Friday, July 17, 2009

Signs of Hope

July 17
There are many important men in Iraq. Last week we met with several of them. Sometimes I think it is a country of “very important people” in need of a few garbage collectors, taxi drivers, and janitors.

State Department hired Provincial Reconstruction Teams sole purpose here is to strengthen Iraq's infrastructure and as an engineering support element for the Army, working hand in hand with the PRTs we have gotten to gain a progressively deeper understanding of the rebuilding effort ongoing. While on a FOB visit east of Balad, a central hub for ground operations in the region, we sat down to discuss the myriad of reconstruction projects either in progress or planned for the province. Present were Army officers and NCOs representing each of the battalions who “own” the various sectors of the province, meaning they are responsible for the security there. Also present were members of the PRT, dressed smartly in suits and ties (and sweating profusely) as well as the province’s assistant governor along with his translator. Of course, this being a military briefing, numerous slides were shown—various maps with hatched lines and color-coded dots representing the hundreds of projects going on throughout the region. Projects were categorized as dealing with sewage, water, electricity, academics trash, etc, arranged and selected almost exclusively, it would seem, to create an acronym: SWEAT-MTA.

After formalities, greetings and introductions, we progressed through each of the representatives speaking on behalf of their sector’s projects, some from civil affairs teams, others from other support elements. This is a challenging mission for the Army, a service who excels in the “clearing and holding” aspects of a campaign but have since had to move on into the “build, hold, maintain” competencies. There has been a lot to learn over the course of the past few years. It has taken that long for some, now back on their second or third tour here to understand that while bad guys still exist in Iraq, we must treat them as the exception, not the rule, and begin to treat the people we encounter on a day-to-day basis as the United States government claims them to be, friends, not an easy task for the guys still getting shot at.

As the government of Iraq, especially at the local level, has showed signs of life over the past few years, we have begun to be able to rely more on them for input regarding our rebuilding effort, which has provided a tremendous boost to our ability to do sustainable good here. The horror stories of costly new schools and government buildings built with American tax-payer dollars, American contractor oversight, and American security that opened but have never been used or, worse, have become homes or havens for the people trying to do us harm, should (and I cautiously emphasize “should”) now be a thing of the past, a lesson learned for campaign leaders of the future.

While it may not have been clear to a casual observer, it was clear to me who was running the meeting. The two hours of project updates, questions, and discussion were all centered on the assistant governor seated near the front of the room. He was the one who at the end of everything, stood up and said through his interpreter “Yes, this is all good work being done, but we need to focus on one or two key projects and get them done so that the people can see progress and continue to grow their trust for their government.” This was a brash comment for someone who’s province will be the benefactor of well over 100 million dollars worth of infrastructure improvements before we have all gone home, yet I appreciated it immensely. Gone are the days of Iraqi government officials cowing to American military leaders. With the turn of last month we have officially become guests here, operating on Iraqi sovereign soil, only with Iraqi permission. It was refreshing to hear a leader challenge these Army officers and in turn I commend those officers for not reacting defensively to the governor’s charge.

Still, there are many areas where it seems like it would be much simpler for us to once again take the lead, do things our way, as I believe most of our leaders were attempting to do in the first few years that followed our “victory” here, just perhaps too ambitiously. Most of the issues that are difficult for us to grasp are rooted in Iraqi culture. Perhaps one hundred years ago it would have been easier for Americans to understand the deep-seated hatred and complete distrust felt between many Sunnis and Shi’ah in Iraq, and in turn for almost all Sunnis and Shi’ah towards Kurdish Iraqis. While cultural resentment and distrust have certainly not been completely eradicated in the states, we wrestle with trying to understand how one Iraqi could hate another so much just for being a member of a different religious sect (although the Catholic and Protestant Christians still killing each other elsewhere in the world may not have such a hard time understanding). Yet, there is no denying that these distrusts are still alive and well, and there is very little reason to believe they’re going anywhere anytime soon. As an aside, I did read an article recently on a news website about a program the government of Iraq has introduced to pay couples who marry across the Sunni/Shiite divide. Had an American government representative developed this plan it would have quickly been dismissed as shallow but since it was (at least publicly) an Iraqi-led initiative it was hailed in the article I read as a creative way to begin to bridge the divide.

Here in our province, however, there are disturbing signs that the hate still runs very deep. For example, a PRT member’s suggestion for an expansion of the electrical grid across the eastern part of the province was met with much enthusiasm until it was discovered by local leaders that primary purpose of the project was to carry power not to, but through these towns to a neglected, primarily Kurdish cluster of towns on the Iranian border. The local Sunni leaders quickly put an end to that project. Even more disturbing was the assistant governor’s reluctance to quote an estimated number of hours local residents could count on electricity and running water in certain parts of the province. As it was later explained to me, utilities, being under the control of one cultural sect or another, have become important bargaining chips, or very big sticks to whack neighbors who for one reason or another may have upset you today. While the priority facilities, hospitals, schools, and government buildings are given the most consistent allowances, other towns must suffer through periods of inconsistent or even nonexistent utilities sometimes just as punishment for their culture or creed.

As it turns out, there may actually be some benefits to running a country more like the mafia than anything else. For one, having friends in high places (or even distant cousins) all but guarantees you a comfortable, nebulous white-collar with limited responsibility and almost no accountability. When the DG of Health was given his budget for the year, the entire year, he promptly went out and hired 30 friends, er, managers, leaving him next to nothing with which to actually operate his health-care system for the province. When the United States government is still stepping in to fill these types of shortfalls, officials can get away with this sort of irresponsibility fairly easy. What will happen when Iraq is forced to operate on a far more restrained budget, one that is still almost exclusively tied to the oil industry? This may not seem like a problem, oil still being a plentiful natural resource sure to last for at least another century (and only to increase in cost as it becomes increasingly rare). But there is one very clear problem with basing a government budget on a commodity; commodities change with the market. Just as no one has, and no one will ever accurately predict the stock market’s yearly gains (or losses), a speculated budget based on speculator evaluations of a commodity will almost always end up with wild swings in one direction or another. In a good year, that means at the end of the fiscal term you have under budgeted and you have some extra spending money to give out to all of your mafia friends. Sadly, 2009 has not been good to Iraq’s expected oil profits thus far. They have rewritten their central budget twice already in 7 months, literally wreaking havoc on any plans provinces might have had for large projects, and putting some in tight binds as they have already begun to move forward on plans based on old numbers, the money for which will not arrive now for another 5 months.

For some projects maybe this isn’t such a bad thing. A little extra time to rethink certain projects would be well worth everyone’s while. Recently, we received a particularly curious request. Environmental air and water experts want to build a series of water and air testing labs, with collection points scattered intelligently around the province. My response to the PRT lead was to ask how Baghdad has addressed the facility design and model ours off of theirs. Apparently, nothing like these labs exists in Iraq… anywhere. Still not a huge deal, although it would require an incredible amount of research and reach back assistance from engineers and medical, biological, chemical, environmental experts back in the states to develop the design package it could be done. Realistically though, this region is so far removed from anything like this that the request becomes almost comical. If you really want to know the quality of the air and the water in Iraq, all you need to do is poke your head out the front door. You see that sewage running down the street? That’s headed toward the canal and seeping into the water table from which people draw their water. And that foul aroma in the air? That’s from the open, non-regulated garbage burn pit just outside town. I couldn’t tell you exactly how much particles of poop are floating in the air or in your cup of chai, but I would guess it’s at least one more than should be there.

There are some special privileges that come with government posts in Iraq that you won’t find at home. Unhappy with the performance of the Director of Trash and the garbage piling up on the streets, the governor threw him in jail for two nights. We will probably see less trash in the gutters during our next trip out...

...A few days later back at Balad I attended a luncheon for the Society of American Military Engineers where we were fortunate enough to be visited by another important Iraq government official. The mayor of Balad and several other towns surrounding our base has been serving in his official post for the past six years. He has seen some very big changes in his area of responsibility and in Iraq in general. Speaking in broken English, he tells us that he too is an engineer, of the electrical variety, having earned his degree in Indiana. While a bit disjointed, it is an enlightening talk. His dream is to see Balad become a major tourist destination in Iraq. Stop thinking like a typical American tourist for a moment and consider that archeologists have identified up to 150 unique historical sites in this area alone, most of which are religious in nature and you’ll begin to understand that this area does indeed have promise. Later when I brought this up with our team Iraqi engineers they told me that one of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandchildren who was killed in a famous battle is buried not far from here. Every year, thousands upon thousands of people pilgrimage to his gravesite and even more pay to be buried nearby. This is the tourism that Balad’s mayor is referring to, not necessarily people coming from outside the country, although they would certainly come as well, but Iraqi residents from Baghdad and elsewhere coming once a year to pay their respects while sleeping in local hotels, eating local foods, and buying local goods. What is needed still in the primarily agriculture-based economy of Balad is investment from foreign companies and entrepreneurs. Now that he says security has improved drastically, especially in the past two years, capital is slowly starting to trickle in. An Indian car company will be opening a dealership here soon. Elsewhere an investor from Dubai has expressed interest in opening a hotel, and an American company plans to open a parts assembly factory, ventures that will expand the types of job opportunities available to locals, and pump important capital back into the local community, all reasons for the Mayor to be extremely excited about the outlook for his towns.

The Mayor shares the stage with the PRT lead for Balad. A former city planner of Miami with 30 years of experience in the business of cities jokes that he has dealt with far worse security concerns from the drug lords of Miami than he does on a daily basis here in Iraq. Now into his third year in this position, he too is excited for the progress he sees on the horizon, especially now that people have stopped fearing for their lives on a daily basis. Without security it was impossible for him to plan for projects beyond essential services, but now he sees limitless opportunities for this community. I like his attitude. He lacks the cynicism that dominates the majority of PRT personalities I’ve met. He is realistic, I think. He isn’t promising change overnight and he understands why we scratch our heads as he and the Mayor talk about tourism, but there are signs of hope, and he holds on to them. There apparently is a new restaurant that has just opened up in town. Gorgeously decorated, he compares it to the Hard Rock Café. Really? There’s a Hard Rock Café-equivalent down the street in Balad? As hard as it is to believe, as out of touch some of the government officials still are(ours and theirs), and although there is still violence on a weekly basis around this damaged country, these are exciting times to be here.

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