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?
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
I would have thought that it was a bit early for nostalgia for the halcyon days of Provincial Reconstruction Work (PRT) in Iraq, but things move quickly these days. At least no one is calling it “The Good War’ or us “The Most Recent Greatest Generation.”
But hey, what’s past is past, right (sorry to you Iraqis who live everyday in the hell we Americans now consider “history”)?
So for those who worked in the reconstruction program, or who did not but still want to impress the ladies on a night out, there is available now Baghdad PRT memorabilia. No, no, not the missing billions of dollars in “lost” taxpayer money or the many computers, generators and vehicles bought to grow Iraq’s democracy, but groovy t-shirts and even a logo’ed teddy bear. Snap these up folks!
It is hopefully not necessary to add, but since this is the internet, I have nothing to do with the selling of these items and make no money from either the items or mentioning them here.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
While Smedinghoff’s death is tragic, what’s more tragic is why she was in Qalat at all. She died on a mission meant to prop up the American people in the eyes of a country that doesn’t want us here anymore. Or at least prove to the American people that we are still doing G. W.’s good work, since the Afghan people aren’t buying it. From Karzai down to the “average” Afghan (who, not being as rich as a Karzai, only has the one name), the Afghan people have grown disillusioned as the early years of hope gave way to the understanding that the Americans were here to back a rogue’s gallery of war criminals and thugs, because, well, freedom. We were supposed to be different. To be better. But instead, we’ve replaced the old meritocracy with a new one, one that’s full of a lot of bad men.
Smedinghoff was yet another casualty in the perception war, part of the “messaging” process, her role to ensure that the Afghans got the story that U.S. Embassy Public Affairs needed them to get. That’s not cynicism, but a gross acknowledgment of the pragmatism that drives these kinds of photo ops.
Rather than ensuring that education officials in Zabul had the tools they needed to succeed, what happened instead was boilerplate Public Affairs/Public Diplomacy: get the press to the event, get the right pictures of the right kids and maybe get them saying the right things, then get the message out. In this case, the message is that the American people care deeply about the future of education for the Afghan people. It’s 2013: if we’re still having to hand out books for the photo op, we’re doing it wrong.
It’s 2013: America’s legacy here post-2001 has already been written. There’s nothing a book drop can do to change that. Nothing we can do to rewrite the painful story the American involvement in Afghanistan. And now, there’s nothing we can do to bring Anne Smedinghoff back.
If a more succinct version of America’s failure in nation building has been written, please send me a link.
Anne Smedinghoff was also involved in the propaganda show that brought several young Afghan musicians to the U.S. this year to ensure Americans that the nation was well-loved.
And on the same day Anne died, a NATO air strike in Afghanistan killed ten children.
I mourn Anne’s death along with you, but mourn it doubly; not just for Anne’s own life so early taken, but for what she represented. I too do not doubt her good intentions and desire to do well in Afghanistan, but am angry that such a person ended up having her life taken from her for such an ignoble cause– U.S. failure in Afghanistan.
By her death, she is thrust into the role of symbolism, and our job is to determine what she is indeed a symbol of and try to learn from that. I in no way suggest disengagement or isolationism, just the contrary. But America must do so with true intentions, not just as a series of photo ops and wasted lives.
Diplomacy, yes, always. Propaganda at such a price no more.
So now, in 2013, as the American Empire rolls over the top of the hill and begins its descent, this is what we sacrifice our young, bright and energetic for. It has reached the point for our nation where killing off young people in the cause of photo ops that are hollow and false makes some wicked sense. In that calculus, we are forever lost.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Gentle readers, allow me a moment of angry self-congratulation. I’ll be back to normal with the next posting. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.
I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.
What if Iraq Turns Around?
When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, “You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong.” I told her not to worry.
When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan,” they said, or “It’s too early to tell.” When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.” Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal (“The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level”) to an excerpt from my book.
Failure Made Official
Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.”
There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.
I Told You So
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. 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.
We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.
What Went Right?
And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled “What Went Right.” The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as “thriving” (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, “U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war” and concludes, “Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush.”
Quite sadly, one only need change “Afghanistan” to “Iraq” in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the “Iraq Tourism Week” expo in Baghdad in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that “a significant portion” of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, “yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.” There are many, many more examples.
History Repeats Itself
In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about “progress” and thus on-message.
Despite SIGAR finding that “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste,” the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness — and oh yes, it was madness — not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The Madness of King George
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts — at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned — we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
By 2009, of course, it should all have been so obvious. We were no longer inside the neocon dream of unrivaled global superpowerdom, just mired in what happened to it. We were a chicken factory in the desert that no one wanted.
Time Travel to 2003
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it’s often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it’s often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it’s easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today’s saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the U.S. invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using “humanitarian aid” to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the U.S. decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the U.S. also managed to remove one of Iran’s strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the U.S. government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq’s prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria’s rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn’t stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don’t doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous “mission accomplished” moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered “extreme danger posts.” Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State’s officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to “pay” for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of U.S. debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas.
And don’t put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision,” Blair added that new crises are looming. “You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come,” he said. “We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle.”
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the U.S. will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
(A version of this story also appeared on Huffington Post, February 5, 2013)
Kids and music go together beautifully. Free from pretensions, children play from their hearts. Put that beauty into an international setting– in this case, young people from war-torn Afghanistan coming to the U.S. to perform traditional songs at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall– and it becomes something of poetry, a breath of peace, a vision of a better world.
“Normally, Afghan girls are not picking traditional instruments,” one young musician said in an interview. “I am one of the first. It’s an honor to play with the orchestra and to act as an ambassador for Afghan music and culture.” “Music can play a role in bringing about social changes and breaking taboos,” said another child.
Unless it is all garbage.
Exploitation ‘R Us
This week 47 young Afghans are coming to the U.S. to play music. Their trip is being paid for mostly by the U.S. Department of State. Their school was started and paid for by the U.S. Government and sympathetic U.S. donors, as well as the World Bank. While the pure of heart might imagine those young girls’ sentiments about social change and women’s rights are coming from somewhere deep inside of their souls, they more than likely were fed to them by their handlers at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
Not that the Embassy is trying to hide either its true intentions.
“The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is an example of how far education, culture and youth have advanced since the fall of the Taliban,” said Eileen O’Connor, director of communications and public diplomacy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. “We wanted Americans to understand the difference their tax dollars have made in building a better future for young people, which translates into reduced threats from extremists in the region.”
I’d heard this song before; we did the same thing in Iraq. Take the story of Operation Little Yasser. We singled out one orphan and built a whole phony project around him, something about bringing a greenhouse to an orphanage so the kids could heal by growing squash. The kid, Yasser, was just a prop for the media to write stories about, describing him as a “sweet, fragile child, whose soulful eyes reveal some of the heartbreak he’s endured.” The kid did not get anything out of his exploitation, kids rarely do, but the Embassy sure got some PR miles out of Yasser’s crummy life. Who knows if the orphanage ever got the greenhouse?
Bottom line: The State Department is sending these young Afghans to the U.S. to perform for Americans so that those Americans can see “the difference their tax dollars have made.” That’s a pretty bold statement given how, under even the best of narcotic influence, progress in Afghanistan over the course of the twelve years of U.S.-initiated war has been “uneven.” One is left with the distinct sense that one is being played, not unlike those traditional instruments, with cute kids and soothing music used to sell a meme that is blatantly untrue and make us feel better that the United States is still engaged in nation-building abroad despite the president’s promises to do it at home.
The selling of that meme is also expensive. The two-week tour of the 47 kids is going to cost $500,000, $350,000 of which is being paid by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul using American tax dollars. That works out to more than $10,000 per kid, suggesting either some pretty swanky accommodations or a subcontractor getting rich. Like the war itself, propaganda isn’t cheap.
But what propaganda effort is worth its cost without Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, who oversaw the failed U.S reconstruction efforts in Iraq? Crocker, now at Yale (of course), said that “I think I can speak for all donors that support the institute, that helping indigent children is worthy in and of itself, but the school also creates a human bulwark that is effectively saying, ‘Never again. Those people will never rule us again.’ ”
It’s Actually Worse
While doing the same kind of development work in Iraq, chronicled in my book We Meant Well: How I Lost the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I saw the U.S. spend money on cultural projects, translations of American classic novels into Arabic, pastry lessons for widows, producing plays with deep moral messages, sponsoring art shows and paintings. None of it helped Iraq in the end. What I learned is that while using U.S. tax money to propagandize Americans is bad, and exploiting children for political purposes is worse, the waste of money on such feel-good projects as the Afghan children’s music tour has an even darker side.
The thing most folks say about this sort of cultural spending is that it is wasteful (yes, but by small amounts when the overall war costs one billion a week) but that really, at the end of the day, what was the harm? If someone enjoyed a play or some music, or a widow baked some wonderful date tarts, what was the harm? What’s wrong with helping a few kids?
While there is nothing inherently wrong with helping children, the harm of these programs is this: We wanted to leave Iraq (and soon, Afghanistan) stable and safe. But how did we advance those goals when we spent our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most people lacked access to clean water, or regular electricity, or hospitals. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? Spending money on plays and art shows must have seemed like insanity, or stupidity, or corruption, or all three. As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
What will become of these young Afghan musicians when the U.S., searching for a new propaganda meme or just tired of Afghanistan in general, turns off the money tap? Why isn’t the Afghan government building such music schools themselves? Why, after twelve years of war, is the only thing we can think of to do in Afghanistan is to spend $500,000 on a propaganda tour? Indeed, to what life will these 47 young musicians return when the U.S. government no longer has a need for them? There, sadly, lies the long-term harm, long after the music has faded.
Photo, above, is of new SecState John Kerry meeting the Afghan musical youth, his statesman legacy dissolving in real time.
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.
The review found both some good and some, er, less than good:
We Meant Well contains valuable lessons for leaders both military and civilian. Among its revelations, it raises ethical questions concerning the complexities of reconstruction in Iraq, and it does so from the perspective of an embedded provincial reconstruction team (PRT) leader. Van Buren’s goal is to inform readers of flaws in our approach to the reconstruction of post-war Iraq. Many portions of his book do just that. However, readers should be aware that the book seems tendentious in places where the author delivers sarcastic, acerbic, and apparently vengeful observations. The author is humorous and articulate, and he delivers several useful discussions informing potential leaders of pitfalls in the vital work of reconstruction. This book can inspire reflection on how to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
Most important, this review took things seriously. While all State could do was lob odd personal attacks, the military from the beginning was willing to listen and parse out what was worth paying attention to. Unlike State, which lacks a single introspective gene, the military is all about lessons learned. This is a real strength at the mid-levels, though it tends to fade the higher in rank you go, at least outwardly.
The thing which I am most proud of is that I have been able to contribute to, if not help define, the narrative on the civilian side of reconstruction. I have gotten the occasional email from grad students working in the field, asking for more serious info on the projects discussed in We Meant Well. They all decry the lack of information and non-propaganda from the State-side.
The great weakness in the State Department is an almost pathological unwillingness to look at itself. In its hyper-personal relationship focused environment, only success is allowed to be discussed inside Foggy Bottom. There are of course the occasional lessons learned exercises for appearances’ sake, but these typically soft-pedal or ignore any real need for change and simply end up as back door conclusions on the need for more money and resources.
So, I, um, like, told you so. And even though I lost my job for telling you so, and even though a related Inspector General opened an investigation into me for telling you so, it’s still nice to learn that what I told you was correct.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) released a final report on the State Department’s handling of Quick Response Funds (QRF), money that was handed out in Iraq by Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), two of which I lead in Iraq. Those experiences formed the fodder of my book, We Meant Well. The State Department and its USAID colleagues “managed” about $258 million in QRF funds.
So taxpayers and patriots, here’s the highlights, in the Inspector’s own words:
– From the available records, we could generally determine how funds were intended to be used, but we could not assess whether all of the goods and services were actually purchased, received, or transferred to beneficiaries.
– We reported that DOS’ recordkeeping on fund-use and project-results/outcomes for micropurchases made in 2007 and 2008 was poor, and that documentation in seven project files suggested possible fraud. We recommended that DoS improve its recordkeeping and review all micropurchases initiated in 2007-2008 to determine if other examples of possible fraud, waste, and abuse exist. DoS officials stated that they located almost all documentation that SIGIR found missing from the official files, and that their review of payment vouchers did not indicate that any fraudulent transactions had occurred. However, the officials did not directly address the seven instances of possible fraudulent activities that SIGIR had found.
– Because there was no evidence that DoS had reviewed and assessed the identified cases of possible fraud, SIGIR initiated this review. Seven of the reviewed assessments re-confirmed our concerns that fraud may have occurred.
– The QRF Tracking Database shows that of the $125.1 million allocated to the DoS, $24.5 million was used to pay overhead costs for a third party to implement large QRF projects, costs of managing the QRF database, and costs for monitoring and evaluating the QRF program.
– Project results (also referred to as award results in DoS’s QRF Tracking Database) are important in that they confirm whether or not items or services intended to be purchased were indeed purchased, received, and transferred to beneficiaries. In our review, we found that 90 of the 185 micropurchases (or about 49%) lacked such information. As a consequence, we cannot be certain that individuals used the cash they received to purchase goods and services and that the intended beneficiaries of these goods and services actually received them.
– Of course, some results were conclusive in a negative way: “this project was probably way ahead of its time and probably should not have been originally funded. Not in use, never used.” (to describe $22,150 in tanks, tools, and supplies purchased for fish hatchery)
– Another read “the contractor never completed the soccer field. Dirt was added to the field but turf was never laid.” The project file did not have any other documentation that showed actions taken, if any, to address the problems found.
– Specifically, DoS may never know what it got out of those micropurchases made in the early years because of the lack of documentation showing that the goods or services were delivered. Consequently, it is highly possible that some portions of QRF funds were not used as intended.
The SIGIR included the State Department’s comments on the report:
Officials from the Office of Iraq Affairs, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs stated that they improved their processes for documenting QRF projects and agreed with SIGIR that cash transactions in conflict and post-conflict environments can be susceptible to fraud and abuse. However, they did not comment further on the possible fraud we found in seven projects we first identified in April 2011, and which served as the basis for this current review.
An important caveat: SIGIR basically only assessed whether or not the money State thought it spent on widgets actually got spent on widgets, and whether those widgets made it into the right hands. SIGIR made no assessment of the effectiveness of any of State’s spending.
One hopes that if we ever begin “nation building” here at home, someone other than the thieves, pirates and thugs State hired to eat the money abroad is put in charge.
Oh, and SIGIR released another report on Friday, that one showing how the Army Corps of Engineers spent money on energy and infrastructure programs in Iraq, but its recordkeeping was so poor that the Corps cannot prove it actually received goods for about $1 billion of the money it spent. The total amount of funds unaccounted for has now reached a staggering $7 billion. But that’s for another book to deal with.
The blog Can’t Give This War Away offers up a review of We Meant Well:
The problem with “We Meant Well” is not whether Van Buren is right or not, it’s that it’s long past the point where a book like this makes any difference at all. He’s one more well-paid government employee who realized too late that the mission had been a fiasco from minute one. It’s not that his experience in 2009 was much different than what came before, but the previous six years had already put his mission on the path to failure. It was all too late to change.
If you’re like me, and already know we were sold of a bill of goods back in 2003, this book will validate your opinion. Yup, it’s a mess, and probably remained an even bigger mess than you dared dream. You’ll wave this book around and say, “see! I told you so!” Great.
If you’re still hanging on to some silly notion that our government actually knew what they were doing when they invaded Iraq, then at this point nothing will change your deluded mind. You bought the Kool-Aid, and you’ve made your choice. You’ll claim Van Buren hates America, blah blah blah.
Read the entire review at Can’t Give This War Away.
There has been some web chatter about public diplomacy in general, and social media in the particular. Of course, since it involves technology invented since the wireless, the State Department has to call it something slick, so eDiplomacy.
The idea is actually not eNew. Throughout the Cold War the US used the social media of the day, eRadio, TV and musical tours to spread a message into the exSoviet Bloc. Not sure what the effect there was (though lots of older Russians do like jazz) but the ideas presented as revolutionary are not so new. And neither is the debate over their effectiveness.
As propaganda. Really bad propaganda.
Really, do we think that spending American tax dollars on creating YouTube videos that supposedly show American Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (assasinated by drone along with his 16 year old son) solicited prostitutes are going to win any war?
But with all the distractions lately about my own struggles getting fired from State, it is useful to return to what the hub-bub is all about: the waste and mismanagement by the State Department in the reconstruction of Iraq. It was that failure which indeed lost the war. Not that you’d know by watching some of the State Department’s own public diplomacy drech about the “success” of their efforts:
(If the video fails to load, you can see it here)
Though no one actually takes credit for that pile, the people in the video are mostly Embassy folk. The ones without the neat button downs are contractors, their love of the program no doubt inspired by the $250,000 a year State paid them. The others are real-live State Department types: Interestingly, Aaron Snipes appears in the video and, coincidentally, Snipes also is one of the most prominent names in the State Department investigative report on this blog, helping defend the mistakes in Iraq even to the point of smearing a colleague with whispered emails to Diplomatic Security years later back in Washington. Anyone who thinks this is about anything but defending bureaucratic failures is a big believer in coincidences.
There are many highlights in the video, but one to point out is the meme with “Little Yasser,” the orphan boy whose school was rebuilt towards the end of the program. The PRTs were working on Little Yasser three years ago, when I was there. Real good news was hard to find, so when it happened we tended to overdo it. Even worse was when we manufactured the illusion of good news and beat the hell out of that. Look at the story of Operation Little Yasser. A sister PRT singled out an orphan and built a whole phony project around him, something about bringing a green house to an orphanage so the kids could heal by growing squash. The kid, Yasser, was just a prop for the media to write stories about, describing him as a “sweet, fragile child, whose soulful eyes reveal some of the heartbreak he’s endured.” That line was written in a project grant in 2009, and they repeated it verbatim in the video. The kid did not get anything out of his exploitation, kids rarely do, but the Embassy sure got some major “social media” miles. We were like the pedophiles of PRT work.
One feature of these propaganda videos is their crudeness, primarily in their shameless lack of objectivity and balance. It is not unexpected that the Embassy would want to put a positive spin on things, but to present the PRT program as a singular savior of Iraq seems a bit much.
The world needed this piece of self-congratulatory crap like I need a third nipple. Who outside of the State Department is the intended audience? The video is obviously too one-sided for even the fanboys, and an Iraqi audience would pee themselves laughing. Then it dawned on me: the video’s audience was State. They made this video for themselves.
Real development work is slow, hard and often unphotogenic. The Iraqis got some charity, handouts really, but mostly ended up as background actors for our fantasy that we were liberators not occupiers. Watch in the video as the stalwart PRT members hand out pencils to schoolkids. The flak-jacketed American has the kids take one pencil from his box of many, making each kid look him in the eye as the price of accepting the handout. The visual is clear: we have a lot, you have nothing, this process is to make me feel good at the expense of your self pride. The process– armed soldiers and disingenuous officials coming into a school and co-opting the kids while the cameras rolled– must have reminded the Iraqis of Saddam’s own clumsy attempts at buying love. Would Americans feel pride seeing Chinese troops handing out school supplies in some Detroit shithole neighborhood?
Resorting to gifts to seem popular was quick and easy but, like most quick solutions, really didn’t help. Once you started down the path of easy answers, your methods tended to sabotage later efforts to try the harder way. In a counterinsurgency campaign, there were several ways to make friends, most of them slow and difficult, like building relationships within the local community over time based on trust earned and respect freely given. Each iteration of handouts caused you to lose respect from a proud group of people forced into an uneven relationship, no matter how many self-congratulatory Tweets you sent out.
It does, however, seem quaint (as well as exposing the utter shallowness of this swipe at public diplomacy) to hear Americans talking about rebuilding Iraq. I’ll go report about that on Facebook now…
The American Conservative magazine is looking for men and women who worked in Iraq during the post-war reconstruction effort from 2003-present, contractors, civilian personnel or military.
The magazine is doing a story on the shrinking US presence in Iraq and the legacy of the State Department. They are particularly interested in persons who worked on Provincial Reconstruction Teams.
I am not involved in the article itself, but am just helping the author locate people who might be interested in participating because I know a lot of former PRT folks read this blog. I have worked with the author before, and her writing on Iraq has always been fair and informed. I trust her to handle this complex issue well.
If you’d like to be interviewed for the piece please contact Kelley Vlahos directly at kv(at)kelleyvlahos.com for more details.
The Washington Post has an important article online and in print criticizing the World’s Most Expensive Embassy (c) for choosing to not provide a complete list of all the projects undertaken as part of the reconstruction of Iraq.
“After eight years, we still don’t have a full account of what it was we provided the Iraqis,” Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the US special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said in the article. “There was no unity of command, no unity of effort.” The inventory listed 5,289 projects valued at about $15 billion as of June 30, 2011, according to auditors. Bowen said there were actually tens of thousands of projects valued at approximately $40 billion.
In response, the World’s Most Expensive Embassy (c) in Baghdad said they had negotiated an agreement with Iraq so its government could “focus its limited resources” on large capital projects. Embassy officials also cited bookkeeping of previous agencies and said the auditors’ criticisms failed to recognize that Iraq already has assumed more control over projects.
Of course this is all, respectfully of course, bullshit.
Everything funded via CERP (Commanders Emergency Response Program, Army money) is fully documented in a database. Same for everything paid for by State via their QRF (Quick Response Funds), it is all documented in an online database. Every State project carried a unique number (most projects referenced in my book We Meant Well include these unique numbers as references). I am not sure what the other two sources mentioned in the Post refer to, but one of them is likely USAID and they also maintained a database. If the fourth source is US Department of Agriculture, who spent a lot of money in Iraq, those are also well-documented. Any subcontractors hired were required to report on their projects.
So if this information is available for all of the effort of hitting the “print” button, why conceal it?
State most likely wants to hide a lot of its waste and mismanagement, as well as bury the many smaller projects that “walked away” as the Iraqis simply sold them off, dismantled them or noticed that what the US claimed was built or bought never really existed. State has no interest in having some of its more comical, stupid and pointless efforts exposed, as hinted at on Foreign Policy.com.
From the Doonesbury site, the cartoon for December 25, 2011:
Though I have not yet read it, I wanted get out in front and tell you about a new book covering the “mid-years” of reconstruction work in Afghanistan (2005-2006), The Valley’s Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Talibanby Dan Green.
In this gripping, firsthand account, Daniel Green tells the story of U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban insurgency from the desolate southern Afghan province of Uruzgan.
Green, who served in Uruzgan from 2005 to 2006 as a Department of State political adviser to a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), reveals how unrealistic expectations, a superficial understanding of the Afghans, and a lack of resources contributed to the Taliban’s resurgence in the area. He discusses the PRT’s good-governance efforts, its reconstruction and development projects, the violence of the insurgency, and the PRT’s attempts to manage its complex relationship with the local warlord cum governor of the province.
Upon returning to Afghanistan in 2009 with the U.S. military and while working at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul until 2010, Green discovered that although many improvements had been made since he had last served in the country, the problems he had experienced in Uruzgan continued despite the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration.
Sounds like worthy reading.
So, 10 years of war, and five years since the inception of this specific PRT and our PRT folks have to conduct their inspection of schools and roads that are presumably USG funded because of the “unforgiving terrain” and “known insurgent activity in the area.”
I’m really not sure if the inspection is to see how the projects are having an impact on Afghan residents from the air or is it simply to check which projects have not yet been blown up?
The issue should absolutely be the quality of school construction, because if it’s not, it’s likely that school won’t be around to be used as a school after more than a few months. Add to that the very real possibility that a poorly constructed structure could collapse and well, kill some Afghan kids, and you’re just making the situation worse.
Now you’ve got a community blaming ISAF for the deaths of schoolchildren, because, and this will happen, they’ll tell anyone who will listen, “They never came to check on it to make sure it was being built right.”
They’ll tell their district officials during construction that it wasn’t being done right, if it’s being done at all, but frankly, no one will likely listen to them. If the insurgent activity is that bad, then it’s possible that there isn’t an Afghan government presence in that area. Or, if there is, it’s cops and soldiers, not educational personnel.
This is then a ready-made insurgent propaganda piece, and the worst part is, it was completely preventable.
It won’t take long for the contractors to figure out that the PRT is never going to look too closely at the building anyway, so they’ll make sure the outside looks good, but then the inside will either be not quite finished, or they’ll just strip out whatever they can use and walk away with it.
Now if the PRT or some other ISAF element ever does show up and sees that it’s like that, there will be a long list of reasons, all of them tied to security: they were robbed, insurgents threatened them and they had to stop, etc.
Since the PRT isn’t that connected with that particular community (really tough to do from a helicopter), chances are pretty good they’ll buy this story, and give the contractor more money to finish the building. Now, since winter’s well on its way (snow in the Hindu Kush today) there’s not too much more time before the winter construction halt hits.
So now it’s likely April (or earlier if it’s milder…even without snow cold temps make work nearly impossible) and you’re (maybe) back, via helicopter, and it looks like it’s about done. About that point the PRT is handing off to a new batch of personnel, and, since there are so many projects to look at (since the PRTs have too many projects to adequately monitor them), that school may not get a look from the new group until about mid-summer.
The contractor will make excuses about security, etc., and will get more money. Now it’s nearly winter again, you make another helo flight, and it starts over again the next April.
So in reality there will be more “tax dollars” spent on this project than if you had established it in a secure enough area that you could monitor regularly and ensure that the school’s being built right the first time.
Finally, what always needs to be considered is that a school is not a building: it’s teachers and students, and, hopefully, supplies. I’ve seen several instances of “schools” that just stood empty because no one was able to support that building with teachers and students. Unfortunately, it’s chalked up as a “success” because, well, the building is done, so there’s a “school.”
If you can’t get on the ground to look at it, I’m sorry, then you’re not conducting a counterinsurgency, and your application of tax dollars is about as effective as pushing money out of the helo as you fly over.
I was in Iraq as an adviser from about March 2004 to August 2005 and I know what you mean. I have been an idealist all my life and went to Iraq to turn it to the next Germany, Japan etc through a Marshall Plan sort of aid program. I thought my lifelong dream to be one of the idealist Americans who changed the world has finally come.
I hate the Middle Eastern regimes that treat woman so ruthlessly and thought that if we can use Iraq as a base to show how wonderful it is to have a civilized free enterprising democracy then we can change the whole world. As you can imagine I was so depressed by the time I chose to call it quits (after many bouts of fights with almost everybody there) and return to the USA. There was no leadership, there was no vision.
Yet have to say that I met some idealistic people who worked so hard but the rest of them were trying their best to give money (welfare) to US corporations through some gimmick. I worked with some military (especially a General) who I thought was remarkable, shared my view and worked hard under harsh conditions risking their lives. So there are heroes in this effort and my love for the USA increased many folds because of people like that. That’s the only positive thing came out of that experience.
Here are some remarks left on my Amazon book page that I thought were worth a wider audience. The writer calls himself “English Gent.” As best I know, we never knew one another in Iraq. He wrote:
I was one of the PMCs working alongside the PRT and actually uncovered the ‘Road to Nowhere.’ I worked alongside PRTs and assisted many despite not coming under PRT auspices. I met some wonderfully committed people attempting to good in a confusing and culturally complex environment. I also met buffoons of gargantuan proportions whose indifference to the stated mission of the PRT, and the Iraqi people as a whole was staggering, I witnessed projects that only the criminally insane could consider viable and reserve officers of such dubious, blimpish, quality that they actually stopped being amusing. I have ordered this book and will read it, I have so far seen nothing that doesn’t ring true. Nothing at all. I wish the author well, maybe now people will believe my seemingly outlandish tales of squander.
This cartoon was sent to me by an anonymous soldier who had worked on civil affairs in Iraq.
One of the surprising but very nice things to happen as this blog gets some attention is that I have started to receive a lot of emails and comments.
Here’s one that was particularly to the point (I deleted some details to disguise the writer’s identity at her request):
I was a Business Development Advisor at a PRT for three years and shared many of your same experiences.
I found it necessary to work beneath the radar to get anything done. In order to achieve something sustainable (several projects were, in fact, completed and continue to work well but only because they were cast as Iraqi inspired and driven), it was necessary to stay off the Embassy/PRT/OPA radar as far as possible. The successes were pooh-poohed by most in the PRT and Econ chain of command (but the Iraqis loved them).
I enjoyed the years because of the quality of a few of my PRT and Embassy colleagues, and because of my very productive relationships with the Iraqis (although I was accused often of not being “objective,” and even being “anti-American.”)
Good luck, Peter. Am hopeful your reporting and analysis will be a force for positive change because the status quo is poorly managed and badly broken.
For today’s whacky Afghan corruption report, we welcome special guest Sidharth “Tony” Handa. “Tony” is a decorated former Army captain, who was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison for taking more than $300,000 in bribes from Afghan contractors, a scheme the government called the largest bribery case to be prosecuted related to the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. “Largest” meaning as of today, as I am sure there is more to come.
“Tony”, of Charlotte, N.C., who somehow received the Bronze Star for his non-bribed service in Afghanistan, was arrested earlier this year. He had been targeted in an undercover sting in which Handa agreed to help a purported heroin dealer who had promised to help Handa collect additional bribe payments he believed were owed to him. The smack dealer would supply the muscle, Handa would collect the green. According to federal prosecutors in Alexandria, Va., Handa was assigned to help coordinate reconstruction projects in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. He solicited $1.3 million in bribes and received $315,000, which he split with an interpreter. A generous guy!
“From the day he stepped foot in Afghanistan, Mr. Handa negotiated a staggering amount of bribes from contractors in a blatant breach of the trust our military put in him,” said Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, where the case was prosecuted. “His actions brought shame to our mission, harmed our reconstruction efforts, and defrauded American taxpayers who funded the contracts he looted.”
Otherwise, yeah, we’re still winning in Afghanistan. The show, now entering its 11th year, is scheduled to last for America as long as the Chinese will pay for it, and as long as proud Americans like “Tony” are willing to step up and serve their country. Hoooo-rah!
Remember when America was rich? We could spend money on space ships, fancy cars and wars, lots of wars. It turns out that much of that money was wasted, leaving us poor and bent over while Chinese people dance happily around us.
But don’t listen to me.
Listen to the The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which will submit another sad report to Congress tomorrow.
That report is expected to say the federal government wasted more than $30 billion on contracts and grants in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that without “major changes in law and policy” we’ll enjoy such a large degree of waste in future conflicts already now in planning. The waste works out to one in every six dollars spent.
Peter wrote a whole book about this, which you can pre-order now, or pick up later in September at your fave bookstore. While the Commission on Wartime Contracting cites two juicy examples of waste– a $40 million prison in Iraq the country did not want and which was not completed, and a $300 million Kabul power plant that requires sustained funding and expertise that Kabul does not have the resources to provide– Peter devotes a whole chapter to his favorite wasted projects. These are smaller amounts of money that nonetheless illustrate the larger problem.
Stand outs include $10,000 worth of “Pastry Classes for Disadvantaged Women,” encouraging them to open bakeries on streets without water or sewers. Another was $25,000 worth of children’s bicycles. On streets filled with trash, pockmarked with shell craters, and ruled by wild dog packs, riding the bikes was impossible. Some of the bicycle wheels were later repurposed for use on wheelchairs.
About $22,000 of your tax money was spent to paint a mural on the side of a gym— think oiled musclemen. The purpose was to “provide an aesthetically pleasing sight upon entry, helping to bring a sense of normalcy for the citizens in the area and for those passing through.”
The best one was $12,000 worth of computers for internet use in a school that had no electricity. The school also had no teachers or students, but the PCs were supposed to encourage them.
In the book you can also read about millions more spent, on a Baghdad Yellow Pages, repairing the local zoo, driving lessons, empty factories and rug making collectives that employed child labor. Never mind plans for the Baghdad Subway.
The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan has been featured on this blog before.
We wrote about how the Commission found that US contract money was handed over to insurgent groups, allowing us to fund both sides of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Commission also popped up when it reported an audit that found that State didn’t properly handle $172.4 million from funds for the training of the Afghan National Police (ANP). Additionally, the report found that some of those funds went to paying contractors for hours they didn’t work. Some of the money was improperly spent in other areas.
Lastly, we reported on how State is objecting to continued oversight by the Commission. State is tired of being called out on its waste and would prefer that the Commission just go away and leave them to waste in peace.
But maybe none of this matters. The war in Afghanistan now costs two billion dollars a week.
Read more at www.wartimecontracting.gov
The lessons learned are already being compiled in a recipe for future campaigns. Target someone without nukes (North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are very safe, at least from us) and who is not a nuclear threshold state (Saudis, breathe easy). Use as many US and NATO resources as possible except for “boots on the ground.” Boots on the ground these days means troops we’ll need to acknowledge, not special forces, spies and sneaky mercs who can and were deployed in great abundance but in great secrecy. Let the public face of the war be someone, anyone, who is not American. Label them generic rebels, and tone down the rhetoric of past misadventures (no “freedom fighters,” no “Mission Accomplished” photo-ops). Encourage the media-fueled “victory” announcements from Libya. Stir, chill overnight and you’ve deposed another of America’s formerly reliable despots in favor of a bunch of nobodies we hope will keep the oil tap wide open. Repeat.
Now, my hope will be that the media will keep an eye on Libya long enough to allow us to see what happens next. The rebels will need to shift from breaking things to fixing things, the key transition that screwed up the American adventure in Iraq. Will they be able to very quickly take control of picking up trash, keeping the water and sewage plants running, funding electrical grid upgrades, making sure teachers, cops, toll collectors and tax officials all show up to work and all the rest of the day-to-day stuff of governing? Will they get sidetracking into settling scores and reprisal killings? Security, stabilization and development done sequentially take far too long in a bubbling post-conflict environment, but are very, very hard to do simultaneously (again, see Iraq).
How conflicts like the Libya campaign will fit into the bigger US geopolitical picture will be able to be judged by the results of such mundane civil tasks. Will the US walk away from Libya in large part, the “tyrant” now gone, uncaring about what happens next as long as the oil flows? It is obvious that the US plans nothing on the scale of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that set out to fix all those problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and failed miserably. But will the US dump “experts” and money into Libya? Doing so may or may not make things work, but will increase ownership of the problems by the US, something America would most dearly like to avoid. Doing close to nothing will likely ease Libya’s transition into a permanent semi-failed state.
Breaking things is easy, fixing things is hard. The US has mismanaged that problem consistently since 9/11. Let’s see what the play is in Libya to see if anyone in Washington really learned any lessons.
Mike was an imperfect man and a helluva guy. Our PRT team was a mess when Mike and I arrived in Iraq; I was the seventh team leader in just a year, and Mike was another in a long line of Deputies. He took it upon himself to fix what he could, schooling me along the way in how to operate inside a big, complex organization like the elite 10th Mountain Division we were embedded with.
The official obituary reads that “Lieutenant Colonel Michael M. Laabs entered into the Army in 1976. He served over 22 years as a commissioned officer, with a total of over 33 years of service. As a Civil Affairs Team Chief, Lieutenant Colonel Laabs deployed to An Najaf and Al Anbar Provinces, Iraq from February 2003 through June 2004. He also deployed to Baghdad as an Operations Officer and Deputy Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader in April 2009 through May 2010. He had many awards and decorations including the Meritorious Service Medal.”
All true. But now that he has passed, I can also reveal that Mike did with great purpose violate General Order Number 1 (no alcohol permitted, among other things) to share a paper cup of smuggled whiskey with me in the Iraqi desert to mark my 50th birthday.
Rest in Peace Mike. War’s over.
So imagine you wake up from some crazed three-day weekend in the bathtub, unable to remember two of the three days (your last memory is of watching Hangover II). You find yourself suddenly in charge of logistics and management for the US Embassy in Baghdad.
Despite knowing about the October 1, 2011 transition of control of Iraq from military to State Department control for the past three years, your predecessors have left you the following “TO DO” list:
–Hire 5500 mercenaries to secure the Embassy, providing them housing, food, weapons and vehicles.
Figure out a way to supervise them so they do not massacre Iraqi civilians or create diplomatic incidents by doing vodka shots off each others’ butts, as in Kabul.
–Construct four provincial posts despite delays caused by your boss’ inability to decide on scope, size, and land use, plus without certain future funds.
–Procure a fleet of 46 aircraft, to include 20 medium lift S-61 helicopters (essentially Blackhawks, possibly armed), 18 light lift UH-1N helicopters (‘Nam era Hueys, possibly armed), three light observation MD-530 helicopters (Little Birds, armed, for quick response strike teams) and five Dash 8 fixed wing aircraft (50-passenger capacity to move personnel into theatre from Jordan). Construct flight and landing zones, maintenance hangars, operation buildings, and air traffic control towers, along with an independent aviation logistics operation for maintenance and refueling.
–Negotiate agreements with Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait authorizing Embassy flight plans. Also, negotiate land use agreements with Iraq to base aircraft in Basra and Erbil as hubs.
–Build a hospital on property, to replace the departed Army facilities. Iraqi medical care is considered too substandard, and Iraqi hospitals too dangerous, for use.
–Add generator capacity. Your present generators are running 24/7, at capacity, and are in need of overhauls.
–Find housing on property for thousands of additional employees. Your boss in NEA’s only suggestion is “hot bunking,” like on ships, where day and night shifts share a bed (politics makes strange bedfellows?)
This is fact is only a partial list of the actual things the State Department is expected to do prior to the October 1 hand-off with the military. Most, if not all, of the list stems from the fact that by the end of the year most, if not all, of the US military will be leaving Iraq.
Want to read it all yourself? Have a look at the State Department’s declassified Department of State Planning for the Transition to a Civilian-led Mission in Iraq (Report Number MERO-I-11-08, May 2011).
Oh yes, the price. State has requested $6.3 billion in FY 2012. Congress has yet to decide what to do about the requests.
The Future of Iraq: Troops Face Dangers in South outlines the increasing dangers US troops, as well as the rest of Iraq, face in the volatile south. The southern regions of Iraq are and always have been Shiite strongholds, a fertile crescent of Iranian influence and happy places for al Sadr’s people. Unfortunately, that’s also where much of the easy-to-get oil is.
Another sign that the south is going to be trouble for some time was today’s rocket attack against an Iraqi oil storage depot that set one tank ablaze in a rare assault on strategic southern oilfields. Dhiya Jaffar, head of the state-run South Oil Company, told Reuters the attack set ablaze one tank at the Zubair 1 storage facility. An Iraqi police source said bombs targeted four tanks at the facility, but only one of the tanks hit contained crude and ignited. Another bomb hit an empty tank and bombs at two other tanks were deactivated, the police source said.
While the attack disrupted relatively little of the oil flow, it was not for lack of trying. Expect more as the US-Iran proxy war and Iraq’s problems with raising its oil output continue to collide in the South.
Still want more evidence of the Southern mess? Have a look at the growing tensions in Maysan, where the new Governor refused to meet with US PRT personnel, and told local agencies and non-government organizations not to cooperate with them either. The Americans responded in turn, by cutting their training of local forces there. Can’t see all that leading anywhere good.
Note that the continued presence of US troops in the area simply adds fuel to the fire; there are enough soldiers to keep tensions high, but without the mandate or the force (after eight years!) to tamp down the sparks (end of fire metaphor).
The Washington Post’s Rajiv Chandrasekaran (who wrote one of the better books about the early days in Iraq, Imperial Life in the Emerald City, summed up the ongoing failure of reconstruction in Afghanistan in two simple paragraphs:
US commanders and diplomats had hoped that the new programs would assist in cementing recent military gains against the Taliban, which have come at a significant cost of American lives. They believe that if Afghans have expanded access to jobs and can rely on local governments for basic services, many will renounce the insurgency.
A development specialist who recently completed a year-long assignment at USAID’s mission in Kabul blamed the delays on a staff turnover rate of more than 85 percent a year, shifting priorities among senior officials responsible for setting policy, and an ongoing conflict within the agency between short-term programs and longer-range development work.
If you really don’t want to read my book, or anything else ever about the failures of reconstruction in Iraq, Afghanistan or soon, maybe Libya or Yemen, just re-read those two paragraphs and you’ll have most of the sad story.
Switch to our mobile site