Friday, June 30, 2006

A State Department Officer's Tale: Leaving Iraq After Two Years in the Green Zone

A week or so ago, a fan of No Pasarán contacted us with a query. Christian Isely had moved to Paris from …Baghdad! Would we be interested in posting the State Department officer's impressions of his experience in the American embassy in Iraq? After we picked ourselves off the floor and climbed back into our chairs, we answered, "Sure, why not?"

Leaving Baghdad

June 2, 2006

A few days ago [i.e., in late May], I left Baghdad and my employment with the State Department for good. It was the perfect time to leave. I have now put in my service and it is time to experience other places and professional environments. Perhaps, if or when the country settles down, I can revisit some of my old haunts like the former Green Zone Café (now a police station) and the Palace (eventually to be returned to the Iraqi government) and other sites where I spent time during my two years in Iraq. But by then, who knows what the country will be like?

Actually, it does not feel like two years in Iraq so much as two years in the Green Zone, a mostly peaceful bubble amidst a sea of violence. On occasion, violence did creep in and one could never escape the ever present reminders that the situation was anything but normal thanks in part to the constant sound of helicopters. I never got to see any other part of the country outside of Baghdad and even then, I glimpsed it only in short moments through the thick windows of armored SUVs and military humvees. But I did live and work in the nerve center of the entire coalition effort, the place where almost all decisions were taken for the good and ill with regard to the administration and occupation of Iraq.

I left Iraq with mixed feelings. Personally, I did well out of the adventure. I have gained a great deal of useful professional experience thereby leaving my future path open to many opportunities. Financially, I made out and am secure enough to take some time off in France to master another language that will in turn, open up other places in the world. After this experience, I am more knowledgeable about many things — the Middle East, the US government, and the US military — but more importantly, I believe I am wiser albeit less innocent and hopeful. I am not cynical however, just more tempered. All in all, I am a better and more seasoned person. I took part in some very positive efforts. In my last job, I was involved with the extremely successful micro-loan program that we managed. This program handed out over $55 million in loans in increments of about $1,000 to small Iraqi businesses thereby sparking economic growth and wealth creation — I know for a fact this program drastically improved the lives of many Iraqis. Additionally, the automation of the Iraq Stock Exchange is now underway and should be completed later this year. This will turn the currently manual exchange into a system similar to our NASDAQ, a development that will dramatically increase the competitiveness of the market by increasing transparency and transaction efficiency.

Missing the Opportunity

However, on the whole, the future of the country is still very much in jeopardy. The insurgency still flares. The militias are in some ways more powerful than before having infiltrated the Iraqi security forces and police. Important and badly needed economic reforms are being reversed. The US administration seems not to be giving the venture a 100% effort. The US mission is plagued more and more by organizational chaos and diminished morale in the State Department. The US military is sending too many officers and bureaucrats that further confuse mission clarity instead of more soldiers capable of waging war and establishing security. By the time I left, we had not yet failed but we have certainly not succeeded. Failure is a growing specter and one I would argue is largely due to our own choices and lack of effort. I am of the growing opinion that I in fact participated in what may very well be the limits of American power in the world. Despite the false or mistaken premise for the invasion, we still have a unique opportunity to change the world for the better. Already, there have been some knock on effects in Libya and Lebanon. Unfortunately, we are squandering the opportunity by our own lack of effort due mostly to a failure of leadership on the part of the White House. We may never get this chance again. Perhaps only once it is gone, will we will look back with regret.

Mistakes Made

Despite my limited view from within the Green Zone, it was still a good vantage point to ascertain some of the reasons for why Iraq continues to be a deeply troubled place. Some of these reasons have been mentioned before in the mainstream media but I will include all the major points to paint a decent picture:

Failure to Provide Security
and the Rule of Law

The Coalition invaded Iraq without the necessary numbers of troops to establish security and the rule of law in the subsequent power vacuum after the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Iraqis' first taste of liberation, especially in Baghdad, was of anarchy and violence. This first impression coupled with the Coalition's subsequent unwillingness to increase troop levels, effectively prevented the establishment of the first responsibility of all governments the world over — security. Security is a prerequisite to democracy and economic growth. Without it, there is nothing. The failure to provide security is clearly the coalition's greatest and most important failure. Iraq will only be won if Baghdad is completely secured. To accomplish such an exercise, US military force will be necessary. In the very short term, there would be a jump in violence. Baghdad is by far the largest and most important city as well as a focal point for friction between the Sunnis and Shias. Additionally, the US military should take responsibility for guarding the oil pipelines, the sole major source of revenue for the Iraqi government. The Iraqis are incapable of protecting it due to widespread corruption. The sad fact is that only US forces can be trusted with this task right. Granted, the image of US soldiers guarding oil infrastructure would seem to reinvigorate the mistaken notion that we are there for the oil. However any misconceptions on that account would be worthwhile!

Sovereignty Granted Too Early

The coalition granted sovereignty to Iraq on June 28, 2004. From what I can tell both from my own impressions and conversations at the time and now, this date was largely determined under pressure both from the international community and from some outspoken Iraqi politicians, most of them being returned exiles. The US succumbed to these pressures partly because there was not a great deal of thought regarding sovereignty and elections (it was largely improvisational) and June 28 seemed like an easy way out that would help us win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. In doing so, the Coalition missed a very real opportunity to make some fundamental changes for the better of Iraq including basic economic, governmental, and legal reforms, changes that would drastically improve the prospects of the country. Instead these reforms (privatization of the economy, reform of government ministries, and the adoption of an effective legal regime conducive to economic growth) were put off to be dealt with by the succeeding Iraqi governments who were naturally reluctant to institute change for fear of alienating voters. We would have received a great deal of grief and perhaps a hotter insurgency and Shia insurrection under the CPA for making radical reforms but we would most likely be in a far better position today.

I believe another reason for the early sovereignty besides a perceived easy way out, is the almost instinctive American aversion to anything that smacks of imperialism. In short, we are uncomfortable in the role of ruling other people (for it seems both morally repugnant in addition to costing money and American lives). To reassure both the world but more importantly, ourselves, that we had come to Iraq not to conquer but to liberate, we excused ourselves from the vital responsibility of governing the country to the detriment of both the Iraqis and Americans. I would argue that this imperialist guilt is ironically enough, effectively hindering our ability to set Iraq on a peaceful and democratic path.

Failure to disband the militias

The Coalition Provisional Authority never disbanded the militias nor have the subsequent Iraqi governments. Instead they have been allowed to strengthen. Indeed, some of them have been allowed to permeate the security forces. This is certainly the case with the Ministry of Interior, formerly headed by one of the leaders of the Badr Brigade (the most powerful Shiite militia). Under his watch, Iraqi police have become more and more untrustworthy and corrupt and the common perception is that the Shiite death squads targeting Sunnis have been tacitly accepted. The Iraqi police have in some cases become a legitimized extension of the Badr Brigade or what may be even worse, a means with which to further arm and strengthen them. The Iraqi police may very likely become one of the primary factions in an Iraqi civil war and they may yet play a role in any US confrontation with Iran.

Reversals in Economic Reform

Partly as a result of the hurried granting of sovereignty and a diminished prioritization by the CPA during the occupation, the 200 Iraqi State Owned Enterprises (SOEs) were never privatized. It was left to the succeeding Iraqi governments to perform this deed with our encouragement and assistance. Naturally, those in charge of these enterprises have entrenched interests as do all the ghost workers who never show up to work but still collect a paycheck. Ironically, the US government, for so long the proponent of private enterprise throughout the world is now stumbling into revitalizing these SOEs with US money. It is somewhat understandable why this is happening. There are many US military officers scattered throughout Iraq who are charged with disbursing monies in an effort to revitalize the local economies. They believe that by employing potential insurgents, the violence may come to an end and they will no longer lose fellow soldiers. They see an SOE and think that if only they can get it running again, people would be employed. With their good intentions, they do not realize that these companies were never profitable, were heavily subsidized, and the markets for their goods were strictly determined by the government. Despite my office's objections, they have unfortunately started on the path of funding these SOEs, helping them get contracts, and even determining their business plans! Effectively, the US government is subsidizing dying industries and acting as the chief architect in a quasi-command economy. This may not seem like much of an issue now but I believe that reviving the Baathist style economy with all of its avenues for corruption and susceptibility to political entrenchment could seriously jeopardize Iraq 's nascent democracy.

In Sum

Although, the entire premise for the Iraq invasion has been proven at best to be mistaken, I do not consider our involvement in Iraq to have been a mistake. Mistakes have been made since that time that will unfortunately and mistakenly color the entire venture as doomed from the beginning. This is certainly not the case. Iraq could have and may yet still be won. However, as a betting man, I'd put the odds in favor of a slow grinding mediocre result. Additionally, the whole effort might be overtaken by events in Iran. Iraq may actually become a sideshow to a much more frightening conflict.

The Saddam Trial

I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of the Iraqi trial of Saddam Hussein before I left. I was also fortunate to catch it on a good day – Tariq Aziz testified as a defense witness in his pajamas! Perched in the witness box, he looked like a muppet and was not the least bit threatening. Saddam Hussein was wearing a black suit and is quite thin with a salt and pepper beard. He smiled some of the time and even laughed once or twice. There was no mesmerizing aura about them. They were just bored old men with nothing to do but have fun with the court. The judge let them get away with the most irrelevant commentary. Aziz's testimony was completely irrelevant and he was simply up there to take time away from the more serious business. Some of the other defendants would chime in during witness testimonies and the judge would let them stand up to address the court largely at their leisure! Saddam periodically stood up to state that he was still the president! In short, it seemed more a circus than a trial which the defendants did not take seriously. As sovereignty was turned over too early, might not the setting up of this trial have been too premature and/or ill conceived? Indeed, many Iraqis (especially Shias and Kurds) were probably surprised that we did not shoot Saddam upon finding him. Now he has soap box with which to rant against the Iraqi government.

The Last Flight Out

My last couple days in Iraq were an emotional time. I went from pure elation in leaving such a daunting environment to sadness for those that I know who lost their lives for what is still a very troubled effort. My going away party was a fitting send off. I think I had one of the larger parties for anyone in my organization, the Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO). More importantly I had a good mix of people from within the Embassy to military folks to contractors to security contractors. The deputy of IRMO gave what I thought to be a mostly uninspired speech but my boss gave a very touching one. They presented me with a certificate of appreciation (name spelled wrong) with a gold painted wooden frame which I had to return the next day.

My last night spent in Iraq was a short and sleepless one. My thoughts kept turning to memories of my now seemingly long ago Baghdad days. Maybe they are not so much long ago but far away. The Green Zone is a unique and temporary place and only those of us who have been there know what it means. At first, when one arrives, it takes some adjustment to get used to living in a trailer and navigating the landscape. It is even more of a challenge to settle into a life where coworkers are nearly ever present and family and long time friends are far away. Social outlets are few and revolve mostly around drinking. Many who would not normally drink, start. Those who drink already, drink more. One settles into a pattern of working almost non-stop with occasional breaks beside Saddam’s pool. Although there is a constant submerged theme of danger via the occasional mortar or rocket, one can settle in and life becomes normal and easy. It is my theory that some people have settled in for the long haul. They will stay in Iraq, especially in the Green Zone, because life has become so easy and predictable and the money is good. Personally, I don't think it is healthy and I am glad to be moving on. If I was to stay any longer, I believe I would be almost too institutionalized. Besides, I decided that when my presence in Baghdad was simply about the money, it was time for some fresh blood to take my place.

After my final and sleepless night in Baghdad, I boarded the C-130 headed toward Amman, Jordan. It was delayed as usual but eventually I reached Jordan without incident. However, it was not until the next day when I departed for France when I truly felt that my Iraq experience had ended. After all, Jordan was still in theater — having seen its share of carnage and been witness to many of my more pleasant memories in the region.

It is Over

Although everyone who came to Iraq will no doubt think of it as one of the most memorable chapters of their life, I was young enough, as were most in the military, for this to be the formative personal and professional experience. For the rest of my career, I've a feeling I will harken back to this time. My perceptions of others, the world, and myself have changed forever. I have now passed from this formative chapter and I cannot help but feel just a bit sad that it is over. Now, I must find the next adventure…

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