• Iraq was 20 Years Ago Today…

    March 19, 2023

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq

    I was part of Iraq 2.0, heading two embedded civilian provincial reconstruction teams (ePRTs) 2009-2010 and wrote a book critical of the program, We Meant Well, for which was I was punished into involuntary retirement by my employer the U.S. State Department. The working title for the book was originally “Lessons for Afghanistan from the Failed Reconstruction of Iraq” and was meant to explain how our nation building efforts failed to accomplish anything except setting afire rampant corruption, and how repeating them nearly dollar-for-dollar in the Afghan theatre was just going to yield the same results. After all, isn’t one definition of madness doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results?

    The title of my book changed to something less academic sounding, coming out as it did around the tenth anniversary of Iraq War 2.0. It is important to look back accurately; on the tenth anniversary the meme was still that the Surge was going to work, that the final push of soldiers and civilian reconstructors was going to break Al Qaeda in Iraq by coopting their indigenous Sunni partners. “Jury Still Out on Iraq Invasion” wrote Politico. My editor selfishly hoped the war would still be going on in a few months so we might sell some books. I knew we had something to worry about, not that the war would fail to drag on but that the failures would be so obvious no one would see the need to read a whole book about them.

    The way it all worked was like this. Washington would determine some broad theme-of-the-month (such as women’s empowerment) aimed at a domestic American audience. The theme would filter down to us at the PRT level and we were to concoct some sort of “project,” something tangible on the ground, preferably something that showed well in the media we’d invite to see our progress. It wasn’t hard because corrupt organizations arose like flowers from the desert to take our money. Usually run by a local Tony Soprano-type warlord, the organization would morph in name alone as needed from local activist group to NGO to entrepreneur incubator depending on the project. We’d give them boxes full of dollars (nobody wanted Iraqi money, a clue) and perhaps some event would occur, or a speaker might be brought in. We funded bakeries on streets without water, paid for plays on getting along with neighbors, and threw money at all this only because no one could find a match to just set fire to it directly. Little was expected in the end outside a nice slideshow celebrating another blow for democracy. In shopping for hearts and minds in Iraq, we made bizarre impulse purchases, described elsewhere as “checkbook diplomacy.”

    As Iraq morphed into a subject we were just not going to talk about very much (one journalist who read my early draft opined “So you’re the guy who is going to write the last critical book on Iraq before Petraeus takes a victory lap in his”) attention turned to Afghanistan. I knew this because suddenly I was flooded with requests to write recommendations for the same people who had failed so completely in Iraq to work in Afghanistan. As part of some escalation or another, the military was rehiring most of the civilians who had failed to reconstruct Iraq into exactly the same roles in Afghanistan, presumably to (fail) to reconstruct that sad place.

    I dutifully answered each personnel inquiry accurately, fully, and as a patriot, with the hope that someone would see what was going on and put a goddamn stop to it. I was very wrong. The key element of the fantasy was the reconstruction effort, the idea that rebuilding Afghanistan via $141 billion in roads and schools and bridges and hardware stores would gut the Taliban’s own more brutal hearts and minds efforts. That was the same plan as in Iraq only minutes earlier, where between 2003 and 2014, more than $220 billion was spent on rebuilding the country. Nonetheless, the Iraqi failure on full display, the United States believed that economic and social development programming would increase support for the Afghan government and reduce support for the Taliban (the log line for the war script.)

    However, as had its sister organization in Iraq, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) wrote “the theory that economic and social development programing could produce such outcomes had weak empirical foundations.” Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Michael McKinley noted, “It wasn’t that everyone, including conservative rural populations, didn’t appreciate services… But that didn’t seem to change their views.” As the Army War College wrote, “This idea that if you build a road or a hospital or a school, people will then come on board and support the government — there’s no evidence of that occurring anywhere since 1945, in any internal conflict. It doesn’t work.” As an American former advisor to President Ghani told SIGAR, “Building latrines does not make you love Ashraf Ghani.” But that was indeed the plan and it failed spectacularly, slow over its own twenty years then all at once last August. SIGAR summed up: “U.S. efforts to build and sustain Afghanistan’s governing institutions were a total, epic, predestined failure on par with the same efforts and outcome in the Vietnam war, and for the same reasons.”

    No, wait, nobody said any of those things during the Afghan war, only afterwards when it was time to look around and assign blame to someone other than oneself. The Iraq reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Vietnam (the CORDS program in particular.) The Afghan reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Iraq. We now sit and wait to see the coming Ukraine reconstruction fail to remember any of it at all.

    “It is obvious that American business can become the locomotive that will once again push forward global economic growth,” President Zelensky said, boasting BlackRock, JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs, and others “have already become part of our Ukrainian way.” The NYT calls Ukraine “the world’s largest construction site” and predicts projects there in the multi-billions, as high in some estimates as 750 billion. It will be, says the Times, a “gold rush: the reconstruction of Ukraine once the war is over. Already the staggering rebuilding task is evident. Hundreds of thousands of homes, schools, hospitals and factories have been obliterated along with critical energy facilities and miles of roads, rail tracks and seaports. The profound human tragedy is unavoidably also a huge economic opportunity.”

    We did worse than nothing. Iraq before our invasion(s) was a more or less stable place, good enough that Saddam was even an ally of sorts during the Iraq-Iran War. By the time we were finished Iraq was a corrupt client state of Iran. Where once most literate Americans knew the name of the Iraqi Prime Minister, a regular White House guest, unless he’s changed his name to Zelensky nobody cares anymore. And that’s what the sign on the door leading out of Iraq (and perhaps into Ukraine) reads — thousands of lives and billions of dollars later, no one cares, if they even remember.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      We? Fuck sake, Peter. You mean you did nothing. Actually you did WORSE than that. You took money for abetting this farce. You didn’t resign in protest. You were just like the rest. CAREER OVER COUNTRY.

      03/20/23 7:44 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      “The Iraq reconstruction failed to account for the lessons of Vietnam.”

      And that would be: things that start with THE BIG LIE END BADLY.

      03/20/23 8:44 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      PVB seems to have ignored Libya’s story. Where is the payoff in contractors who could fleece the local yokels with shoddy reconstruction? Might not Zelensky indeed lease us millions of acres in newly liberated eastern provinces to plant our beans. Where will the locals be “resettled”? They sure aren’t going to toil in the bean fields for Monsanto. They can either be “repatriated further eastward to mother Russia or shipped Westward. Ukraine’s dirt -far away from our homeland- would be a great opportunity to experiment with bizarre genetically modified crops. The locals may end up mutating in interesting ways but at least it wouldn’t be our Nebraskan farmer kin being used as guinea pigs.

      03/20/23 10:34 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer: Bobby and JFK were rumored to have had a sexual dalliance with Marilyn Monroe. She ended up dead- conveniently a suicide. At least Trump didn’t put out a contract on Stormy to quiet her and did the manly and chivalrous thing with under the mattress cash. That proves he can be a nice guy at times so ease up on the guy. He’s not all evil!

      03/20/23 12:11 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      The hole in your ho theory is EVERYBODY knew JFK was nailing every blonde in town. Not like there’s anything wrong with that. It was a different time when that behavior was accepted. JFK’s mistake was nailing Mafia women.

      03/20/23 9:44 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- I differ in the conclusion that promiscuity was OK because it was a different time. I dated one girl at a time not multiple women. Asshole behavior as practiced by someone like JFK was never acceptable. I don’t subscribe to the very popular premise that “times were different”to explain failed ethics. Bad behavior isn’t a cultural failing-but a personal one. Yes some would like their failure to be seen as logically in sync with the times. Not me.

      03/21/23 5:00 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      For fuck sake. Those who claim publicly they are pure in behavior usually are the biggest fuckers. See the Catholic Church.

      03/21/23 7:54 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...


      History is written by the corporates who own the printing presses.

      On the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, the New York Times, which did so much to boost the illegal war with its lies… I mean reporting… straight from inside Dick Cheney’s butt, asked the important question, “20 Years On, a Question Lingers About Iraq: Why Did the US Invade?”

      Right? Who knew? Just asking questions. I mean if we can’t trust this shitty paper to wipe our asses, who can we trust?

      03/22/23 11:51 AM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Peter wails that punishment is still pending for our war crimes in Iraq. Deep down we all want to be punished for our sins, even sociopaths like Donald Trump. According to 2009 emails between political operatives who were at the time advising Stormy Daniels on a possible political campaign, the porn actor claimed that her affair with Trump included an unusual act: spanking him with a copy of Forbes magazine. Just as serial killers want to be caught, Trump wants to be spanked for all his crimes. He is dreaming of being paraded in handcuffs. He will get his wish. As for our war crimes in Iraq, WE ALL GOT IT COMING.

      03/23/23 8:40 AM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- it seems the so called free press in America has always advocated for the ruling elite while claiming its mission is to insure the opinions of any opposition group will get equal coverage. The founders of America were pretty clever guys but also a little shady.

      03/23/23 3:32 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Ruling elites are the bane of Russia’s existence too. If the so-called free press in Russia would ensure the opinions of any opposition group, they better have offices on the ground floor.

      Last year March 4th, Putin signed into law a media bill that criminalizes objective reporting about the war in Ukraine; even the use of the word war in describing the situation is prohibited. And those who violate the law face up to 15 years in prison. In response, many independent media outlets have been forced to shut down, more than 150 local journalists are reported to have gone into exile. Novaya Gazeta, the independent paper founded and led by 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner Dmitry Muratov, announced it would cease publication until the war ended, after receiving a warning about its reporting from the authorities. Even access to outside media sources have been blocked, with Russians unable to directly access the BBC, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, and other U.S. and European news sources.

      Nothing shady in PutinLand. News is Black and white and Red all over.

      03/23/23 9:48 PM | Comment Link

    • John Poole said...


      Bauer- my fear is that the USA will detonate a mini nuke in Ukraine intending the blame will fall on Russia. The premise of the film By Dawn’s Early Light continues to haunt me. Zelenskyy’s unrealistic stance on peace conditions means his own guys will have to eliminate him.

      03/24/23 6:24 PM | Comment Link

    • Rich Bauer said...



      Spare me your Putin Talking Points.

      If Putin really thinks Ukraine is a threat, then NATO can disband.

      Putin is only a threat to the Russian people…and his own people should eliminate him.

      03/25/23 7:18 PM | Comment Link

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