Victory in Iraq

Below is my last Marine Air helo.  It is in that cloud of dust.

I am not sure what to do with this blog.   I enjoy writing and will probably keep on posting, but it will not be as interesting most of the time.   I cannot continue to use the title “Matel in Iraq.”  I was thinking of putting a period to the sentence and calling it “Victory in Iraq,” since that is what I believe America has achieved here.  It would be a stand alone, historical webpage.  One of my colleagues thought that would be a bad idea because it was too strident.  He may be right.  We have achieved success here, but victory has that WWII feel of having it settled and the war on terror is not settled.  Your suggestions are welcomed.

FYI – I will have left Al Asad by the time you read this and will leave Iraq entirely in a few days.  I have some free time.  I look forward to seeing my family again and just being in Virginia. I want to get up to Milwaukee for a while and Mariza and I will attend the national tree farmer convention in Portland, Oregon.   I also need to look at my own trees.  We are applying biosolids to 132 acres.  That should make my little trees shoot up next year and improve the soil stability. 

I start my new job as director of policy issues at International Information Programs in November, after taking the senior executive training course at FSI.  I think that will be fun.  I have to get my bike fixed so I can do that commute on the bike trail.   

has been fun talking to you all for the past year.  This is not my last post, or even my last post from Iraq, but it is the end of the era.  The posts will just be more prosaic with more about forestry and living in the USA.  Of course, I still have to do my big looking back pontification.

Last year I thought I would jump for joy when I got out of Iraq.  While I am still very happy to look forward to the good things I mention above,  I have come to enjoy my work here and I will miss my colleagues and friends I have made here.   I have enjoyed the experience.  Whodathunkit?

Profile in Courage

Choosing to do the surge was really a profile in courage for George Bush and General Petraeus.  After the political passion, sound and fury calms down, I think that GW Bush will enjoy a revaluation, much like Harry Truman, and historians will say that in David Petraeus Bush finally found his general, much like Lincoln and Grant.   We forget how dicey it was in 1864 and how close we came to a different result in that conflict and how many of the arguments made today are not new.*   War is always hard and it is natural for people to look for faster ways out.  Sometimes these short cuts end my being the long way around.

Below – this guy has a sweet seat, but I wonder how fast he can turn his lazy-boy lounger if he gets in trouble.  I didn’t see if he had the cup-holder feature.

This recent article from the NYT shows how dicey it was back in 2006.   “Expert opinion” said that we had lost.  Many people were calling for us to cut our losses and run out.  Almost nobody believed the surge would accomplish the stated goals.   The easy choice would have been to go along with that conventional wisdom.   That would have meant that many of our friends in Iraq would be dead and we would suffer a resurgence of terrorism, but conventional wisdom would have accepted that as regrettable necessity.

BTW – the article I linked is NYT, but that paper remains still defeatist on Iraq, as this editorial shows.  Of course, they are already modifying their understanding in the face of objective reality and I think that in the ripeness of time, they also will come around and pretend they always knew the truth.

Below is the signing ceremony with the gaggle of journalists

Today I went to the Provincial Iraqi Control (PIC) ceremony in Ramadi, where we handed authority back the Iraqi authorities in Anbar.  Anbar!  In 2006 this province was a lost cause.  Today our ceremony just marked a milestone on path so well established I doubt that many people will even take notice. 

Below – you see that MRAP riding is not very much fun.  I try to avoid that seat.  I guess he just hopes the gunner didn’t have the burrito at chow.  

I would write more re the ceremony, but there isn’t really much to write.  I met a lot of my contacts there – saw & was seen.  Speeches were long.  It was really hot. Iraqis don’t seem to have learned how to organize a good marching band.  You would think there would be something like that at an important ceremony, but no.  I have included pictures throughout.  I would have liked a little more pomp and circumstance, but it was a proud day for the Iraqis and a vindication for us.   I guess I am less excited about it because it is anticlimactic.  The turnover just made official what we (the Iraqis and us) were doing already. 

It is also the first day of Ramadan, so there was no meal with the ceremony.   That saved much time for all of us, but there is something about having a meal together that seems to finalize a deal.   We all just kind of wandered off and went home.  It seemed odd.

BTW2 – A good article re Iraq came out in Foreign Affairs.  I recommend you read it at this link.

This is the good line from it:  “But if the United States can maintain a substantial force in Iraq through the critical period of the next two to three years, there is now a credible basis for believing that major drawdowns after that can be enabled by success rather than mandated by failure.”

Below – Marines playing volleyball in 110 degree heat.  It is a dry heat and there is plenty of water.

Foreign Affairs also has a very good article re general American image and problems at this link.

Below is the Ramadi bend in the river from the back of theCH53

* Follow that link to the 1864 Democratic Party platform.

Making a Life In Iraq

Few comments, just pictures.   These are some of the daily life scenes from where our Marines live and work.  You can make a home almost anywhere.

The Toughest Tribe in Anbar

One of the key components of sustainable power and influence is consistency.   If people understand that you will keep your word and behave in a consistent manner, they will respect you, whether or not they like you or what you are doing.  It is good to be loved; it is better to be respected. 

Western Anbar is a place of tribes and extended families.  Each group and sub-group has a reputation as do each of the sheiks.  These groups are constantly vying for advantage and position.  The Anbaris have come to see the Marines in terms they understand – as a tribe with a history and a reputation, although outside the tribal system.   They have come to see the Marines as the toughest tribe in Anbar, the tribe with the longest memory and the one that will pay back in the terms used by the ancient Roman  Lucius Cornelius  Sulla (Felix) “No friend ever served me, and no enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.”(BTW – a good biography of Sulla is Sulla the Fortunate.  It was published in 1927, but I don’t know of a newer one.   You could also go back to Plutarch, which is available in full text translation on Google.  Sorry, I can never resist the digression.)  This is good.  The Marines have won respect in Anbar in their own terms.    

The Marines provide consistent security which allowed the flowering of Anbar we are now seeing.  It is more than security from insurgents & AQI.  The Marines also provide a kind of impartial and honest outside force that helps guarantee the regional tribes and grouping against each other in their sometimes violent competion.  It is a smaller scale version of how the U.S. & NATO allowed the French and Germans to give up their ancient suspicions and hatreds since the security of an outside force eliminated incentives to stealthily surpass and surprise your opponent with a sudden, devastating, power.   The potential down side of what amounts to a hegemonic relationship is that it can break down if the outside force weakens or disappears before the embers of the ancient hatred and suspicion are gone.   With any luck, the people get to like working together better than destructive confrontation.   It worked maybe too well with the French & Germans.

This interrelationship would be an interesting subject for an anthropologist to study.   People always understand new development in their own terms and try to make sense of them in relation to existing structures.   It is not surprising that the Anbaris would see the Marines as the toughest tribe in Anbar.   

So Hot It Hurts

You usually think of breezes as cool and refreshing.   This is not always true.  I recently returned via Kuwait, where at the camp we experienced a steady hot wind that was actually painful. It felt like being in the stream of a hair dryer. The wind also sun backed hot dust.  It is really unpleasant.

I just think it is odd that you feel cooler when you protected from the breeze. It is a new and unwelcome experience.  I figured I would cool off with a shower.  The water tanks are outside, so the “cold” water was uncomfortably hot.  On the plus side, there is no need for a towel. You just put on your clothes and walk out.  You feel cool for a few precious minutes; then you are dry and a little dusty.

A guy from Nevada once explained to me that up in the north you don’t go out in the cold winter.  It is same in the hot desert, just reversed.  Painfully hot and painfully cold are both dangerous.  In fact, a Minnesota winter will kill you faster. 

I took the good advice and hunkered down in my tent.  Unfortunately, the tent is a little on the depressing side, as you can see from the pictures.

Being in Iraq is better than being in Kuwait.  I have my own quarters and my own stuff and- odd as it sounds – Al Asad is just better than Ali Al Salem.   We even enjoy cooler temperatures.  The high reaches only around 110-115 degrees and it is nice in the early mornings.  I know 110 sounds horrible, but it really isn’t.  As they say, it is a dry heat and there is a big drop in temperature at night.   It just is not very pretty.  Below is some of the nice parts.

BTW – it is even nicer in Rutbah and Al Qaim, where you have something closer

A good routine is to be active early in the morning and hunker down inside during the extreme heat of the day.   I went running at dawn, which was around 0500.    The thermometer said it was 86 degrees, so it was a lot like a warm afternoon back home.  Not bad.  Taking advantage of the 0430-0730 time frame changes the impression of Iraq as hell.  This is also the cleanest part of the day.  The dust tends to rise a little after dawn.  It must have something to do with the hot sun warming the ground and changing the wind patterns, but I don’t know.

Of course, following this happy routine is not always possible.  Sometimes you have to be out and travelling during hot part of the day.  It is then that you earn that hardship pay.  Most uncomfortable is flying in helicopters.  You get the unpleasant combination of hot air, hot exhaust, sun beating down on metal surfaces and the requirement to wear helmets and body armor.  Humvees and MRAPs have air-conditioning that works reasonably well.  It is still uncomfortably hot, but not so dire.  I pity the Marines who have to stand post during the day. 

A veteran Marine told me that Al Anbar was relatively green back in 2003.  Relatively is the operative word, but it was wetter in 2003.  A little bit of green would also create a different impression.  The general rule is 5-7 dry years and one wet one.  The locals call the wet year “normal” and complain re the drought during the other ones.

I guess the bottom line is that timing is important.   In the summer, you have to be out and active before 0730.  Forget about it after that.   On the other hand, winters have pleasant cool weather, and it is nearly perfect in Novembe-December & February-March, expect for the occasional duster.

Water, Water Everywhere but Not a Pipe to Link

Below are solar street lights in Rutbah, a CF project.  They work okay, but are not, IMO, aesthetically pleasing.

The Regional Engineer of Rutbah is a modern man with little patience for religious extremists or excessive tribalism.   He hates what Saddam Hussein did to his country.  He told me that in some towns essentially no new schools were built between the end of the 1970s and the liberation, despite big population growth.  As an engineer, he decries the general lack of maintenance.  Instead of building infrastructure, Saddam bought expensive weapons systems from the Soviets, French & Chinese (the U.S. supplied only 0.47% of Saddam’s stuff). The fruits of big buying spree litter the deserts around here, MiGs that never fired a shot in anger, tanks that never went anywhere.  They decided it was better to abandon them than to fight a real enemy.

It was worst during the sanctions.  When Saddam had less money, he spent what he had on palaces, but enough of the past.

Rutbah’s future depends on water.  As I mentioned earlier, water is in short supply in the region.  There have been some grandiose plans occasionally touted to pipe water over the desert from the Euphrates.   It is a long way to pump water and it is all up hill.  Beyond that, the Euphrates has been running lower because of dams in Syria and Turkey.   In The long pipeline solution is proposed by people who do not understand geography, hydrology, gravity or politics.   Besides those things, it is okay.

Below – They have more success with sunflowers than I did.

Fortunately, according to the engineer, the solution to Rutbah’s water woes lies only eighteen kilometers away in Al Dhabaa wadi.  He says that twelve wells already exist and that hydrologists have mapped out the groundwater.  There is more than enough for a city twice the size of Rutbah.  Eighteen kilometers is only around 11 miles.  Why, I asked, were people complaining about water when water was so easy to get?

Some of it goes back again to the lost decades of the Saddam tyranny.  There are no reliable pipes to bring from the wells across those eighteen kilometers to thirsty Rutbah and much of Rutbah just doesn’t have access to water pipes period.   They were never built.  Our friends says that Rutbah had good zoning laws, but they were enforced sporadically so that there are some pretty big buildings sitting on some pretty dry land.  Well, it is not completely dry.  There are no sewage lines either, but what is soaking into the ground is not something anybody wants to drink.  Retrofitting whole neighborhoods is extremely costly and time consuming.   It may be years and it may be forever before these things are done.  Given the ramshackle quality of these buildings, it is probably a better idea to start again from the ground up, but people already occupying these places are less enthusiastic about this sort of solution. 

The other reason for the water shortage involved the great bane of Western Iraq – fuel.  In this, perhaps the world’s greatest repository of liquid hydrocarbons, fuel for pumps and/or electricity to run them is inconsistent.   When the pump goes on and off, it begins to lose siphoning pressure.  After a while it is sucking up air or mud.  Steady and predicable is what is needed.   I don’t know that much about pumps.  It doesn’t seem to me that should be such a problem, but the engineer tells me that indeed it is and he seems to know about these things.

In any case, on the one hand, Rutbah’s water problem is solvable and solvable soon in the general case of water for the city.  On the other hand, it may be solvable never in the specific situation of some construction that went on w/o the benefit of zoning.   Life is tough all over, tougher for some.  It is mostly a matter of organization and choices.  Most of the choices are simple; some are not easy.  

Above is our ride home.  Ospreys are good for longer trips. It is still a thrill to ride, but the joy wears off when you hit some turbulence, which always seems to happen on the way to and from Rutbah.

Department of Silly Hats

When you are “in charge” of the helicopter, you get to wear the goofy hat.  I caught the CH46 to Ramadi to consult with the PRT there and to deliver our agriculture advisor Dennis and our rule of law advisor Burt Brasher to meetings.   The advantage is that if I go we can get same day service, i.e. we can leave in the morning and come back the same evening AND we can leave from the Ripper landing zone, all of which makes life a lot easier for us.   I get this special treatment because my SFS/SES1 rank is finally paying off.   I am the highest ranking USG civilian in the AO.  Of course there are not many of us around here. 

I will try to use the one-day service once a week.  We can bring several members of the team to each engagement and get many of our appointments done at the same time and then get them back to AA.  This will save us literally day of waiting at landing zones & sleeping in those interesting advance bases.   We – almost everybody on my staff – are getting a little old for that sort of thing.  It will give me better opportunity to do the oversight and diplomacy job I am supposed to do.

Until now I got to use priority assets only when I went with Colonel Malay or with one of the generals.  These are always great opportunities and I think I add value to the delegation but it will be good to be able to deploy our ePRT resources independent of other people’s travel when appropriate.

This is good.

Step-by-Step We Achieve Our Goals

Below is part of village in the Abu Hyatt region just outside one of our camps.  Not a pleasant place, IMO, but I guess people like the place they live and get used to it after a while.  The stone work is kind of interesting.  When you fly over these places, you see some patches of green that are not evident from ground level, so it is not as bad as it looks.  (reminds me of what MarkTwain said re German opera – it is better than it sounds.  Actually, I like the music where the fat lady sings, but the comment is funny.) Nevertheless, despite all the beauty contained in the various shades of khaki,  when I leave Iraq this fall I will not come back.  Some people like deserts and they can have them.  I like trees and grass too much.

Abu Hyatt was still hot and dangerous when I arrived in Iraq eight months ago.  Insurgents and terrorists passed through it and used it as a sort of safe haven.  RCT 2 made cleaning it up a priority and RCT 5 has followed up.  Today it enjoys a tentative stability.  People are returning and rebuilding.  A representative from Abu Hyatt sits on the regional board and our ePRT is working on projects and public diplomacy to help solidify the gains.

Sixteen villages comprise the district.  Most of the people work in agriculture.  They grow dates and citrus, fodder crops and sunflowers.  Of course, there are the usual sheep.  Some people also work at the local refinery at K3.

Since it so recently came out of its time of troubles, Abu Hyatt still suffers a lot of insurgent related damage.  The Marines are repairing schools and bridges, but there are some problems that were around before the late unpleasantness. One challenge is clean water.  We are helping install some solar powered water purification systems in one of the villages.  If it works well, more can be installed; we are eager to share our experience and expertise, but prefer using Iraqi funds for the next steps.

One thing working well is our application system.  It is a form of intellectual property that helps us and helps the Iraqis.  We want to ensure that all the projects our ePRT funds are worthy and sustainable, but it is hard for us properly to vet all of them.  To address this, we developed an application process, which we make available in easy step-by-step form in both English and Arabic.  It requires the approval of those who will actually make the project work and requires that the Iraqi side make significant contributions in kind, labor or money.  We also want to ensure that the Iraqi authorities are not planning to do the project already.  Many would prefer to spend our money before they dip into their own pockets.  This makes it harder.

Our application system also puts the onus on the Iraqis to organize. I don’t like the idea of going to visit someone and just getting a list of demands or needs.  We get a lot more done and a lot more respect when we work as partners not mere providers.  We do not fund most projects, but our contacts have told us that the organizing and planning they have done to prepare the proposal helps them make priorities and proposals for their own authorities to consider and fund, so the process has the salutary effect of providing real world, hands-on training.

Iraqis are competent people.  We should treat them that way, which means requiring them to hold up their side. 

I also got an interesting insight re Iraqi officials.  I just had not thought about it, but after the fall of Saddam the highest ranking officials lost their jobs and were barred from coming back.  Some of these were bad guys, who got what they had coming.  Others were just technocrats.  In any case, they were the ones with the experience and insight to run things.  Often we had to go down to the third or forth tier of leadership to find a politically correct guy to run things.  Some of these guys just needed an opportunity; others had been third or forth tier for good reason.  In any case, it is taking Iraqis some time to develop or redevelop the capacity for bureaucratic leadership.

Sometimes the most useful thing we can do is not give money, but rather the stimulus to exercise leadership and provide some methods that help develop it.

Above – everything happens in a cloud of dust.

Losing my Best

Above and around the post are pictures from a recent helicopter ride.  One of the cool things we get to do is ride in helicopters.  These flew very close to the ground and I got to see a lot of desert, river and green fields I usually do not see so close up.   In the little helicopters, you can come close enough to the trees to pick leaves (if you were foolish enough to reach out).

This will be a tough month.  The ePRT was set up last year about this time and this year many of the first waves of team members are rotating out.  I am losing some of my best people.  They have a wealth of experience that they are taking with them.  

Rotations are always hard.   We work so closely and intensely together and these guys have become my friends.  I am also seriously concerned that our team will be weaker w/o their expertise.

The case that upsets me the most is Reid.  He is a good friend AND he would like to stay for a couple more months, but our arcade rules do not allow it.  It is ironic that we implore and compel people to come to Iraq and at the same time send willing volunteers home when they want to stay and when they still are doing a great job.

Reid jokes about Al Asad that it is like being in prison in several ways: you have a set routine; you are surrounded by a fence; you cannot leave; and the way you got to either place sounded like a good idea at the time.

On the other hand, I am also half way home.  I got here in late September and this is about the mid-point.  My replacement has been named.  I understand that there were a few people who wanted my job.  That is good.  FSOs come through when we are really needed, even if we grumble along the way.  I am glad that there is somebody lined up to carry on the work.  I am glad I volunteered, glad I am here and I will be glad to be finished.  This has been a remarkable experience.  

The work is very interesting and I get to do things I never imagined, but I miss Chrissy & the kids.  I miss the green and pleasant places back home.  Beyond that, the job here is very stressful.  I worry that I am not doing a good job.  What am I overlooking or just not doing right?   In this kind of job, you never know for sure and the stakes are very high.  I am often literally asking my colleagues to risk their lives and the Marines risk their lives whenever they protect one of our missions.  This is a big responsibility.  I am so grateful that we have so far had no serious incidents.

Today has not been a great day, but I am confident that tomorrow will be better.  After all, where else can you do the things we do?

Lizards, Serpents, Sand & Scorpions

We convoyed out to the desert… well since we are always in the desert, I just mean a different and less occupied part of it.   Humvees are not comfortable and there really isn’t much to see along the roads of western Anbar.  This is tough duty for the Marines, but they seem to enjoy it more than I would.  It is sort of like a road trip with some camping, but camping is not so much fun if you can’t drink beer and make campfires.

This terrain is almost completely flat and seems to consist of a base of marble with a thin layer of yellow, dusty soil on top.  When I say marble, I mean marble.  The rock layer right below is shinny and smooth.  It looks almost like a floor covered with dirt.  The parent rock of marble is limestone, so I guess there must be a lot of limestone or at least there was.

The only incident occurred when our helicopter landed a little too close to the portable latrine and pushed them over.  Nobody was inside.  Consider what would have happened, however – some poor guy covered in blue crappy water and then dusted with the grit thrown up by the helicopter, sort of like a sugar donut but less pleasant.

One of the Marines told me that he had been on this same terrain a couple years ago, only that time they didn’t even have the modest tents you see in the pictures.  These poor guys were out here for around five months sleeping in their trucks.  The Marines explained to me how easy life was on a forward operating base (FOB) like Al Asad.  He said that it was comfortable being a “fobbit.”   I didn’t have to stay out there with them for five months or even a day.  I did get to eat my MRE (see below) and I can imagine what it would be like to be here longer.  He was right.  Fobbits rule.

We didn’t have to stay in the desert overnight because we went to the big K3 refinery and spent the night there.  That helicopter that blew down the latrines picked us up. The governor of Al Anbar, other dignitaries and generals came down K3 to check on progress.   It is coming along okay, as I mentioned in an earlier posting.  Not much will come out for the time being, but it is working and that is big progress.

You can see the discussions in the picture.  The British general pictured is the one in charge of infrastructure.   The big guy is the governor.