• Lessons for Afghanistan: My Time in Iraq 10th Anniversary Edition

    April 18, 2019

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

    I recently spoke with some college students. They were in fifth grade when I first got on a plane to Iraq, and now study that stuff in classes with names like “Opportunities and Errors: 21st Century America in the Middle East.” I realized about halfway through our conversation it’s coming up on ten years ago I first went to Iraq.

    I was a Foreign Service Officer then, a diplomat, embedded with the U.S. Army at a series of forward operating bases. I was in charge of a couple of reconstruction teams, small parts of a complex failure to rebuild the Iraq we wrecked. I ended up writing a book about it all, explaining in tragic-comic terms how we failed (those “Errors.”)

    The book was and wasn’t well-received; people laughed at the funny parts but my message — it didn’t work and here’s why — was largely dissipated by a cloud of government and media propaganda centered on The Surge, David Petraeus’ plan to pacify the Sunnis and push al Qaeda away while clearing, holding, and building across the country, apparently to make room for ISIS and the Iranians to move in. Meanwhile the new American president, elected in part based on his “no” vote to go to war in 2003, proclaimed it all a victory and started bringing the troops home even while I was still in Iraq. When I got home myself, my employer from not long after I was taking classes called “Opportunities and Errors: America in the Middle East Since WWII,” the U.S. Department of State, was unhappy with the book. Over a year-long process State eventually pushed me into early retirement. My career was history.

    People asked in line at Trader Joe’s and in interviews on semi-important TV shows “Was it all worth it to you?” and I always answered yes. I wasn’t important, I said, the story was. We’re making the same mistakes in Afghanistan, I ranted at cashiers and pundits, and there is time to change.

    See, my book wasn’t aimed at cataloguing the failure in Iraq per se, but in trying to make sure we didn’t do the same thing in Afghanistan. The initial title wasn’t the unwieldy We Meant Well: How I Lost the War for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People but Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq. The early drafts were pretentious scholarly stuff, outlining our mistakes. Harvard Business School-like case studies. Maps. Footnotes. It would have sold maybe five copies, and so my editors instead encouraged me to write more funny parts. NPR’s Fresh Air actually added a laff track to my interview. They were all right, and I figured I’d get the lessons across with humor more effectively anyway. In such situations you have to think that way. You can’t believe what you went through didn’t matter and keep getting out of bed every morning checking if it was yet Judgement Day.

    I now know officially it did not matter. It was pointless. SIGAR shows I accomplished nothing.

    SIGAR is the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a government oversight body that is supposed to prevent waste, fraud, and mismanagement of the billions of dollars being spent rebuilding Afghanistan but which has its hands full just recording a CVS-receipt length list of what’s wrong. Sounds familiar? SIGAR just released The 2019 High-Risk List which points out especially egregious things that will follow in the wake of any peace agreement in Afghanistan. Here are some highlights:

    — Without financial support from international donors, the government of Afghanistan cannot survive.  [Peace] will come at an additional price that only external donors can afford.
    — There are over 300,000 Afghans currently serving in the security forces, most of whom are armed.  If, because of a loss of financial support, their paychecks were to stop coming, this could pose a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability.
    —  A failure to peacefully reintegrate as many as 60,000 heavily armed Taliban long-term would threaten any peace agreement as disaffected former Taliban who may have been expecting a peace dividend may return to violent and predatory behavior.

    — Effective policing will require a force that gives citizens the presumption of innocence, rather than anticipating and taking preemptive offensive operations against perceived threats… There is no comprehensive strategy for a competent civil police force backed by the rule of law.

    — Failure to effectively address systemic corruption means U.S. reconstruction programs, at best, will continue to be subverted and, at worst, will fail.

    — The lack of sustained institutional capacity at all levels of government undermines the country’s development and ability to address the production and sale of illegal drugs. The opium trade plays a significant role in the Afghan economy and it is difficult to see how a peace accord between the Afghan government and the insurgency would translate into the collapse or contraction of the illicit drug trade.

    — If the U.S. reduces its presence in Afghanistan but feels compelled to provide significant financial support for reconstruction, there may be little choice but to provide a greater proportion of funding as on-budget assistance. But if that road is taken and conditions are lacking, we may as well set the cash ablaze on the streets of Kabul for all the good it will do.

    That last line really got me; in my book I’d written “While a lot of the money was spent in big bites at high levels through the Embassy, or possibly just thrown into the river when no one could find a match to set it on fire…” Had SIGAR read what I’d written or was the joke just so obvious that we’d both come to the same punchline ten years and two countries apart?

    A former State Department colleague is on her fourth (or fifth?) tour in Afghanistan. She likes it over there, says Washington leaves her alone. Her job has something to do with liaising with the few NATO military officials still around. It’s pretty easy work, they’ve known each other for years.  She harbors no illusions, and in a sober moment would likely agree with SIGAR that after over 17 years of American effort, Afghanistan has almost no chance of survival except as a Taliban narcoland with financial support needed indefinitely to avoid whatever “worse” would be in that calculus.

    We all know but try not to talk too much about the over 6,900 U.S. service members, 7,800 contractors, and 110,00 uniformed Iraqi and Afghan “allies” who died for that, and its companion Iranian client state in Iraq. A tragically high percentage of veterans have also died since returning home of drug overdoses, car accidents (?) or suicide. Nobody really knows how many civilians died, or even how to count them. Bombs and bullets only? Hunger and cold? Abandoned kids and enslaved women? Do we count deaths in Syria, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, and wherever too?

    Iraq wrecked me, too, even though I initially somehow didn’t expect it to. I was foolish to think traveling to the other side of the world and spending a year seeing death and poverty, being in a war, learning how to be mortared at night and decide it doesn’t matter I might die before breakfast, wasn’t going to change me. In the military units I was embedded in three soldiers did not come home, all died at their own hands. Around us Iraqis blew themselves up alongside children. Everyone was a potential killer and a potential target, sides appearing to change depending on who was pointing the weapon even as we were all the same in the end. I did this once, at age 49, on antidepressants and with a good family waiting at home for me. I cannot imagine what it would have done to 18 year old me. And I had it easier than most, and much, much easier than many.

    The only way to even start to justify any of it was to think there was some meaning behind it all. It didn’t do anything for me but fill my soul with vodka but maybe it… helping someone? A buddy I saved? No, I didn’t save anyone. The Iraqis? Hah, not one was better off for my presence. Maybe America? Please.

    Around the same time as the SIGAR report, the Army War College released its official history of the Iraqi Surge, a quagmire of dense prose I’m only about halfway through, but so far no mention of the impact of reconstruction. The theme so far seems to be the Army had some good ideas but the politicians got in the way. Fair enough, but they often misspelled Vietnam as i-r-a-q all through the book. The Army seems committed to calling things like suicide bombing and Shiite militias running whole neighborhoods as crime syndicates “challenges” instead of the more vernacular “failures.” That answers all questions about whether anyone will be held responsible for their work.

    The post-9/11 wars spread across three presidencies so far. Pick the thing you detest most about Bush, Obama, and Trump, and complain how it was never investigated enough, and how there weren’t enough hearings, and how he got away with it. And then I’ll disagree, for most everything that happened and continues to happen in Iraq and Afghanistan has gone uninvestigated, unheard, and unpunished. It’s all ancient history.

    All those failures have had no consequences on the most significant decision makers. Bush is reborn as a cuddly old goof, Obama remembered as a Nobel peace prize winner. Trump is criticized bizarrely both as a war monger and for talking about reducing U.S. troops in Middle East. The State Department ambassadors and senior leaders responsible retired, many to sweet university teaching jobs or think tanks. The generals found similar hideouts in pseudo-academia or as consultants; some are still in the military. I’d like to hope they have trouble sleeping at night, but I doubt it, and that kind of thinking doesn’t do me any good anyway.

    Oh, and on April 8 four Americans were killed in a suicide bombing attack in Afghanistan, including a New York City firefighter (9/11, Never Forget!) The incident occurred when an IED exploded in a vehicle near Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul. Taliban forces claimed responsibility for the deadly attack, which also wounded three additional U.S. servicemen.

    We all want to believe what we did, what we didn’t do, the moral injury, the PTSD, the fights with spouses, the kid at home we smacked too hard when she wouldn’t eat her green beans, all of what we saw and heard and smelled (oh yes, the smells, you know there’s a body in that rubble before you see him) mattered. You read that SIGAR report and tell me how. Because basically I’m history now.

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...


      Yes, you ARE history but you have an even more notable post WE MEANT WELL life and career. Enjoy the ride.

      04/18/19 4:33 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Yep, ancient history. On to Venezuela.

      04/18/19 9:25 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      The song remains the same

      You will kill ten of us, we will kill one of you, but in the end, you will tire of it first.”
      ― Ho Chi Minh

      04/19/19 5:50 PM | Comment Link

    • Joe said...


      @PVB I was deployed to Iraq three times, and spent over three years of my life in Pakistan (among other craphholes.) Bizarrely enough, due to the luck of the draw, I never made it to Afghanistan – though I did spend plenty of time looking across its border with Pakistan. I used to regret that, but now realize it’s not a big deal – other than making some extra money, all that time and effort on my part accomplished nothing. Do I regret it? Not at all – at the time, I though I was doing the right thing. But in hindsight … well … I read your book during my third tour in Iraq and said to myself “This guy really was here, and he gets it.” And then they tried to get you – but you persevered. Keep speaking truth to power – this country needs guys like you, especially now.

      04/19/19 8:18 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Vonnegut just read this in the great beyond. Maybe even some Russian guy slumped over a glass of cheap vodka is saying- hey this American guy- he sounds just like me! And so it goes.

      04/20/19 8:31 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Peter is just another voice crying in the wilderness. Amerika is the New Rome, where the rule of law is “We can do whatever the fuck we want and no one can do anything to stop US.”

      Infinity War with no endgame.

      04/20/19 10:27 AM | Comment Link

    • Sabina Pade said...


      It seemed, a few years ago, that you (PvB) had grown weary of being the “old white guy”, and decided that blogging was better left to people untroubled by the memory of life in a country not continuously at war. I’m happy you reconsidered, and that we’ve still your contributions to read!

      Enjoyed also your roundtable contribution at the RPaul conference in Chantilly, in late 2017. Like your colleagues, you sagely avoided saying anything that wasn’t already in the public domain ; there were no telling revelations ; but it felt good to be able to connect faces and voices with words so often read.

      Assange, for his part, was particularly impressive, although I do recall thinking at the time that his channeling of Pompeo, in characterizing CIA as a “state non-intelligence agency” might have been unhelpfully self-indulgent. I hope he’s okay – and that you are, too!

      04/20/19 12:26 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Peace is as likely as the Easter Bunny

      While Amerikan children wait for their Easter baskets to be delivered by the Easter bunny and we all pray for world peace during this holy period, it is sad the chances for world peace are probably as likely as the Easter bunny showing up at your door.

      Did you know the US has been at peace for only 16 of its 242 years as a nation? Counting wars, military attacks and military occupations, there have actually only been five years of peace in US history – 1976, the last year of the Gerald Ford administration and 1977-80.

      While we want to believe we are the exceptional country, yes we are — “the most warlike nation in the history of the world,” and we are forcing other countries to “adopt our American principles.”

      While we gear up for a real war with China, let US look at the pitiful Easter basket we are leaving for our children as a third world country. For example, China has 18,000 miles of high speed rail lines while the US has a broken mass rail system while it has “wasted over $3 trillion” on military spending.

      So kids, when grownups fuck your future with bankrupting endless wars and global climate disasters while they tell you the Easter bunny ain’t real, tell them the Easter bunny may b a dream, what they believe in is a real nightmare.

      04/20/19 7:01 PM | Comment Link

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