The picture below is not related to the article. The Marines let me play basketball with them. It was the majors and above v the captains and below. I was on the old guy team and we won. Evidently experience and guile beats youth and energy. Maybe we were just lucky. I was just happy not to get hurt.
A lot has changed in Western Anbar since I arrived here almost a year ago and as my assignment comes to an end, I can appreciate them.
The first big difference is the physical appearance. Last year much of this province looked like what it had recently been – a war zone. Shops and homes were boarded up, in ruins or flattened. People looked shocked and sullen. Anbar is still not up to what most of us would consider acceptable standards, but improvements are phenomenal and the change palpable.
Along the whole Western Euphrates River Valley (WERV) and into the desert oasis cities of Nukhayb and Rutbah markets are open; streets are busy; the shops are full of goods; things are happening. We used to use a “banana index” where we looked at produce in the shops as a proxy for goods being available. Bananas available that were not green or brown indicated a decent distribution network. Today that index is overtaken by events, since shops are full. We now are thinking of going over to a “gold standard” since we now see gold and jewels in shop windows and assume that the owners must feel safe enough from both insurgents and ordinary crooks to be so confident.
Security is increasingly taken for granted by many people and now they are moving on to other concerns, such as economy, traffic and building their lives.We have much more freedom of movement. I didn’t do my first market walk until January of this year. Now we walk in the Iraqi markets on almost every trip, talking to people and finding out about their hopes and problems.
A year ago there were serious fuel shortages. While problems remain (many resulting from government controls on prices and supplies), the refinery at K3 in Husaybah is up and running. This seemed like an impossible dream when I first saw the place a few months ago. K3 produces naphtha, kerosene, benzene and heavy fuel oil. It is still not up to 100% production, but it is way up from … nothing last year. The crude oil, BTW, arrives from Bayji by rail. This railroad was not working and was not secure just a few months ago. I remember flying over the rail/highway route in a Huey, with the narration being that it could work, but there were lots of challenges. Getting the rail system up and running is another great accomplishment of the past year. CF are vacating a big rail yard in Al Qaim within weeks. (This is a little sad for me, as. Camp Al Qaim was the nicest of the FOBs in our AO. It had a great chow hall.) This will essentially clear the lines all across Anbar.
The rail network in Anbar is essentially intact, although there was heavy looting of stations. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Much of the equipment was old and the opportunity to replace it with much improved and new computerized gear will pay dividends in the immediate future. There is nothing to stop heavy materials such as phosphate and cement from travelling by rail, and within a few years Iraq will certainly take its place as a transportation keystone of the Middle East. We have also seen a reassertion of the pattern of centralized order in Iraq. When I arrived last year, I had more confidence in the ability of local authorities to get things done, and my perception of the society here was patterned more on my own previous experience than the experience of the Iraqis.
It is a common historical pattern. It happened on a bigger scale when the Roman Empire declined. As government order breaks down, localism comes to dominate. Last year, in the immediate wake of war, the people of Anbar had been localized. They were more dependent on nearby authorities and institutions such as family/tribe & religion that were simpler and closer. This looks like it was an ephemeral condition. As order returns, so does centralization.
We are seeing a reassertion of the top-down pattern, where the center controls the resources. Local authorities look to provincial authorities for resources and direction; provincial authorities look to Baghdad. Mayors are administrators w/o an independent power base. Everybody grumbles and does this somewhat grudgingly, but the system seems to be coming to life and working reasonably well, especially when pumped up by the steroid of vast oil wealth. This is not a completely positive development, IMO. I personally don’t like such concentrations of governmental power, but we have to recognize that Iraq will not be a bottom-up society, like the U.S. It is not what most Iraqis are accustomed to, not what they expect and it is not what they want. An ePRT like mine working at the sub-provincial level increasingly runs up against the power of higher-up Iraqi authorities. These are the guys who make the decisions and these are the guys we need to influence. I wonder if our time is not almost done, at least in our current incarnation. We did a good job and maybe this is it.
I am ambivalent about this. After all, it is a bureaucratic imperative to perpetuate itself. But a greater imperative is to know when your work is done and not hang around like a fart in a phone booth. When the western hero is finished, he rides off into the sunset; he doesn’t rent a bungalow in town and make himself a nuisance. In order to influence the Iraqi society and institutions, our organizations will need to mirror theirs, at least in an operational sense. We need to act at the nodes of power, principally at the provincial and national level, so our ePRT will need to be integrated with the PRT in Ramadi, maybe absorbed, and through them to our colleagues in Baghdad. This is coming. I work directly for the Office of Provincial Affairs (OPA) in the Embassy. My successor will work for the Team Leader of the Anbar PRT in Ramadi.
I just don’t know and I don’t think I will figure it out in my last week here. I will recommend changes in form and give my opinions. It won’t be my decision, but I cannot envision this team still being here next year in anything like its current form.
As it says in the Book of the Tao, “Withdraw, your work once done, into obscurity; this is the way of Heaven.”