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January 1, 2006

Topic: Political Rant
The end has almost come. Assuming that everything goes according to plan, I will board a plane tomorrow and Iraq for good. This will probably be my second to last entry on this blog.

There were many things that I chose not to write about in this blog. There have been wild parties that makes most of the parties that happen back in the States seem lame. I have watched some of my friends slowly creep toward personal collapses, and I know people who suffered near complete breakdowns. I have witnessed the behavior of senior leaders in the reconstruction and felt totally appalled. I have watched people do stupid things, such as throwing rounds into a fire, and simply shrugged it off. I have listened to Iraqis tell the stories of a country tearing itself apart and stood powerless before them with nothing to help ease their pains or keep them safe. I have seen some of the best and brightest people I have even known work tirelessly to help the Iraqi people. I have also seen Iraqis doing everything they can to survive this war, protect their families, and help their country.

I have many stories to tell, yet there is one thing that bothers me more than anything else. I have watched the reconstruction fail right in front of my face. The history and the future of the multi-billion dollar investment in Iraq's future failed to deliver on many of the important promises made to the Iraq people, and the reconstruction was probably the easiest component of the American misadventure in Iraq.

In late November 2005, the Bush Administration stated in its National Strategy for Victory in Iraq that our "strategy is working," which stands in sharp contrast to my assessment. The Administration stresses that "much has been accomplished in Iraq, including the removal of Saddam's tyranny, negotiation of an interim constitution, restoration of full sovereignty, holding of free national elections, formation of an elected government, drafting of a permanent constitution, ratification of that constitution, introduction of a sound currency, gradual restoration of Iraq's neglected infrastructure, and the ongoing training and equipping of Iraq's security forces."

No matter how pessimistic I have become, the Bush Administration is correct that positive things have happened, but the details behind these positive statements make the "successes" seem far murkier and very questionable. Perhaps more importantly, the details make the prospect of helping "the Iraqi people build a new Iraq with a constitutional, representative government that respects civil rights and has security forces sufficient to maintain domestic order and keep Iraq from becoming a safe haven for terrorists" seem long and at times even unlikely.

Security. Almost every time that a dictatorship falls, a period of anarchy ensures. It happened in East Timor. It happened in the Congo. It happened in Iraq. Unfortunately, the military (or perhaps just senior Administration leaders) failed to plan for this highly enviable outcome. In fact, senior political leaders pushed people out of the way who questioned the plan or made comments that attacked the logical behind the basic plan.

To make matters worse, as the Guardian wisely noted in December 2005, "the US occupation has made at least one major political mistake every year. Big Blunder 2003 was the dissolution of the Iraqi army. Big Blunder 2004 was the failure to dismantle militias - out of fear of upsetting the Kurds and the main Shia religious party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri)." These failures added fuel to a dangerous, violent fire - the insurgency - sweeping through the country.

Military might alone cannot bring these forces back under control. These difficulties in the security arena have made the US turns its attention, and much of its hopes, toward bringing the divergent forces into the political process and giving people the belief that avoiding violence and supporting the reconstruction will bring them some tiny bit of hope.

The Reconstruction. The reconstruction has failed. It failed for many reasons. It failed because the initial plans for Iraq did not even include any significant reconstruction funds. It failed because the plans for the $18.4 Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund (IRRF) were not based on realistic assessments of the work that needed to be done. It failed because completed projects are not sustainable. If they aren't sustainable, everything falls apart the minute the reconstruction teams leave.

The Americans simply could not overcome these basic problems of the reconstruction in face of the massive challenge in front of them - rebuilding a country that endured three massive wars in twenty years, three decades of totalitarian rule, and the punishing effects of economic sanctions.

Politics. The typical American view is that the elections are like a magic wand that will produce peace and prosperity. This may be so, but Iraqi elections have yet to produce a viable, trustworthy government. Consider the El Salvador elections in 1982 that went off well in terms of numbers; their civil war there went on for another decade. Will that happen in Iraq? While the political process can bring an end to the violence, it won’t happen overnight even if it goes well.

Perhaps the most disappoint aspect of the political process is how little we know about the fate of this country. It could still slip into a full blown civil war. It could somehow hold itself together. It could become a Shiite religious state tightly aligned with Iraq, which definitely isn't want the Bush Administration would want. I find it disconcerting that pushing three years into this adventure – after all the lives that have been lost – we still don't know what will happen.

I could go on and on about what I think about the American adventure in Iraq, but I need to get to work and my comments are just one take on it. Thus, I think I will leave my comments as a three legged argument. The security situation remains bad. The reconstruction failed. The results of the political process are inconclusive. With the American government now determined to begin the lengthy pull out process, is it too late to fix these three problems to ensure that some good comes out of this war?

Whatever happens now, the fate of Iraq is now in the hands of the Iraqi people.

And in other news . . . I want to wish the best of luck to all my fellow Iraq bloggers out there. Keep blogging.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:12 PM EST
Updated: January 1, 2006 11:27 PM EST
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December 7, 2005

Topic: Political Rant
The new, much-heralded National Strategy for Victory in Iraq reads much like a presentation outline or talking points. A lot of the document seems focused on attempting to justify why America is engaged in Iraq and explaining why we need to stay. Christopher F. Gelpi, co-author of research on American tolerance for casualties, shrewdly noted that "the Pentagon doesn't need the president to give a speech and post a document on the White House Web site to know how to fight the insurgents. The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion."

The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq includes a lot of filler and optimistic repacking of what has been said before. However, the heart of the document is two pages focused on three basic concepts that will supposedly lead us to victory:

A. The Political Track (Isolate, Engage, Build). The Political Track involves working to forge a broadly supported national compact for democratic governance by helping the Iraqi government.

B. The Security Track (Clear, Hold, Build).The Security Track involves carrying out a campaign to defeat the terrorists and neutralize the insurgency, developing Iraqi security forces, and helping the Iraqi government.

C. The Economic Track (Restore, Reform, Build). The Economic Track involves setting the foundation for a sound and self-sustaining economy by helping the Iraqi government.

Oddly enough, even though I am working in Iraq, no one has encouraged me to read this document. I get the sense that it will only negligibly affect what happens out here. It will be interesting to see how, or even if, this document continues to influence the war as it slowly creeps into it third year.

And in other news . . . while recently visiting the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Secretary Don Rumsfeld said that "to be responsible, one needs to stop defining success in Iraq as the absence of terrorist attacks."

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:28 PM EST
Updated: December 7, 2005 11:30 PM EST
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September 6, 2005
One Final Thought
Topic: Political Rant
I thought about the issue of Iraqis working for the Americans throughout the day. Call me an Iraqi lover. Call me a wacko lefty. You can even say I've "gone native." Screw all of that. These people are dying. Insurgents are hunting them down and killing them.

Iraq is at war, and lots of people are dying. Soldiers are dying. Innocent people are dying. Insurgents are dying. Children are dying, and the Iraqis working for the U.S. are dying. The Iraqis working for the Americans risk their lives in ways that the typical civilian will never do, and they do it every day. I just want a few more people to understand what the average Iraqi working for the Americans is going through on a daily basis. I am surrounded by Iraqis, yet most of their American coworkers have no idea what is happening to them.

Posted by alohafromtim at 3:01 PM EDT
Updated: September 6, 2005 11:51 PM EDT
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July 7, 2005
Halfway Done With My Tour (PART II)
Topic: Political Rant
So . . . what do we do now? I think most sane people who are not clouding their judgment with silly political mumbo-jumbo acknowledge that things are going very badly in Iraq. The question is, what can the U.S. and its allies do about it?

More Funding for the Reconstruction. Some would argue that if the reconstruction is expanded and hastened, the people of Iraq would see the benefits of supporting the new government. I don't think this will work. The US has only spent 32% of the $18.4 billion appropriated by Congress in late 2003. Even if Congress did appropriate more funding today, clearly the funds wouldn't help the Iraqi people for a few years.

International Support. For the most part, the international community seems unwilling to help the U.S. States in Iraq. Although some countries (such as Denmark and Japan) are offering help, Iraq is largely America and England's problem because they decided to go in on their own. Kerry's weak belief that he could enlist substantial support from other countries like France and Germany is a fool's dream. These countries have already made up their mind about Iraq; they don't want to get involved.

Arab Support. For a while, I thought that perhaps Iraq is a problem that could be solved by Arabs, but will neighboring Arab countries be willing to fully support a fledging democracy that threatens their autocratic style of governing?

More Troops. Adding more US soldiers troops may improve the security situation in the short-term, but it could also easily backfire. No one wants to see foreign troops on their soil, especially the Iraqis who have dealt with occupation forces since early 2003. Adding more troops could encourage more Iraqis (and other Arabs in the region) to view the insurgency as a battle of liberation against foreign troops. While it may have been a good idea to send more troops in mid-2003, it is no longer a wise idea.

Complete Pull Out. The insurgents don't simply focus on killing Americans any more; they also focus on poll workers, locals working for international aid organizations, police officers, Iraqi soldiers, politicians . . . in other words, the "bad guys" are killing average Iraqis, which makes the situation way more complicated than it was in early 2003. Considering the determination of the bad guys to overthrow the new Iraqi government and the fragile state of the Iraqi security forces, without some US military muscle, the new government could easily collapse. If the US and its military allies left today, there is an unsettling possibility that this country would come apart at the seams and slip into a civil war, possibly throwing the whole region into a large conflict. A civil war might happen anyway, but don't the Americans owe it to the Iraqi people to give the new Iraqi government a chance to create a stable government able to defend its people?

Continuing with the Bush Administration's existing plan is a pathway to failure, but clearly I can't find a workable alternative. Does anyone else have any serious proposals for fixing this mess?

Posted by alohafromtim at 12:45 AM EDT
Updated: July 7, 2005 5:06 AM EDT
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July 6, 2005
Halfway Done With My Tour (PART I)
Topic: Political Rant
My tour is now half over. After six months in Iraq, I think it is time to reflect upon the current situation in Iraq and assess whether there is a workable exit strategy for the American occupation of Iraq. Let's begin this two-part post by analyzing the current situation.

The Reconstruction. The reconstruction is in serious trouble. Two of the major sectors of the reconstruction, water and power, illustrate the many problems facing the American government in Iraq. For a whole host of reasons, Iraqis have less power and, in Baghdad, less drinking water. Recent Inspector General reports revealed that 32 percent of the major electrical projects managed by U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had not or were not achieving their intended output. The Inspector General also stated the U.S. government had not done enough to ensure that water and power plants would be properly managed after USAID turned them over to the Iraqi government. Sadly, there are indications that the plants that the U.S. has turned over since the start of reconstruction are already falling apart.

Iraq's Security Forces. If President Bush's exit strategy is centered upon building a reliable Iraqi police, military, and intelligence force, the Americans have a lot of work left to do. As of June 30, 2005, the Iraqi army, navy, air force, and special operations had about 75,000 active forces, according to new U.S. military figures. The Iraqi police force had about 93,000 officers. These numbers look impressive, but the readiness of these forces is a matter of serious debate. The GAO recently noted that "police and military units performed poorly during an escalation of insurgent attacks against the coalition in April 2004. According to a July 2004 executive branch report to Congress, many Iraqi security forces around the country collapsed during this uprising. Some Iraqi forces fought alongside coalition forces. Other units abandoned their posts and responsibilities and in some cases assisted the insurgency." Things haven't gotten much better since April 2004. Plus, the data collected and reported by the U.S. government does not provide reliable information on the status of Iraqi military and police forces, and it is important to remember that "not all units are designed to be capable of fighting the insurgency." (Somebody still needs to do the crap work.) If rebuilding the Iraqi security forces is the main exit strategy, more funding and effort needs to be placed on training and equipping them - especially since the Iraqi security forces are still not able to stop the insurgent's attacks, which are getting more deadly every day.

Security Situation. Although life inside the Green Zone has gotten markedly better, the security situation outside of the Green Zone (aka the Red Zone) is markedly worse. After a short lull after the January 2005 election, the insurgents (or bad guys as I like to call them) got much, much nastier. There were 700 bombings against U.S. forces in May, a record high. Although according to some estimates, the insurgents have about 10,000 troops, which doesn't seem like much, in a guerrilla-style war, a small force with members who are willing to kill themselves in their attacks and quickly disappear when security forces arrive can wreck havoc on country. Vietnam and the Boer War are good example of the power of launching a guerrilla-style offensive.

The New Iraqi Government. The new Iraqi government can't generate enough revenue to support itself. With an ongoing guerrilla war raging throughout the heart of the country, the central government can't use income taxes or a sale tax to support its operations - tax collectors need to operate in a stable environment, which isn't going to happen anytime soon in Iraq. The new Iraqi government is trying to finance its operations by selling oil, but that isn't enough to cover the government's annual budget (slightly more than $5 billion). To make matters worse, Iraq owes $125 billion to other countries due to the many loans that Saddam took out while he was in power.

The Economy. According to one US government assessment, "large oil reserves and abundant natural and human resources enabled Iraq to attain the status of a middle income country in the 1970s. Income per capita rose to over $3,600 in the early 1980s. However, successive wars and a repressive state-dominated economic system have stifled growth and development and debilitated basic infrastructure and social services. Iraq's human development indicators are now among the lowest in the region, and per capita income dropped to about $770-1,020 by 2001. The 2003 GDP is estimated at about $13-17 billion, or about $480-630 per person." The official unemployment rate is currently 30% but "unofficially" the statistic may be as high as 50%.

Making the World Safe from Terrorism. While the stonewalling and remaining dogmatically dedicated to the notion that Iraq is the center of the War on Terrorism continues to dog politicians in Washington, the CIA recently concluded that Iraq is now in fact a training ground for terrorists throughout the world. The New York Times recently noted that "the war has not made the world, or this nation, safer from terrorism. The breeding grounds for terrorists used to be Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia; now Iraq has become one. Of all the justifications for invading Iraq that the administration juggled in the beginning, the only one that has held up over time is the desire to create a democratic nation that could help stabilize the Middle East. Any sensible discussion of what to do next has to begin by acknowledging that. The surest way to make sure that conversation does not happen is for the administration to continue pasting the 'soft on terror' label on those who want to talk about the war."

The Good News. Most things are going very badly in Iraq, but the political process is going fairly well. Even though sectarian strife continues to hinder the progress and has divided many members of the new parliament, it is always reassuring to see people arguing at each other across a table rather than shooting at each other across a battlefield. To is also important to note that key Sunni clerics are a now openly supporting the political process, and the parliament expanded the constitutional committee to include more Sunnis, who largely boycotted last January's historic elections.

Staying the Course. America's political leaders back in Washington continue to stress that the American people need to stay the course and that a radical change in policy would be counterproductive. There is some truth to what they say. Bailing out of Iraq would expose the fragile government to the powerful insurgency at a time when many Iraqis would probably accept a tyrant or a scarily-repressive government as long as it could make average Iraqis safer from insurgent attacks. And, in my humble opinion, if America left today there exists a real risk that this country would slide into a civil war.

Will Anyone Ever Be Honest? Bush's speech a few days ago wasn't honest enough. Things are going very badly in Iraq, and Americans are unlikely to solve the problem. The reconstruction is failing, the security situation is worsening, and America's presence in Iraq is attracting extremists who are looking for the chance to kill Americans. Only the political process looks reassuring, but if the new Iraqi government cannot point to any concrete successes proving that democracy has improved the lives of average Iraqis, the insurgency will only grow stronger. I would love to hear someone in charge of this crazy adventure in Iraq say, "We made some serious mistakes, and perhaps we can't fix them because the situation in Iraq has gotten markedly worse. We are working with the Iraqi government and have agreed to a road map to fix what we can and get American troops out of Iraq once we achieve X goal or by X date, whichever comes first."

To quote the Louisville Courier-Journal, if Bush asks "Americans to understand the urgency of staying the course, he must level with them about the mistakes of the past and the perils of the present," which includes watching Iraq slide into a civil that drags in all of its neighbors.

Posted by alohafromtim at 12:22 AM EDT
Updated: July 7, 2005 5:00 AM EDT
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April 19, 2005

Topic: Political Rant
What exactly was the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)? It seems like everyone working on development projects inside Iraq wants to blame to the CPA for their problems. They claim that the CPA was an inward looking batch of neo-cons who ignored the advice of individuals with years of reconstruction experience.

While blaming the CPA might be fun, doing so is like chasing after a ghost. No one ever officially created the CPA. It just sort of happened. On May 6, 2003, President Bush appointed Ambassador Paul Bremer to "oversee Coalition reconstruction efforts and the process by which the Iraqi people build the institutions and governing structures that will guide their future." Bremer wasn't approved by the U.S. Senate, and there is no presidential executive order officially establishing the organization that Bremer would lead for slightly more than a year. In fact, according to the Congressional Research Service, apparently, no official announcement was made that previously US organization in charge of the reconstruction had been replaced, or subsumed, by the CPA.

To make matters worse, it is not entirely clear that the CPA was a US government organization. There is a lawsuit currently running through the federal courts trying to decide if the CPA was a federal agency. The CPA tried to pretend it wasn't a federal agency so it could get around federal contracting and personnel laws. Now that it is clear that bypassing those controls allowed some companies to fleece the US government, the Justice Department is trying to claim that its contractors had to follow US laws. That may be a shaky argument, especially considering that the CPA got most of its money from the Iraqi oil fields.

Perhaps this wouldn't be so troubling if the CPA significantly improved the lives of average Iraqis. Unfortunately, despite it's best efforts, it failed. The infrastructure is still falling apart, the government barely functions, the insurgency is still powerful, and billions might have been stolen. Not a great record.

So . . . we have an organization that was created and operated outside the traditional bureaucratic/governmental system, failed to achieve its intended goals, and can't be blamed for anything because it simply vanished during the handover of power in June 2004. Is this just another example of the bad management of this war that prevents anyone from ever assuming responsibility for what has gone wrong in Iraq? I really don't know, but I think we should just blame the CPA. Everyone else in Iraq seems to be blaming them.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:36 PM EDT
Updated: April 20, 2005 4:41 AM EDT
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April 11, 2005

Topic: Political Rant
Is there enough oversight over the execution of our adventure in Iraq? When the Bush Administration came to the Hill and requested funding for the war in Iraq, Bush Administration officials stressed that they needed flexibility over the funds, especially the reconstruction funds. Congress granted it to Bush. However, the Bush Administration didn't stop there. A number of the departments and agencies working in Iraq awarded contracts under very questionable procedures, and the good old Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) stressed that it wasn't part of the U.S. government and didn't have to follow standard disclosure or contracting laws.

In this type of environment, one of the few internal checks inside the system would be the Inspector General (IG) offices and other auditor hired to make sure the government keeps its nose clean. However, the level of oversight may not be enough to handle the approximately $300 billion that has rushed / is about to rush through Iraq. Here is a short list of the key auditors working in Iraq:

U.S.AID IG ~ Seven auditors and one investigator posted in Iraq monitoring a $5 billion reconstruction program.

Defense Contract Audit Agency ~ Conducting narrowly focused reviews to make sure contractors had adequate support for items included on their invoices, but RARELY addressing wider issues such as evaluating the performance of a contractor.

Department of State IG ~ Gearing up to have 6 auditors posted in country.

Special IG for Reconstruction ~ This IG will disappear after 80% of the reconstruction funds have been obligated, even though it might take an additional two years for the contractors to actually spend all the reconstruction funds.

Army Audit Agency ~ Its reports are not available to the public online, which is shame considering that the Army is responsible for about 70% of the reconstruction funds and a huge hunk of the military funds.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) ~ It does not have auditors posted inside Iraq, which makes it very difficult for them to make the necessary arrangements to enter into the country to conduct its audits.

Department of Defense IG ~ Only two published audits on Iraq, and both deal with the management of personnel assignments.

There might be a few more auditors out there, but these are the "big boys." In my humble opinion, this is a little disappointing. While it may not be appropriate to have countless auditors running around Iraq asking questions, it is very appropriate to make sure there are enough auditors around to ask the hard questions that the LA Time recently asked about the reconstruction. According to it's assessment, "Iraqi officials have crippled scores of water, sewage and electrical plants refurbished with U.S. funds by failing to maintain and operate them properly, wasting millions of American taxpayer dollars in the process, according to interviews and documents." That is a pretty damming statement, which sadly can be support by some troubling facts. Consider the following:

Iraq had fewer megawatts (MW) and megawatt hours (MWH) at the end of March 2005 (4,236MW & 85,767MWH) than at the handover (4,505MW & 96,520MWh), which is particularly bad considering that demand is twice supply and the U.S. is spending billons of dollar on the energy sector.

Oil export are only slightly higher now (1.33 million barrels per day) than they were at the handover (1.16 MBPD). However, oil revenue is far lower ($8.1 billion vs. $4.5 billion).

The newly refurbish water plants are in big trouble. For example, after dedicating nearly $20 million to refurbish a water plant, the U.S. government turned over the keys to the Iraqis last year. Within months, the operators had run the plant into the ground amid allegations of waste, extortion and incompetence. The LA Times seems to believe that this is a system-wide problem.

Considering all of the serious problems happening in Iraq (and what I just discussed is probably the minor compared to the military-related stuff), I am left to wonder if the government auditors have the resources (human and otherwise) needed to get into the complicated analysis needed to undercover these problems and help prevent them from happening. Who is sitting down with the State Department and asking them to explain their political decisions regarding the use of the reconstruction funds? Who is talking to the Army about how they run their prisions? Who is talking to the DoD about the managment of supplies and equipment (such as the need for kevlar and uparmored humvees)?

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:36 PM EDT
Updated: April 11, 2005 11:47 PM EDT
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March 27, 2005

Mood:  hug me
Topic: Political Rant
There are many companies that provide security services for government employees in Iraq. Many companies provide "static" security at government compounds inside the International Zone and through the country. These companies also provide personal security detachment (PSD) services, which basically involves rounding up a bunch of mercenaries to help protect government employees when they leave their compounds.

Some of these companies are very good, but other use tactics that aren't so good and have very questionable accounting practices. One of them (Custer Battles) was recently bared from receiving any new contracts with the federal government.

However, I am now worried that the government has no idea how to properly manage these contractors, even the "better" ones like Kroll. For example, while government auditors have not questioned the quality of the security Kroll recently provided to USAID, they noted four problems that should worry anyone who is concerned about the proper use of U.S. tax dollars.

1. Inadequate Documentation. Because USAID needed to swiftly obtain security services after insurgents began to attack USAID employees, government official used a special contracting authority to quickly select Kroll. However, they failed to keep adequate documents on file for auditors to determine whether selecting Kroll was in the best interests of the U.S. government or if someone else should have won the contract.

2. Federal Acquisition Regulations Were Not Followed. Government officials paid Kroll for a seven-month period using a contracting mechanism that did not meet many of the requirements of the federal acquisition laws. Moreover, USAID continued to pay Kroll for its services even when the company declined to sign a proposed contract. As a result, for seven months and after paying $8 million to the contractor, the U.S. government had no binding agreement to ensure the continued presence of critical security services for USAID employees in Iraq.

3. Weak Internal Controls. Government employees did not have adequate controls in place to prevent overpayment or ensure compliance with various laws.

4. Substandard Armored Cars. Kroll used government funds to purchase 14 armored vehicles to move its own people around Iraq. At the end of the contract, these cars were transferred to USAID and added to its motor pool. Unfortunately, the armored cars did not meet U.S. diplomatic security standards. That means USAID employees cannot use them in Iraq. As a result, approximately $1.9 million in USAID funding was used to purchase armored vehicles that now have limited use to the government.

Even if Kroll provided the best security services in the world and U.S. government employee are working in a difficult environment that makes it hard to properly manage a contract, these are really serious problems! The US is paying millions of dollars to these security contractors, and it now seems that we will never know if the taxpayers receive a fair price or if we were ripped off. If the government has problems managing a high-profile, reputable contractor like Kroll, what about the smaller security companies or ones that are untrustworthy?

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:38 PM EST
Updated: March 27, 2005 11:41 PM EST
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March 26, 2005

Topic: Political Rant
Liberals and conservative love to talk about how the "media" tends to focus on the bad things happening in Iraq and never focuses on the good things happening in Iraq. Surprisingly, the Project for Excellence in Journalism recently reviewed nearly 2,200 stories on television, newspapers, and the internet and found that most couldn't be categorized either way. Twenty-five percent were negative and twenty percent positive, and fifty-five were even-handed.

However, I think the goverment is lucky that the press has been that friendly considering that it isn't doing a good job of explaining what is happening over here. Yes, the government has only obligated about 60% and disbursed about 15% of the $18.4 billion reconstruction fund. That isn't very good considering that we have been here for over two years. Yet, I don't see enough stories explaining why the US government has been unable to get the money out the door. We need more stories explaining how U.S. contractors building and renovating power plants have to waste a hour screening their workforce every morning to make sure they don't have weapons, how integrated projects with the Iraqi ministries fall apart because they don't have the money needed to fulfill their side of the bargain, or why some project require coordination with the military, which from time to time are a little busy fighting the "bad guys." (Thankfully, the press has done a decent job explaining how companies have been ripping of the government.) Maybe I?m naive, but I think the American public probably understands that reconstructing this country will be hard; I just don?t think they fully understand the complexities of the problem.

To make things ever worse, government employees don't really understand the role of public relations. Maybe I'm going out on a limb here, but I bet most government employees working in Iraq have never worked on projects operating under this much public scrutiny. They are doing the best they can under a very bad scenario. I just don't understand why they are afraid to share more information about what they are doing, especially the projects that aren't doing so well. Public relations isn't just "spinning" a story to get favorable press. Sometimes it is simply providing the public with information, such as instances of fraud perpetrated by contractors, which they deserve to know, and sometimes it involves making sure a negative story contains factually accurate information rather than wild conjunctures and hearsay. Even if certain information needs to be withheld for security or proprietary reason, you can still say a lot and help the public get a better understanding of what is happening here in Iraq.

Maybe government employees stationed in Iraq need to take Public Relations 101 before coming to Iraq.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:32 PM EST
Updated: March 27, 2005 3:05 PM EST
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March 22, 2005

Topic: Political Rant
These days it seems like everyone is interested in "sustainability." It is a buzz word that is floating through my compound, knocking on the doors of the Palace, and mentioned around the copy machine at Main State, and perhaps even mused about by staffers in Congress. That is why I want to explain a few things that I've learned about sustainability during the last month.

Within a few months after the Saddam's government fell, US government officials working at the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) began to draft a second supplemental appropriations request. The reconstruction funds requested under the second supplemental appropriations bill emerged because US leaders in Iraq believe that one of the main ways to combat the insurgency was to prove that the US's actions were leading to positive changes in Iraq (more jobs, better services, etc). They believed that if the Iraqi people could see things getting better, they would stop joining the insurgency.

The second Iraq supplemental appropriations bill eventually became a "laundry list" dominated by large construction projects. CPA leaders threw everything they could into the bill. They dreamed up tons of projects (which months later turned out to be far more expensive than they thought). The laundry list focused on big stuff ? power plants, schools, airports, etc. The idea was to build something big that everyone could see and then slap a "Made in the USA" sticker on the side.

Some development experts in Iraq repeatedly argued for a comprehensive approach that would incorporate rebuilding the human institutions that would support the projects (i.e. sustainability). For example, the Ministry of Electricity needed to learn how to delegate central authority from Baghdad technocrats to plant managers, create a monitoring and billing system to encourage the sensible use of electricity, and institutionalize the use of long-term planning for maintenance, develop personnel policies that reward good performance, prevent Baghdad technocrats from hiring plant manager based on their relationship to key political leaders, etc. For the most part, these institutional strengthening requests were ignored. The budget request submitted by CPA/DoD and eventually approved by Congress did not include any significant sustainability efforts. Thus, the sustainability efforts were limited to low-level operations and maintenance issues, such as providing basic equipment training at newly constructed water treatment plants.

US government planners believed that the Iraqis could fund the institutional strengthening activities required to sustain the US's reconstruction projects. The US planners also assumed that other governments and nongovernmental organizations would provide any institutional strengthening activities that the Iraqis could not perform themselves. However, the need for institutional strengthening activities far exceeded the ability of the fledging Iraqi government, and the other donors never materialized due to the security situation and because they assumed that the US government?s substantial investment could completely fulfill any development need inside Iraq.

Although you can argue that at a very maco-level, the US has some projects (democracy development, education, and business reform) that will lead to the long-term sustainability of the reconstruction, it is not enough to support the country-wide institutional strengthening needed to ensure the sustainability of the projects funded by the $18.4 supplemental. Unless someone finally gets serious and puts some money down on the table, the US's investment in Iraq will quickly deteriorate. Within one or two years, plants might fall apart and could possibly become so degraded that they won?t function anymore. It has already happened at some facilities that we have turned over to the Iraqis.

A joint State Department, USAID, Program Contracting Office (PCO), and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) working group recently determined that the US government should institute a program to operate reconstructed facilities for a short-term basis while simultaneously creating an integrated program to ensure their long term sustainability. They determined that if the $8 billion spent on the electric and water/sewage sectors fails, Iraq will suffer serious economic and health-related consequences. Presumably, the Ambassador could use this White Paper to develop a specific funding proposal that could be submitted to the Office of Management and Budget.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:36 PM EST
Updated: March 22, 2005 11:41 PM EST
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January 31, 2005

Topic: Political Rant
Two Iraqis held their ink-stained fingers high in the air as they walked proudly through the compound on January 30th. They had just voted for the first time in their lives. They knew that a long and challenging path lay in front of their country. In the coming months, the Iraqi people have to address complicated ethnic and religious issues, draft a new constitution, and bring stability to a country suffering from a violent internal struggle. These two men knew all of this, yet this still held their fingers high, as sign of pride.

Underlying this election is a big question. Can Iraq become that shining democratic city on a hill in the Middle East and eventually bring a new birth of freedom in the Middle East? Bush repeatedly says that this is his intention, and his rhetoric-laden inaugural speech focused heavily on the concept of spreading freedom and democracy. This is a heavy challenge, and just for the sake of this argument, let's pretend (and hope) that military options won't be used in the future.

Look at Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two of our closest Middle East allies. Saudi Arabia has a nasty human rights record, and Egypt has a nasty emergency law that has been in effect since 1967! Will they change their ways and become open, democratic societies? Will the US be willing to change its international aid and military strategic relationship with these countries to help bring about the birth of new democracies?

According to the Los Angles Times, an internal State Department report states that daunting economic and social problems are likely to undermine basic stability in the Middle East for years, making the prospects for democratic reform dim at best. The report, which mind you is coming from the same administration pushing the idea of democratization, basically says that the premise of transforming the Middle East and fundamentally alter the workings of its governments is not credible. Evidently, "even the document's title appears to dismiss the administration argument. The report is labeled Iraq, the Middle East and Change: No Dominoes." I also seem to remember reading an article that explained how the administration understands these challenges and does not really want change how it interacts with countries in the region, even though the President's speech suggested a new approach for dealing with Russia, China, much of Africa, and the Middle East.

While I may be a hippy liberal who still believes that freedom can come to even the dark corners of the world micromanaged by dictators, maybe we should look at countries that have made some progress and examine why they have taken those first tentative steps toward "democracy." (And just to keep ourselves focused, let's only look at the Middle East.) Kuwait has made some progress, but it's not very impressive. The Kurdish area might be a good example, yet even though it was a self-directed process, it has been a somewhat bloody. Hmmm . . . what about Turkey? They do treat the Kurds and women harshly, yet their elections seem fairly free and open. Plus, the EU has been using membership as a somewhat effective carrot. In truth, the Turkish military probably has been one of the strongest factors protecting the quasi-democratic system of government, though at times they seem more interested in just keeping the country secular.

If light of these somewhat flawed examples, how do we move forward? We can't give up just because it's hard or because the approach currently proposed by the Bush Administration is scary. There seems to be a pretty strong correlation democracy and peace, transparent government, and human rights.

Adherence to a Cold War mentality hindered the development of democracies during the latter half of the last century; we seemed to have supported a bunch of dictators. Will we see an adherence to the neoconservative principles and/or the war on terrorism hurt us during the first part of this century? To me, this might be a big challenge that US liberals have to address and overcome regarding fostering democracy in the Middle East. The repackaging of decades-old problems (such as the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict) into the "war on terrorism" perspective isn't going to help either.

Here is my big worry . . . sitting on the sidelines while the President forcibly inflicts democracy on other countries is not an option. Liberals need a counter-option rather than just saying, the President is a tool. That approach wasn't that useful during the last election and probably work work here.

Whatever is the end of this neoconservative experiment in Iraq, on January 29th the people of Iraq (or those who felt safe enough to vote) did something that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:32 PM EST
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January 17, 2005

Mood:  blue
Topic: Political Rant
I had a bad day yesterday. I just couldn't get anything right. There is so little to do here that when things don't go well at work, there is no real way to let off that steam or recharge your batteries. There are no friends to grab and have a drink with after work. There are no mountains with opens spaces to clear your thoughts as you look outward over open stretches of land . . . oh well . . . let's start a discussion about Ugly Americans. I finished the Ugly American about a week ago. If you had talked to me five years ago, I would have told you that America had probably learned many of the lessons in that book. However, I think we forgot everything that we learned when we invaded Iraq. Many of the problems outlined in the book are serious problems here. I identified at least five major ideas in the book that seemed relevant to Iraq. 1) Foreign service officers should be able to speak the language of the country where they are posted. 2) There are benefits and consequences for heavily relying on locals to handle routine and critical duties in our embassies. 3) Foreign service officers typically do not interact with the "average" people on a daily basis, and despite what some people may think, heads of major ministries do not count as "average" people. 4) Americans do not understand how to effectively handle public relations in the Middle East. 5) The "bureaucratic" image of the government service (or the idea that an individual cannot make any impact) scares many qualified people away from the foreign service. Each one of these ideas could be an essay all by itself. It is time to be honest with ourselves and think about what we did after at the officially "won" the war. There actually was a small window of peace in Iraq. Then, a series of foolish mistake slowly eroded away the sense of optimism that once filled the street of this city. Now, Americans live behind concrete walls. Most of the thousands of Americans here don't speak Arabic. Most Americans in the International Zone never interact with any Iraqis other than those who work with the US government or for the top-level Iraqi government ministers. Meanwhile, the images on the nightly news seem to feed the perception of "American oppressors." Things could, and should, have gone better. Maybe more people should read the Ugly American. That won't be the magic solution, but it would be a start. It might be too late for me and many people already posted here, yet we need to try to learn from our mistakes.

Posted by alohafromtim at 11:20 PM EST
Updated: January 18, 2005 12:58 PM EST
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