In 2012 I published a book all about how the United States squandered billions of dollars on the reconstruction of Iraq. The main point was that we had no plan on what to do and simply spent money willy-nilly, on stupid things and vanity projects and stuff that made someone’s boss in Washington briefly happy. We had absolutely no plan on how to measure our successes or failures, and then acted surprised when it all turned out to be a steaming pile of sh*t that did little but create the breeding ground for Islamic State.
The idea of the book was to try and lessen the chance the United States would do exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
Now, I just read a speech given by John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), entitled “Ground Truths: Honestly Assessing Reconstruction in Afghanistan” which says the United States has done exactly, precisely and completely the exact same f*cking thing in Afghanistan.
And like me, Sopko concludes if we do not learn the lessons from Afghanistan “we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come.” To which I can only say, “Good Luck” with that John.
Here’s some more of what Sopko pointed out, all his quotes from the same speech:
— There is a strong need for evidence-based policymaking, because if you don’t have a means of knowing whether or not your programs are succeeding, the policymaker’s job is that much harder.
— In a conflict-affected environment such as Afghanistan, the challenge of setting realistic standards is amplified. That said, perhaps constructing buildings to U.S. standards across the board in such an environment might be unwise, especially if we expect the Afghans to maintain and sustain what we give them.
— If after 13 years and so much blood and treasure invested in Afghanistan, we cannot be honest with ourselves about our successes and failures, we are not only leaving the Afghans in a precarious position, but also putting our entire mission there at risk.
— Incredibly, for the first nine years of CERP’s existence [an Army funding program for reconstruction], a single, clearly articulated mention of the program’s true objectives could not be found in any official document beyond the generic inputs of “humanitarian relief and reconstruction.”
— It becomes really difficult for SIGAR to assess reconstruction projects and programs if agencies don’t set clear criteria or project management standards.
— USAID spent almost $15 million to build a hospital in Gardez, but USAID did not fully assess the Afghan Ministry of Public Health’s ability to operate and maintain the hospital once completed. It seems that time and again, people have to be reminded that Afghanistan is not Kansas.
— It is hard to give people the benefit of the doubt when we build multi-billion dollar roads to U.S. weight standards in a country that has no ability to enforce weight limitations, or when a military official suggested that we spend millions building high-tech bus stops in Afghanistan, complete with solar-powered lighting. This is not Bethesda.
— Two and a half years ago, SIGAR sent the Departments of State and Defense, as well as USAID, a letter requesting that they identify, by their own judgement, their ten most and least successful reconstruction programs, and why they selected those programs. We still have not received a straight answer from any of them. A USAID official even said that asking him to identify his agency’s top successes and failures was like asking him to choose which of his children he loved more.
— Almost fourteen years into our trillion dollar effort, with over 2,000 American lives sacrificed, if we can’t honestly point to some actual, measurable accomplishments from that massive investment, we will miss out on a crucial learning opportunity that will affect U.S. foreign policy for generations to come. In short, we risk failing to understand the conditions necessary not only to produce peace and prosperity, but to sustain them.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
No one knows — literally, geographically, physically — what happened to $210 million in American taxpayer money spent by USAID, a part of your U.S. Department of State, on Afghan health programs.
This is not a case of “well, it went to buy a heck of a lot of filing cabinets,” or “it was flushed down the toilet,” though those things are indeed possible. No, it appears that by using geospatial imagery, the Special Inspector for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; slogan: “Can we please go home now?”) determined that 80 percent of the health facilities that were supposed to have been built never were.
Worse yet, USAID accepted hilariously inaccurate data as proof of construction, including coordinates that would have located a medical facility in the middle of the Mediterranean.
But the real wackiness is, as always, in the details:
— Thirteen coordinates for funded Afghan projects were not even located in Afghanistan, with one located in the Mediterranean Sea.
— Coordinates for 30 facilities were located in a province different from the one USAID reported.
— In 13 cases, USAID reported two different funded facilities at the same coordinates.
— 189 sets of coordinates showed no physical structure within 400 feet of the reported coordinates, and a subset of 81, or just under half of these locations, showed no physical structure within a half mile of the reported coordinates.
— 154 coordinates did not identify a specific building.
Takeaways? The buffoons running the USAID programs are just phoning it in. They are not even trying anymore to hide their own corruption, sloth, stupidity or lack of even the slightest concern for oversight. Any bonehead with Google Maps could have discovered with four mouse clicks USAID was being fed bogus data by its contractors, though apparently USAID is short of boneheads at present to do that work.
As the inspectors at SIGAR sum it all up, “To provide meaningful oversight of these facilities, USAID needs to know where they are.”
Play the USAID Game at Home, Kids! Based on coordinates provided, pictured is one supposed clinic, perched on a glacial peak:
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
USAID just got caught wasting $769 million not supporting Afghanistan’s education sector.
How could this happen?!? As a public service, here are your step-by-step instructions.
— Start with the premise that schools in a wasteland like Afghanistan in support of a failed American policy are more important uses of American taxpayer money than schools in America (which is socialism, or a handout, or whatever, Ayn Rand.)
— Send incompetent people (see below) to Afghanistan with a lot of money, say $769 million. Tell them to build schools. If you don’t have enough in-house incompetent people, like USAID, hire contractors, like USAID did.
— Make sure those people never travel to where the schools are being built. Instead, have them rely on a known corrupt government to tell them where to spend the money. In our instant case, former ministry officials who served under President Hamid Karzai provided false data to USAID regarding the number of active schools in Afghanistan.
— Make sure, as USAID, while spending all that money, not to ask if there are any schools actually being built. Instead, sit back and look the other way as Afghan officials doctored statistics, embezzled money, and interfered with university entrance exams to make it seem schools existed. These allegations suggest that the U.S. and other donors may have paid for ghost schools that ghost students do not attend and for the salaries of ghost teachers who do not teach.
— Despite this, as USAID, announce at every opportunity that education programs are among your most successful work in Afghanistan. For example, USAID cited a jump in students enrolled in schools from an estimated 900,000 in 2002 to more than eight million in 2013 as a clear indicator of progress.
— Make sure all your data supporting these successes is unverifiable, coming only from the Afghan Ministry of Education. Appear surprised when you learn, years and $769 million later, that the data has been falsified. Do not conduct any investigation of your own. Wait and see if some inspector general notices. You know most of the media won’t.
— Ignore the fact that accurate data is essential for gauging progress and for making future funding decisions. Congress will help with this.
— Make sure you have bosses in the field and at the State Department in Washington who do not care about accurate metrics or real results.
— Repeat this process for fourteen years of the Afghan War.
Copyright © 2015. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Ho ho, ho, this one has all the hallmarks of the amazing waste and stupidity I enjoyed while participating in the reconstruction of Iraq, documented in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released with a straight face its inquiry into U.S. government’s “Downstream Gas Utilization Project” in Afghanistan, the sum total accomplishment of which was the erection of a single compressed natural gas (CNG) station at a cost of nearly $43 million to the taxpayers.
Here’s why this was such a hallmark waste:
— The limited ability to transport CNG to the location of the single station in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif limits the practicality of expanding the CNG industry in that city. There is only one natural gas pipeline providing gas to Mazar-e-Sharif and it is only safe to operate at minimal pressure.
Hallmark: The people who conceived the project to build the compressed gas station never thought for a second where the gas would come from. They just built the station for the hell of it.
— Construction on a planned new gas pipeline has not started and about $6.5 million worth of new pipe is apparently sitting in storage in Afghanistan.
Hallmark: The people who built the station, the people who ordered the pipe and the people who organize construction did not speak to one another. They may have worked for different contractors. They may not have even known the others existed. They may have done their work in different years. By the time anyone figures all that out, the pipe in storage will have been pilfered, and likely melted down by the Taliban to make mortar shells.
— The gas project may never be completed unless the state-owned Afghan Gas Enterprise pays up to $16 million for its completion.
Hallmark: Leaving some part of a reconstruction project for the host government to pay for was a plan designed to promote “buy in.” In reality, the host government is far too busy sucking up American money via every possible channel of corruption available, and could care less about buy-in on whatever dumb ass thing the Americans are building now.
— The process for converting automobiles in Afghanistan to CNG appears to be cost prohibitive for all but the wealthiest of Afghans.
Hallmark: And here’s the money shot — even if all of the above factors could somehow be fixed by magic, the project would still be a complete waste. Nobody in Afghanistan wanted what the U.S. was building to begin with. If we built this compressed natural gas station for anyone, it is at best as a financial mastubatory device for ourselves.
Bookmark this page so in a few years when Afghanistan devolves into the mess Iraq is today, you’ll know why!
There may not be money available to fix America’s own crumbling infrastructure (Amtrak!), but there is lots of money available to waste on not fixing Afghanistan’s infrastructure.
In today’s incidence of atrocity and obscenity, specifically not fixing Afghanistan’s civil aviation sector.
Civil aviation, of course, means regular airplanes painted white, not green or gray, happily flying from city to city full of happy tourists and spunky businesspeople. Just like your last smooth flight from Albany to Detroit. Only in this case, it is all supposed to take place in the happy land of Afghanistan, where looking like Detroit would be a step up for most cities.
America’s most depressed bureaucrats, the people in the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an audit of the $562.2 million in U.S. assistance to Afghanistan’s civil aviation sector, administered by the Department of Defense ($500 million) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA; $56.5 million.)
The audit revealed:
— Despite some strengthening of Afghanistan’s civil aviation capabilities over the past 12 years (law of probability suggests after starting from a base of zero, something had to work after over a decade of banging away) the U.S. could not transfer airspace management operations to the Afghan government as it had originally planned, due to a lack of trained Afghan air traffic controllers.
— Despite its efforts, the FAA was not able to train enough air traffic controllers for Afghanistan to operate airspace management services. The majority of FAA-trained Afghan personnel never completed the required on-the-job training.
— The FAA attempted to train Afghan students abroad, but faced problems obtaining passports and visas for the students, and some students did not return to Afghanistan after being sent for training in other countries, including the U.S.
— Due to security concerns, Afghan students could not access the facilities they needed for on-the-job training.
— The Afghan government’s failure to award an airspace management contract resulted in the U.S. paying $29.5 million for an interim contract. The Afghan government didn’t award a contract because of what it said were the excessive costs (which did not bother the U.S., who paid up for them.) Unless the Afghan government awards a follow-on contract before the interim contract expires, the U.S. government will be called upon to fund another interim contract.
— The Afghan government uses only a portion of the $34.5 million in revenue collected from airspace over-flight fees for civil aviation purposes, despite the government’s stated commitment of using its civil aviation revenue to finance aviation services and infrastructure development. One does wonder where all the rest of the money is going to.
If you can stomach it, read the full SIGAR report online.
We’ll of course talk about my own experiences in that devastated country, as chronicled in my book We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.
I’ll also be discussing whistleblowing at the Department of State, and what patriotism and courage mean in a post-9/11 world.
My talk will be part of The School of International Affairs’ Global Issues Colloquium, which brings 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 Jett. “Our guests have a wide range of practical experiences and perspectives to share.”
See you in State College!
I am excited that the University of North Carolina, Asheville, will host me for an afternoon of speaking, reading and book signing, in connection with my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. I’ll also be discussing the current mess in Iraq, as well the whistleblowing and the ideas of patriotism and courage in a post-9/11 world.
The event is free, at 4 p.m. on Tuesday, April 14, in UNC Asheville’s Humanities Lecture Hall. There will be a Q&A session. Everyone is welcome.
Things are sponsored by UNC Asheville’s Department of Political Science and the Belk Distinguished Professor. For more information, contact Mona Moore at 828.251.6634.
Please come join me!
Brian Williams was seduced.
He is a liar of course, someone who did not tell the truth no matter the reason or excuse, a bad trait for a journalist. Williams lied about being RPG’ed in a helicopter over Iraq; he did not see any variant of what you can see in the photo above. And that’s not a hard thing to “misremember.”
But if there is any reason to forgive Williams, it was that he was seduced by both his own conflation of his sad little life as a talking head and the “brave troops,” and, more clearly, by the process of embedding with the military. I know. I saw it.
Journalists into Liars
What is it about the military that turns many normally thoughtful journalists into liars? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.
I’m neither a soldier nor a journalist. I was a diplomat who spent 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed “exciting,” as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.
In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of “fellows” from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.
One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus’s at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there (“It was still the right thing to do”), and was back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like “awesome,” “superb,” and “extraordinary” (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, “They give me a hard-on.”
Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media
Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.
I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in… er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was… seductive.
The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.
So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn’t mean it, that they’d stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a “runaway general.”
We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who was redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?
Embed in Action
I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with “cob”). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.
Getting such an approval before a typical reporter’s deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.
Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies. The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me — like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.
Fear Not: The Force Is With You
But the military wasn’t worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn’t. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.
You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you’re wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don’t know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.
Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you’re a journalist, during live reports. (“Sorry Wolf, that’s an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…”)
You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.
Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.
The same way one year in a dog’s life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you’re with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.
You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you’re together, and you’re never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it’s harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.
Why It Matters
So, take my word for it, it’s really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That’s not to say that all journalists are shills; it’s just a warning for you to take care when you’re hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.
It is also to say that journalists who embed and do write objective pieces are to be read, revered and respected.
And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can’t offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.
I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.
Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.
Alongside the Afghan Army (RIP), the police are supposed to hunt down the Taliban and preserve order inside the cities. The army, for what it is worth, is supposed to hunt down the Taliban outside the cities. This is so that Afghanistan can develop a “civil society” where the army and the police are different things with different roles. Just here in the Homeland.
For the funs, this was the same plan in Iraq, and how’d that work out?
Well, it seems the police thing in Afghanistan is headed toward about as much success as it has enjoyed in Iraq. Also like Iraq, that failure is very expensive. Or so says what must be the most depressed group of people in the U.S. government, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR just released an audit of U.S.-funded salary payments for the Afghan National Police (ANP), which total $1.3 billion.
The audit found:
–The U.S. is spending over $300 million annually for ANP salaries with little assurance that these funds are going to active police personnel or that the amounts paid are correct.
–There are almost twice as many ANP identification cards in circulation as there are active police personnel.
–After nine expensive years of effort, an electronic human resources system has still not been successfully implemented.
–Reports have disclosed inflated police rosters, payments being made to more police personnel than are authorized in particular locations, and police personnel receiving inflated salaries.
–20 percent of ANP personnel are at risk of not receiving their full salaries because they are paid in cash by a non-governmental agent, where as much as half of these payments are possibly diverted.
–U.S. officials confirmed that over the past year they accepted, without question, all personnel totals provided by the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MOI).
–Independent monitoring groups may have artificially inflated the percentage of successfully verified ANP personnel from 59 percent to as much as 84 percent.
–The U.S. plans to continue for an open-ended period of time (“Until hell freezes over”) handing over $300 million in annual funding for ANP salaries.
While the American war(s) in Iraq and Syria are the Kardashian’s of geopolitics– can’t get them out of the news, don’t want to look but you do anyway– America’s longest war trudges on. We have been fighting in Afghanistan for over thirteen years now. The young soldiers currently deployed there were barely in elementary school when their dad’s and mom’s kicked off the fighting.
And we still haven’t won anything. The Taliban are still there and very potent and dangerous, a corrupt government still runs the country as a kleptocracy, “ally” Pakistan is still playing all sides against one another and the Afghan economy still relies heavily on opium production that finds its way back home here to America. Al Qaeda may have departed Afghanistan, but the franchise is still strong in its new home(s). Defeated? No, just relocated.
SIGAR and Reconstruction
A lot of the factors of mediocre results are America’s own doing, and many are chronicled by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).
“Reconstruction” is a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan that now has all the cache of last year’s high fashion outfits, though unlike those old clothes, reconstruction– and the insane cost of it– is still around. The once-fashionable idea of reconstruction was that military force alone could not win the fight against the Taliban. The U.S. needed to win over the people, that hearts and mind thing that also failed in Iraq and long ago in Vietnam.
The idea was that America would build the Afghans schools and bridges at the local level, and dams and hydroelectric power plants at the national level. They’d love us, abandon the Taliban, and replace their poppy-based economy with a modern, sustainable one. Pundits and academics may argue whether the theory of all that makes sense, but no one outside of Washington still believes it is working on the ground in Afghanistan.
Latest SIGAR Report
So along comes SIGAR with their latest report on how things are going in Afghanistan. Here’s what they have to say:
— SIGAR is “deeply troubled” by the U.S. decision to classify the summary of the report that assesses the capability of the Afghan National Security Forces. The summaries have before all been unclassified prior to this quarter. The classification of the report summary deprives the American people of an essential tool to measure the success or failure of the single most costly feature of the Afghanistan reconstruction effort.
— The U.S. Army’s refusal to suspend or debar supporters of the insurgency (the bad guys we are fighting) from receiving government contracts is not only legally wrong, but contrary to sound policy and national-security goals.
— Approximately $104.1 billion of your tax money has been appropriated for Afghanistan reconstruction so far, with about $14.5 billion still remaining to be spent. It will likely be spent.
— Afghanistan’s opium economy directly provides up to 411,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, more than the entire Afghan military.
— Irrigation projects paid for by the American taxpayer in Afghanistan may have facilitated increased opium-poppy cultivation after periods of significant reductions. Irrigation improvements funded by the American Good Performer’s Initiative were definitely used to cultivate opium poppy in both 2013 and 2014.
Previous SIGAR reports chronicle similar actions and results.
Other Examples of Waste
Not in the SIGAR report but worth mentioning are a few other prominent examples of American waste of our taxpayer dollars:
— A five-year-old State Department effort to upgrade Afghanistan’s largest prison has been halted with only half the contracted work performed. Some $18 million was wasted on a project that will never be finished and will never serve any need.
— For unclear reasons, the U.S. Air Force destroyed $468 million of aircraft purchased for the Afghan military by America’s taxpayers, and sold off the scrapped metal for all of $32,000.
— The U.S. spent $34 million on a “Regional Command and Control Facility” that will never be used. The Marines this week forever abandoned/withdrew from the base that houses that facility.
— The U.S. spent another $771.8 million on aircraft the Afghans cannot operate or maintain.
— Some 285 buildings, including barracks, medical clinics and even fire stations built by the Army are lined with substandard spray insulation so prone to ignition that they don’t meet international building codes.
— A USAID program designed to promote stability in Afghanistan spent its entire $47 million budget on conferences and none on grants to accomplish its aim.
The Biggest Waste of All
The list of financial failures could go on and on such that it might take you thirteen years to read through it all. But here is the biggest waste of resources of all: 2,350 Americans have lost their lives in the Afghan war, with untold tens of thousands wounded, disabled or wracked by the mental scars of war. What shall we tell them and their loved ones about why they suffered?
Iraq’s Sunnis won’t fight ISIS for the U.S. says NIQASH, a non-profit media organization operating out of Berlin. Without Sunni support, America’s war in Iraq cannot succeed. Here’s why.
According to NIQASH, a source at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad said there have been secret negotiations between various Sunni Muslim armed factions, via Arab and Iraqi Kurdish intermediaries, for the past three months. At the request of U.S. diplomats and military personnel, Shia officials from the Iraqi government have also been meeting with the leaders of these groups in Erbil, Kurdistan and Amman, Jordan.
At the same time General John Allen, the Obama’s appointed coordinator of U.S. efforts in Iraq, has been trying to contact the Sunni tribal leaders he worked with in Anbar during the previous war’s “Awakening.” “But it was surprising,” a NIQASH source reported, “Most of General Allen’s former allies refused to cooperate with us. And some of them are actually now living outside of Iraq because of the Iraqi government’s policies.”
Oops. With some irony, America’s failure to secure the 2006 Awakening caused those Sunnis sympathetic to America’s aims to flee Shia persecution. Those “good guys” are thus not available in 2014 to help out America in the current war.
ISIS and the Sunnis
When ISIS first took control of Sunni areas in western Iraq, anger towards the Shia government in Baghdad caused many to see them as liberators from the Iraqi army. The army, along with paramilitary police from the Interior Ministry, had engaged in a multi-year campaign of beating, imprisoning and arresting Sunnis, to the point where many felt that Baghdad was occupying, not governing, the Sunni majority areas. For the Sunnis and ISIS, the Baghdad government was a common enemy, and a marriage of convenience formed.
Recent events in Baghdad do little to assuage Sunni fears. A recent report suggests the new Iraqi Prime Minister may nominate a Shia Badr Militia leader as Interior Minister. Since the Shias took control of Iraq following the American invasion of 2003, the Interior Ministry, which controls the police and the prisons, has been a prime tool of repression and punishment.
Still, cracks in the ISIS-Sunni relationship have started to form. Many of the Sunni groups, especially those led by former Baathists, are largely secular in nature, seeing their Sunni ties more as broadly cultural than strictly religious. ISIS’ requests to pledge allegiance to its cause, coupled with demands to implement Sharia law, have created friction. Some internecine fighting has taken place. The U.S. has sought to exploit these issues to break the indigenous Sunnis away from ISIS, and ultimately to turn the Sunnis into American proxy boots on the ground as was done with the Kurds.
America’s problem is that most Sunnis are fearful about cooperating via America with the Shia government in Baghdad. They fear history will repeat itself and the Americans and the Shia government will betray them, exactly as they betrayed them only a few years ago when the Awakening movement collapsed. Quite a pickle.
The Sunnis seem to be choosing a middle ground, one which does not serve America’s interests.
According to a 1920s Revolution Brigades (Sunni militia) leader, various militias came to the decision “not to support the international coalition against ISIS. They also decided not to cooperate with ISIS either. If the [Iraqi] army or the [Shia] militias attack [Sunni] areas they control though, they will fight both groups.”
“We are against the acts of the hardline Islamic State. And we are also against bombed cars exploding randomly in Baghdad,” Abu Samir al-Jumaili, one of the Sunni Mujahideen Army’s leaders in the Anbar province, told NIQASH. “However we are also opposed to the government’s sectarian policies against Sunnis… In 2006 we cooperated with the government to expel al Qaeda from Sunni cities but the government did not keep its end of the bargain. They chased our leaders and arrested us… The ISIS group are terrorists but so are the Shia militias.”
History is a Witch
There is no way America can succeed in its goals in Iraq– repel ISIS and keep the country together– without the active participation of the Sunnis. It is very unlikely that that will happen. American strategy rests on the assumption that the Sunnis can be bribed and coerced into breaking with ISIS, no matter the shape of things in Baghdad. That’s hard to imagine. As with al Qaeda in Iraq during the American occupation years, the Islamic State is Sunni muscle against a Shia government that, left to its own devices, would continue to marginalize, if not simply slaughter, them. Starting in 2006, U.S. officials did indeed bribe and coerce some Sunni tribal leaders into accepting arms and payments in return for fighting insurgent outfits, including al-Qaeda. That deal, then called the Anbar Awakening, came with assurances that the United States would always stand by them.
America didn’t stand. Instead, it turned the program over to the Shia government and headed for the door marked exit. The Shias promptly reneged on the deal.
Once bitten, twice shy, so why, only a few years later, would the Sunnis go for what seems to be essentially the same bad deal? It appears they will not, and that by itself suggests the current Iraq war will end much the same as the previous one. It is foolish for America to expect otherwise.
Long-time readers of this blog will remember the name Brett McGurk. Embarrassing emails he sent using a U.S. government computer system in Iraq surfaced in 2012, just as he was heading into confirmation hearings to become America’s ambassador to Baghdad. We now learn that the State Department’s efforts to investigate the incident were quashed, in part by some of the same people involved in State’s handling of the post-Benghazi fall out.
The McGurk Story
McGurk worked in Iraq under multiple U.S. ambassadors and through both the Bush and Obama administrations. He was present at nearly every mistake the U.S. made during the years of Occupation. In return for such poor handling of so many delicate issues, McGurk was declared “uniquely qualified” and Obama nominated him as America’s ambassador to Baghdad in 2012.
Unfortunately, around that same time a series of near-obscene emails appeared online, showing a sexual relationship between the then-married-to-someone else McGurk, and a then-married-to-someone else female reporter assigned to Baghdad. The emails suggested a) that official U.S. government communications were being used to arrange nooky encounters; b) that McGurk may have shared sensitive information exclusively with this one reporter as pillow talk; c) that he may have ditched his security detail to engage in his affair and d) rumors circulated that a McGurk sex tape, featuring a different woman, existed.
McGurk withdrew his nomination for ambassador and was promptly appointed by the State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran, a position without the title of ambassador but one with a significant role in policy making. Conveniently, the position was not competed and did not require any confirmation process. McGurk just walked in to it with the thanks of a grateful nation.
Still, senior officials behaving poorly can damage the credibility of a nation, and so State’s Office of Diplomatic Security (DS) was asked to investigate McGurk’s actions. State’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) later stepped in to look at the question of whether or not “undue influence” was applied by senior Clinton officials to that Diplomatic Security investigation so as to allow McGurk to emerge squeaky clean.
It seems we now know what may have happened with that investigation. It was, in the words of CBS News, quashed.
The third DS internal investigation in which OIG found an appearance of undue influence and favoritism involved the unauthorized release in mid-2012 of internal Department communications from 2008 concerning an individual who was nominated in early-2012 to serve as a U.S. Ambassador. (The nominee’s name was withdrawn following the unauthorized release.) DS commenced an internal investigation related to the unauthorized release of the internal communications. The then Chief of Staff and Counselor to the Secretary of State [Cheryl Mills] was alleged to have unduly influenced that investigation.
OIG found no evidence of any undue influence by the Chief of Staff/Counselor. However, OIG did find that the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of DS [Eric Boswell] had delayed for four months, without adequate justification, DS’s interview of the nominee, and that delay brought the investigation to a temporary standstill. OIG concluded that the delay created the appearance of undue influence and favoritism. The case was ultimately closed in July 2013, after the nominee was interviewed and after DS conducted additional investigative work.
Some are More Equal Than Others
Small world: Both Cheryl Mills and Eric Boswell of the McGurk case were deeply involved in State’s post-Benghazi actions.
Now, let’s break down some important parts of the OIG report. First, Diplomatic Security commenced its work by trying to track down the person who released the naughty emails, claiming they were “internal Department communications” even though they dealt with purely personal matters. Never mind what the emails revealed, DS’ first move was to try and hunt down the whistleblower.
While OIG could not find evidence of undue influence per se, they certainly found an “appearance” of such. Finally, we learn that the center of all this, the man seeking a senior position inside State, McGurk, was never even interviewed for four months by Diplomatic Security, and no adequate reason was given for why that delay was allowed to take place. In the short-attention span of Washington and the media, four months might as well be four years.
Where are They Now?
It would be easy to dismiss all this as business as usual in Washington (it is), or sour grapes on my part (a little) or even an I-Told-You-So on my part given the role I played in seeing McGurk’s indiscretions reach a wide audience (guilty).
But this is not just about me, no matter how much that was part of my motivation to write about the topic. It is, at the end of the day, about how our nation’s policies are created, managed an enacted, because the people and systems I’ve written about here do that.
So where are they all now? McGurk, as we know, is deeply involved in America’s new war in Iraq. The reporter who appeared to have slept with her source still works for a major media outlet. Eric Boswell, who quashed the investigation into McGurk, was reassigned and then allowed to retire post-Benghazi. Cheryl Mills remains one of Hillary’s closest advisors and is expected to play a significant role in any Clinton administration.
BONUS: The OIG report cited above was first surfaced by the best State Department blog out there, Diplopundit.
It can be hard to keep track of your money. You charge stuff and misplace the receipts, you forget to record a check written and before you know it, $12-14 billion is unaccounted for in Iraq. Even then, after one authoritative source thinks he’s found some of it, no one bothers to go get it.
Is it in Lebanon?
New information from the former Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGAR) Stuart Bowen, reported by perhaps the bravest journalist alive today, James Risen, shows that of the multi-billions of U.S. dollars cash literally shipped on pallets (pictured) to Iraq in 2003, over one billion was traced into Lebanon (the other billions remain unaccounted for.)
Risen reports that in the first days after the fall of Baghdad and continuing for over a year, American proconsul Paul Bremer, on his own, somehow ordered $12-$14 billion (note the uncertainty factor of two billion dollars, itself a crime) to be sent to Iraq in the airlift, and an additional $5 billion was sent by electronic transfer. Some sources put the total as high as $20 billion.
Dollars and Nonsense
“We did not know that Bremer was flying in all that cash,” said the head of the Treasury Department team that worked on Iraq’s financial reconstruction after the invasion. “I can’t see a reason for it.”
The cash was literally delivered shrink-wrapped, on pallets, enormous bundles of Benjamins. Exactly what happened to that money after it arrived in Baghdad became one of the many unanswered questions from the chaotic days of the American occupation. We’ll never know.
Except maybe Bowen, who claims to have tracked $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion (note the uncertainty factor of $4,000,000 dollars) to a bunker in rural Lebanon for safe keeping. An informant said the bunker also may have held $200 million of Iraqi government gold. “I don’t know how the money got to Lebanon,” Bowen said. “Billions of dollars have been taken out of Iraq over the last ten years illegally. In this investigation, we thought we were on the track for some of that lost money. It’s disappointing to me personally that we were unable to close this case, for reasons beyond our control.”
The Bush administration never investigated how that huge amount of money disappeared, even after Bowen’s investigators found out about the bunker in Lebanon. The Obama administration did not pursue that lead, either. Bowen’s team briefed the CIA and the FBI on what they found, but no one took any action. Even the Iraqi government has not tried to retrieve the money, and has kept information about the Lebanese bunker secret. When Bowen and his staff tried to move the search into Lebanon themselves, he met with resistance from the U.S. embassy in Beirut. Bowen himself was not allowed to travel to Lebanon, and two of his investigators who did travel were denied permission from the embassy to see the bunker. Bowen’s staff members instead met with Lebanon’s prosecutor general, who initially agreed to cooperate on an investigation, but later decided against it. In the words of one who has spent perhaps too much time in government, Bowen summed it all up by saying “We struggled to gain timely support from the interagency as we pursued this case.”
Of all the missing money, by 2011 the Pentagon and the Iraqi government claim to have accounted for all but $6 billion of it, as if missing the target by six billion spaces is an OK result. And even that assumes one believes the Pentagon and Iraqi audit.
How’d All That Money Go Missing Anyway?
How did all that money go missing? That, at least, is something we know. U.S. officials claimed in the early days of the war that they didn’t have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified. House Government Reform Committee investigators charged in 2005 that U.S. officials “used virtually no financial controls to account for these enormous cash withdrawals once they arrived in Iraq, and there is evidence of substantial waste, fraud and abuse in the actual spending and disbursement of the Iraqi funds.” Meanwhile, Pentagon officials contended for years that they could account for the money if given enough time to track down the records.
But repeated attempts to find the documentation, or better yet the cash, were fruitless. An inspector general’s report into the missing money in Iraq painted a picture of Pentagon officials digging through boxes of hard copy records looking for missing paper copies of Excel spreadsheets, monthly reports and other paper documents that should have been kept detailing what the money was spent on and why those expenditures were necessary. Apparently, there are no electronic records to back up the spending. It. Just. Went. Away.
Occam’s Bank Account
So where did all that money go? Here and there on the web you can find a conspiracy theory or two, but the obvious answer is usually the correct one. There are no doubt Dubai-based bank accounts of current and former Iraqi government officials swollen with cash, perhaps some accounts of American contractors and various U.S. officials as well. As for that bunker in Lebanon, well, your typical third world crew knows that you can only trust banks so far, and everyone needs a stash in case they have to bug out in a hurry and lay low while international terrorists hunt for you. Perhaps following a few more battlefield successes for ISIS inside Iraq?
On the Alan Colmes radio show we talked about some of the mistakes the U.S. has made in Iraq and Syria, and how the future of the region can only end in chaos.
We also discussed where ISIS came from, why the State Department went after me after writing We Meant Well, and what it really means to “rebuild” Iraq.
Listen to the full audio here.
Why do we need to read history? Why does history matter? Because history helps us to hear the little voices, to discriminate among them, and to silence, perhaps, some of the more troublesome ones. And to act on those little voices, the right ones, when they tell us something important.
For an explanation of this, let’s crack open my favorite novel, The Sand Pebbles, by Richard McKenna. You might have heard of it somewhere along the way; you might also have seen the 1968 movie, with Candice Bergen and Steve McQueen, which was a fairly decent film.
The book is noteworthy because it is one of a scant handful of novels about machinery, written by an author who firsthand knew and understood the world of machinery. I’ve always been a sprockethead first class, so seeing machinery written about this well always appealed to me. The book also has passages of descriptive sociology and cultural anthropology of the first order running through it; particularly about the world of men. It is also the best book ever written about the below decks Navy—the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis thought so too and said so on the dustjacket when their press reprinted it some years ago.
McKenna wrote this book after he retired after 20-something years as a torpedo mechanic in the Navy. Sadly, McKenna died way too young from a heart attack, shortly after this book’s publication.
The Sand Pebbles is the story of a Caliban-like machinist’s mate in the China Fleet in the 1920s, back when the US, as well as the other Western powers, ran their warships up and down the major rivers of China. The protagonist, Jake Holman, is posted to the most obscure ship on the China Station, patrolling the far reaches of the Yangtze River. Once aboard, Holman makes it a point, as he always had done, to master every single aspect of the ship’s engineering spaces. The ship is a creaky old relic taken from Spain after the Spanish-American War of 1898, and it has a knock in the engine that has always been there and that has always defeated all prior repair efforts. The knock causes main bearing wear that in turn causes increased coal burning and regular major repairs to clean and re-clearance the ship’s crank bearings. Holman is driven to find out what the cause of the knock is, and to fix it.
Early on in the book Holman is spending time in the ship’s bilges, sloshing around in the dirty bilge water, getting the rustproofing tar in his uniforms and skin and hair, staring at the huge pieces of rotating machinery just inches from his face, trying to figure out the problem.
McKenna talks about all the little voices in the engine room around Holman, all the little noises of the machinery in operation, all its sights and smells, and how it is all a confusing welter of little voices, each trying to be heard. He can hear them, but he can’t hear the right one, on account of the crowded welter of them all, and his ignorance of what voice he should be listening for.
Under the ship’s main crank spinning overhead, Holman sees a drop of oil on the engine soleplate, a drop of oil that expands and contracts regularly. All of a sudden, Holman recognizes that he’s seeing something important–this drop of oil, expanding and contracting, indicates relative movement in the soleplates, where they should be absolutely dead tight. Holman picks up a ballpeen hammer and beats on all the soleplate bolts, and discovers that many of them are loose.
The light bulb goes off in Holman’s head–the soleplate bolts are loose, and the soleplates therefore are in misalignment, causing the rest of the machinery to be in misalignment, all on account of a long-ago grounding that bent the hull slightly. Making the soleplates true and tight to the hull will fix the problem that has dogged the ship’s engine for decades.
McKenna goes on for a spell about the little voices in the passage that tells the above story. Anyone who has worked around machinery knows about those little voices, because they are always out there in machinery, telling you the machine’s story about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what you can do to fix it if it is broken. Anybody who is any good as a wrench, or e-tech, knows about the little voices and how important it is to listen for them. You don’t fix broken things very well without having an ear for the little voices, no matter how skilled you are as a technician. To be any good, you have to have the craft knowledge, the skills, AND the ear for the little voices.
The story of Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles is really the same story about us and history. History gives us, should we choose to use it, the ability to hear the little voices that tell us the key important facts about some big event going on around us, some big event that is surrounded by a huge welter of competing voices. And if we read history with a keen eye—if we listen to it with discriminating ears–we are far better able to pick out the right little voice out there from all the welter of them that explains things to us, and gives us, combined with our life craft-skills that we acquire as we live and learn, the ability to understand, and perhaps even fix, the problems in our world that bedevil us.
Ace technicians, with a sure eye, ear, and feel for the little voices, are rare, as are ace historians, and ace political leaders. But we all can do better if we are aware of these little voices, and try at least to listen for them. And that is what the study of history is for.
Here’s an example from our today. In our train-wreck of a war in Afghanistan, the Afghan National Army’s (ANA) troops, which the US military is training, sometimes turn sides and shoot the trainers—Green on Blue violence is what the Pentagon calls it. Shoot the trainers, and if they aren’t themselves shot, they then defect to the Taliban.
Such attacks, according to the Pentagon, are unprecedented in human history. That’s rubbish. We only need look back to France’s war in Algeria (1954-62): to cock our heads and listen to the little voices of that war. Listen for that voice, and maybe heed it:
One day in the war there was this French infantry patrol out in the bled (the deep countryside) that got fired on by someone hiding in an orchard just outside this small village. The French patrol returned fire, and a dead fellaga (FLN—Front National Liberation, the Algerian Muslims fighting for Algeria’s independence from France) fell from one of the trees. The members of the patrol went over to his body to investigate and discovered that the person who shot at them was a very old man, who had let fly at them with some antique muzzleloader. The soldiers went through his pockets, and found a Medaille Militaire in his pocket, from the old man’s First World War days in the French Army. Thumbing the medal, and looking down at the corpse of the dead old man, the Lieutenant said, “You know, there’s just something terribly wrong with this war, terribly wrong.”
That fellaga, a combat veteran, knew what he was up against and what he was doing and how suicidal it was for him when he grabbed his muzzleloader and went to try and bag him a Frenchman. The obvious lesson was that the gig was up for France in Algeria, and that France had to leave. Even if that wasn’t quite clear yet to that Lieutenant. He, and most all of France, had not yet the ears to hear, even if the little voices were screaming it.
In that war, there were dozens of instances of Algerian troops killing their French officers and NCOs while they slept and then deserting to the FLN—in at least one instance, a full company of men did.
The French were deaf to what events like these were telling them about Algerie Francais. They refused to hear the little voices. We are equally deaf, and I’d say deliberately so in the Pentagon’s case, with what Green on Blue attacks are telling us about our war in Afghanistan.
When the Pentagon claims these attacks are unprecedented, beyond human ken and understanding, they’re willfully refusing to pay any attention to the discordant voices of history. Anyone who has read anything about the French war in Algeria knows better about the lazy canards about Green on Blue put out by the Pentagon. Anyone who has read anything about counterinsurgency has read about that war, as the French were the foremost practitioners of counterinsurgency in the 20th century, and knows about the Algerian soldiers regularly mutinying and killing their French leaders and deserting.
The gig is up for us in Afghanistan, and the American endeavor in that country is every bit as dead as Algerie Francais. That is clear and beyond refutation.
That lesson should be obvious, if you know your history and understand the little voices studying it lets you hear. Few in this country have read any of that history, any history much period, and so we don’t hear those little voices, and so the problems we face remain beyond our ken to understand enough to fix. But Jake Holman heard those voices in the engine room, and he fixed that engine. But that’s another, absolutely great, story from that book that I’ll leave to you.
This piece by Dan White originally appeared on The Contrary Perspective and is reprinted by permission because it is worth reading.
For those (I’m talking to you here CNN) who seem surprised about events unfolding now in Iraq, here’s an excerpt from something I wrote almost four years ago. At that time pretty much everyone disagreed with these conclusions, but can you hear me now?
When wars end, usually there is a winner and a loser. Greeks burn down the city for the win; Trojans accept a dummy horse for the epic loss, like that. As we near the end of the U.S. military campaign in Iraq, and note the beginning of the State Department occupation (the formal mission handover is Oct. 1), it is a good time to decide who lost and who won, and what that means for the future of Iraq.
For the minority, all-around Washington guy (now stopping off briefly to be Secretary of Defense) Leon Panetta thinks we and the Iraqis sort of won. Leon said, “But the bottom line is, whether it’s diplomatic or whether it’s military, we’ve got a long-term relationship with Iraq. We’ve invested a lot of blood in (Iraq). And regardless of whether you agree or disagree as to how we got into it, the bottom line is that we now have, through a lot of sacrifice, established a … relatively stable democracy that’s trying to work together to lead that country.”
Tune into your favorite right-wing blog, and there is lots of mumbo-jumbo about the surge and sacrifices and all that false patriotism stuff that no longer even makes for a good country and western song. On firmer ground, it is less clear that the United States or Iraq won anything. The United States lost 4474 soldiers (and counting), with thousands more crippled or wounded, spent a couple of trillion dollars that helped wreck our economy at home, and did not get much in return.
Blood for Oil?
Only in the sense that one of out of every eight U.S. casualties in Iraq died guarding a fuel convoy. Iraqi oil output is stuck at pre-war levels and will be for some time. A drop in world oil prices would wreck the Iraqi economy. Despite Panetta’s patter about Iraq being a country willing to work with the United States, Iraq as a political entity follows its own path, virtually allied with Iran and unsupportive of American geopolitical dreams. The U.S. government will sell some military gear to the Iraqis and make some money, but in the end George Bush went to war and all we got was a low-rent dictatorship turned into a low-rent semi-police state.
As for Iraq being any sort of winner after being stomped on by the U.S. military, no. Iraq had its civil society shredded, underwent eight years of sectarian civil war, saw over 100,000 killed and is home now to a small but bustling al Qaeda franchise. The United States left without brokering a deal between the Kurds and the Arab Iraqis, leaving that kettle on full boil. The United States also failed to establish stable borders for the Kurds, such that the Iranians shell “Kurdistan” from the east, while Turkish jets drop bombs in the west. Turkey is part of NATO — imagine the U.S. government sitting silently if Germany bombed Poland next week.
What many people do not know is that one reason for the drop in sectarian violence in 2008 was that both sides had done much of the killing they needed to do. The fighting then was a civil war, Shia versus Sunni, and the death toll was high enough on both sides to achieve the level of segregation and redistribution of power desired at that time– they temporarily ran out of reasons for the war to continue at that level of intensity. Ominously, however, the Sunnis and Shias did not fully settle the score and so that pot sits bubbling on the stove as well.
Sectarian tensions do still run high in Iraq, and the United States has been left powerless to do anything about it. Except for some technical assistance and perhaps some very low-key special operations help, the U.S. government has taken a sideline seat to the sectarian violence over the last few months, leaving the fight to the Iraqis. Whether zero or 3,000 or 10,000 U.S. troops stay on in Iraq, it is unlikely that such a smaller U.S. force will intervene, given that a larger one declined to do so.
The tinderbox nature of things is such that the Iraqi government is seeking to ban a television drama about events leading up to the historic split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite sects hundreds of years ago. The Iraqi parliament asked that the Communication and Media Commission, a media regulator, ban “Al Hassan and Al Hussein” on the grounds it incites sectarian tensions and misrepresents historical facts. “This TV serial includes sensitive issues in Islamic history. Presenting them in a TV series leads to agitated strife,” said Ali Al Alaq, a politician who heads the religious affairs committee.
Needless to say, a glance at the daily news from Iraq will reveal the ongoing steady low hum of suicide bombings and targeted killings that is now all too much a normal part of life. The occasional spectacular attacks (instantly blamed on al Qaeda by the United States) make headlines, but every Iraqi knows it is the regular nature of these killings as much as the death toll itself that is most disruptive to society. Iraq is hardly a winner.
Who won the war? Iran…
Iran sat patiently on its hands while the United States hacked away at its two major enemies, Saddam, and the Taliban, clearing both its east and west borders at no cost to Tehran. (Iran apparently reached out to the U.S. government in 2003, seeking some sort of diplomatic relationship but, after being rebuffed by the engorged Bush Administration, decided to wait and watch the quagmire envelope America). The long slog both wars morphed into dulled even the reliably bloodthirsty American public’s taste for another war, and cooled off plans in Tel Aviv and Washington for airstrikes against Iran’s nukes (if Cheney couldn’t edge the United States into that fight, who can?).
The Iranians also came to see that Iraq, like Lebanon, made for a nice proxy battleground. By the time my tour in Iraq was wrapping up, the mine resistant vehicles we traveled in could take a solid hit from pretty much anything out there and get us home alive, except for one thing: Iranian-made roadside bombs ealled EFPs. These shaped “explosively formed penetrating devices” fired a liquefied white hot slug of molten copper that was about the only weapon that really scared us. The Iranians were players in all parts of Iraqi society post-2003, including the daily violence. (Iranian proxy warfare in Lebanon is well documented in Robert Baer’s excellent book, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower which also advances the United States vs. Iran proxy theory in general.)
Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq. When the United States’ last election surge withered away with the failure of the March 2010 Iraqi contest to produce a government, Iran stepped in to broker a settlement involving current PM Malaki (Malaki also serves as Minister of Defense and Minister of the Interior but is not a dictator) and the jolly Sadrists. Malaki, a Shia, happily recalls his days in exile in Iraq during the Saddam reign while Sadr hid out as a religious “student” in Qom when he was on the U.S. military’s capture or kill list post-2003. Both men remain beholden to Iran and continue to shift Iraq closer and closer to Tehran’s policy positions. Iran has its own proconsul in Baghdad, well-known locally but not discussed much in the west. The guy moved into the job after a tour as head of the Iranian special ops Qods Force.
Iran Ascendant in Iraq
Yet while strategic and political relationships are very important between Iraq and Iran, it is the growing economic and social-religious ties that cement the relationship and signify Iran as the real winner of the U.S. invasion. The raw numbers tell a big part of the story: the two countries’ current annual trade is valued at $4 billion to $5 billion and growing, with much more money changing hands on the black market.
On more formal terms, Iranian First Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi kicked off the most recent round of goodwill on July 6, when he traveled to Baghdad to join the Iran-Iraq Joint Supreme Economic Committee. Better yet, Iran agreed to supply 9,400 barrels of “gasoil” a day to Iraq for power generation. Iraq also signed a $365 million agreement to install a pipeline network to import natural gas from Iran for power stations in the country. The pipelines will eventually supply 25 million cubic meters of Iranian natural gas a day to the Sadr, al-Quds and South Baghdad power stations in the Iraqi capital.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister, Hoshiar Zibary said that Iran and Iraq would soon sign an agreement to overcome “all the suspended problems between both countries.” “Iran is playing a positive role in Iraq and there is no objection for the strengthening of relations between the two countries,” Zibary said.
But while trade is good, and oil is necessary, the real money is in tourism. More specifically, religious tourism. Iranian Shia pilgrims traveling to previously off-limits shrines in Iraq, is a huge source of economic exchange. It also creates significant people-to-people ties that Iran will be able to exploit long into the future.
Iranian travel agencies control religious tourism to the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. The Iranian companies are associated with local hotels, also owned by Iranians. The control by Iranian companies extends to tourists from Lebanon who combine a visit to Iraq with one to the religious site Mashhad, in Iran. The Iranian domination also extends to security arrangement for protecting the tourists. That role is filled by one company owned by one of the religious parties in Karbala.
Business is Booming
Najaf is in the midst of a hotel building frenzy in a bid to ramp up the number of visiting pilgrims. While thousands of mostly Iranian religious tourists already pass through Najaf every day on what are marketed as nine-day tours of Iraq’s holy Shiite sites, hoteliers and business groups in the city expect hotel capacity, currently at breaking point, to double in the next three years.
Elsewhere, markets in rural Iraq are filled with Iranian goods, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. While the knitwear market is dominated by cheap Chinese stuff, other household goods are conspicuously marked “Made in Iran” and are snapped up by consumers.
I saw a little slice of this during my own time in Iraq. My Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) covered an area that included the city and mosque of Salman Pak. Once a center for chemical weapons production and secret police training under Saddam, Salman Pak is better known to most Iraqis and Iranians as a historical and recreational area, approximately 15 miles south of Baghdad near a peninsula formed by a broad eastward bend of the Tigris River. It is named after Salman the Persian, a companion of Mohammad, who is buried there.
Salman Pak is also site of the Arch of Ctesiphon, the remains of the once majestic Persian Sassanid capital. Ctesiphon is one of the largest and oldest freestanding arches in the world. Before the U.S. invasion of 2003, the area was a popular day trip out of Baghdad, and even sported a floating casino and villas for select friends of Saddam. My translator recalled family trips to the area the way my daughters remember a visit to Disney, leaving me a bit nostalgic for a time and place I never knew. The attraction now for Iranian pilgrims is the mosque, once a well-known Shia shrine, converted to a well-known Sunni shrine by Saddam and now once again a well-known Shia shrine after sectarian violence post-2003 blew away most of the Sunnis in the area.
On routine patrols through the area, my PRT and Army would frequently see giant tour buses with Iranian license plates and markings hauling tourists around the city. The Iranian tourists would take pictures of our military vehicles and gesture at us as we drove past, even as our soldiers scowled at them and pantomimed “no photos.” Nothing weirder than to be spending one’s days freeing Iraq only to run into Iranian tour agencies being the most obvious beneficiaries of that freedom. We didn’t know it then, but our tourists were offering us a glimpse of the future, a picture of who the winners, and losers, were to be in our war.
Adding it Up
As for Iraq, add it up:
–no resolution to the Arab-Kurd issue,
–no resolution to the Sunni-Shia issue,
–no significant growth in the oil industry,
–a weakened U.S. presence more interested in a Middle East land base and profitable arm sales than internal affairs,
–and an increasingly influential Iran seeking a proxy battleground against the United States and a nicely weak buffer state on its formerly troublesome western border.
None of that tallies toward a stable Iraq. Indeed, quite the opposite. Worst case scenario might look a lot like the darkest days in Lebanon, with many of the same players at the table.
Here’s the full article.
Drops in the Ocean
Lt. Commander Jennifer Cragg at “NATO” headquarters in Afghanistan brings us (only on the “NATO” website of course; even the lamest of the main stream media has abandoned this meme) the story of one person who has “made a difference” in Afghanistan. Please have tissues at the ready to soak up your tears, then read:
Alfredo Memmer, a German citizen who has worked here since 2008, helped launch a charity organization called Basic Needs Support of Afghanistan. Memmer has consistently found ways to impact the lives of dislodged women and children since arriving in Afghanistan.
“Since my arrival I participated in various toy collections and clothing drives for displaced women and children,” said Memmer. “The creation of BNSOA is seen as a legacy to the innocent lives taken too early.”
“Our efforts might look like a small drop in the ocean, but many drops can also form an ocean.”
The article goes on to say that the organization gives away donated clothing, food, blankets, shoes and toys.
An Ocean of Dumb in Iraq
Was it really only just a few years ago when these same stories, with nearly the same wording, ran in the steady flow of news explaining how well things were going in Iraq? Hit the Google with the search term “iraq giving toys to children” and you’ll come up with pages of photos. And they are all the same: a U.S. service member dressed like a Space Marine handing over some plastic piece of junk to some kid. Sometimes one or both are smiling, often times not. The images feel more like some freakish form of pedophlia than even decent propangada.
As for the similarity of the glowing press releases, here’s just one from Iraq plucked out of the Internet Cosmos:
It’s a lesson in contrasts. A heavily-armed American soldier giving away stuffed toys to children in Iraq.
Barbara Cerniauskas [whose husband is deployed in Iraq]: “It really is just a small way that we can reach out to them and show them that our soldiers are there to help.”
“No matter how you feel about the war, the children are just innocent bystanders.” These toys could even help save lives. There are reports from soldiers about children warning them of dangers from land mines and buried bombs.
“We are doing something to maybe, you know, open the door to a new generation that will see that freedom and peace are possible. This is just a little token to maybe get it started.”
Like the idea itself, many of the organizations that enthusiastically sprung up to donate stuff to kids when the wars were a “thing” are gone. FYI: The kids are still there. For example, Operation International Children (OIC), founded in 2004 by actor Gary (“I’ve lived off being Lt. Dan forever, suckers”) Sinise “to reach out to children in war-stricken countries and support American troops in their efforts to assist them” closed down. In its so-long message, the group reminded us all that “We believe those moments of joy [following a kid whose parents were killed in a drone strike getting a used made-in-China toy] have the potential to bring about great change and our joy comes from the knowledge that we have worked together to make that possible.”
If you really, really want more such stories, including lots of wacky propaganda examples from Iraq, they are a Google away, or, conveniently, in my book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People
Oceans of Garbage
But we digress. That NATO charity group in Afghanistan says “Our efforts might look like a small drop in the ocean, but many drops can also form an ocean.” One might ponder the fact that the U.S. and “NATO” have been leaving drops of hope all ver Afghanistan now for 13 years and haven’t managed to form a puddle, never mind an ocean. Perhaps more specifically in answer to the small drops add up to an ocean analogy, one could cite an alternative old saying about the value of “pissing into the sea.”
The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness– doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results– pretty much sums up America’s limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama having morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for more wrath in Syria or wherever, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America’s failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant WellI sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen’s assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen’s office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government’s existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with—unsurprisingly—generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office— the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO)— that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State’s default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen’s idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?
This article first appeared on the Huffington Post.
One (of thousands) of examples of how we lost the war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people was our shoddy management of the things we built. To be fair, the lack of oversight was often due to our own limited personnel (in numbers and in intellect) and the ever-worsening security situation that made getting out into the field difficult. That said, the problem was often just our own laziness and plain not caring; our bosses were satisfied with trumped-up reports of success and cared not a zot for the truth.
Reconstruction, the Iraq Edition
The milk plant was a good example. Leaving aside our plan to disrupt an indigenous milk production and distribution system that had worked for the Iraqis for say, 2000 years, in favor of a neo-Stalinist centralized way of handling things, our refrigerated storage facility was a bust. After dropping $500,000 of your tax money on a local contractor who assured us everything was A-OK, we then sent out an Iraqi engineer in our employ to verify things. He sent back a message that everything was A-OK before disappearing. Finally, after a couple of months, I got a chance to see the A-OK stuff myself. Instead of delicious refrigerated milk, I walked into a room with crooked plumbing stitched together, rusted “stainless” steel and holes in the storage tanks big enough to accommodate my chubby fingers. The contractor ripped us off, the engineer took a bribe to tell us everything was fine and the Iraqis we were supposed to be helping thought we were insane, stupid, corrupt or all of the above. No hearts and minds were won.
Reconstruction, The Afghan Edition
With such examples fresh in their minds, you’d figure the State, DoD and USAID reconstructors in Afghanistan would be doing better. If you do, you’re as dumb as they are.
Our good friends at the Special Inspector General of Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR; motto: We Have the Worse Jobs Ever, Please Kill Us Now) recently sent letters to the usual suspects pointing out that two schools built by the U.S. to win over hearts and minds are in danger of instead killing Afghans.
Case One is the Bathkhak School addition in the Bagrami district, Kabul province, Afghanistan. Here’s what SIGAR said:
Our inspection of the Bathkhak School addition found that it has not been constructed in accordance with contract requirements. The contractor substituted building materials without prior U.S. government approval or knowledge. Furthermore, the school addition appears to have design and construction flaws. Specifically, the school’s interior and exterior walls appear to be insufficiently constructed to hold the weight of the concrete ceiling. As a result, the building’s structural integrity could be compromised.
Because the first U.S. government oversight visit did not take place until six months after construction started, there may be other deficiencies that cannot be seen. Our concerns are heightened by the fact that Bathkhak School is located in an area of high seismic activity. In light of these construction flaws and the distinct possibility that an earthquake resistant design was not used, we have serious concerns for the safety of the hundreds of faculty and children that will be using the classrooms at any given time.
A-OK, let’s move on to Case Two:
Our inspection of the Sheberghan teacher training facility in Jawzjan province, Afghanistan found problems with the electrical, water, and sewage systems that could pose potentially serious health and safety hazards for its occupants. SIGAR inspectors found that the facility’s electrical wiring does not meet the U.S. National Electrical Code–as required by the contract– and other problems that create potential electrocution risks and fire hazards for its occupants.
Although the facility currently does not receive power from the electrical generator provided under the contract, serious risk for its occupants are present due to improper entry into the electrical system–known as a “tap”–and by the improper connection to an alternative electrical power supply. In addition to the electrocution hazard, the facility currently lacks operational water and sewage systems, raising potential health issues for the building occupants.
Despite the fact that the building is still under construction, our inspectors found that the Afghans have already begun using the building. As you know, the U.S. government is still responsible for the facility’s operations and maintenance and any occupational health and safety issues because the U.S. Agency for International Development has not yet transferred the facility to the Afghan government.
God, after twelve years in Afghanistan, this is so depressing.
The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) website is always an interesting, if depressing, read. Current headlines include “$5 million spent on unused incinerators; burn pit used instead despite potential health risks” and “Poor project management by U.S. agencies hinders efforts to commercialize Afghanistan’s national power utility.” The purpose of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, as it was in Iraq, is to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. The U.S. strategy has always been clear, hold and build, the latter the most important in the long run for establishing a stable society somewhat friendly to U.S. aims.
Reading the SIGAR site, however, it is almost as if the goal was to reproduce all of the failures of Iraq reconstruction, only on a larger, more expensive and more foolish scale. If that is the goal, the U.S. is succeeding.
SIGAR’s most recent report is in the form of an alert letter warning State, DoD and USAID of serious problems involving failure of prime contractors to pay subcontractors in Afghanistan. SIGAR reports that evidence has come from multiple credible sources, and adds that the issue puts at risk numerous multimillion-dollar projects intended to promote stability in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:
— SIGAR has 52 ongoing investigations based on $62 million in claimed monies owed;
— Losses from non-payment have the collateral effect of eroding support for U.S. and coalition forces and costing the US time and money;
— Failure of prime contractors to pay their subcontractors has resulted in projects promoting the stability of Afghanistan being delayed or not completed;
— Prime contractors’ failure to pay is often viewed by Afghan subcontractors as a failure on the part of the U.S. government;
— A subcontractor threatened to set himself on fire in front of the U.S. embassy in protest of nonpayment;
— A prime contractor told SIGAR that a subcontractor threatened to blow up a compound of U.S. contractors and government agencies over non-payment.
In short, contractors for the U.S. government, clearly seen by the Afghans as one in the same as the U.S. government, are stiffing their Afghan partners. Whether through bureaucracy or as outright theft, and with the dullard-like lack of oversight by State, DoD and USAID, the very programs designed to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people are having just the opposite effect. Indeed, when people threaten to set themselves on fire in protest, you can assume things are not going well.
BONUS: One group of Afghans is however doing well with the reconstruction: Karzai’s government. SIGAR tells us that the Afghan government has levied nearly a billion dollars in “taxes” on contractors supporting U.S. Government efforts in Afghanistan. Because the SIGAR folks are polite men and women, they do not refer to these “taxes” as what they really are, bribes, kickbacks and protection money. Better yet, SIGAR also found that State and DoD contracting officers do not fully understand Afghanistan’s tax laws and, as a result, they have improperly reimbursed contractors for taxes paid to the Afghan government (with your tax money!).
Though the interview took place almost two years ago, a friend only recently sent me a transcript of my talk with NPR’s Fresh Air. For the historical record as well as a cheap and easy blog post, here it is.
National Public Radio (NPR), September 26, 2011 Monday, FRESH AIR 12:00 PM EST NPR
THE GREEDY BATTLE FOR IRAQ’S ‘HEARTS AND MINDS’
TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. How would you feel about spending millions of Americans’ tax dollars to build a chicken processing plant in Iraq that never processed any chickens except to impress visiting journalists? That’s just one of the projects described in a new book by our guest Peter Van Buren, a veteran foreign service officer who gives a ground-level account of the effort to rebuild and stabilize Iraq.
Van Buren has spent much of his career in the Far East, when in 2009, he joined a surge of State Department personnel headed to Iraq to assist in reconstruction. Van Buren’s experience working on a provincial reconstruction team is a dispiriting tale of waste, corruption and sometimes comically misguided approaches to the mission of improving the lives of Iraqis.
His account isn’t kind to American policymakers, and as you’ll hear, he has strong feelings about the futility of his efforts. We contacted a spokesperson for the State Department who declined to respond to Van Buren’s book except to say that the author’s views are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department.
Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” He spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, welcome to FRESH AIR. You were in the State Department for more than 20 years before you went to Iraq. Tell us just a little bit about your career.
PETER VAN BUREN: My work was primarily concerned with what I like to think is the benign side of empire. I helped American citizens overseas. When people got arrested, when people fell into trouble one way or the other outside the United States, it was my job to help get them out of trouble, to visit them jail, when people passed away to make sure their remains got back to their loved ones. It was very rewarding work.
It was social work on steroids at times, but dealing with people and being able to help them was very fulfilling, very satisfying.
DAVIES: I read you won a Superior Honor Award for helping a rape victim in Japan. What was that about?
VAN BUREN: It was a terrible tragedy. An American citizen suffered a very violent attack in Japan, and it was our responsibility to help her. She decided very courageously that she wanted to go through the very difficult process of seeing her attacker put in jail, and it was a very difficult experience for her. It was my obligation to assist her with this, and the two of us together got her through it.
It was a difficult process in that many times the language that she needed to use to describe what had happened to her was language that was not typically heard in a Japanese courtroom. There were translation problems. There were times when the prosecution attempted to paint her as a person who might have brought on this attack somehow herself.
But we were able to get her through that and see that justice was done. Her attacker went to jail, and it was a moment when we really understood what it meant to have an American embassy overseas that was there to support you. She probably could have done it without us, but it was an honor to have done it with her.
DAVIES: Now, when you went to Iraq, this was in 2009, and this is far beyond the days when a lot of people would say American military policy was so misguided. By then, a lot of people think we had figured this out. The military was much more committed to friendly engagement with the Iraqi population and reconstruction and winning hearts and minds.
So you’re there to do good things, to help rebuild the country. But as you tell the story, you certainly weren’t out among the people. Just tell us a little bit about your living kind of situation and how that meshed with the mission that you had.
VAN BUREN: What a PRT, Provincial Reconstruction Team, was supposed to do, was to operate at a grassroots level, embedded with the U.S. military, to bring stability and economic success to all of Iraq, particularly operating outside of the major cities. One of the key problems was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart.
The American presence in Iraq basically had three components. You had the military command, which sat in a place called Victory Base – the Army has no irony in its naming conventions – and they had a very limited view of things. They were very isolated.
You had the American embassy, the world’s largest embassy, surrounded by the world’s largest walls that kept both bad guys and reality out. The joke was that the embassy kept an eye on events in Iraq from the roof.
And then you had the Provisional Reconstruction Teams, me. We were – are small groups of people – we were embedded with military units. We would roll out in military convoys, typically riding in a vehicle called an MRAP, which is like a giant monster truck. It has all sorts of armor and special electronics on it that make it less vulnerable to the IEDs, which plague the campaign in Iraq for its entire life.
It had machine guns on the top and full of soldiers with their game faces on; guns, rifles, grenades, the whole manner of stuff. Myself, I would wear body armor and a helmet just like the soldiers would. I wasn’t armed. I didn’t carry a weapon. But we made quite an impression on people when we rolled through town.
Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town, we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the roads. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planted. And oftentimes we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence.
It was difficult to say that we ever could have a normal interaction with anyone. The mere presence of us made us look like aliens descending from armored spaceships in the middle of nowhere. Every interaction with every Iraqi took place with soldiers with weapons standing around. Oftentimes, I was told to leave my body armor and helmet on while I was speaking with the Iraqi people for my own safety.
We rarely could stay in any one place for very long for fear of attracting too much attention and an attack. Setting up appointments was very difficult because it was dangerous to tell people too far in advance that we were going to be arriving. We didn’t want to give the bad guys too much time to get ready.
And under those conditions, the ability to meet with people, to interact with them, was a failure.
DAVIES: And I believe kind of one of your first interactions with Iraqis involved this fellow named – I think he had the nickname McBlazer, and there was a particular issue you had to work out. Tell us that story.
VAN BUREN: State Department people love to wear blue blazers with brass buttons. It’s almost kind of a uniform. And one of the Iraqis that we interacted with regularly had adopted this as his form of dress. And so he was nicknamed McBlazer among us.
The embassy constantly was tasking us to put on presentations, shows, lectures. We were going to tell Iraqis how things were going to work. Here’s how democracy works. Here’s what women should be doing. Here’s the way that you should be running your businesses.
These were hard to put on, and it required a lot of logistical arrangements, things that we couldn’t possibly do on our own in a country where we couldn’t travel freely, where telephone service was sporadic and where there was no infrastructure for us to work with.
It became necessary for us to seek out these middlemen, these operators, carpetbaggers, slick guys like McBlazer who for money could make things happen.
The very first day, as I arrived and met my team, the very first task I was handed was to commit fraud so that we could properly pay off McBlazer for the last thing.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: Now, fraud is a nasty word to use…
DAVIES: Well, let me just interrupt here. What do you mean commit fraud? What did you have to do?
VAN BUREN: Well, it turns out that there limits the State Department put on how much we could spend on refreshments. This was very important because without refreshments, the Iraqis wouldn’t come to our meetings. We simply couldn’t get a crowd unless we fed them. To feed them costs money, and the cost of that food oftentimes exceeded the maximums that we were allowed to spend.
This doesn’t stop a guy like McBlazer. He simply created fake receipts for printing that covered the cost of the food. And my very first diplomatic action in Iraq was to be told by my colleagues to sign the fake receipts so that we could pay McBlazer for the food, which we had to use to bribe the Iraqis to come to the meeting so that the embassy would be satisfied that we were reconstructing Iraq.
DAVIES: And did you object?
VAN BUREN: It seemed like a wrong way to get started to me, and I have this aversion to going to jail for fraud, and so I said no, I’m not going to sign that. This was a problem. Well, McBlazer, it turns out, is married into a very powerful family that’s connected to some very powerful Kurds, who happen to be connected to a lot of guys that apparently used to work for the mafia until they found out working in Iraq was more profitable.
And it was not going to be in our best interest to crisscross on McBlazer. In fact, McBlazer offered that he was setting up conferences for all of the PRTs all over Iraq and that if we didn’t pay him the money that he wanted, he was going to stop servicing the other PRTs. And so simultaneously with my arrival to Iraq, I was going to be responsible for the countrywide breakdown of a system that had been running smoothly for about a year.
VAN BUREN: Yeah, I signed.
DAVIES: OK. So you could see some immediate frustrations with what was happening in this State Department effort to assist the Iraqi people. But there were enormous needs around you. You write about trash disposal. Do you want to give us a little picture of what you saw?
VAN BUREN: I’d never seen so much garbage in one place in my life. It was almost as if the only thing being manufactured in Iraq was garbage. This oftentimes didn’t jive with other things. People were not very wealthy. People in fact in many cases were quite poor. But suddenly, everywhere I looked, there was garbage, garbage and garbage.
The garbage was a problem for the Iraqis. It was a problem for us. The bad guys used to hide bombs in it that would catch us as we drove down the road. So one day, we were told it was going to be our job to clean up the garbage.
Now, I’m a pretty energetic guy, but it seemed like I was going to need some help. Well, not a problem. There were oftentimes sheiks who would appear, sometimes without us even calling them, who would offer to take care of whatever problems we happened to have, in this case the garbage. They would be able to, for a very small fee, get their entire extended family and their family’s families out there to pick up the trash for us.
It was an absolute amazing thing until we found, of course, that we were overpaying these people so much that we had distorted the local labor market, and in fact several shops had closed down because people found it more profitable to have us pay them to pick up trash than to operate small businesses.
DAVIES: And of course they were temporary jobs, right?
VAN BUREN: They were temporary jobs in the sense that when we got bored with picking up trash, or some other shiny object caught our attention, we moved onto a different project. The garbage piled up. The city of Baghdad generates hundreds of tons of garbage every day.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran in the State Department who spent a year in Iraq on Iraqi reconstruction. He’s written a new book called “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”
There was also a tremendous need for clean water and sewage treatment, and it just seems like so obvious that meeting these basic needs would have done a lot to build meaningful relationships with the Iraqi people. Do you want to tell us – I mean, there’s an example you tell of a treatment plant in Nahrawan, I believe, northeast of Baghdad.
VAN BUREN: Nahrawan.
DAVIES: OK. Yeah, go ahead.
VAN BUREN: Ever since the Romans had occupied this part of the world, providing water to people was what government did. It was the essence of surviving in the desert. Saddam had built a number of water plants, oftentimes with Soviet or other people’s money, and these water plants had pumped along without much success from the 1960s on up. Some of them were older than I was.
We were told to go out and see what we could do about a water plant not far from where we living out in the desert. The great news was that way back in the good days of 2003 and ’04, when people were still enthusiastic for the war, apparently the Japanese had promised to pay for repairing this water plant.
This was good news. But when we contacted them, it turned out that they neither remembered paying for it nor had any interested in driving out through the dangerous parts of Iraq to see a water plant. It fell on our shoulders to go out and check up on things.
The water plant was run by a wonderful gentleman who I hope to the bottom of my heart is still alive somewhere in Iraq. We called him The Engineer. And The Engineer had been working at this particular water plant since the 1960s. He would tell us these wonderful stories about how during the glory days, Saddam would send him off to Russia or Bulgaria for water plant training, and he would trade his then-valuable Iraqi dinars for rubles and be very popular with the women that he would meet and come home with suitcases full of vodka. They were good times for him.
The war did not work out well. He had a number of people on his staff killed in the sectarian violence. Another larger group disappeared, some of them possibly killed; a lot of them running away to relatives in Jordan or nearby countries.
But throughout this all, The Engineer stayed at his post throughout the sectarian violence and the worst years of the war, even though the plant had long since ceased to process any fresh water, and raw sewage ran right through it into the beautiful Tigris River.
The Engineer was still optimistic, and when we arrived there, he brought out these incredibly dense three-ring binders full of plans that were drawn up by a Japanese engineering firm in Tokyo that had never been to Iraq and never seen his plant. But these were the plans for the water of the future.
The Engineer needed nothing from us except a lot of money and a lot of help. The way he saw it, he was going to work this all out by hiring an Iraqi contractor who would actually be a front for a Turkish country, which would hire Arabic-speaking Jordanian engineers to bring Chinese equipment into Iraq – rebuild his water plant.
He then planned on the Chinese equipment being left behind so he could sell it off on the black market and raise enough money for maintenance of the plant because unfortunately, our planning never extended past the end of next year, and we had no money for long-term maintenance.
DAVIES: So what happened?
VAN BUREN: Nothing. Nothing happened. The problem is, is that you can’t, with all the best intentions in the world, simply rebuild a water network. Our plant was one plant, was one plant in a long line of facilities that were necessary to take water out of the Tigris, process it, bring it all the way into Baghdad, then take the dirty water out, bring it all the way back, process it and bring it back in, put it back into the river.
This involved hundreds of facilities. We had authority to try to fix one of them.
DAVIES: It sounds like this was a case where there was a big, important problem like sewage treatment and water purification, but that you didn’t have nearly the kind of resources that you would need to do something on that scale. People needed to think bigger?
VAN BUREN: We were never able to do thing on a large enough scale to make a difference because the thinking was never long-term. Everyone in Iraq was there on a series of one year tours, myself included. Everyone was told that they needed to create accomplishments, that we needed to document our success, that we had to produce a steady stream of photos of accomplishments and pictures of smiling Iraqis and metrics and charts.
It was impossible under these circumstances to do anything as long-term as a water and sewer project, particularly with the need for our work to dovetail with work being done to the left and to the right of us.
We rarely thought past next week’s situation update. The embassy would rarely engage with us on a project that wasn’t flashy enough to involve photographs or bringing a journalist out to shoot some video of something that looked good. The willingness to do long-term work, to do the very slow work that reconstruction and development takes place, the idea that development work is a pyramid, you build the base that creates the possibility of a top, never existed in our world.
DAVIES: Now, there were some efforts to do things on a smaller scale. They bought some of these Mobile Maxes, a trailer-mounted, what, a water filtration system. What happened there?
VAN BUREN: One day, a soldier literally trolling through the Internet came across something called Mobile Max. Mobile Max seemed like the solution to our problems. It was a solar-powered, trailer-mounted water purification device. You put the hose into dirty water, the sun shone on Mobile Max, and clean water would pour out the other end.
The soldier told his boss, who told his commanding officer, who told some other people, and believe it or not, in the time it takes me to write a letter home to my wife, we found that the Army was buying five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes and paying to have them shipped all the way around the world to the middle of the desert at a place called Forward Operating Base Hammer.
It took months and months for these things to arrive, and the day that they showed up, it was like a fair at the base. They came on trailers. They were bright blue. People came out of their workstations and sleeping quarters to see this arrive, as if the circus had come to town.
DAVIES: And what happened?
VAN BUREN: We set the first Mobile Max up, put the hose into a hole that we had dug and found water in, waited for the sun to warm up the engine. There was a hush, and poured out of the other end of it – nothing. It turns out that the groundwater in Iraq is too salty for Mobile Max. Mobile Max can clean all sorts of naughty stuff out of water, but it can’t turn salty water into drinking water, and so it was a complete failure.
DAVIES: And you had 25 of these things. What became of them?
VAN BUREN: The five million dollars worth of Mobile Maxes were moved off to a corner of the base where they were parked in very neat rows and left to sit there for the course of the year that I was in Iraq. I’m told that soon after I left, and we closed the PRT down, the commanding general forces there, General Odierno, came out, asked what those blue things were, was told the story and ordered them to be gotten rid of.
My understanding is one of them ended up in a sheik’s backyard, where it did some good work for him and his family. No one seems to know what happened to the other ones.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren is the author of the new book “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” We’ll hear more of his interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies in the second half of our show. I’m Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. Let’s get back to Dave Davies’ interview with Peter Van Buren, the author of “We Meant Well – How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” It’s about the sometimes comically misguided projects, wasted money and corruption he encountered while working with the State Department team on reconstruction efforts in Iraq in 2009.
DAVIES: Now this brings up the subject of all the money that was available. Did you ever want for cash for these initiatives?
VAN BUREN: Working for the government for 23 years, the only constant was there’s never money. There’s never enough money to do all the things we wanted and there were times when I bought my own office supplies and stole yellow stickies from my kid’s school so I had them in the office because it was easier than trying to get money for it.
In Iraq we had money everywhere. It was literally in boxes that you had to step over. At one point in time, I had $100,000 in cash in a small safe in my office. I felt like a drug dealer, I kept pulling out bundles of money. There was so much money that the Iraqis invented a new slang word in Arabic that means a large pile of hundred dollar bills. What’s the word?
My pronunciation may not be precise, but I believe it’s duftar.
DAVIES: A stack of Benjamins, huh?
VAN BUREN: A large pile of Benjamins. They were at first the most convenient way for us to put money out. There was no banking system. There were no electronic transfers. There were no checking accounts, no credit cards. And so when we needed to give someone money, we literally gave them money. I would travel around with $50,000 in a paper bag to hand out to one of the people who was taking over our project. We would have these counting sessions where we had to account for our money, where we would have $20,000, $30,000 out on a desk. This was all tracked on paper and through some Excel spreadsheets.
Most of the folks I worked with were honest people and I don’t think we lost any money. But somewhere along the way millions and millions of dollars were just casually misplaced. The Army lost 60 million dollars at one point in time. And over the course of the eight years of the Iraq Project, the United States has spent 63 billion dollars on the reconstruction.
DAVIES: And there were reports by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction that documented literally billions in waste and mixing funds. You were on this provincial reconstruction team doing the reconstruction, but you were embedded with an Army unit. I think the 82nd Airborne, right? And how much, to what extent did the Army actually call the shots in these efforts? Was the State Department in charge, or was the Army in charge, or was it a negotiation? How did it work?
VAN BUREN: The original plan was that we were to be equals. The State Department and the Army were to work as equals on these projects and work as equals in making decisions. The problem was we couldn’t leave the base unless the Army took us out. We couldn’t make a phone call, use a computer, make a photocopy or get a meal without the Army’s permission and consent. And so in situations where you couldn’t get along with your colonel, the colonel in charge of your unit, you couldn’t do your job. It created a terribly unequal relationship. The joke was that we practiced more diplomacy inside the wire than outside.
DAVIES: You write about one colonel that had – who really liked the idea of passing out humanitarian assistance bags, HA bags. Explain what they were and why they were appealing.
VAN BUREN: One of the problems that plagued the whole reconstruction program, from its sad birth to whenever it finally passes away, it was the overall concept. The State Department imagined this as remaking an entire nation. The Army had a little harder time getting its head around that concept and tended to think in smaller units.
One colonel that I worked with decided that the best way to win the hearts and minds was to give away stuff. Everybody likes free stuff. He characterized this as a humanitarian gesture, and the project was called HA, humanitarian assistance. What would happen is the Army would load up some trucks with food bags. The amount of food in there might have given a family of four a meal or two. It was nothing special, nothing elaborate. He would load up these food bags, drive out to some village, and hand them out to people.
What you saw in these instances was very interesting. If you imagine yourself as a camera and you focus very closely, you saw happy smiling soldiers handing food bags over to young children or women, who were smiling as they accepted them. If you zoomed out a little bit, you found that the soldiers who weren’t in camera range were probably not smiling. You zoomed out a little further and you found that the Iraqi men would stay in the background and give us kind of hard stares. This is a country where pride, where self-image is very important to people, and being handed food by Americans who had invaded their country and in many cases caused damage and violence around them was a shock to the Iraqi people, was a blow to their pride.
Imagine if the Chinese army appeared one day in Minneapolis and started handing out food to the people there. Would Americans feel proud about that?
DAVIES: Now why did the colonel do this? And was this ever evaluated? Did anybody ever look at whether this had any positive impact?
VAN BUREN: The chances are that your listener’s thinking about this constitutes the only time anything was evaluated what we did there. The entire process was one of improvisation, of please do something because something might work. There was never anybody who said, hey, that’s not working. Let’s not do that again. Or this seems to have promise, let’s keep doing that. What we did was never examined, was never looked at. There was no sense of output. Everything we did we did for us. We did it for our personal satisfaction. We did it because we felt good doing it. We did it because we were told to do it. We did it because we wanted to get promoted and patted on the head. The sense was it wasn’t about the Iraqis. It was about us.
DAVIES: We’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. His book is called “We Meant Well.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you’re just joining us, we’re speaking with Peter Van Buren. He is a veteran Foreign Service officer in the U.S. State Department who spent a year in Iraq. His book about his frustrations with the Iraqi reconstruction effort is called “We Meant Well.”
Did you have any contact with the media? I mean could you give them a sense of what was really going on?
VAN BUREN: I saw very little of the media. And the embassy made sure that whenever someone from the media did go out into the field that the journey and the experience was stage managed to the final degree. We did have one experience that might illustrate how this works. The largest amount of money I ever spent was with the Army, a two million dollar chicken processing plant. The idea was that instead of these systems that had been in place for about 5,000 years, where people bought live chickens in the market, we were going to take those chickens and cut them up and put them in styrofoam and plastic just like you’d get at the Safeway. Problem was that that didn’t work out very well. The farmers were had a system of selling to the markets. The people didn’t have refrigeration at home to handle cutup chicken. And there was Brazilian frozen chicken being imported at that time that underpriced us. So the factory didn’t produce any chicken.
One day we were told that the journalist was coming out and wanted to see our factory in action. This was a moment of panic for us, because we had not really admitted to the embassy at that point that it wasn’t working.
DAVIES: I just want to understand this. So from scratch you imported all this mechanized equipment and built a chicken processing plant that simply was sitting idle?
VAN BUREN: That’s correct. Because when these projects were conceived – and this project actually was in conception long before I arrived, it had taken so long to spec out and to create – no one considered where those chickens were going to come from and how they were going to be paid for. And no one considered what was going to happen to our processed chicken once we put it in the plastic.
For example, there were no transportation networks. There were no trucks that could carry frozen or chilled food around Iraq. And even if we had those trucks, the roadways made it impossible for them to travel very long distances. No one bothered to figure out how we were going to buy the chickens, how we were going to pay for them, which farmers were going to sell, whether the farmers needed to raise the chickens specifically for us. None of that was thought out. Simply, we built something and hoped it would work in either direction.
DAVIES: All right. So it’s time to prove to a journalist that you’ve done something good here. what happened?
VAN BUREN: This was a real problem. We contacted the Iraqi sheikh who had taken possession of the chicken processing plant and explained our problem. He was a very clever man. He sent one of his sons out to the market that day and what every live chicken in about a five mile radius of the place. Lord knows what they paid for it, brought all those chickens in and the plant was humming like the middle of a speedway when the journalists arrived. We processed through about 150 chickens that day.
DAVIES: And nobody ever caught on. No one was the wiser.
VAN BUREN: The good news was is that it was 100 percent productivity increase from the day before…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
VAN BUREN: …so we were kind of happy about that. It turned out that the chicken that we actually served the journalists was bought at a different place, because we weren’t quite sure if our machinery was clean enough and we were afraid to actually serve the person because the machinery hadn’t been used so we bought chicken someplace to serve them.
This was a problem. The problem was is that the journalists said what a great day had happened out here and other people wanted to come out and see the plant too. So, every time someone came out we had to buy chickens to run them through the plant so there was something to see. This led to a new unit of measurement – the chicken measurement. We would try to figure out who was important and who wasn’t because the chickens were expensive. So an important person might see 50 or 60 chickens processed. A journalist who comes from a smaller outlet for or a hometown newspaper, they might see 20 chickens processed. And so it became kind of a joke how many chickens we were worth.
DAVIES: Didn’t – I mean were you ever in a position to pull someone aside and say – ask them if this is running tomorrow or was running yesterday?
VAN BUREN: Dave, please don’t be upset. We would’ve given you the full 50-chicken treatment.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: No, everyone played the game.
VAN BUREN: Everyone was looking the other way. There was an understanding that you wanted to get through your tour, and the way to do that was not make waves, not ask questions. It had been running before you got there, it was going to be running after you got there. Look away like everyone else was doing and things would work out for you. The only time I got into trouble, the only time I was called into my boss was when I canceled a project.
DAVIES: Well, I was going to ask you about that. You were called on the carpet at one point. What happened?
VAN BUREN: I wasn’t spending enough money. Early on, soon after failing to properly attend to the fraudulent receipts of McBlazer, I was presented with another opportunity to excel. My colleagues had arranged for us to pay about $5,000 a head for sheep to be delivered to widows. Good idea. Widows are it’s a sad thing. We created more than enough of them ourselves in Iraq, why not help them out. We were going to give them sheep. They’d raise the sheep. Everybody would be happy. So I asked a few questions. How are we going to find the widows? Well, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will find them for us. OK. How will the widows know how to raise the sheep? Oh, the guy we’re buying the sheep from will teach the widows. OK. Who is going to pay him for that? Oh, he’s going to take the lambs from the widows so that he’ll get paid that way. It sure seemed to me that this was kind of a scam – that it was a pyramid scheme so that the guy we were buying things from was going to make all the money. I didn’t see how the widows were going to benefit, and I canceled the project.
DAVIES: And then you were what, summoned to the embassy?
VAN BUREN: This brought down the wrath of Mesopotamia on me. Because once I realized what the questions were and I started asking them, I found out that the women’s rug-making cooperative that we were paying for had devolved into child labor. I found out that most of the things that we were paying for at the vocational school were actually nonexistent; that there were no vocational classes being held, and the equipment that we had paid for had long since been trundled off and sold off on the black market. I found that many of our projects existed solely in our own minds and our checkbooks, and so I started canceling them. This did not sit well with my bosses and I was called into the embassy and reminded that my predecessors had found ways to spend money, I should find ways to spend money. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t make trouble. You’re one little guy in a big operation. Do what you’re told. Get through your year. Go home. Maybe we’ll promote you.
DAVIES: And when you got that speech how did you respond?
VAN BUREN: I didn’t know what to respond. I did know how to respond. I went through a period of trying to do what I was told was the right thing. I signed off on a lot of projects that would embarrass me to explain to you in great detail right now. I spent a lot of money. At some point, I realized that that was wrong. It was not true to myself. It was not true to the integrity that I believe is important for us, and so I stopped signing projects.
I found that not saying yes and not saying no gave me enough grey zone that my year ran out before they caught up with me.
DAVIES: Have any of your colleagues in the State Department read this manuscript? How is this being received?
VAN BUREN: The State Department, as an organization, is not very happy about what I’ve done. I was required to submit an early copy of the manuscript to the State Department for them to determine that I wasn’t releasing classified information, or the more hilarious one, that I wasn’t misrepresenting this as official State Department policy. It’s pretty clear that I’m kind of speaking for myself, here.
The State Department is unhappy about this. The organization is not one that is comfortable with its private parts showing in public. This is very clear in their reaction to the WikiLeaks scandal, where suddenly the internal workings of the State Department were on display. This makes everyone very uncomfortable, and my book does something of the same. My colleagues oftentimes will privately tell me that they saw many of the same things I saw, that they were – they’re pleased that someone has written down what I wrote. But in public, many of them have shunned me, have accused me of not being fair to them, of blaming them for things that I knew were institutional. They didn’t make these same decisions because they were stupid. I didn’t make these same decisions because I was stupid. We all knew we were told to these things, and they’re a little bit angry at me for sometimes maybe labeling them as complicit in this, when they knew that they weren’t.
DAVIES: What kind of assignment do you have? Has your writing affected your work?
VAN BUREN: Unfortunately, the State Department has started an investigation against me. They claim that a link on the blog connected with this book links to a WikiLeaks document, and that constitutes disclosure of classified information. And so the security people have begun an investigation against me that will probably end in my losing my job.
DAVIES: Well, you know, one of my reactions in attempting to judge this was that when I look at your account of these events, I mean, they’re told with really telling detail, and it’s quite funny in many places. But you’re not very specific about, well, certainly people. You use only first names, or, in some cases, no names at all. You refer to people as my boss or the major.
VAN BUREN: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: Someone might say, well, aren’t you kind of fudging of the details here, and that gives you some ability to exaggerate?
VAN BUREN: To a certain extent. It’s difficult. It turns out that when you throw pies at people’s faces, they sometimes get upset about that. And so in these litigious days, it became important in many instances do not identify people by name, partially for legal reasons, partially because, in many cases, they were decent people trying to do the right thing who shouldn’t be blamed personally by name for what they did because they were following orders. They were doing the things that they were told to do.
The book that I wrote is not a scholarly text. It’s not a history. It’s not full of footnotes and things like that. It’s an impressionistic version of what I saw. It’s the rough draft of the PRP, the Provincial Reconstruction Program that I helped administer. My hope would be that someone who is better at these things can write a book that has footnotes that can chronicle in great detail and with great accuracy what happened over there. Others will fill in the details. I don’t know that it’s important to know that the major I referred to was Major Jones or Major Smith. What’s important to understand is at that time, at that place, this is what happened.
And we have your assurance that the details that you recount – I mean, the phony tours of the chicken processing plant that this…
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: …and the sheep for widows programs, all of those are as accurate as you can make them?
VAN BUREN: If you were with me, you would’ve seen the things that I wrote in this book. My hope would be that at some point, some of the other people there will feel comfortable in speaking up. I don’t doubt that someone in the State Department will claim that some of this is inaccurate, or that some of the details are exaggerated. What else can they do to defend themselves here, but try to assault my personal credibility? The book is there. The stories that I tell are there. You, as the reader, are in a position to judge them, to say this makes sense, this doesn’t make sense.
Some readers will look beyond the book to the documents that the special inspector general for Iraq has written that chronicles some of the chronic episodes of waste. Some folks will talk to their friends who served in Iraq and say, hmm, this Van Buren guy is talking about this Mobile Max thing. You were there. What do you know about that? And hopefully come to the conclusion that the stories I tell are sadly accurate, that the things I saw are sadly representative of the failures that we experienced there, that unfortunately, “We Meant Well” is true.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Van Buren, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.
VAN BUREN: Thank you very much for having me.
GROSS: Peter Van Buren, speaking with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Van Buren’s book is called “We Meant Well.” After recording the interview, we called the State Department. A spokesperson declined to comment on the book, saying only that it represents the author’s views and not those of the State Department. He also said the department never comments on whether an employee is under investigation. You can read an excerpt of “We Meant Well” on our website, freshair.npr.org.
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews the Bangles’ new album. This is FRESH AIR.
Along with the odd threat or hate mail (a few people hilariously misunderstand the book’s title We Meant Well as being serious and chastise me for supporting the Iraq War), some interesting things pop up. Here’s one, a report from the front lines of freedom in Iraq:
I work in Iraq and I’ve seen first hand the waste and abuse you chronicled so well during the “reconstruction”. I think you once called the US Mission in Iraq a ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ — a self-contained, self-aggrandizing system of little actual use to Iraqis. An apt analogy.
Here’s something you’d appreciate:
A couple of days ago, just minutes after a briefing on the latest death toll from sectarian violence (50 killings in one night;
520 close to 1000 total this month) in Iraq, I attended a meeting with people who were enthusiastically discussing the massive uptick in “likes” on our mission’s Facebook page.
As journalism, I checked Facebook to find that the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad has some 137,000 “likes.” Their banner graphic celebrates breaking 100,000. As a comparison, retired porn star Jenna Jameson’s Facebook page as 566,703 likes. Maybe the Embassy needs to show more skin?
So, as the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad remains the world’s largest and most expensive diplomatic mission, we salute the brave boys and girls out there who are still more focused on their Facebook likes than Rome burning down around them. To Victory!
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!
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.
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.
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.