• More State Department Fun in Afghanistan

    July 24, 2012 // 4 Comments »

    The Washington Post’s Al Kamen, reviewing Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistanon the failure of reconstruction (and everything else) in Afghanistan, pulls out some State Department-specific highlights:

    Two-thirds of the supposed nation-building civilians are camped out in Kabul and not out in the field;

    Eleven Bolivian engineers were brought in to show how a U.S.-backed program there to build cobblestone roads could be repeated in Afghanistan. A short demonstration stretch was built. But the Afghans objected. They wanted gravel and asphalt. The cobblestones, they claimed, hurt their camels’ hooves.

    Huge amounts of money were dumped into one district to employ lots of day laborers at good wages. Then the schools “suddenly closed.” The “teachers had become day laborers because the pay was better.”

    There was the State Department official who had worked anti-narcotics in Bogota. He brought in two Colombian women for a 12-day visit to talk about their country’s reintegration of FARC rebels. “But they spoke no English,” Chandrasekaran writes, “and no Marine battalion wanted to host them.” So they were dispatched to meet with Afghan officials. A senior official listened to them talk through an interpreter for an hour. “’Our problems are very different,’ he said as he got up to leave. ’But I love to hear the sound of Spanish.’”

    Kamen writes that in predictable State Department style, these disclosures have sparked a scramble in the Kabul embassy compound to compile “success stories” to counter the book’s analysis.

    The same thing happened in Iraq. If you want to read now the old claims of success in Iraq, they are still, without apparent irony, online on the Baghdad Embassy web site.

    (Pictured is then-ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker, who oversaw the State Department reconstruction follies. Crocker had previously overseen State Department reconstruction in Iraq as ambassador there. He was also recycled to be ambassador in Pakistan, where things are also going swimmingly in anticipation of someone else’s disclosure book-to-come.)

    If the definition of mental illness is doing the same thing repeatedly hoping for different results, the Department of State is clearly and simply insane as an organization.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan

    July 10, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan,a new book about the war and reconstruction in Afghanistan by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, makes me sad.

    Sad because it chronicles the mistakes, now in Afghanistan, that crushed reconstruction in Iraq. Sad because it shows America’s worst enemy is itself, not the Taliban. Sad also because it shows the book I wrote about Iraq, and all the garbage that came long with it, including losing my career at State, didn’t matter. The same errors in Iraq are present in Afghanistan– hell, based on Little America, it even seems like many of the same people are present– and that assures that once again money and lives will be wasted and nothing good accomplished. Like Iraq, we will lose this war too.

    Though I have read only the brief excerpts online and have had a limited personal conversation with Chandrasekaran about his book, once you hear familiar sounds you come to recognize the place, and the author writes of an Afghan process all too similar. Again, here are the contractors only in it for the money (many it seems holdouts from the Iraq project who just packed up and shifted locales, dragging their irrelevancy along with them), the well-meaning development professionals smothered in bureaucracy and, omnipresent in its nanny state, my own State Department.

    For even in this brief excerpt State comes off more than poorly. We learn of security rules that essentially prohibit local contact on a meaningful basis, the heavy weight of State’s own incestuous need for emails, updates and talking points to justify bureaucratic “engagement” with the field and of course pompous and ignorant FSOs that allow neither characteristic to slow them down. Foreign Service personnel stumble through meetings with important Afghans and smash relations with the powerful US military by dumbass moves like refusing to share gate lock combinations.

    I saw all of this in Iraq, even wrote a book about it, in hopes that maybe a tiny, tiny breath of change might blow into the mission in Afghanistan. Based on Little America, I failed, and that makes me sad. It appears that the US will again fail in reconstruction, at the waste of thousands of lives and trillions of dollars, and that makes me even more sad. You probably should be sad, too.

    Neil Sheehan, who wrote one of the seminal texts of the Vietnam War, A Bright Shining Lie, reviews Little America in the Washington Post, focusing on the inevitability of failure in Afghanistan due to the almost total corruption of the puppet Karzai government.

    Want more? Here’s a blurb from the Amazon review:

    From the award-winning author of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, a riveting, intimate account of America’s troubled war in Afghanistan.

    When President Barack Obama ordered the surge of troops and aid to Afghanistan, Washington Post correspondent Rajiv Chandrasekaran followed. He found the effort sabotaged not only by Afghan and Pakistani malfeasance but by infighting and incompetence within the American government: a war cabinet arrested by vicious bickering among top national security aides; diplomats and aid workers who failed to deliver on their grand promises; generals who dispatched troops to the wrong places; and headstrong military leaders who sought a far more expansive campaign than the White House wanted. Through their bungling and quarreling, they wound up squandering the first year of the surge.

    Chandrasekaran explains how the United States has never understood Afghanistan—and probably never will. During the Cold War, American engineers undertook a massive development project across southern Afghanistan in an attempt to woo the country from Soviet influence. They built dams and irrigation canals, and they established a comfortable residential community known as Little America, with a Western-style school, a coed community pool, and a plush clubhouse—all of which embodied American and Afghan hopes for a bright future and a close relationship. But in the late 1970s—after growing Afghan resistance and a Communist coup—the Americans abandoned the region to warlords and poppy farmers.

    In one revelatory scene after another, Chandrasekaran follows American efforts to reclaim the very same territory from the Taliban. Along the way, we meet an Army general whose experience as the top military officer in charge of Iraq’s Green Zone couldn’t prepare him for the bureaucratic knots of Afghanistan, a Marine commander whose desire to charge into remote hamlets conflicted with civilian priorities, and a war-seasoned diplomat frustrated in his push for a scaled-down but long-term American commitment. Their struggles show how Obama’s hope of a good war, and the Pentagon’s desire for a resounding victory, shriveled on the arid plains of southern Afghanistan.

    Meticulously reported, hugely revealing, Little America is an unprecedented examination of a failing war—and an eye-opening look at the complex relationship between America and Afghanistan.

    Be sure to read the excerpt from Little America, now at Foreign Policy. I will do a full review once I finish the book and after dealing with the PTSD it will no doubt trigger in me.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Baghdad Boondoogle: Wasting $750 Million

    February 21, 2012 // Comments Off on Baghdad Boondoogle: Wasting $750 Million

    Michael O’Brien, author of America’s Failure In Iraq: Intervention to Withdrawal 1991-2010, talks about the US Embassy in Baghdad, wondering along with just about every other sentient being just why America spent over $750 million dollars to build the World’s Largest Embassy.

    (If the video is not embedded above, follow this link)

    O’Brien also has a scathing blog on Iraq, Afghanistan and all of America’s wars of terror at America’sFailureinIraq.com

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    We Agree! Iraq Sucks as Spring Break Destination

    February 8, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    The State Department and I don’t seem to agree on too many things about Iraq, but with the release of the newest Travel Warning for that happy land, I think we have found common ground. State warns Americans:

    The Department of State warns U.S. citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the dangerous security situation. Civilian air and road travel within Iraq remains dangerous… to remind U.S. citizens of ongoing security concerns for U.S. citizens in Iraq, including kidnapping and terrorist violence… The ability of the Embassy to respond to situations in which U.S. citizens face difficulty, including arrests, is extremely limited.

    Some regions within Iraq have experienced fewer violent incidents than others in recent years, in particular the Iraqi Kurdistan Region. However,violence and threats against U.S. citizens persist and no region should be considered safe from dangerous conditions. Threats of attack against U.S. citizen targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or “Green”) Zone (IZ) of Baghdad.

    (Insert your own ironic statement here about how this is the situation after nine years of war, $63 billion in reconstruction costs and 4479 American deaths, I’m tapped out)

    Planning Spring Break in Baghdad? Note there is no Senor Frog’s there. Prices are however cheap, but better read the whole Travel Warning first before paying for those non-refundable tickets.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Drinking to Forget

    December 12, 2011 // Comments Off on Drinking to Forget

    If you’re drinking heavily these days trying to forget the whole Iraq War now that the media is again full of images from that crappy place as the military pulls out, go ahead and skip this posting with my regards. I know the feeling brother, beer for breakfast. Be cool, it gets better.

    They say.

    However, if you are interested in a one-page summary of the last eight and a half years of Iraq War, the Associated Press has a decent one available. If you are say a 19 year old Army Specialist wondering about this war that dominated the news during your teens, or if you were one of those kids to whom Bush read “My Pet Goat” to while New York burned on 9/11/2001, you might want to follow the link and read up a bit about how we got from There to Here.

    Some select quotes:

    For Americans back home, Iraq was not a war with morale-boosting milestones that could point to progress. No Pacific islands secured, no heroic storming of the beaches at Normandy. No newsreel scenes of grateful civilians welcoming liberators with flowers.

    Instead, the war became a mind-numbing litany of suicide bombings and ambushes. “Progress” was defined by grim statistics such as fewer civilians found butchered today than yesterday. Soon it all began to sound the same, a bloody, soul-killing “Ground Hog Day” of brutality after brutality seemingly without purpose. Pacify one village, move on to another, only to have violence flare again in the first place.

    America’s tactical victories — if they last — did little more than put an end to a conflict it helped create.

    It looks like this to me: 9/11 Afghanistan WMDs Mushroom Cloud Smoking Gun Lie Lie Lie Colin Powell UN Lie Lie Lie 2003 Shock and Awe Greetings to Liberators chaos Mission Accomplished Sunni Shia Kurd Fallujah Abu Graidh Sammara Green Zone Guantanamo Secret prisons Torture Odierno Petraeus Surge Reconstruction Fail Iran Iran Iran Give Up and Go Home.

    For the slightly longer and much better mini-history, try the Associated Press.

    If you are seeking a more in-depth review of the last nine years of Iraq adventure, the Washington Post is reprising much of its coverage, broken down year-by-year. Remember the big Saddam statue falling? All those purple thumbs for all those elections? The torture photos? It’s all there honey bunch. Ah, memories…

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Say You Want a Revolution?

    December 7, 2011 // Comments Off on Say You Want a Revolution?

    Another update from America’s largest gated community, Iraq.

    Bad guys bombed electrical transmission towers and lines across Iraq in a wave of attacks that cut power to several cities and towns.

    In eastern Diyala province, insurgents bombed four transmission towers, disrupting an electricity import line from Iran. Two transmission lines were bombed three weeks ago near Samaraa, north of Baghdad. In western Anbar, the Iraqi army defused bombs planted around a power plant early on Wednesday.

    Iraqis complain of getting only few hours of electricity a day. Current capacity is 8000 megawatts while the need is for around 14,000 megawatts, according to Iraqi officials. So, if you are a bad guy seeking to weaken whatever little faith people have left in the government, you blow up power lines to show that that government is but a paper tiger.

    The World’s Largest Embassy (c) in the Green Zone generates its own power, so was unlikely to have noticed Iraq skip another step closer to the abyss until they read it online.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    State Department Fixing the Facts Based on Policy

    // Comments Off on State Department Fixing the Facts Based on Policy

    State Department personnel in Iraq may be in danger as transition plans leave gaps in security and medical care

    (This article by me originally appeared in the Huffington Post)

    The State Department can often times be so inward looking that it fixes the facts based on the policy need, making reality fit the vision whether that naughty reality wants to or not. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it can be tragic.

    When I arrived at my second Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, we were told to call the area we worked in the “Sunni Triangle of Death.” The meme was “Look at us bad boys, reconstructing the nasty Sunni Triangle of Death. It proves State is not a sissy.” About six months later we were told to stop calling the place the “Sunni Triangle of Death,” because since we had been working for half a year, we needed to show some progress. “Triangle of Death” did not signify progress so the Embassy banned the term to fit the policy meme, even though nothing had really changed. No real harm done, I guess.

    Around election time, the initial plan was for PRT staffers to observe the March 2010 voting up close, mostly so the Embassy could claim the election was legitimate based on the happy-talk reports we understood we were to file. That was part of the warp, but the real kicker was that to show our faith in Iraqi security, we were told we were not to wear body armor at the polling stations. The Embassy felt that photos of us all geared up, as we believed we needed to be based on local security conditions, would not play well with their PR campaign that all was well. There was a lot of back channel grumbling, and a few threats to refuse to observe, and the Embassy quietly just changed plans and canceled most of the rural observations. Again, narrowly, no real harm done.

    Now, as the State Department rushes to replace all of the military support it needs to exist in still-dangerous Iraq without the Army, there are fears that the warping of reality may indeed endanger lives in Baghdad.

    What’s for Dinner?

    Currently every item of food for the Embassy, from sides of beef to baby carrots, is procured in “safe” Kuwait and convoyed up to Baghdad. It is an expensive system, one that occasionally even entails the loss of life protecting boxes of Raisin Bran, but it has ensured the safety and cleanliness of the food for almost nine years.

    The State Department, facing the crazy costs of this system without the nearly bottomless budget of the Defense Department, is once again swaying the facts to fit the policy. Undersecretary for Management Pat Kennedy told Congress in mid-November that seeking to cut costs in Iraq, State is looking to locally purchase some of the food its personnel will eat, breaking with the U.S. military’s practice of importing. Nothing has changed on the ground vis-a-vis food security, but to save money, State is warping that reality to fit its own needs.

    Physical Security for Contractors

    Security in general is subject to such warping, potentially at the cost of U.S. lives. In an anonymous email sent to numerous State Department official addresses this week, one contractor from State’s much-criticized police training program paints this picture (information deleted/changed for security purposes):

    There is an DOS policy that prevents contractors from using mission vehicles and personnel for leave rotations. Recently the climate in Iraq has become far more hostile to private companies, especially those not directly linked to the US State Department (such as our leave rotation crews). There is a current security threat briefed by DOS as “????? is actively seeking to capture personnel associated with the mission.”

    Meanwhile, the security taking contractors working for the State Department’s at ????? have recently stopped carrying weapons.

    My last trip took place at approximately 11pm. Armored cars traveling through the Baghdad red zone stopping at multiple checkpoints and opening doors at every checkpoint. The driver and TC were both Iraqi nationals speaking no English. Neither had any weapons. Neither wore their tactical body armor. Observing their behavior suggested they had no security experience.

    At the front of ????? outside the attached Iraqi compound, at the Iraqi checkpoint under an overpass at a four way intersection in the middle of Baghdad our convoy stopped outside a secure area. The Iraqi Police officers operating the checkpoint suggested that the absence of a dog created a situation where we could not be swept for bombs so we could not enter. Our driver and TC both exited the vehicle, leaving both doors open. Then we were ordered out of our vehicle (no weapons between all of us- in the presence of Iraqi officers known to be infiltrated with terrorists.) After a brief conversation and several tenuous minutes we were allowed to enter, however this scenario continues to repeat itself.

    Terrorists are not stupid. We have to assume they are actively surveilling us. We have to assume they are talking to Iraqi Police (who among other things have failed to catch two recent bombs passing through their security checkpoint).

    This policy preventing US contractors from having real security while traveling to and from ????? and ????? is the weakest link in the operation. It is reasonable to expect the US Government to value the lives of their citizens, especially those working in support of US Government operations.

    State of State’s Private Army

    Much has been made of State’s plan to hire over 5500 mercenaries as security guards for its Iraq-bound diplomats. However, while numbers do matter, the skills that those merc possess matter more. Currently in Iraq, with the US Army in place, a State Department convoy ambushed can call on a QRF, an Army quick reaction force. On standby 24/7, these soldiers are literally the cavalry that rides in to save the day.

    Needless to say, the State Department does not have such people on staff. So, State is hiring contractors, specifically an “Aviation Advisor” responsible for “Search and Rescue (SAR), medical evacuations, transporting Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) to respond to incidents, and providing air transportation for Chief of Mission personnel.”

    The problem is that the State Department put out this notice on November 4, closing a month later, only 26 days before the final withdrawal of US troops. Better hope HR is on the spot, especially given that the interviewing, vetting, hiring, travel to Iraq and initial setting up of a full SAR system will need to take place over Christmas to be in place by January 1. In other words, it won’t be there when needed.

    There remain other concerns harder to nail down in an unclassified environment — security at the Baghdad Airport once control leaves U.S. hands, availability of a blood supply (another contractor, who will have to create a logistics schema with the Armed Services Blood Program) and proper trauma care for the diplomats (yet another contractor), particularly should someone suffer the horrific burns now too common in IED attacks. Under the military system, even during an attack, an injured soldier would receive first aid from a trained buddy, be helicopter evacuated from the site within minutes, stabilized at a specialized trauma unit and on a med flight to a hospital in Germany within an hour or two. While the danger on the ground in Iraq will remain the same (if not more dangerous given the lack of American troop presence), State in no way will be able to replicate the vast resources the military can bring to bear.

    Reality – Policy = Insecurity

    The issues are not unnoticed. Some State Department officials have privately complained of becoming full-time contract managers, not practicing diplomats. One commenter lamented “Officials will be prisoners on the ridiculously large but poorly constructed compound and will be unable to leave the grounds without a security package so large and costly that being out of the Embassy will be the exception rather than the rule.” State’s own Inspector General laid out its concerns in a May 2011 report, concluding “Because of the complexity and considerable cost of construction, staffing, and logistics, there is a risk the Embassy will not have a fully operational medical system prior to the military’s departure.” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta reminded the Hill that State will require thousands of contractors to provide security and other services that had been provided by the Pentagon. “Yes there are risks involved,” Panetta said. “Do we have any other alternatives? No.”

    State’s responses have been weak. Can’t travel safely outside the Green Zone? “The Embassy will attempt to mitigate the loss of tactical intelligence by establishing closer working relationships with the Government of Iraq.” Although Embassy medical plans do not currently include the capability for handling a mass casualty event, Embassy officials magic-wanded the problem away by stating that “even the US military’s current combat support hospital can be overwhelmed by a large enough number of casualties.” Meanwhile, State “will continue to explore possibilities for mitigating the impact of a mass casualty event.”

    In other words, again the policy seems to be warping the reality on the ground. Only this time, it’s not politics, it’s personal, or maybe, without irony, personnel, at stake.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Party’s Over in the Green Zone

    December 6, 2011 // Comments Off on Party’s Over in the Green Zone

    Back in what we’ll probably soon call the good old days in the Green Zone, the place was a party pit.

    Staff at the World’s Largest Embassy (c) could borrow a motor pool vehicle and cruise the Green Zone (the Embassy wants to push the meme that the place is now called the International Zone but everyone other than Embassy PR drones including the Iraqis still calls it the Green Zone), snapping tourist pics (like me, above left) in front of ex-Saddam architecture. At night, staff could summon up a motor pool shuttle bus to retrieve them from parties held all over the damn place– something sedate and mature at a Scandinavian embassy, or a full-blown orgy at one of the security contractors’ compounds. Take your pick, or hey, try both in one night!

    Well Sven and Svenettes, the party is over. As “security” returns to Iraqi control and the last remnants of the US Army retreat from Bull Run, the Green Zone is no longer such a happy place. Mirroring internal guidance and formalizing weeks’ worth of rumors, the World’s Largest Embassy (c) issued a fatwa to everyone in the Green Zone:

    Due to severe threats of kidnapping operations and terrorist attacks throughout Iraq, including the International Zone (IZ), the U.S. Embassy has greatly enhanced the security posture for U.S. Government employees. This enhanced security posture includes severely restricted movement within the IZ. The U.S. Embassy recommends that U.S. citizens in all areas of Iraq, including the IZ, maintain a heightened sense of security awareness and take appropriate measures to enhance personal and operational security at this time. U.S. citizens are advised to keep a low profile; vary days, times, and routes of travel; and exercise caution while driving and entering or exiting vehicles.

    While I don’t know the specifics behind that announcement, the usual play inside any Embassy is a) A threat is identified; b) The Political or Economic section wants to downplay it to keep good relations with the host government; c) The Consular section frets that Americans need to be warned; d) Much dithering is snapped when the security office announces the threat already circulating informally inside the Embassy community in an internal memo which e) Triggers the “no double standard rule” and forces/allows the Consular section to go public. It is not a process that takes place casually, so probably bad stuff is a’ brewin’ in the old Green Zone for it to get to this point.

    The New York Times noticed too:

    The embassy in Baghdad regularly warns American travelers and citizens of kidnapping threats, and the risk of terrorist attacks on trade fairs or at public demonstrations, a constant shadow over life in a place where about 200 Iraqi civilians are killed every month.

    But the announcement of tightened security measures is more unusual, coming less than a week after a suicide bomber managed to bring explosives into the International Zone and set off a bomb just outside the gates of Parliament. Iraqi officials called the blast a botched assassination attempt against either the speaker of Parliament or Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.

    And indeed so have the bad guys. In a piece cheerfully entitled “Sunnis and Shiites Head Toward a Showdown in Iraq,” one writer notes:

    All these Americans will be in the line of fire once the troops withdraw. Last month the fiery cleric Moqtada al-Sadr issued a blunt statement about American staff working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad after the Dec. 31 deadline. “All of them are occupiers, and it is a must to fight them after the deadline,” Sadr wrote. That is no idle threat, given the Mahdi Army’s bloody history of attacks against the U.S. military.

    FYI: You can peer into the Green Zone from space via Google Maps. Note that per the State Department’s request, for security reasons Google has agreed not to update its satellite view to show the actual completed World’s Largest Embassy (c).

    Happy Holidays to everyone in Baghdad!

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Iraq: Car Bomb Inside Green Zone is Bad News

    November 28, 2011 // Comments Off on Iraq: Car Bomb Inside Green Zone is Bad News

    Of the two large explosions (so far) today in Iraq, it is the one that killed fewer people that is the most significant.

    The more deadly blast took place when a suicide car bomber detonated an explosives-packed vehicle near the main entrance of Hout prison in Taji north of Baghdad as family members gathered to visit inmates. An interior ministry official said 13 people were killed and 28 wounded by the blast.

    It is generally a bad thing when bad guys can get an explosive-laden car that close to a government facility… which is why the second attack matters more.

    An Iraqi member of parliament was wounded and at least two other people were killed in an explosion near parliament in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. A defence ministry official said three people were killed and four wounded by an explosion in a parliament parking area, but said that “it is not clear if it was a car bomb or a mortar shell.”

    Liz Sly, a long-time Baghdad veteran reporter for the Washington Post, confirmed via Twitter that it was a car bomb.

    The importance of the event is that a car bomber made it into the Green Zone, bypassing whatever passes for Iraqi security there these days. Hot times to come for the World’s Largest Embassy (c) there in the Zone.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    New Interview: With Peter B. Collins of KGO San Francisco

    October 30, 2011 // Comments Off on New Interview: With Peter B. Collins of KGO San Francisco

    Listen in on my conversation with KGO San Francisco’s Peter B. Collins, now online. Here’s how Collins sums it all up:

    Diplomats are masters of spin and doublespeak, but Van Buren is not so diplomatic as he details his role in funding reconstruction and nation building projects in Iraq. Not only is Van Buren a brilliant writer–his colorful narrative is tight but rich, laced with snarky humor–his verbal commentary is just as compelling. We talk about the $6.6 billion in lost funds recently “found”; about how he “volunteered” for a tour in Iraq; the roles of contractors, from armed merceneries to third world crews of cooks and service workers; the contrast between his forward operating base and the unreal scene in the Green Zone and much more.

    Van Buren talks about the power struggle between Defense and State over reconstruction, offers comments on our ambassadors, and is blunt about Obama’s October 21 announcement that he is keeping his campaign promise, and almost all US troops will be out of Iraq by the end of this year. “The decision…..was made in Baghdad,” said Van Buren, and he added that he thinks there will be thousands of US troops returning to Iraq by next summer.

    If you only buy and read one book this year, make it this one. It’s important, and very well written.

    Catch the whole interview, now online.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Review: Christian Science Monitor

    October 6, 2011 // Comments Off on Review: Christian Science Monitor

    A nice review of the book from the Christian Science Monitor, with some good passages:

    Van Buren alternates engaging but ultimately depressing chapters about the many ways reconstructing Iraq has failed with vignettes about the effort’s cast of characters – private contractors, Army brass, diplomats and spies, some arrogant, some lonely, some homesick. The reader unquestionably needs the respite, but the characters who provide comic relief in a chronicle of relentless failure in fact create the very failure we need to escape.

    In one such scene, Van Buren describes preparing breakfast for a VIP general visiting the base. There is an overabundance of hard-boiled eggs, the general’s favorite, and a display of “significant donut assets,” none of which the general touches. When Van Buren zooms in like this, the absurdity he conveys by co-opting the bureaucratic language of a failed endeavor is humorous. When he zooms out again, the absurdity turns dark.

    This eye for meaningful details, combined with Van Buren’s plain-spoken storytelling, is what makes the book work. He could tell contractors on sight, he says, because they all wore clothing with a plethora of pockets. “If you filled all the pockets, you wouldn’t be able to climb stairs.” From the popularity of line-itemed programs for widows to the Green Zone’s plentiful cargo pants, Van Buren identifies the styles of our war – and demands we think about its substance.

    Read the full review at the Christian Science Monitor.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Last American Out of Baghdad Please Shut Off the Lights

    July 12, 2011 // Comments Off on Last American Out of Baghdad Please Shut Off the Lights

    Oops. The World’s Largest Embassy (c) is running out of gas. Literally.

    The Embassy’s air conditioners won’t be operating at full power until further notice due to a temporary fuel shortage. “Recent security incidents” have halted fuel deliveries to Baghdad’s Green Zone, according to an email sent Tuesday morning to Embassy staffers. Iraqi officials have blocked roads leading to the Green Zone, meaning the compound’s main fuel supplier, KBR, is allotting fuel in smaller quantities.

    “As a result, the Embassy is running low on reserve fuel,” the email said. Until further notice, the Embassy is increasing temperatures inside its buildings in an attempt to conserve fuel. Staffers reported room temperatures close to 80 degrees.

    It is hard to know where to start with this one.

    Firstly, one has to wonder about security plans after the US military leaves/draws down at the end of the year. Roads in Iraq stay open in large part because out military patrols them, conducts route clearance of IEDs, uses drones to survey the roads ahead of convoys, and provides the muscle to get contracted drivers out of trouble when attacks occur. It is very, very unclear that State’s planned mercenary guard force will be able to pull off these very, very military duties. This will leave the World’s Largest Embassy (c) very vulnerable; after all, there is nowhere locally for them to buy any of the fuel, food and supplies needed to keep operating.

    The bigger irony of course is that all of Iraq suffers from lack of electricity; Iraqi power guys estimate that less than half the juice needed by citizens will be available, meaning the suffering that most Iraqis have endured under US-provided freedom is now being visited on the World’s Largest Embassy (c). Last year, temperatures rose to 120 degrees, and people took to the streets in anger. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki sacked the Electricity Minister, and then banned all protests. That unrest could be repeated again this year, despite all the government’s promises of new power projects. Also, on June 25, in a vote of confidence, the director general at the Ministry of Electricity was assassinated in southeast Baghdad.

    Lastly, it is amusing to note that while the US Embassy trucks its fuel into Baghdad by road from Kuwait (average cost is $18 a gallon), Iraq proper buys a lot of its fuel directly from Iran.

    Even that Iranian fuel might still be available to the Embassy– on the black market. Officials in the Ministry of Electricity are involved in the theft of millions of dollars of fuel intended for power stations, an MP from the ruling National Coalition claimed Saturday.

    Susan al-Saad said that the tankers used to transport fuel to power plants across the country regularly go missing, and that this would not be possible without official collusion.

    “Many officials in the Ministry are involved in the theft. Which is sad because it adversely affects the performance of electrical provision, in addition to contributing to the phenomenon of widespread financial and administrative corruption in state institutions,” she said.

    Last irony: Iraq sits atop the world’s largest oil reserves. Maybe the Embassy should consider cutting out the middleman and drilling for its own oil inside the compound.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Iraq, Land of Contrasts

    July 9, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Laundry Room, inside US Embassy, Green Zone, Iraq

    New Baghdad City, about a mile from the Green Zone, Iraq

    Decades of war and international sanctions have turned Iraq into one of the worst places for children in the Middle East and North Africa, with around 3.5 million living in poverty, 1.5 million under the age of five undernourished and 100 infants dying every day, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) warns.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Tomato, Tamahto, IZ, Green Zone

    May 25, 2011 // Comments Off on Tomato, Tamahto, IZ, Green Zone

    The State Department talking points are clear: the Green Zone should now be called the International Zone, or IZ. This is to indicate that things have changed in Iraq (they really haven’t much) and that the old calculus, that only the Green Zone was safe (everything else in Iraq was the Red Zone) isn’t true anymore. Actually, that is true: on mortar and rocket nights, even the Green Zone isn’t safe.

    Also, International Zone just sounds better, conjuring up PR-friendly images of boutiques along sunny, tree-lined streets, a cafe or two, lots of foreign embassies with their interesting persons in native costume. Like pretty much everything else about Iraq, none of that exists outside the minds of the Embassy staffers. Remind me to write about the plans for a Baghdad Subway system, or the wonderful watercolor architectural images of what Baghdad was supposed to look like by now.

    Anyway, as dearly as the Embassy loves itself the IZ, the Iraqis are just being off-message again. The sign pictured here was put up by the Iraqis, and stands today at one of the entrances to the, um, Zone.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Iraqi interpreters seek punishment; say contractor sexually harassed them…

    April 22, 2011 // 3 Comments »

    We all used interpreters in Iraq, as only some tiny, tiny percentage of Americans deployed spoke any Arabic at all. The people we called ‘terps typically were supplied as a commodity by various contractors– you ordered up another ‘terp like you’d order office furniture. If one did not work out, you’d call the contractor and ask for a substitute. That some people likened it to an escort service and saw the contractor companies as pimps only now seems more ironic.

    The Washington Post today has a story about how several Iraqi women employed as ‘terps by a US company faced sexual harassment. The women assert that their boss, Christopher J. Kirchmeier, a contractor in charge of security badges and clearances on a base inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, demanded sex in return for job-related approvals. Kirchmeier worked for Government Services, a Chantilly, VA-based subsidiary of super-contractor L-3 Communications. L-3 supplied the US Government with everything from simple ‘terps to trained torturers, er, interrogators, for intel work.

    The problem the women face is that it is almost impossible to successfully sue any of America’s finest contractors for things that may have happened in Iraq. Read another set of sad stories about this below, in Down the Toilet.

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State