn’t need your experience to remind them.
It has taken me more than a year to write to you as I’ve been dealing with a great deal of anger and feared I would send you a 10 page rant outlining the insanity of wasted lives and resources that I witnessed during my 12 month deployment. I was offered additional time in Afghanistan but declined. I was afraid my already mild PTSD would be completely unmanageable after another deployment. Our well-deserving veterans are fortunate to have the VA to access once they come home (although I’m told the waiting list for mental health services is horrendous) and find other vets to talk to. These wars have now created yet another fine mess. There are now well over 200,000 people (from various nations) which include former diplomats, civilians who worked directly for the USG, contractors, NGO aid workers and even journalists that come home to no support whatsoever. I can only imagine the broken marriages, broken homes, alcoholism, isolation and other social ills that plague those with full blown PTSD and TBI. To my knowledge, no one is writing about that or even acknowledging it exists outside the military.
Unlike your “no experience necessary” chapter, I did have years of international development experience. But, I saw plenty that fell into the “no experience necessary” category and it was frightening. Not to mention the out of shape and the overweight (of all ages) who could not get in and out of an MRAP without assistance. No wonder civ-mil had its problems. This is all so terribly sad. I’m still trying to figure out a way to move forward after becoming so disillusioned with my government and the military. It’s now taken me three months to send this.
In addition to expressing gratitude for your book, I’m also writing to you in memory of the USAID officer, serving in Kunar Province, who was killed in August 2012 (link added). I find it appalling that his death and those of his three military colleagues got about 10 seconds of TV news coverage in the states. If anyone tells me that they died for my freedom, I may seriously lose it. From what I can conclude, they died for the profits of defense contractors, the careers of some high ranking military officials, the pockets of crooked Afghans, and most of all for self serving politicians and diplomats. My freedom had nothing to do with it. You tried to tell them but they didn’t listen. Instead, they tried to kill the messenger. Without knowing it, you’ve been a good friend these past 21 months and I apologize for taking so long to say thank you. Best of luck as you continue to fight for justice.
I meant well,
Name Withheld by Request
Courtesy of Cryptome, a picture speaks for itself…
As a former BDE ops officer and former MiTT team leader, I can say I know Iraq. Your book was dead on. We were there at the same time. I especially liked you comparing the KBR guys to the dudes that won’t stop hanging around high school. Yep, that is what we all thought of those ass clowns. My brothers fought in Iraq and I lost my best friend to an IED in 2004. Anyways, thanks for the fast read and the laugh-out-loud moments.
Everyone is special in his/her own way, so take what applies below and leave the rest.
– Your State Department person is unlikely to have had any military service, or any training into the way the military works. Unless you clearly do not have to, make sure s/he understands who out-ranks whom, what acronyms mean and what will be expected of him/her at a meeting (sit quietly, agree with General, offer real options, etc.). Your Statie is unlikely to arrive knowing the difference between the S-2 and the S-4.
– At the same time, State people usually have a lot of experience blending in to foreign cultures. S/he may talk the talk like a 25 year O-6, but unless you clearly do not have to, make sure s/he understands who out-ranks whom, what acronyms mean and what will be expected of him/her at a meeting (sit quietly, agree with General, offer real options, etc.). Some State people will inadvertently overdo it, maybe too many war movies, so it is OK to advise against calling the visiting CSM “Sarge” or trying to out profane the “guys” in the “unit.”
– Inside an embassy, almost everyone but the ambassador calls each other by his/her first name. People are “asked” to do things and expected to understand when “ask” means “an order.” Even though State people may say “I’d like you to…” or “If you get a chance…” those words may or may not mean what they sound like. It is usually considered a bit uncool or crass to issue “orders” or “demand” things even when that is what you are clearly doing. State people can read these things like dogs understand each other by sniffing, but you may not get what’s going on. If a State person says “It is my strong recommendation…” for example, that means “Goddammit, do it now.” “I’ll consider it” or “That requires some study” are the same as “I’m busy that night” in the dating world.
– Explain to your Statie who to talk to about problems. S/he will have at least courtesy meetings regularly with your boss’ boss and that would be a bad place for the Statie to casually bring up a minor complaint about his CHU. While some Staties are indeed out to jerk you around, in most cases it is benign ignorance. Tell your Statie to come to you personally with any issues, however small.
– Telling your Statie to pack for a helo trip, or be prepared to overnight means nothing to them. Be specific: one small backpack you can carry yourself, boots not shoes, bring a sleeping bag, etc.
– State does not do Powerpoint well. If you are expecting slides or a presentation, get someone to help your Statie get ready. Be very specific: if you only need one slide, say that. If you need photos, a chart, whatever, don’t assume, specify.
– State is a very vertical organization. Everyone is at least a Major and thinks they are a Colonel. At the same time, very little authority is explicit or delegated. Expect even minor decisions to take time and be run up the chain. Whereas a decision run up through channels to a Four Star is a big deal, it is not uncommon in State for even relatively minor things to be “cleared” by the Deputy Chief of Mission or Ambassador as part of State’s deeply ingrained CYA culture. It may not mean that much, so don’t over-read into it.
– The State Department culture is very clearly comfortable with men and women in all roles. Sexual harassment is not tolerated in any form, even what some might call “friendly kidding around.” Gay Staties are very openly accepted and acknowledged. Ambassadors will travel with their partners on government travel. While usually age and rank in State track, State does accept entry-levels of all ages, and the promotion system can send relatively young people into higher positions. Your Statie’s attitude on these things may differ from yours.
– State rarely has any money. Think of the relationship like an old-timey date– you’ll pay. Most State people are encouraged to believe that DOD has unlimited personnel, money and resources. If you say something can’t be done for lack of these, however truthful, your State person will think you are not telling the truth.
– There is no physical fitness requirement at State. Medical clearance is mostly a negative thing– the Statie doesn’t have a life-threatening heart condition– and not a positive thing. Assess the physical demands of a task before sending a State person out into the field or make provisions to accommodate.
– Commitment will vary. Personnel rules at State require most employees to “volunteer” to do some time in conflict zones whether they really want to or not. Many lack the service ethic. Don’t be too surprised if your Statie bitches openly about having to be there and does very little. Perhaps offer the option to “backstop the operation from the FOB” instead of going outside the wire?
– At the same time, many “field” positions have been created by State to satisfy some Washington-level political need, and your Statie, even if pumped-up herself, may not have anything pushed to her from the embassy and will need to be kept busy.
– Be honest and clear about living conditions. Most of the State people will be flexible if prepared right, but simply saying “we’ll be at COP Hammer for two days” is not enough. Best to say “two days unless weather closes down the helos, it’ll be four to a dry CHU, probably MREs for two out of three meals, no good Internet.”
– State does not issue gear to its people. Whatever your Statie has s/he bought at LL Bean and carried over in a suitcase. The shopping list was spread like chlamydia, from the last Statie to the next. It is not their fault. Help them if appropriate, maybe even a shopping trip to the Exchange. Your Statie having the right boots will make everyone’s life easier. At the same time, gently turn the volume down from 11 for the Statie festooned with belts and web gear and GPS’ and patches and pouches.
– Information sharing at State is poor. Information is hoarded like loot, to be exchanged and traded. Don’t assume your Statie has been briefed, is informed or has shared. Check, or take the responsibility necessary to ensure your mission works. That one part of the embassy knows something does not mean anyone else there knows it. Info sharing in/out of the Political and Security sections is notoriously poor.
– State is big on “consultations,” in person chats among itself. State people are paranoid about their written communications being thrown back at them (Wikileaks) and will always worry about Freedom of Information Action requests and refer to fears that “this’ll end up in the Washington Post.” Be prepared for them to have to spend a lot of time at the home office figuring out what’s up, and don’t expect to get anything sensitive done in writing, even if classified. More than the military, what State says on paper and what they do in practice vary.
– The biggest brownie points within State are given for “reporting,” often long, literary pieces “from the field” (again, see Wikileaks). If you want to make your Statie look good, throw him/her some tidbits or expose them to some tribal meeting or something to report on. As noted, don’t expect secrecy, but often State prizes most highly slice of life pieces anyway, “taking the pulse of the people” kind of soft stuff. This reporting is referred to as a cable, the term coming from long ago (last year) when actual telegrams were sent via wire back to Washington.
– Almost everything that matters in State is affected by the very specific words on the yearly performance evaluation, EER. Your Statie will be consumed by this throughout the spring, as preparation and negotiations (it is an interactive process) begin in March or so and continue into May. This is the most stressful time of the year for most State people. Especially at the lower levels where the Statie lacks a clear “corridor reputation,” what is said on the EER will significantly affect them. Similarly, State’s next-assignment system is equally hazardous and complex to navigate. This is usually done starting in late summer into early winter, and is also a huge source of anxiety and State stress, FYI.
– All Statie’s are assigned to “cones,” area of specialty. The formal ones are political, economic, consular, public diplomacy or administrative. Security is part of admin but really a world of its own. Ask your Statie about her cone as an icebreaker. Like in the military, “where have you been assigned before?” is a very easy neutral question. Statie’s usually like to say city names instead of country or base names, so it’s Tokyo, not Japan or Yokosuka.
– State personnel assigned to the embassy often do not want to travel into the field, and/or cannot arrange travel out. It may not mean anything that no one senior from the embassy ever visits, or that your Statie’s every meeting with his boss takes place when summoned to the embassy. When seniors do visit, they may feel they should only see their own State person to avoid bothering you and slip back out. If protocol requires a courtesy call or a briefing to senior leaders, best to make this clear way ahead of time if possible. If a senior embassy person does come by on short notice and fails to meet with the Colonel, it may mean nothing. In most cases no harm is intended.
– At the same time, it will be good relations with your Statie to have him sit in on your higher-ups visits. S/he’ll report back to the embassy and brownie points will be awarded for the “access,” especially if the Statie fancies himself a “liaison.”
– In war zones, State offers its people usually three R&Rs a year. No temps or replacements will be sent. There is usually no one in the co-pilot’s seat waiting to fill in, and if there is a deputy s/he will not take charge. Plan for long gaps when whatever it is that your Statie is doing won’t be done. State rarely allows for any significant left-seat/right-seat hand off time. Overlaps, if they occur at all, are usually a matter of a few informal days as the incumbent tries to get out as soon as possible by announcing how well-prepared her new colleague is.
BONUS: A now-classic 1998 essay, DEFENSE IS FROM MARS STATE IS FROM VENUS, by Colonel Rickey L. Rife of the Army War College, is well-worth reading, especially for its still-relevant discussion of decision making styles at State and within the military.
A more official happy-talk depiction of State for a DOD audience is also somewhat entertaining.
Despite the utter failure of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing is certain: our future wars will continue to feature civilian-military mixed efforts. This is the sadistic high school football coach’s version of “we’re gonna do this over and over until you losers get it right.”
Getting along is not easy; military personnel will always vastly out number civilians and so most of the adapting needs to happen on our side of the equation, not theirs. The military has its own culture, which you do not share.
Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson has an article in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the US military to understand it. His piece is very good, and worth reading, but does not go far enough. Some additional ideas, in no particular order:
1) Earn respect by being very good at whatever it is you are doing there. Don’t expect second chances to move from the dumb ass to the useful category. Don’t be a know it all either, especially if your knowledge is mostly book learning.
2) 0900 means be there no later than 0845. Don’t operate on civilian time. If you’re late for a movement, you’ll be left behind.
3) If you are entitled to privileges beyond what the military gets, share if you are allowed (sat phone, laptop, movies, books) or keep quiet about it (booze).
4) Follow the rules even if you can get away with not following the rules to earn respect. Shave, keep your hair cut, don’t dress like a slob.
5) Start off formal, work back toward casual. Expect to be invited to call senior officers by their first names. Expect to decline to do so unless in private.
6) Anything to do with real military stuff, such as defensive plans or drills, shut up, pay attention and follow along. Don’t end up dead weight that has to be carried along.
7) Speaking of which, always be able to and always do carry your own gear. Even if you are short, weak and slight, hump what is yours and do not let a soldier carry it for you (they will try). If you can’t carry it, leave it behind. Check how much room you’ll have for stuff on various forms of transport, like MRAPs and different model helos.
8 ) Expect to be tested. Expect things to be thrown your way to see what you’ll do– meet deadlines, help out, or skip things and get away with being lazy. Soldiers have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t.
9) Socialize. If you are one of many civilians, try hard not to split off into a civilian group at meals.
10) Adopt a sports team if you don’t follow one. There is not a more neutral topic in the military than sports. It’ll be a while before you can argue politics or news, but sports is always a decent topic and opinions are encouraged. You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia, just be able to join in. Surprise people by being “normal.”
11) Listen carefully to how soldiers complain. Complaining is a right of being in uniform, but you must be careful not to exceed the boundaries, or to make it seem like you are not being cared for.
12) Do not criticize another soldier, even if the troops are doing it. They’re insiders, you’re not. Do feel free to poke fun at yourself to show that you are not an asshole like the last civilian. Just because soldiers of different races can make racial jokes with one another, don’t think you can.
13) If told to wear body armor, or a helmet, or gloves or whatever, just do it. Don’t try to get away with not. There may or may not be a good reason, but that is not your concern.
14) If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Otherwise people will expect that you understood and expect you to do whatever is expected. Nobody will translate everything for you and as long as they do you are an outsider.
15) Don’t play soldier. Don’t wear military gear you don’t need, don’t over use slang or profanity, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, or know from books. Be polite and respectful but don’t overdo the Sirs and Ma’ams. Be who you are, though maybe a slightly more laid back and in-shape version of who you are.
16) If you agree to do something, absolutely do it. This is not an environment to say “Let’s get together sometime” without meaning it.
17) Share hardships. Expect to always be offered the best food, the best sleeping arrangements, the ride instead of walking. Decline sometimes, say yes when it seems better than pissing someone off by declining (hard to judge– that’s why you get the big bucks).
18) Special for State Department heroes: don’t ask officers to fetch coffee for you, don’t wear bow ties, don’t speak in passive-aggressive slights, don’t complain when your shoes get dusty, don’t wear white pants to the field, don’t show up without a Powerpoint, don’t ask soldiers to take notes for you, don’t talk about your next assignment to Paris, overall just don’t be a dick and make it harder on the rest of us.
A few years ago, I retired the Department of Health and Human Services. During my last years of federal service, I was an international assignee.
Because I was both new to and naive about USG “foreign service” my tour was eye-opening. As I found myself routinely unable to complete “impossible tasks” assigned to me, I felt obliged to “explain” to my foreign service superiors what they failed to grasp about laboratory work. Slowly I realized that Van Buren is correct: my task was to spend money. I was supposed to “demonstrate” that the money had “been spent”. In my case, I was supposed to demonstrate that I had “built laboratory capacity” and “strengthened laboratory infrastructure”. Because laboratory-testing demonstrations are not as dramatic as chicken-processing demonstrations, I am especially grateful for his book. He tells the story I have to tell on a grander scale and in a more entertaining way.
I wish that those who understood the pretentiousness of our “do something” foreign policy could hear what Van Buren has to say. He is not the only foreign service assignee to have witnessed our national ineptitude.
A new review of the paperback edition of We Meant Well is available on the site Political Theology:
As a disabled veteran of combat service in Vietnam (I was a grunt), I find most observations and/or writing about war to border on the absurd if not totally out of touch with what it’s really like to have the choice (non-choice?) offered in times of battle. Mr. Van Buren has the integrity and intelligence to allow those who were there to tell their stories without embellishment or censorship and recognizes that for the grunts and the Iraqi’s this debacle was neither glorious nor successful. He even dares to tell the story of a suicide of a soldier and how that effected his unit. And he isn’t afraid to see the absurdity of everyday life as lived “on the ground” and not in the embassy. If you will pardon the personal memory, his description of a visit to the “Green Zone” reminded this vet of trips out of the “field” and into the rear while doing my time in Vietnam. Nothing reminds one more of the absurdity and idiocy of war than the contrast between those who plan and those who implement.
This is a book which Presidents and Presidential candidates should read before they decide that we need to invade and/or dominate a society/country if for no other reason than to remind them that cultures are created not by consultants or policy wonks but by history and those who participate in that history. And it is a book to be read by church folk, believers that we might think about and be confronted with Micah’s notion that God requires us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.
Read the entire review at Political Theology.
Leon Panetta declared that the US is at a “turning point” in the Afghan War. “Turning Point,” like “robust,” is one of those words that when used by someone in government should make you run away. Still, it is the holiday season and we want to be light of tone, I’l let this one pass for Leon given that he just shut the lights off as the last US soldier left Iraq.
And what better way to sum up some early history of the Iraq invasion and celebrate the holidays at the same time than with the gift of music. Here is the book for my upcoming operatic version of We Meant Well.
1945-1973: several Vietnam Wars play out, with the Japanese, French and finally, the Americans. US loses over 50,000 soldiers in what Lyndon Johnson calls, “that bitch of a war,” failing in fighting a counterinsurgency. US convinces itself the anti-colonialist, nationalist North Vietnamese insurgents are the spearhead of a global Communist attack against the US and its allies, the domino theory. People say, “If we don’t fight them over there, we’ll fight them in California.” Many terrible things happen, some lessons are learned.
Pause; Overture Resumes
Several of what author Peter Beinart calls “Potemkin Vietnams” occur, in Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Kosovo and the like. Some lessons previously learned are forgotten.
1980: Iran-Iraq war starts.
1984-87: US protects non-Iranian tankers in the Gulf from Iranian attack, allows Iraq to attack Iranian tankers.
1987: Iraq mistakenly attacks the USS Stark, kills thirty-seven American sailors. All is forgiven as Iraq is a US friend engaged in killing Iranians.
1988: Iran-Iraq war ends in a tie.
1990: Iraq invades Kuwait.
1991: Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm pushes Iraq out of Kuwait. Not much else changes, most previous lessons are forgotten, new lessons mislearned that US military power alone can quickly and cleanly change complex world events. This strategy will prove as useful as one that seeks to pay a mortgage by buying lottery tickets.
Curtain Raises to Reveal Smoking Ruins of Twin Towers on Stage
October 3, 2001: US semi-invades Afghanistan and, fighting mostly with proxy local forces, pushes Taliban out of power. US takes bin Laden’s bait and stirs up wrath of Muslim world.
January 21, 2002: In his State of the Union address, Bush discovers the Axis of Evil and starts an open-ended global war.
March 19, 2003: US invades Iraq. Iraq becomes everything bin Laden hoped for — US ground forces killing Muslim civilians live on satellite TV. The war that makes little sense in the aftermath of 9/11 except as revenge.
May 1, 2003: Mission Accomplished. Bush’s pouch featured on an aircraft carrier.
“This month will be a political turning point for Iraq,” Douglas Feith, July 2003
“We’ve reached another great turning point,” Bush, November 2003
December 14, 2003: We got him. Saddam is captured.
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at happy ending of disgraced evil dictator Noriega bin Laden Saddam (played by James Edwards Olmos)
“That toppling of Saddam Hussein… was a turning point for the Middle East,” Bush, March 2004
April 28, 2004: Images of torture at Abu Ghraib become public; US stirs up wrath of Muslim world by continuing occupation of Iraq. After failing to take the bait in Afghanistan, US accomplishes al-Qaeda’s goal of permanently pissing off Muslims everywhere while entering Vietnam-like counterinsurgency quagmire.
“Turning Point in Iraq,” The Nation, April 2004
“A turning point will come two weeks from today,” Bush, June 2004
June 28, 2004: US transfers sovereignty to Iraq. Bush writes note to Condi saying “Let freedom reign!”
“Marines Did a Good Job in Fallujah, a Battle That Might Prove a Turning Point,” Columnist Max Boot, July 2004
January 12, 2005: WMD search in Iraq is declared over. None found.
“Tomorrow the world will witness a turning point in the history of Iraq,” Bush, January 2005
“The Iraqi election of January 30, 2005… will turn out to have been a genuine turning point,” William Kristol, February 2005
“On January 30th in Iraq, the world witnessed … a major turning point,” Rumsfeld, February 2005
May 30, 2005: Dick Cheney tells Larry King, “The insurgency is in its last throes.” Larry mentions radio and TV were invented just so more people could hear his voice.
October 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to ratify Constitution. Many, many photos of Iraqis with purple fingers showing they voted.
October 25, 2005: Bush states Iraq is the central front in the Global War on Terror and Muslim extremists fighting in Iraq seek to create an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Indonesia to Spain. This essentially duplicates the Vietnam-era domino theory.
December 15, 2005: Iraqis vote to elect members of Iraqi Assembly. Many, many photos of Iraqis with purple fingers showing they voted.
“I believe may be seen as a turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism.” Senator Joe Lieberman, December 2005
“The elections were the turning point. … 2005 was the turning point,” Cheney, December 2005
“2005 will be recorded as a turning point in the history of Iraq… and the history of freedom,” Bush, December 2005
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at happy voting images.
Intermission while audience ponders attack on Iran.
February 22, 2006: The Golden Mosque in Samarra is badly damaged in a bomb attack that ignites the Sunni-Shia sectarian war.
“We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it’s a new chapter in our partnership,” Bush, May 2006
“We have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” Bush, May 2006
June 15, 2006: US troops killed in Iraq reaches 2500.
“This is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens.” Bush, August 2006
September 24, 2006: Bush calls Iraq violence “just a comma” in history.
October 4, 2006: Al-Qaeda letter says “The most important thing is you continue in your jihad in Iraq… Indeed, prolonging the war is in our interest, with God’s permission.”
“When a key Republican senator comes home from Iraq and says the US has to re-think its strategy, is this a new turning point?” NBC Nightly News, October 2006
November 9, 2006: Iraqi health minister reports 150,000 Iraqis killed so far.
December 30, 2006: Saddam is hanged.
January 3, 2007: Death toll of US soldiers in Iraq reaches 3,000.
“Iraq: A Turning Point: Panel II: Reports from Iraq.” American Enterprise Institute, January 2007
Curtain closes as Americans cheer loudly at death porn images of Saddam’s body on TV.
January 10, 2007: Bush announces Surge.
January 11, 2007: Republican senator Chuck Hagel calls Surge “The most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.”
“Shrine Bombing as War’s Turning Point Debated,” Tom Ricks, March 2007
April 16, 2007: US dead reach 3300.
June 18, 2007: Foreign Policy Magazine shows Iraq ranks second on its failed state index.
September 5, 2007: Bush tells the press “We’re kicking ass” in Iraq.
“This Bush visit could well mark a key turning point in the war in Iraq and the war on terror,” Frederick W. Kagan, September 2007
“Bush Defends Iraq War in Speech… he touted the surge as a turning point in a war he acknowledged was faltering a year ago,” New York Times, March 2008
July 22, 2008: Surge ends.
“The success of the surge in Iraq will go down in history as a turning point in the war against al-Qaeda,” The Telegraph, December 2008
February 6, 2009: Another election, more photos of inked fingers.
March 7, 2010: Yet another election, more photos of inked fingers.
June 2, 2010: US deaths breach 4,400.
September 1, 2010: Obama declares combat operations over, albeit while leaving 50,000 troops occupying 92 bases in Iraq. The official name of the war changes from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn. The weather remains the same.
Curtain closes, then reopens with entire cast on stage for finale.
On June 8, 2006, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda in Iraq leader who led a brutal insurgency that included online beheadings, killed in an airstrike. According to Fox News:
US President George W. Bush said Zarqawi’s death “is a severe blow to al-Qaeda and it is a significant victory in the war on terror.”
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the killing of Zarqawi was “enormously important” for the fight against terror in Iraq and around the world. “Let there be no doubt the fact he is dead is a significant victory in the battle against terrorism in that country and I would say worldwide,” Rumsfeld said.
On April 19, 2010, four years later, the two top al-Qaeda in Iraq figures were killed. According to the AP:
US forces commander Gen. Raymond Odierno praised the operation. “The death of these terrorists is potentially the most significant blow to al-Qaeda in Iraq since the beginning of the insurgency.”
On August 25, 2010, just four months later, the Army issued a press release titled “Iraq Attacks Show al-Qaeda Remains as Threat,” concluding “A wave of attacks in Iraq today demonstrates that al-Qaeda in Iraq is still capable of operating.”
Curtain remains up with house lights on as Act comes to a close. Audience removes shoes and is searched for al-Qaeda sympathizers.
I was so thankful that you wrote such an exacting account of what was really going on over in Iraq. I was in Iraq in 2005 and saw first hand the waste fraud and abuse going on not only by the state dept. but even more so by the Army and the Army Corps of Engineers. You just barely touched the tip of the ice-berg. As a lowly GS-8 I tried in vain to get someone in the upper management to do something about what was going on. I had sent e-mails to my supervisor and as high as General Strock. Never got one return email.
It was as if there was an elephant in the room syndrome. I have been so angry ever since my tour there. I don’t trust the military command, and the Corps of Engineers is full of really incompetent people. I’m also ashamed to say there were so many people over there who really wanted to get things done but were so
hampered by management and military command, but didn’t have the integrity to speak out for fear of being sent home or getting in trouble with their sponsoring agency.
Thank you again. Your book should be required reading for every politician and every tax paying American.
When I did time as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader in Iraq, “womens’ empowerment” was a major theme for us. As part of rebuilding Iraq, we were supposed to encourage women to throw off their hijabs and/or shackles and vote, own businesses, that sort of thing. The Iraqi women (never mind the men) never seemed too engaged on the issue, but that did not stop us in our efforts. I’ve got a couple of chapters in We Meant Well on the topic, highlighting the disastrous final “Chick Event” held, as well as the equally unsuccessful “Sheep for Widows” and “Bees for Widows” projects.
Despite our efforts at liberation (womens’ and otherwise), Iraq seems to be slipping at least sideways if not backwards on these fronts.
As reported by Iraqi blogger Kassakhoon, and according to the Al-Mada newspaper, a state-run woman-related body has issued dictations on what is not allowed to be worn by female employees in government ministries and institutions. The daily posted a document issued by the Supreme National Committee to Develop the Iraqi Woman in which it refers to previous documents from the Cabinet’s Secretariat General and the Oil Ministry dated back to last October. Banned clothing now includes tight body shirts, tight pants, colorful and showy shirts, short skirts and slipper-like flat shoes.
The Sioux City Iowa Journal, not a typical liberal left outlet, sadly concludes that the war in Iraq was not worth it:
Ending with little fanfare or celebration and no longer a front page story, it is now fair to ask the question, “Was it worth it?” Unless you can check reasoning and logic at the door, the answer seems to be a resounding “no.”
The article goes on to ask:
Who paid the price for this war? Many. The numbers are staggering: 4,487 U.S. soldiers gave their lives in Iraq, 32,753 were wounded, 103,160 – 113,728 Iraqi deaths have been documented (other estimates are as high as 654,965 – Iraqi record-keeping is ad hoc at best), five million Iraqi children were orphaned as of 2007 and sadly, the number of casualties will continue to increase as post-combat-related suicides continue at an alarming rate and families cope with the difficulties of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Finally, the article references We Meant Well on the failure of reconstruction:
The attempted reconstruction of Iraq was the largest nation-building program in history, even exceeding the cost of the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild Europe after World War II. At a cost to taxpayers of more than $63 billion, the plan was lavishly funded, yet fraught with pervasive waste, inefficiency, mistaken judgments, and flawed policies. It spent money indiscriminately in the hopes that some good might come from it. (For a detailed account, read “We Meant Well” by Peter Van Buren.)
So how has all this war and “rebuilding” worked for the country of Iraq? Not so well. Sectarian violence and random killings are pervasive. The government appears largely dysfunctional and is the 10th most “failed” country in the world. Sixty to 70 percent of Iraqi children suffer psychological problems. Malnutrition rates are high, safe drinking water is rare and electricity sporadic. And, they hate us.
A very sad legacy. Read the entire article online now at The Sioux City Iowa Journal.
Some images remain like scars on my memory. One of the last things I saw in Iraq, where I spent a year with the Department of State helping squander some of the $44 billion American taxpayers put up to “reconstruct” that country, were horses living semi-wild among the muck and garbage of Baghdad. Those horses had once raced for Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein and seven years after their “liberation” by the American invasion of 2003, they were still wandering that unraveling, unreconstructed urban landscape looking, like many other Iraqis, for food.
I flew home that same day, a too-rapid change of worlds, to a country in which the schools of my hometown in Ohio could not afford to pay teachers a decent wage. Once great cities were rotting away as certainly as if they were in Iraq, where those horses were scrabbling to get by. To this day I’m left pondering these questions: Why has the United States spent so much money and time so disastrously trying to rebuild occupied nations abroad, while allowing its own infrastructure to crumble untended? Why do we even think of that as “policy”?
The Good War(s)
With the success of the post-World War II Marshall Plan in Europe and the economic miracle in Japan, rebuilding other countries gained a certain imperial patina. Both took relatively little money and time. The reconstruction of Germany and Japan cost only $32 billion and $17 billion, respectively (in 2010 dollars), in large part because both had been highly educated, industrialized powerhouses before their wartime destruction.
In 2003, still tumescent with post-9/11 rage and dreams of global glory, anything seemed possible to the men and women of the Bush administration, who would cite the German and Japanese examples of just what the U.S. could do as they entered Iraq. Following what seemed like a swift military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the plan had gotten big and gone long. It was nothing less than this: remake the entire Middle East in the American image.
The country’s mighty military was to sweep through Iraq, then Syria — Marines I knew told me personally that they were issued maps of Syria in March 2003 — then Iran, quickly set up military bases and garrisons (“enduring camps”), create Washington-friendly governments, pour in American technology and culture, bring in the crony corporations under the rubric of “reconstruction,” privatize everything, stand up new proxy militaries under the rubric of regime change, and forever transform the region.
Once upon a time, the defeated Japanese and Germans had become allies and, better yet, consumers. Now, almost six decades later, no one in the Bush administration had a doubt the same would happen in Iraq — and the Middle East would follow suit at minimal cost, creating the greatest leap forward for a Pax Americana since the Spanish-American War. Added bonus: a “sea of oil.”
By 2010, when I wrote We Meant Well, the possibility that some level of success might be close by still occupied some official minds. American boots remained on the ground in Mesopotamia and looked likely to stay on for years in at least a few of the massive permanent bases we had built there. A sort-of elected government was more or less in place, and in the press interviews I did in response to my book I was regularly required to defend its thesis that reconstruction in Iraq had failed almost totally, and that the same process was going down in Afghanistan as well. It was sometimes a tough sell. After all, how could we truly fail, being plucky Americans, historically equipped like no one else with plenty of bootstraps and know-how and gumption.
Failure Every Which Way
Now, it’s definitive. Reconstruction in Iraq has failed. Dismally. The U.S. couldn’t even restore the country’s electric system or give a majority of its people potable water. The accounts of that failure still pour out. Choose your favorites; here are just two recent ones of mine: a report that a $200 million year-long State Department police training program had shown no results (none, nada), in part because the Iraqis had been completely uninterested in it; and a long official list of major reconstruction projects uncompleted, with billions of taxpayer dollars wasted, all carefully catalogued by the now-defunct Special Inspector for Iraq Reconstruction.
Failure, in fact, was the name of the game when it came to the American mission. Just tote up the score: the Iraqi government is moving ever closer to Iran; the U.S. occupation, which built 505 bases in the country with the thought that U.S. troops might remain garrisoned there for generations, ended without a single base in U.S. hands (none, nada); no gushers of cheap oil leapt USA-wards nor did profits from the above leap into the coffers of American oil companies; and there was a net loss of U.S. prestige and influence across the region. And that would just be the beginning of the list from hell.
Even former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s accomplice in the invasion of Iraq and the woman after whom Chevron Oil once named a double-hulled oil tanker, now admits that “we didn’t understand how broken Iraq was as a society and we tried to rebuild Iraq from Baghdad out. And we really should have rebuilt Iraq outside Baghdad in. We should have worked with the tribes. We should have worked with the provinces. We should have had smaller projects than the large ones that we had.”
Strange that when I do media interviews now, only two years later, nobody even thinks to ask “Did we succeed in Iraq?” or “Will reconstruction pay off?” The question du jour has finally shifted to: “Why did we fail?”
Corruption and Vanity Projects
Why exactly did we fail to reconstruct Iraq, and why are we failing in Afghanistan? (Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, is the Afghan version of We Meant Well in detailing the catastrophic outcomes of reconstruction in that never-ending war.) No doubt more books, and not a few theses, will be written, noting the massive corruption, the overkill of pouring billions of dollars into poor, occupied countries, the disorganization behind the effort, the pointlessly self-serving vanity projects — Internet classes in towns without electricity — and the abysmal quality of the greedy contractors, on-the-make corporations, and lame bureaucrats sent in to do the job. Serious lessons will be extracted, inevitable comparisons will be made to post-World War II Germany and Japan and think tanks will sprout like mushrooms on rotted wood to try to map out how to do it better next time.
For the near term a reluctant acknowledgment of our failing economy may keep the U.S. out of major reconstruction efforts abroad. Robert Gates, who succeeded Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, told a group of West Point cadets that “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” Still, the desire to remake other countries — could Syria be next? — hovers in the background of American foreign policy, just waiting for the chance to rise again.
The standard theme of counterinsurgency theory (COIN in the trade) is “terrorists take advantage of hunger and poverty.” Foreigners building stuff is, of course, the answer, if only we could get it right. Such is part of the justification for the onrushing militarization of Africa, which carries with it a reconstruction component (even if on a desperately reduced scale, thanks to the tightening finances of the moment). There are few historical examples of COIN ever really working and many in which failed, but the idea is too attractive and its support industry too well established for it to simply go away.
Why Reconstruction at All?
Then there’s that other why question: Why, in our zeal to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, we never considered spending a fraction as much to rebuild Detroit, New Orleans, or Cleveland (projects that, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq in their heyday, have never enjoyed widespread support)?
I use the term “reconstruction” for convenience, but it is important to understand what the U.S. means by it. Once corruption and pure greed are strained out (most projects in Iraq and Afghanistan were simply vehicles for contractors to suck money out of the government) and the vanity projects crossed off (building things and naming them after the sitting ambassador was a popular suck-up technique), what’s left is our desire for them to be like us.
While, dollar-for-dollar, corruption and contractor greed account for almost all the money wasted, the idea that, deep down, we want the people we conquer to become mini-versions of us accounts for the rest of the drive and motivation. We want them to consume things as a lifestyle, shit in nice sewer systems, and send everyone to schools where, thanks to the new textbooks we’ve sponsored, they’ll learn more about… us. This explains why we funded pastry-making classes to try to turn Iraqi women into small business owners, why an obsession with holding mediagenic elections in Iraq smothered nascent grassroots democracy (remember all those images of purple fingers?), why displacing family farms by introducing large-scale agribusiness seemed so important, and so forth.
By becoming versions of us, the people we conquer would, in our eyes, redeem themselves from being our enemies. Like a perverse view of rape, reconstruction, if it ever worked, would almost make it appear that they wanted to be violated by the American military so as to benefit from being rebuilt in the American fashion. From Washington’s point of view, there’s really no question here, no why at all. Who, after all, wouldn’t want to be us? And that, in turn, justifies everything. Think of it as an up-to-date take on that classic line from Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”
Americans have always worn their imperialism uncomfortably, even when pursuing it robustly. The British were happy to carve out little green enclaves of home, and to tame — brutally, if necessary — the people they conquered. The United States is different, maybe because of the lip service politicians need to pay to our founding ideals of democracy and free choice.
We’re not content merely to tame people; we want to change them, too, and make them want it as well. Fundamentalist Muslims will send their girls to school, a society dominated by religion will embrace consumerism, and age-old tribal leaders will give way to (U.S.-friendly, media-savvy) politicians, even while we grow our archipelago of military bases and our corporations make out like bandits. It’s our way of reconciling Freedom and Empire, the American Way. Only problem: it doesn’t work. Not for a second. Not at all. Nothing. Nada.
From this point of view, of course, not spending “reconstruction” money at home makes perfect sense. Detroit, et al., already are us. Free choice is in play, as citizens of those cities “choose” not to get an education and choose to allow their infrastructure to fade. From an imperial point of view it makes perfectly good sense. Erecting a coed schoolhouse in Kandahar or a new sewer system in Fallujah offers so many more possibilities to enhance empire. The home front is old news, with growth limited only to reviving a status quo at huge cost.
Once it becomes clear that reconstruction is for us, not them, its purpose to enrich our contractors, fuel our bureaucrats’ vanity, and most importantly, justify our imperial actions, why it fails becomes a no-brainer. It has to fail (not that we really care). They don’t want to be us. They have been them for hundreds, maybe thousands of years. They may welcome medicines that will save their children’s lives, but hate the culture that the U.S. slipstreams in like an inoculation with them.
Failure in the strict sense of the word is not necessarily a problem for Washington. Our purpose is served by the appearance of reconstructing. We need to tell ourselves we tried, and those (dark, dirty, uneducated, Muslim, terrorist, heathen) people we just ran over with a tank actually screwed this up. And OK, sure, if a few well-connected contractors profit along the way, more power to them.
Here’s the bottom line: a nation spends its resources on what’s important to it. Failed reconstruction elsewhere turns out to be more important to us than successful reconstruction here at home. Such is the American way of empire.
The default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece. Rather than tackle the facts in a negative story (seeking to refute them with other information, or to make corrections), State’s modus is to seek ink that just says everything is actually wonderful, without mentioning the offending original articles.
Following a scathing Associated Press investigation into the failure of State to reconstruct Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake (Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery), State first tried an “Op-Ed” by the ambassador blithely mumbling that all was well. That was back in late July.
It took almost a month more, but State did finally select its author for what appears to be a real puff piece, in this case some hack named David Brown at the hometown Washington Post (slogan: still dining out on that Watergate thing). Brown’s work at the Post has been mostly on health issues, mainly HIV/AIDS, with the odd bit about Warren Buffet’s prostrate (not good) and Dick Cheney’s artificial heart (“doing exceedingly well”). As such, he was obviously the perfect guy to write authoritatively on reconstruction in Haiti.
Without too much surprise, Brown tells us of the wonderful work State, via its USAID arm, has done in one micro-neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The short version is that in this one neighborhood, 500 people have new houses, lots of locals were employed to do the work, and civic improvements accompanied the new homes. It is a real success story. Read it yourself.
Here are the questions I sent to the Washington Post Ombudsman about the article. Should I receive a reply, I will feature it on this blog. Had the article addressed these points it might have floated above puff piece.
Did David Brown locate this rebuilt neighborhood on his own, or did State direct him to it? Did Brown fly to Haiti specifically to do this story? What role did State/USAID play in his access to the neighborhood? Was he accompianied by anyone from State/USAID at any time? Brown does not seem to cover Haiti, State or reconstruction issues. How did he end up with this story?
The story says $8.5 million US tax dollars were spent repairing or replacing 500 homes. That works out to a very rough figure of $17,000 per home. Haitian GDP is about $1300 a person a year, among the world’s impoverished. Is $17k per home expensive? Typical costs? What does the figure actually mean?
Why did reconstruction seem to succeed so well in this one micro-area while failing broadly? Are there lessons to be learned and applied elsewhere in Haiti or is this an anomaly?
The Associated Press piece focused in part on how little reconstruction money actually makes it to Haiti instead of being siphoned off by US contractors. Brown’s article claims all but four workers used on this project were Haitian. At the same time, he notes that the project sent only $1.4 million of the $8.5 million total into the local economy. That seems to suggest over $7 million bucks went somewhere else. Where did it go?
Brown’s article, which ran on the front page of the Post and continued inside, quoted only two people connected with the project by name, the project manager paid by USAID and one engineer paid by USAID. Why were there no quotes from any of the Haitian residents of the new dwellings? Why were there no quotes from any local Haitain officials? Did the WaPo editors cut out such quotes? Did they not ask Brown to obtain such quotes? How did Brown fact-check the details given to him by the USAID-paid people? DID Brown fact check those details?
As I learned in Iraq, building things is relatively easy given massive amounts of money. The real magic is sustainability. Brown tells us “Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.” What plans and whose money are in place to repair and maintain that technology? Who/how will the septic tanks be drained or pumped out? What happens when the first solar light needs replacing? Will any of this be there working a year from now? If so, under what plan? The article calls the work in Haiti a “renaissance,” a pretty dramatic word that is empty, meaningless and damned temporary unless there is a sustainability plan in place.
Almost all the details in the story are unsourced. Brown talks about the number of septic tanks, a kidnapping and decisions taken collectively by the neighborhood. He does not say where any of this information came from. Where did this information come from?
Another big problem was that wider paths and outdoor places to sit were neighborhood priorities but there was not any unoccupied land for them. As the project evolved, 201 households agreed to reduce the size of their plots, 171 agreed to reshape them, and 51 agreed to share their plots with another family by living in two-story houses.
This is a huge thing to have accomplished. In reconstruction work, the easiest thing to do is simply to redo what was destroyed, urban problems and all. Destroyed too-narrow streets are replaced with new too-narrow streets because it proves inexpedient to resolve the many disputes. How did this process actually work out in Haiti? Did it really happen? If it did, the method used should be a critical element toward replicating this success throughout Haiti. Did State/USAID lead negotiations? Was there some sort of local micro-government?
Since it is unlikely that such agreement spontaneously emerged, leaving out the process raises questions about whether Brown had any idea what he was writing about, or was simply a notetaker for USAID’s propaganda machine.
Over to you, Washington Post Ombudsman.
BONUS: The Haitian government has hired an ex-Bill Clinton administration guy to act as a lobbyist, seeking to influence US decision-makers on aid and rebuilding issues.
Please note that despite the extensive coverage of my article, including CBS, the article was not included in the daily State Department web summary. The primary site, TomDispatch.com, is still electronically blocked on all State Department computers for whatever the hell “Wikileaks Content” is. I am certain The Onion regrets the error.
Joshua Foust over at The Atlantic serves up a terrific article on how the US has used (poorly) “chicken diplomacy” in various ways. A very worthwhile read.
Foust quotes from We Meant Well:
The U.S. has engaged in its own odd chicken diplomacy as well. Peter Van Buren, a career Foreign Service Officer with the State Department, published a memoir last year of his time serving in Iraq. One of the the most memorable chapters in his book, appropriately titled “Chicken Sh*t,” is about efforts to revive the Iraqi chicken industry. Van Buren describes the lavish funding a nearby chicken factory received to get new equipment and to hire people.
The factory, it turned out, was worthless. Brazil dominated the the global market for frozen whole chickens and Iraq just couldn’t produce poultry cheaply enough to compete (Brazil defends this domination zealously). Worse still, van Buren recounted for NPR, the factory didn’t have refrigeration because it did not have electricity — which makes the idea of a frozen chicken factory rather moot. But rather than admitting failure, van Buren and his team actually created a false factory for when touring VIPs came by, hiring random people to sit on the production line while it processed worthless chickens they could never sell, all to impress a Congressional delegation or administration official into thinking the Iraqi economy was thriving under U.S. leadership.
Interested in reading the full chapter Chicken Sh*t from the Iraq Reconstruction?
Also, some photos of the chicken factory.
In the almost two years since I left Iraq, sadly little has challenged the thesis in We Meant Well that we failed in the reconstruction of Iraq and through that failure, finally and completely lost the war. The last US troops gratefully departed Iraq in 2011. The cost of the war is thus calculable, finite in its grimness: 4486 Americans and over 100,000 Iraqis dead, tens of thousands wounded, thousands more whose minds were destroyed by what they saw and did as surely as any IED would shred their flesh.
The Iraq we created is a mean place, unsafe and unstable. Life goes on there, surely, but a careful reading of the news shows that the angry symphony of suicide bombers and targeted killings continues, just continues. That remains our legacy, and while the US public may have changed the channel to a new show in Syria, the Iraqis are held in amber, replaying the scenes I saw in 2009-2010 and which are recounted in this book. It remains beyond anyone to claim victory or even accomplishment.
If Iraq opened my eyes, what happened at home threw sand in them. After this book was first published in September 2011 some coworkers set up a pool to guess when I would be fired. The over/under was November, three months, and I put $20 down on the long end, feeling if I couldn’t be optimistic on keeping my job, nobody else would. Though I did keep it in a fashion, I was never able to collect on the bet. Most of the people in the betting pool now shun me, fearful for their own fragile careers at the US State Department. Well, I did not expect to be welcomed as a liberator. I also did not expect that in return for this completely true if absurd account of how the United States wasted over $44 billion in the reconstruction of Iraq, the Department of State would send me home to sit for months in faux telework exile before retirement. You learn a lot of things writing a book.
People ask the question in various ways, sometimes hesitantly, but my answer is always the same: I do not regret what I did. After some 24 years in government, I had seen my share of divergence between what the government said in public, and what the government did behind the public’s back. In most cases, the lies were just to hide some mistake or flaw, ugly, but with little real harm done in the bigger picture. What I saw in Iraq was different. There, the space between what we were doing, the waste and mismanagement, and what we were saying, the endless propagandized successes, was filled with numb and hurt soldiers. That was too much for even a seasoned cubicle warrior like me to ignore.
Nation-building—reconstruction—didn’t work in Iraq, and it is not working in Afghanistan. It is important to go over those things once in a while, because government fibbers are always lurking around with more false or exaggerated claims for Syria, Iran or Pakistan. Let’s agree to ask a few questions next time.
The nice people at Washington Diplomat magazine are running a nice piece on We Meant Well.
The article is mostly in Q&A format and the author, himself a former Foreign Service Officer, asked some good questions:
Q: But surely you can understand that if lots of FSOs decided to write critical books like yours while still on active duty it would create chaos?
A: I can understand that argument. But this is part of living in a free society. As Donald Rumsfeld said, “Democracy is messy.” The State Department promotes the rights of people to speak back to their governments. The Arab Spring — we want people in Syria to shout back at their government, but we won’t let our own employees do that.
Q: Did you consider resigning after or during your experience in Iraq?
A: People ask me why haven’t you resigned or if I’m a whistleblower — a Bradley Manning with a better haircut — and I don’t buy any of that stuff. I have no interest in resigning. What I did was write down what happened to me. If you came to Iraq with me, that’s what you would have seen.
You don’t have to be Bradley Manning. I think it’s reasonable for people to believe that they can write about and talk about what goes on in government. The vast majority of people in government who make the vast majority of decisions which impact us aren’t elected. They’re just people like me, and so there is an obligation for people inside the government to tell people outside the government what goes on in there.
Q: Do you have regrets?
A: Not really, my career was essentially over. I’m leaving something else behind and I’m not done yet. I told the PRT story to the world. I left something so my family knows what I did in Iraq and I sent a message for my kids that some things in life are worth standing up and getting kicked in the ass for, and the State Department may yet have to change the way it looks at the writing of its employees — that part is still yet to be written.
One of the problems with the Foreign Service is we’ve never recovered from the McCarthy era. We gave up being an aggressive advocate in the foreign affairs arena during those years and we’ve never come back. It’s all about going along and play along and it rewards people who do.
A lot of things the military does have finite, measurable results. With State, the goals are amorphous — to secure friendly relations, to empower women, etc. — it’s stuff that isn’t measurable, and so it’s easy to just kind of float around.
The people who get promoted don’t have opinions; they’re the people who just do whatever they’re told. I don’t think that’s good for America.
Read the whole article online now at Washington Diplomat Magazine!
Foreign Policy has an excellent photo essay on how images of children are exploited by the US military and others for propaganda purposes.
The image shown here, by the way, is from the Doura Art Show, chronicled in my book. The US spent over $20,000 of your tax money (thanks 99%!) to hold an art show in the beleaguered city of Doura, in southern Baghdad.
In addition to exploiting kids, your tax money also paid for this piece of sculpture:
The Washington Post’s Al Kamen, reviewing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistanon the failure of reconstruction (and everything else) in Afghanistan, pulls out some State Department-specific highlights:
Two-thirds of the supposed nation-building civilians are camped out in Kabul and not out in the field;
Eleven Bolivian engineers were brought in to show how a U.S.-backed program there to build cobblestone roads could be repeated in Afghanistan. A short demonstration stretch was built. But the Afghans objected. They wanted gravel and asphalt. The cobblestones, they claimed, hurt their camels’ hooves.
Huge amounts of money were dumped into one district to employ lots of day laborers at good wages. Then the schools “suddenly closed.” The “teachers had become day laborers because the pay was better.”
There was the State Department official who had worked anti-narcotics in Bogota. He brought in two Colombian women for a 12-day visit to talk about their country’s reintegration of FARC rebels. “But they spoke no English,” Chandrasekaran writes, “and no Marine battalion wanted to host them.” So they were dispatched to meet with Afghan officials. A senior official listened to them talk through an interpreter for an hour. “’Our problems are very different,’ he said as he got up to leave. ’But I love to hear the sound of Spanish.’”
Kamen writes that in predictable State Department style, these disclosures have sparked a scramble in the Kabul embassy compound to compile “success stories” to counter the book’s analysis.
The same thing happened in Iraq. If you want to read now the old claims of success in Iraq, they are still, without apparent irony, online on the Baghdad Embassy web site.
(Pictured is then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the State Department reconstruction follies. Crocker had previously overseen State Department reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come.)
If the definition of mental illness is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for different results, the Department of State is clearly and simply insane as an organization.
We all know the feeling. You have a great time on vacation and then come home to see the Visa card bill. What were we thinking? Did we really spend that much on dinner? Who did we think we were buying drinks for the whole bar the last night?
Well, the US Department of State just had the same experience, only with the filed reconstruction of Iraq and a bill of some $55 billion.
In what it called its final audit report, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) on Friday spelled out a range of accounting weaknesses that put “billions of American taxpayer dollars at risk of waste and misappropriation” in the largest reconstruction project of its kind in US history. “The precise amount lost to fraud and waste can never be known,” the report said.
Here’s where I can help. I do know the precise amount lost to fraud and waste: all of it. Every freaking penny. Every dollar spent on Iraq that was not spent on Scranton, Detroit, Cleveland or New Orleans.
To be fair, the inspector general said that while he couldn’t pinpoint the amount wasted, it “could be substantial.”
A key weakness found by the inspectors was inadequate reviewing of contractors’ invoices. In some cases invoices were checked months after they had been paid because there were too few government contracting officers. They found a case in which the State Department had only one contracting officer in Iraq to validate more than $2.5 billion in spending on a DynCorp contract for Iraqi police training. “We found this lack of control to be especially disturbing since earlier reviews of the DynCorp contract had found similar weaknesses.”
In that case, the State Department eventually reconciled all of the old invoices and as of July 2009 had recovered more than $60 million.
$60 million out of $55 billion dollars. It’s s start right, just like jumping up brings you theoretically closer to the sun. Luckily, the over $66 billion and counting already spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan isn’t being wasted as it was in Iraq, going instead to buying chocolate unicorns and fluffy rainbows.
If you can handle it (my PTSD gets in the way), the full report is online)
I previously featured a mini-review of Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.
For those in the Washington DC area, author Rajiv Chandrasekaran will be speaking at the Wilson Center Public Policy near Federal Triangle Metro on July 16 at 4pm. Admission is free. Details are here, and everyone is welcome.
I hope to attend myself, so say hello if you show up. I’ll be the cynical bemused one in the back.
(For the true cynics, I have no connection to this book or its author other than I think it is about time someone wrote some truth about the disaster in Afghanistan)
Sad because it chronicles the mistakes, now in Afghanistan, that crushed reconstruction in Iraq. Sad because it shows America’s worst enemy is itself, not the Taliban. Sad also because it shows the book I wrote about Iraq, and all the garbage that came long with it, including losing my career at State, didn’t matter. The same errors in Iraq are present in Afghanistan– hell, based on Little America, it even seems like many of the same people are present– and that assures that once again money and lives will be wasted and nothing good accomplished. Like Iraq, we will lose this war too.
Though I have read only the brief excerpts online and have had a limited personal conversation with Chandrasekaran about his book, once you hear familiar sounds you come to recognize the place, and the author writes of an Afghan process all too similar. Again, here are the contractors only in it for the money (many it seems holdouts from the Iraq project who just packed up and shifted locales, dragging their irrelevancy along with them), the well-meaning development professionals smothered in bureaucracy and, omnipresent in its nanny state, my own State Department.
For even in this brief excerpt State comes off more than poorly. We learn of security rules that essentially prohibit local contact on a meaningful basis, the heavy weight of State’s own incestuous need for emails, updates and talking points to justify bureaucratic “engagement” with the field and of course pompous and ignorant FSOs that allow neither characteristic to slow them down. Foreign Service personnel stumble through meetings with important Afghans and smash relations with the powerful US military by dumbass moves like refusing to share gate lock combinations.
I saw all of this in Iraq, even wrote a book about it, in hopes that maybe a tiny, tiny breath of change might blow into the mission in Afghanistan. Based on Little America, I failed, and that makes me sad. It appears that the US will again fail in reconstruction, at the waste of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and that makes me even more sad. You probably should be sad, too.
Neil Sheehan, who wrote one of the seminal texts of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, reviews Little America in the Washington Post, focusing on the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan due to the almost total corruption of the puppet Karzai government.
Want more? Here’s a blurb from the Amazon review:
From the award-winning author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a riveting, intimate account of America’s troubled war in Afghanistan.
When President Barack Obama ordered the surge of troops and aid to Afghanistan, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran followed. He found the effort sabotaged not only by Afghan and Pakistani malfeasance but by infighting and incompetence within the American government: a war cabinet arrested by vicious bickering among top national security aides; diplomats and aid workers who failed to deliver on their grand promises; generals who dispatched troops to the wrong places; and headstrong military leaders who sought a far more expansive campaign than the White House wanted. Through their bungling and quarreling, they wound up squandering the first year of the surge.
Chandrasekaran explains how the United States has never understood Afghanistan—and probably never will. During the Cold War, American engineers undertook a massive development project across southern Afghanistan in an attempt to woo the country from Soviet influence. They built dams and irrigation canals, and they established a comfortable residential community known as Little America, with a Western-style school, a coed community pool, and a plush clubhouse—all of which embodied American and Afghan hopes for a bright future and a close relationship. But in the late 1970s—after growing Afghan resistance and a Communist coup—the Americans abandoned the region to warlords and poppy farmers.
In one revelatory scene after another, Chandrasekaran follows American efforts to reclaim the very same territory from the Taliban. Along the way, we meet an Army general whose experience as the top military officer in charge of Iraq’s Green Zone couldn’t prepare him for the bureaucratic knots of Afghanistan, a Marine commander whose desire to charge into remote hamlets conflicted with civilian priorities, and a war-seasoned diplomat frustrated in his push for a scaled-down but long-term American commitment. Their struggles show how Obama’s hope of a good war, and the Pentagon’s desire for a resounding victory, shriveled on the arid plains of southern Afghanistan.
Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan.
Be sure to read the excerpt from Little America, now at Foreign Policy. I will do a full review once I finish the book and after dealing with the PTSD it will no doubt trigger in me.
One definition of mental illness is doing the same thing over and over, but somehow expecting different results. Such as it is in our never-ending gobsmacker reconstruction work in
Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan.
From another well-meaning but naive contractor in Afghanistan comes yet another well-meaning but naive tale of how US reconstruction money is being spent to buy chickens for widows. The US buys the chickens, the widows raise the chickens as a source of food and income, and hearts and minds are won. Photos of kids with our brave troops are included.
We’ve seen this before of course, in Iraq, where our failed reconstruction efforts featured at various times cows for widows, goats for widows, bees for widows and in my book, sheep for widows. Noah himself couldn’t have brought more animals to more widows.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
The question in my mind is this: Can we in Viet-Nam, or anywhere else, save (or improve) the administrative or governmental structure? The answer is obvious, and there is no other effort really worth doing. There are no easy shortcuts to solving the problems of revolutionary war. In fact, I would like to close with one last thought, which applies, of course, to everything that is done in the armed forces, but particularly to revolutionary war: If it works, it is obsolete. In Viet-Nam and in many other similar situations we have worked too often with well-working but routine procedures and ideas. It is about time that new approaches and–above all–ideas be tried; obviously, the other ones have been unequal to the task.
Take the stock photos from Afghanistan and recolor the ground the gray tan of Iraq’s sand, or the red brown of Vietnam’s clay and it is the same picture.
Counterinsurgency wars are not fought successfully by handing out livestock, or winning merit badges. One fights an idea with a better idea, and by protecting the people (and not obliterating their wedding parties) and by creating and protecting a local government.
One SEAL living real counterinsurgency in virtual Quang Tri province, Afghanistan, gets it:
Let’s rewrite our metrics of success to reflect our effect on the population, with measures such as: economic activity at bazaars, unsolicited enemy reporting from villagers, and longevity of local officials; as opposed to the input metrics of enemy killed, dollars spent, and Afghan troops trained.
Another COIN warrior wrote in the comments below:
All our coin efforts fail because we never do a soil compaction test (i.e., check for a stable, supported local government) before we attempt to build a structure (nation).
But oh, say the $200k a year contractors as they round up more goats or dig better privies, what we are doing must help a little. Yes, yes, it must, in the same way that jumping up brings you closer to the sun. True, but it does not matter. After eleven years of animal giveaways in Afghanistan, you’d think someone would be coming to that same conclusion.
Van Buren, who led two provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq, describes the State Department’s efforts to silence him, calling out United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Madam, have you no shame? You represent democracy all over the world. You demand the rights for bloggers in Syria and China and Iran. Why — why are you not allowing one of your own employees to exercise his rights to free speech? Why does the ACLU now declare that the State Department has violated the constitutional free speech rights of one of its own employees?”
If the video does not appear above, watch the whole interview online now.
In a second interview with host Eliot Spitzer, I discuss the true cost of the Iraq war and my claim that the State Department is retaliating by trying to have me fired. We talk about how I was appalled by the waste and failed attempts to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people: “Projects would be funded, money would be spent — nobody would even look at the results. The important thing was to have pictures taken, propaganda put up, signs made in English so that the signs would look good on television and we would move onto the next thing … never bothering to look over our shoulder.”
If the video does not appear above, please follow this link to watch it online.
My talk was part of The School of International Affairs’ Global Issues Colloquium, bringing leading thinkers, authors, and scholars to Penn State to discuss the latest research and trends in foreign relations, conflict resolution, food security, poverty, religion, terrorism, and nation building. Organized by Professor Dennis Jett, a retired U.S. Ambassador, all presentations are open to the public and webcast live.
The theme of the series is best expressed by Ambassador Jett. “Major international problems cannot be solved through just one academic discipline,” said Amb. Jett. “Our guests have a wide range of practical experiences and perspectives to share.”
You can read more about my presentation here.
Comments were positive; one student wrote the presentation was “informative, hilarious and heart felt. The entire class, including myself, enjoyed meeting you and hearing the truth.”
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