• Serious Questions about a Haiti Reconstruction Puff Piece

    August 20, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    The default media plan at State is to follow anything negative in the press with a planted puff piece. Rather than tackle the facts in a negative story (seeking to refute them with other information, or to make corrections), State’s modus is to seek ink that just says everything is actually wonderful, without mentioning the offending original articles.

    Following a scathing Associated Press investigation into the failure of State to reconstruct Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake (Less than 12 percent of the reconstruction money sent to Haiti after the earthquake has gone toward energy, shelter, ports or other infrastructure. At least a third, $329 million, went to projects that were awarded before the 2010 catastrophe and had little to do with the recovery), State first tried an “Op-Ed” by the ambassador blithely mumbling that all was well. That was back in late July.

    It took almost a month more, but State did finally select its author for what appears to be a real puff piece, in this case some hack named David Brown at the hometown Washington Post (slogan: still dining out on that Watergate thing). Brown’s work at the Post has been mostly on health issues, mainly HIV/AIDS, with the odd bit about Warren Buffet’s prostrate (not good) and Dick Cheney’s artificial heart (“doing exceedingly well”). As such, he was obviously the perfect guy to write authoritatively on reconstruction in Haiti.

    Without too much surprise, Brown tells us of the wonderful work State, via its USAID arm, has done in one micro-neighborhood in Port-au-Prince. The short version is that in this one neighborhood, 500 people have new houses, lots of locals were employed to do the work, and civic improvements accompanied the new homes. It is a real success story. Read it yourself.

    Some Questions

    Here are the questions I sent to the Washington Post Ombudsman about the article. Should I receive a reply, I will feature it on this blog. Had the article addressed these points it might have floated above puff piece.

    Did David Brown locate this rebuilt neighborhood on his own, or did State direct him to it? Did Brown fly to Haiti specifically to do this story? What role did State/USAID play in his access to the neighborhood? Was he accompianied by anyone from State/USAID at any time? Brown does not seem to cover Haiti, State or reconstruction issues. How did he end up with this story?

    The story says $8.5 million US tax dollars were spent repairing or replacing 500 homes. That works out to a very rough figure of $17,000 per home. Haitian GDP is about $1300 a person a year, among the world’s impoverished. Is $17k per home expensive? Typical costs? What does the figure actually mean?

    Why did reconstruction seem to succeed so well in this one micro-area while failing broadly? Are there lessons to be learned and applied elsewhere in Haiti or is this an anomaly?

    The Associated Press piece focused in part on how little reconstruction money actually makes it to Haiti instead of being siphoned off by US contractors. Brown’s article claims all but four workers used on this project were Haitian. At the same time, he notes that the project sent only $1.4 million of the $8.5 million total into the local economy. That seems to suggest over $7 million bucks went somewhere else. Where did it go?

    Brown’s article, which ran on the front page of the Post and continued inside, quoted only two people connected with the project by name, the project manager paid by USAID and one engineer paid by USAID. Why were there no quotes from any of the Haitian residents of the new dwellings? Why were there no quotes from any local Haitain officials? Did the WaPo editors cut out such quotes? Did they not ask Brown to obtain such quotes? How did Brown fact-check the details given to him by the USAID-paid people? DID Brown fact check those details?

    As I learned in Iraq, building things is relatively easy given massive amounts of money. The real magic is sustainability. Brown tells us “Groups of houses share 23 septic tanks and 100 bucket-flush toilets, which can be locked for privacy. Twenty solar-powered lights illuminate streets.” What plans and whose money are in place to repair and maintain that technology? Who/how will the septic tanks be drained or pumped out? What happens when the first solar light needs replacing? Will any of this be there working a year from now? If so, under what plan? The article calls the work in Haiti a “renaissance,” a pretty dramatic word that is empty, meaningless and damned temporary unless there is a sustainability plan in place.

    Almost all the details in the story are unsourced. Brown talks about the number of septic tanks, a kidnapping and decisions taken collectively by the neighborhood. He does not say where any of this information came from. Where did this information come from?

    Brown states:

    Another big problem was that wider paths and outdoor places to sit were neighborhood priorities but there was not any unoccupied land for them. As the project evolved, 201 households agreed to reduce the size of their plots, 171 agreed to reshape them, and 51 agreed to share their plots with another family by living in two-story houses.

    This is a huge thing to have accomplished. In reconstruction work, the easiest thing to do is simply to redo what was destroyed, urban problems and all. Destroyed too-narrow streets are replaced with new too-narrow streets because it proves inexpedient to resolve the many disputes. How did this process actually work out in Haiti? Did it really happen? If it did, the method used should be a critical element toward replicating this success throughout Haiti. Did State/USAID lead negotiations? Was there some sort of local micro-government?

    Since it is unlikely that such agreement spontaneously emerged, leaving out the process raises questions about whether Brown had any idea what he was writing about, or was simply a notetaker for USAID’s propaganda machine.


    Over to you, Washington Post Ombudsman.

    BONUS: The Haitian government has hired an ex-Bill Clinton administration guy to act as a lobbyist, seeking to influence US decision-makers on aid and rebuilding issues.




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    Imperial Reconstruction and Its Discontents

    August 19, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    If you missed my recent article “How Not to Reconstruct Iraq, Afghanistan — or America A Guide to Disaster at Home and Abroad,” it is available at the following sites, below.

    Please note that despite the extensive coverage of my article, including CBS, the article was not included in the daily State Department web summary. The primary site, TomDispatch.com, is still electronically blocked on all State Department computers for whatever the hell “Wikileaks Content” is. I am certain The Onion regrets the error.

    TomDispatch

    CBS News

    Salon.com

    The Nation

    Mother Jones

    Huffington Post

    Le Monde

    ZNET

    Guernica

    Uruknet

    PRN

    Cost of War (Robert Greenwald)

    Counterpunch

    Middle East Online

    Smirking Chimp

    Daily Kos

    Op-ed News

    MyFiredoglake

    Commondreams

    Nation of Change

    Countercurrents

    Truthout

    Opposing Views

    American Empire Project

    rumorsandnews.com

    www.blogotariat.com

    publicdiplomacypressandblogreview

    www.liberalroundup.com

    snokey.com

    Antiwar.com

    The Indypendent

    War in Context

    darkpolitricks.com

    economyincrisis.org


    shredoftruth.com

    mikenormaneconomics




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    Iraqi PM Maliki Sucks Iranian: This is Important

    April 30, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    Here’s a story worth repeating in its whole, as it will be one of those articles you wish you had read a few years from now when everyone is wondering how Iraq ended up a vassal state of Iran.

    Note the important parts in bold, particularly the final paragraph which reminds again that the US failure to reconstruct Iraq will continue to have far-reaching consequences for the US in the Middle East.

    A pubic relations stumble between Tehran and Baghdad has intensified speculation that one of Iran’s most senior clerics is about to extend his power – and Iran’s theocratic system – into Iraq.

    On his return from a visit to Tehran, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s office released statements on his meetings with several senior Iranian officials – but it was silent on Mr Maliki’s encounter with 63-year-old Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi.

    Despite a Baghdad blackout on what is understood to have been their third meeting in recent months, Iran’s government-run news agency IRNA released a photograph of Mr Maliki and Ayatollah Shahroudi – who is Iraqi by birth – greeting each other warmly. An accompanying report on the visit barely mentions Mr Maliki, but quotes Ayatollah Shahroudi urging Baghdad to support the ”Islamic Awakening” currently under way in the Middle East.

    Ayatollah Shahroudi, a powerful member of Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei’s inner circle, is positioning himself to become the next spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite Muslim majority, a move observers say would be impossible without Tehran’s blessing and funding. The Iraqi religious establishment, based in Najaf, south of Baghdad, opposes religious intervention in day-to-day government. But in Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s theory that God’s authority is vested in the supreme leader and senior religious scholars is law.

    Speaking privately, a senior official in Baghdad described the meeting as ”extremely significant”, revealing at least tacit support by Mr Maliki for an Iranian plan to have Ayatollah Shahroudi replace the ailing Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani as spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiites.

    Reidar Visser, an Oslo-based analyst of Iraqi affairs, sees formidable obstacles to the Shahroudi bid, but warned: “By visiting Shahroudi, Maliki did nothing to kill the rumours about some kind of Iranian design on the holiest centre of Iraqi Shiism. “If Shahroudi should succeed … those arguing that Maliki is moving towards even greater co-ordination with the Iranian clergy would feel vindicated – and rightly so.”

    The plan seems to be inspired, in part, by a breakdown in relations between Mr Maliki’s government and religious authorities in Najaf. Despite remaining aloof from day-to-day politics, the ayatollahs wield significant power in their real or perceived endorsement of the government and its policies.

    For months now, all the senior clerics in Najaf have been abiding by an edict from Ayatollah Sistani that they not meet with politicians or government officials. Referring to the cloak-like robe worn by Arab men, a spokesman for one of the senior ayatollahs in Najaf told The Saturday Age: “We will not continue to cover their mistakes with our abaya.”

    Ayatollah Sistani’s surrogates have recently become even more confrontational, openly attacking the Baghdad government during Friday prayers. One cleric widely linked to Ayatollah Sistani, Ahmed al-Safi, blamed government corruption for the failure to restore Iraq’s electrical generation system.

    “When patriotism is absent, officials sell themselves to foreigners for their kickbacks,” he said while preaching at the holy city of Karbala.



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    Happy Ninth Anniversary Iraq Invasion!

    April 1, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    (This article originally appeared on Huffington Post)

    Just like with my own wedding anniversary, I’m a few days late recognizing the ninth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, but sincere in marking the occasion none the less.

    As with wedding anniversaries (I am really sorry honey, I thought you liked Denny’s and yes, in retrospect, a gift card for flowers is not the same as flowers ), another year having past is a good time to pause and take stock. Following the US invasion of March 2003, we cycled through excuses for the war like gluttonous Mr. Creosote, never really satisfied as we passed through no WMDs, blood for oil, ridding the world of yet another evil dictator (while supporting so many others in Yemen, Egypt, and at that time Syria and Libya), stopping terrorism and all the rest. As the clock ran out in Iraq, we settled on “creating a 1) stable, 2) democratic Iraq that is an 3) ally of the US.” And even that was like, whatever, two out of three maybe.

    Sad to say even after 4480 American deaths, 100,000+ dead Iraqis, trillions of greenbacks and all the rest, for most Americans wars are just another sporting event. We watch while it is going on, lose interest near the end and afterwards just declare it a victory (or a tie, we never lose) and change the channel to Syria.

    But before we do that, today at least in honor of the anniversary, let’s just have a quick look at Iraq.

    Stable
    Tuesday morning, at least 16 near-simultaneous explosions struck cities and towns (Baghdad+Karbala+Kirkuk+Ramadi+Mosul+Hilla+Tikrit+TuzKhurmatu+Daquq+Baiji+Dibis+AlDhuluiyah+Samarra+Baquba+Mahmudiyah) across Iraq, killing at least 45 people and wounding more than 200, despite a massive security clampdown ahead of next week’s Arab League summit. It was Iraq’s deadliest day in nearly a month, and the breadth of coordinated bombs showed an apparent determination by insurgents to prove that the government cannot keep the country safe ahead of the summit.

    Democratic
    Malaki still holds some senior cabinet positions for himself, and still has an arrest warrant out for his own VP, who is in hiding in Kurdistan where Baghdad’s law does not apply. On Monday, a million loyalists of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr rallied in south Iraq Monday decrying poor services and rampant graft. Demonstrators shouted: “Yes to rights! Yes to humanity! No to injustice! No to poverty! No to corruption!”

    Some protesters held aloft electrical cables, water canisters and shovels to symbolise the poor services that plague Iraq. Others carried empty coffins with words plastered on them such as “democracy”, “electricity,” “education” and “services”. Iraq suffers from electricity shortages, with power cuts multiplying during the boiling summer, poor clean water provision, widespread corruption and high unemployment. This is despite the US spending $44 billion on reconstruction in Iraq, the failure of which was the subject of my book, We Meant Well.

    Ally of the US
    Syria, America’s itch up its butt de jeur in the Middle East, is suddenly full of bad people (we used to support; in 2003 when the Iraq invasion started we were still rendering prisoners to Syria to torture on our behalf) and yet another regime America has unilaterally decided must change. OK, well enough, except that reports indicate that Iranian weapons are flowing through ally Iraq into Syria, and Iraq tells the US it won’t stop them. What are friends for, am I right?

    The ties between Iraq and Iran continue to strengthen, with Iraq serving as a money laundering stopover for sanctioned Iran, even as Iran sells electricity to Iraq (that darned failed reconstruction again). Indeed, with Iran now able to meddle in Iraq in ways it never could have with Saddam Hussein in power, the country will be more able to contest US-Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. The grim irony, notes Ted Galen Carpenter of the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute in an op-ed for the Washington Post, is that by invading Iraq in 2003, “the United States has paid a terrible cost – some $850 billion and more than 4,400 dead American soldiers – to make Iran the most influential power in Iraq.”

    Happy Anniversary honey, and I’ll be sure to remember it on the right day next year! After all, if you don’t learn from your mistakes, what’s the point, right? We’ll do something special next year, like maybe a trip to Tehran? Love ya’!



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    From the PRT Diaspora: Nation-Building in One Sentence

    January 7, 2012 // 3 Comments »

    From a development professional looking at State’s work in the reconstruction of Iraq:

    To do it right takes some time and expertise. Blow in, blow off and blow out doesn’t work.

    That about sums it up.





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    Corruption Consuming Up to 30% of Afghan Reconstruction Money!

    November 22, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Yea Juggalos, we’re winning again in America’s Never-Ending-Gob-Smacker-Sucker of a war, the Afghan-Taliban-Pakistan Warapalooza!

    For those who have been in a coma or tied up Occupying somewhere, we have been defeating the Taliban for the past ten+ years in Afghanistan, and reconstructing that same place for pretty much the last ten+ years. But for reconstruction, it is perhaps best to think in dollar terms, not time: we have spent over $70 billion (borrowed) on rebuilding.

    By most accounts, the reconstruction has not been successful, and lots of people are unsure why not.

    Now we have an idea, from a new Congressional Research Service report released November 14. Here are a couple of the money quotes:

    One USAID official estimated that on some projects, up to 30% of contracted project costs can be attributed to corruption. A number of government and industry officials stated that corruption is the ‘price of doing business’ in Afghanistan.

    Corruption takes many forms, including government officials charging bribes for transporting goods across the border and extorting protection payments. Many analysts view large swaths of the judicial sector and the attorney general’s office as corrupt, as evidenced by the lack of prosecutions against high-ranking government officials or warlords accused of being involved in criminal activity or rampant corruption. In other instances, members of the Afghan security forces use their position to demand bribes and extort shipping companies at Afghan borders and airports.

    The billions of contracting dollars spent to support military operations and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan raise a number of potential questions for Congress that may have significant policy implications for current and future overseas operations. These questions include to what extent U.S. government development and CERP contracts contributing to the overall mission in Afghanistan.

    That last paragraph of course is a hoot; people, it has been over ten years of doing the same stuff in Afghanistan and only now are you asking if it supports the overall mission? Did someone just forget to think of that question earlier? Isn’t it sort of late in the “game” to wonder if our reconstruction efforts were supporting the overall mission?

    Anyway, if you have the stomach for it, the whole report is online.



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    Afghan $4 Million Road to Nowhere

    November 16, 2011 // Comments Off on Afghan $4 Million Road to Nowhere

    In We Meant Well I chronicle an almost endless list of reconstruction projects that failed, either due to corruption, stupidity or both. In Iraq we spent millions to pave roads from nowhere to nowhere (waste), or to pave roads that did not exist (corruption), or in one instance I wrote about, pave a road that ended up making it easier for insurgents to shift fighters around and thus had to be unpaved at our own expense (both).

    The Miami Herald features a story about failed road work as part of the US’ efforts to reconstruct Afghanistan. The tale could easily be another chapter in We Meant Well, except that the loss of money is in the millions and climbing, the setting is Afghanistan and not Iraq, and that it shows no one learned anything from the debacle in Iraq.

    The Herald writes:

    From 2008 to 2010, the U.S. government paid $4 million to RWA, a consortium of three Afghan contractors – only to see it pave less than two-thirds of a mile on a road that’s supposed to stretch 17.5 miles. The contractors said the area had become too violent to work in, but U.S. and Afghan provincial officials think that two of the principals absconded to New Zealand and the Netherlands, having pocketed much of the cash.

    U.S. officials describe the Ghazni affair in positive terms: They saved the $6 million that remained on the contract for other projects, terminated RWA’s existing contracts and blackballed it from future work, and say they’re ready to cooperate with Afghan investigators should they decide to pursue legal action against the consortium.

    But it’s also a reminder that corruption, violence and political disputes continue to plague U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

    Last year, a McClatchy Newspapers investigation found that U.S. government funding for at least 15 large-scale Afghan programs and projects ballooned from just over $1 billion to nearly $3 billion – despite questions about their effectiveness or cost – in the headlong rush to rebuild the country and shore up its struggling government.



    The whole story is worth reading, on the Herald site. If you live in Detroit, or New Orleans, or anywhere in the US with crumbling infrastructure, try pretending to be Afghani to secure US government funding. It may work!



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    Six Degrees of Condi Rice

    November 3, 2011 // 3 Comments »

    ONE:
    Condi wrote a book (mostly) about the Iraq War.

    I wrote a book (mostly) about the Iraq War.

    TWO:
    Condi is using the media to sell her book. She was on the Daily Show the other night.

    I am using the media to sell my book. I was on a small NPR station the other night.

    THREE:
    Condi says that she was right about the war, and that she is proud she pushed the State Department into the field for Iraq’s reconstruction.

    I say she was a lying scab about the war, and that she helped destroy the State Department by sinking too many of her limited staff into the sucking pit of the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad and neglecting America’s foreign relations with the rest of the planet.

    FOUR:
    Condi is always welcome at the State Department.

    I am banned from entering the State Department building.

    FIVE:
    Condi helped start a war that has, so far, killed 4479 Americans, over 100,000 Iraqis and cost America trillions of dollars. She sits on the board of Chevron and has an appointment at Stanford.

    I have never started a war and never killed anyone. The State Department is trying to fire me.

    SIX:
    Let’s break the pattern here:

    Please don’t read Condi’s book.

    Please read my book.



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    Memories: Looking Back

    November 2, 2011 // Comments Off on Memories: Looking Back

    It is fun to look back sometimes to the things people said a year ago to see how all that has turned out.

    For example, w-a-y back a year ago, Iraq Business News and head cheerleader Joe Biden were so cheerfully upbeat that you could get cavities from all the sugar dripping through the Internet:

    As Joe Biden put it, “Iraq is on the cusp of something remarkable – a stable, self-reliant nation”.

    If the rival factions can piece together a stable cabinet over the next two weeks, and the indications are that they will, then we can look forward to more progress in a country where “everything imaginable needs to be rebuilt”. This could well signal the start of a new phase in Iraq’s development, and Iraq Business News will continue to assist businesses to play their part in that development.

    Though the next paragraph from December 2010 was actually meant to signal the huge business opportunities to come in Iraq, it actually summed up America’s failed reconstruction efforts. After eight years and $63 billion expended:

    “Everything imaginable needs to be rebuilt,” said Leslie M. Schweitzer, senior trade adviser for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, referring to airports, seaports, waterways, railroads, water purification systems and around 2 million to 3 million houses. “The numbers are astronomic.”



    Bonus: Looking for work in Iraq? Follow @ConnectingIraq on Twitter to scope out job offers.

    Anyway, careful what you say comrades, because the Internet is written in ink.



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    Voices from the PRT Diaspora

    October 9, 2011 // 13 Comments »

    A comment from another former PRT contractor:

    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.




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    Nation Building in Iraq: A Cartoon Summary

    October 5, 2011 // Comments Off on Nation Building in Iraq: A Cartoon Summary

    This cartoon was sent to me by an anonymous soldier who had worked on civil affairs in Iraq.





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    Why “We Meant Well”

    July 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Why “We Meant Well”

    Along with the semi-regular threats (why are they ALWAYS IN ALL CAPS!?!?!??!), people do ask about the title of the book.

    Here is what one faithful reader wrote as a comment in Salon:

    We meant well?
    Why not be honest and title it ” I’m a brick in the road to Hell”?

    Everybody wants a pass on their part in the last decades madness. Fuck That. You willingly took part. The day of the sin eater is long past, nobody on this planet can absolve your sins.

    Now go make few bucks in false piety.


    We had a lot of discussion about the title, We Meant Well. The idea is that many reluctant participants in the war, like me, started off with good intentions. We never intended to be complicit in fraud, sign off on waste and encourage corruption, but that is what happened. We came to see that is what had to happen, given how messed up the entire effort was from the start. Let’s destroy a country and then rebuild it begs the question of why destroy it in the first place.

    So, over the course of the war/book, what starts out as good intent– We Meant Well and we’ll try to fix things– ends up as irony– We Meant Well but we fucked up. Like living it, after reading the book I hope you will come to the conclusion that what was called reconstruction (or nation building, or promoting democracy, etc.) was doomed by the lack of thought and planning needed to backstop good intentions. These were peoples lives we were playing with, and people in need of water, medical care and basic services could not have their thirst slaked simply by good intentions.

    It would have been an easier war to understand, and an easier book to write, if I had found our efforts populated by Americans out to steal money, or mean-spirited State Department people set on messing up Iraqi lives. But that wasn’t the case. What happened was a sad but intensely American thing, the destruction of a civil society simply through misguided good intentions we were too clueless to even see as we committed our sins.



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    Losing Money Through Stupidity in Afghanistan Again

    July 21, 2011 // Comments Off on Losing Money Through Stupidity in Afghanistan Again

    The title alone of the lastest SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstrcution) report sums it up:

    LIMITED Interagency Coordination and INSUFFICIENT Controls over US Funds in Afghanistan Hamper US Efforts to Develop the Afghan Financial Sector and Safeguard US Cash.


    Better yet, to show you the level of duplicity practiced by State, the US Embassy in Kabul suggested to SIGAR that they change the title to be:

    IMPROVED Interagency Coordination and ADDITIONAL Controls over US Funds in Afghanistan Hamper US Efforts to Develop the Afghan Financial Sector and Safeguard US Cash.



    What a sense of humor. But we digress.

    You can probably piece the story together yourself. After only ten years of fightin’ and reconstructin’ in Afghanland, the various US government agencies involved do not cooperate and State, the lead Federal agency for the debacle, is not exercising its Daddy role well. Meanwhile, Afghan bad men are taking advantage of this to suck billions of dollars out of our pockets. The Taliban are doing wicked good, thank you, and the US is no closer to its goals than, oh, say ten years ago.


    Not Playing Well Together

    If you really have the stomach to know more details, the report is quite thorough in documenting how poorly everyone plays together.

    For instance, a key interagency working group did not include all US agencies involved in implementing financial sector development programs. Specifically, DHS, which is implementing programs to strengthen the visibility over currency flows through the financial sector, was not a member of the group. Also, DOD and DHS have not coordinated their work with the same commercial banks.

    Afghans Not Playing Nicely at All

    Afghan ministries have not always cooperated. Treasury reported that its programs to strengthen the Afghan government’s ability to identify financial crimes have had limited results because of Afghan officials’ reluctance to prosecute.

    Afghan officials received 1.8 million Large Cash Transaction Reports, over 600 Suspicious Transaction Reports, and between 10,000 to 13,000 currency declaration reports from passengers leaving Afghanistan via Kabul International Airport. From this massive fetid pile, Afghan officials forwarded only 21 leads to law enforcement organizations. The Attorney General’s office pursued only 4 of the 21 leads to prosecution.

    Additionally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai banned US government advisors from working at Da Afghanistan Bank (DAB). USAID has provided assistance to DAB under other initiatives since 2003, so, hey, why not.

    US Drops the Ball in Play

    US agencies do not record the serial numbers of cash disbursed to contractors. Commercial banks do not record the serial numbers of electronic payments made by US agencies to contractors when their electronic payments are converted into cash. Also, US contracting regulations neither prohibit prime contractors from using unlicensed facilities to pay subcontractors nor require them to use banks capable of handling electronic funds transfers. The US still disburses some seven percent of funds in straight up cold cash, with no electronic records or receipts.



    What Does This Mean?

    As a result, the US is unable to record information as funds enter Afghanistan’s economy, and the Afghan and US governments are unable to track these funds as they move from person to person, information that could be important for law enforcement purposes. Basically we just throw the money (now up to $70 billion in US tax dollars for Afghan reconstruction alone) out there and hope it never reaches a narco trafficker, the Taliban or other naughty boys.

    So what does happen to all this money? A lot of it appears to be leaving Afghanistan, likely on flights to Dubai and other banking black holes. DHS reports that installation of two custom-built bulk currency counters for the airport’s customs areas was delayed by seven months because of disagreements over where to place the machines. Other impediments to DHS efforts include the Afghan government’s practice of allowing VIPs to bypass the main security screenings used by all other passengers. Additionally, DHS officials are barred from the facility that VIPs currently use.

    But there is good news! SIGAR makes a recommendation to the US Ambassador to Afghanistan to improve interagency coordination on financial sector issues. Whew, so that’s settled. Suckers.



    Read the whole SIGAR report.



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    China Ascendant in Iraq

    July 20, 2011 // Comments Off on China Ascendant in Iraq

    Further evidence that we failed in Iraq: Iraq has asked China to set up a fund to help with the reconstruction of the war-battered country, an Iraqi government official said on Monday during a visit to Beijing by Iraqi Prime Minister al Maliki.

    For those keeping score in blood and treasure at home, the US spent $63 billion on reconstruction efforts since the 2003 invasion, plus billions more in Iraqi money, all to little avail. Ordinary people have seen little improvement in their lives while contracting firms grew rich. The US went on to build the World’s Largest Embassy © in Baghdad, I wrote a whole book about the failure of reconstruction, etc., etc., etc.

    But let’s talk about a winner today instead! China has done well for itself in Iraq. The country eased into a cozy relationship with Iraq by writing off 80 percent of its Saddam Hussein-era debt.

    In 2008, the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) successfully renegotiated a contract originally signed by the previous regime to develop the Ahdab oilfield, becoming the first country to sign an oil service contract in Iraq under the new U.S.-backed regime.
    CNPC completed construction of the first phase of the oilfield in June this year, and it is also developing Iraq’s Halfaya oilfield. CNPC also has a 37 percent stake in a service contract to develop the Rumaila oilfield, which pumps out almost half of Iraq’s total oil output.

    Iraqi government spokesman Ali al Dabbagh hinted also that the country might buy weapons from China, necessitating the need for PLA trainers to visit Iraq.

    Indeed, Iraq and China on July 19 signed a Memo of Understanding (MOU) for economic and technical cooperation and another MOU for the training of the Iraqi cadres in China, according to a statement on Monday by Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki’s office, now on a visit to China, leading a high-level delegation. These will be followed by the signing of an MOU for cooperation in the field of electric power

    The US, in its odd desperation to have things succeed somehow, anyhow, in Iraq, has even been helping the Chinese exploit Iraqi oil outside Basra. To ensure their safety, most of the foreign oil companies have their offices located within the confines of the US military base at Basra, along with the US PRT, the British Consulate and the Russian and Chinese oil exploration firms, which must make for some interesting cafeteria small talk.

    “US policy at this time is that the USG in Iraq should assist in facilitating the mobilization of these companies without regard to the nationality of the companies,” said Kenneth Thomas, head of the energy section of the Basra PRT, though he added “But we are not going to assist an Iranian company.”

    Chinese investment deals are worth noting. Outside of oil, one of the biggest is Shanghai Electric moving ahead with a $1 billion power-generating plant to boost Iraq’s electricity capacity by 1,320 megawatts. The planned steam power plant in the town of Zubaidiya near the city of Kut, southeast of Baghdad, is seen as one of the biggest power projects in the country, where intermittent electricity is one of the public’s top complaints.

    Of course, billions of dollars and eight years after the US invasion, Iraq’s national grid still only supplies a few hours of power each day.

    On a smaller scale, Chinese goods are readily found in Iraq’s markets and stores. A PRT project to make clothing, fully subsidized by the US Government, went belly up because Chinese imports underpriced our crappy knit goods by 30 percent. Another project, this time the Army’s plan to hand out free food, ended up being flooded with cheap Chinese gift bags, complete with intellectually pirated Disney characters on the outsides. Of course, no US base was complete with its so-called “Hajii Shop,” a sort of local bodega whose main item was illegal DVDs, shipped on via a reverse Silk Road journey from Guangzhou. Even some of Iraq’s prostitutes came from China: every Chinese restaurant was rumored to include some special off-menu services being available.

    China remains popular enough in the region. In the latest Zogby poll, when presented with several countries (e.g. Turkey, Iran, France, China, the US etc.) and asked to evaluate whether or not each of them play a constructive role “in promoting peace and stability in the Arab World” eight in ten Arabs give a negative assessment to the US role — rating it significantly lower than France, Turkey, China, and, in four of six Arab countries, even lower than Iran.

    So, quick recap:

    Since 2003 the US has lost 4474 soldiers and a couple of trillion dollars. Iran has risen politically such that there is talk of Iraq being nothing more than an Iranian vassal, and economic relations between the two countries are sweet as a summer peach. Trade with China is purring along the old Silk Road. Then China grabs a bunch of the oil at no cost to itself in military expenses, human lives or loss of prestige in the Middle East.

    Yep, this war has worked out just fine, just fine.



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    Red Dawn 2011; Why Reconstruction Cannot Work

    May 18, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    red dawn

    I’m reading Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders by Nathan Hodge. The book is a well-intentioned attempt to offer a popular history of the US’ recent efforts at nation building, the hearts and minds territory that my own upcoming book plumbs. The author amuses himself with euphemisms for the efforts– armed social work, soft power, relief workers with guns, social work on steroids, the armed humanitarians of the title and so forth. The idea in its most basic form can be expressed as a belief: that following military action to kill bad guys (Taliban, al Qaeda, Baathists), expanded access to jobs and the construction of local governments that provide basic services will cause the people to renounce insurgency and instead cooperate with the United States. The new country will be a bulwark against terrorism instead of an incubator for it.

    I say “belief” because generally such efforts—let’s just call it reconstruction—do not and have not worked. The neocon boneheads who sent us to war in Afghanistan-Iraq-Pakistan (AIP) looked into history and decided the model to follow was the British, hardy colonial bureaucrats; Republican stenographer Max Boot wrote of the need for “enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets.” Author Hodge buys into this thinking as well, and the talk was and still is for some sort of US Colonial Service to step into Phase IV operations (what the military calls the time after the fighting is over.)

    The belief in reconstruction is encapsulated best by the embrace of the fairy tale Three Cups of Tea. I say fairy tale in that it appears much of what the books says just is not true. As the Washington Post wrote, “Spend some time with U.S. Army officers, and this much is clear: They are obsessed with drinking tea. At times, tea can seem a bit like the military’s secret weapon. A young U.S. officer bonds with an Afghan elder over cups of the brew, and soon they are working side by side to win the locals’ trust and drive out the insurgents.”

    Even when it did not work, the Army clung to this belief in reconstruction. The Army hated Phase IV and was desperate to stumble on to some strategy that would provide a path out. The Army grumbled continuously about being forced into Phase IV simply because there was no one else in the government to try it. Hodge buys into the whole picture, sucking in the basic military technocratic view: take a problem (insurgents), find a solution (spend money on schools) and keep doing it until you enter Berlin and the Nazis surrender.

    The problem is that there exists the possibility that reconstruction just will not work, cannot work, that the failure of the process is inherent in the conditions that require it. After all, look back at the British: their gentlemen colonial service members were eventually run out of just about everywhere (including Afghanistan), leaving behind legacies like the India-Pakistan partition as their legacy (I’ll argue Malaysia with anyone willing to buy the first round of beers.) Maybe not the right model.

    Despite the clear weight of history suggesting reconstruction does not—cannot—work, I failed to ever convince my colleagues of this, even the sober, smart ones. So, I will try again, to make the point via some fiction writing I’ll uncreatively call Red Dawn 2011.



    yellow peril The Chinese Army roared through my small town in Northern Virginia. The initial troops were tough veterans of the fighting outside DC, and a lot of people were killed by early shelling and mortar attacks. A tank battle near the hospital destroyed much of the building and intelligence that weapons were being stored inside the elementary school lead to the horrific air attack that killed 50 children with a “smart bomb.” Met by stone-throwing teens, the Chinese troops tore through local businesses. A gang rape of a young woman was never reported on the Chinese news even though it was common knowledge among us residents.

    The second wave of Chinese troops were better behaved. They sought out the few locals who spoke some Mandarin and hired them as translators. Of course language skills were quite rudimentary, and a lot of bad, dumb things happened due to miscommunication. Though the Chinese troops maintained that they were now occupying the town to make things better, for residents the current men with guns looked and sounded a lot like the previous men with guns. The Chinese tried: following local custom, they met Americans at the Starbucks for multiple cups of coffee, forgoing the green tea the Chinese would have preferred to sip on their own back at their bases. The officers had read that Americans loved coffee and were simplistic enough that their allegiance could be swayed just by choking down a few cups of the black gunk together. A popular book back home was called “Three Double Vente Lattes with a Shot.”

    The American translators helped steer some quick “feel good” projects the Chinese wanted to do toward their friends, quickly figuring out that the Chinese spoke no English and, to be truthful, really did not care to spend enough time researching the place to figure out who they should have been seeking to influence. The Chinese seemed happy enough just to report the “success” of each project back to Beijing. Beijing, interested in domestic harmony because of the unpopular war, welcomed only good news. Officers seeking promotion quickly learned which way the wind blew.

    Back in Virginia, the big Chinese banquet held for the town on the local July 4 holiday did not go well, as only a few complacent locals were invited, leading to accusations that they had sold out early. Those same complacent locals ended up receiving a fair amount of money from the Chinese to open a factory making plastic goods; the idea was to create jobs to distract the Americans from a forming insurgency while still keeping Walmart stocked. The first problems started when Chinese contractors took most of the development money for themselves, and no factory was ever built that round. Later the Chinese tried again, this time creating a few manual labor jobs that paid little and offered no sense of pride. The factory produced junk, and could only sell its goods back to the Chinese Army, who purposefully overpaid for them so that the factory could be labeled a success.

    The Chinese decided to turn their attention to the schools, hoping to move opinion by influencing the local kids. The teachers were all fired of course, because they had taught the old “US” way, and were replaced by know-nothings who did know which way the political wind blew. Chinese textbooks, translated into bad English, were brought in. Parents who could no longer afford to feed their kids watched as the only full meal of the day was handed out as charity at school, and Chinese food to boot. The worst was when moms and dads had to watch their kids beg for candy from the passing Chinese soldiers who somehow still occupied the city. The more the Chinese propaganda screeched that their purpose in invading America was to free the country from its lazy, fiscally insolvent previous government, the more the presence of the troops irked. Most residents felt the same way—keep your development money and just send your troops home.

    Some Chinese soldiers “got it,” and made some small differences, but they rotated home as quickly as the bad soldiers. No one was around long enough to really figure the Americans, with their odd customs, out. Good intentions were a good start, but without action they ultimately meant nothing. Simply meaning well was not enough.

    Accidents happened; that’s inevitable when you place military gear in close contact with regular people. A child was run over one night by an armored vehicle. A man was shot poking through the Chinese Army camp’s garbage. Local women were offered large sums of money to act as Chinese “girlfriends” for the troops. About the only way Americans could make any money was by selling knock-off X-Box games to the soldiers, though the Chinese were also grand consumers of porn that featured blonde American girls like the ones they made remarks to on the streets.

    The Chinese, isolated in their encampment for their own protection, failed to notice the impact that failing municipal services were having on the locals. The Chinese had their own generators and water purifiers, and missed the impact that corruption had on siphoning off the money they provided for water and sewer repairs.

    A group named after the former high school sports team formed, intent on killing as many Chinese as possible…

    Get it yet? When a relationship begins with a war and an invasion, and all the acts of violence that go along with that, you start deep in a hole. As corruption, mistakes, accidents and half-hearted efforts plague reconstruction, that hole only gets deeper. It may just be that reconstruction does not work no matter how many cups of Starbucks one drinks. Myself, I prefer a cold soda anyway.

    Wolverines!



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    The Whole Reconstruction Mess in Two Paragraphs

    May 3, 2011 // Comments Off on The Whole Reconstruction Mess in Two Paragraphs

    death or glory 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.



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