Best Defense

A response to Lady Emma: No, start by actually helping the Iraqis do things

By Steve Donnelly Best Defense guest respondent Emma Sky’s recent paper for CNAS provides a welcoming and Iraqi-freshened perspective to the most recent of many chapters in the story of U.S. relations with Iraq. But there remain a great many unspoken undercurrents in the human interest stories of a U.S. CPA and military actor, no ...

US Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr
US Department of Defense Current Photos/Flickr

By Steve Donnelly
Best Defense guest respondent

Emma Sky’s recent paper for CNAS provides a welcoming and Iraqi-freshened perspective to the most recent of many chapters in the story of U.S. relations with Iraq.

But there remain a great many unspoken undercurrents in the human interest stories of a U.S. CPA and military actor, no disrespect intended, rather than a professional analysis of the gaps and deficiencies identified — which all relate to Iraqi self-governance and support for Iraqi civilian institutions.

Emma’s stories reminded me of several meetings in Tikrit and Baghdad in 2008, which, I believe, underscore the complexities of the US muddle, and the limitations on U.S. successes in light of our past history.

On a crisp morning in January 2008, a military convoy wound its way through Tikrit’s morning traffic to deliver three State Department civilian advisers to Salah ad Din’s provincial headquarters. Parents walked their children to the local schoolhouse, garbed in the clean, pressed, yet shabby garb of war refugees, wary of the passing convoy. The turret-mounted M60 intermittently pop-popped warning shots to oncoming traffic at each intersection, as the electronic jammers shut down all civilian cell phone traffic. Children with no parents to take interest sat by the roadside selling gypsy gasoline from small containers. All these scenes were visible to the civilian advisers through the grimy window of the Humvee.

As the provincial headquarters’ halls were swept by the U.S. military escort, widows and their young children, descending into PTSD events when confronted with the same soldiers that, under Big Ray, had once kicked down their door and taken Daddy away, and likely to be suicide bombers, were cleared before the civilian advisers entered to attend a brief meeting with Salah ad Din’s civilian leaders.

The civilian advisers were warmly greeted by elected officials from the Provincial Government, mostly Kurds favorable to the United States, and "democratically" elected as a result of the majority-Sunni boycott of elections in Salah ad Din and Ninewa. But the Iraqi civilian administrators were, on first meeting, typically reluctant to speak directly to an American, whether military or civilian.

The reasons for that reluctance were understandable, given their backgrounds. Some were survivors of the Shia opposition left by the United States to fend with Saddam after Desert Storm, highly-skilled civil engineers returning from prestigious exile in Kuwait to find their country in ruins as it had been after the Iraq/Iran War, but with the resources and responsibilities for reconstruction now in the hands of well-intended but unskilled U.S. military E-5s and 0-3s. Most important was an unwillingness to be publicly identified as "collaborators," when, after the United States left, reprisals would be certain, and did occur.

After the meeting, two civilian advisers were directed to another room while the return convoy was being organized. After very careful negotiations through one of the Sunni leaders, they had the opportunity to meet in private with the former civilian engineers and administrators who had operated and rebuilt Salah ad Din before the Baathist purges. They knew where everything was, how to fix it, and were anxious to help, but could not do so directly.

As the U.S. civilian advisers intermediated between the U.S. military, and Iraqi provincial and national leaders to rebuilt the bridges over the Tigris, a complex chain of communication was required, with "anonymous" help from the former Baathist administrators, and indirect calls from current administrators and anti-Americans unwilling to be identified as direct collaborators, but needed to get their country reconstructed.

Through an equally byzantine chain of events and contacts, two of the civilian advisers were invited to attend an Iraqi meeting (no U.S. military, please) in Baghdad in June 2008, where ministry and provincial officials were meeting to coordinate procedures for the upcoming 2009 budget deliberations.

Here, behind closed doors in the Al Rasheed Hotel’s main ballroom, Iraq’s leading national and provincial technocrats were blunt in their criticisms of the current state of affairs, the crooked politicians they were confronted with, and the hope that by returning to their older and technically-based processes for project and budget considerations, hoped to move the system to one based on genuine need, public participation, technical reviews and cost/benefit frameworks to get Iraq moving again.

As the meeting proceeded, the old-timers mentored the handful of confused post-Saddam administrators on the old cost-budget analysis processes and technical studies used in the older processes, and agreements were made to republish and re-distribute the old budget manuals, so that a modern and functional government could hopefully emerge.

Why were these two State Department civilian advisers being invited into meetings to which U.S. military and prior CPA advisers were never invited, and embraced by the civilian solutions that the CPA and U.S. military had not engaged?

Each was an actual U.S. civilian developer, planner, engineer and builder. They spoke the same language as the technocrats, understood the complexities of the systems problems, and the routine paths for solutions. Bureaucrat to Bureaucrat. Bridge Engineer to Bridge Engineer. Water Treatment Plant Operator to Water Treatment Plant Operator. Builder to Builder. The language, social, and cultural barriers were irrelevant to the common language of troubleshooting and public systems.

Most important, they had each been sent with explicit instructions from Foggy Bottom and Ambassador Crocker’s "bubble" to find those solutions, and were empowered by MND-North Commander MG Mark Hertling, and his experienced command staff, who all came with the same common mission: Give Iraq back to the Iraqis.

The lessons of these many experiences were distilled by the State Department civilian advisors into a report arguing for the rapid transition to Iraqi civilian government based on three insights: (1) Iraqis, by their national culture still driving them, are inveterate builders who had proudly built and rebuilt their country as each war and flood swept through; (2) Iraq had invested heavily in training core groups of administrators, public works managers and engineers, who were available, respected by their peers, and anxious to take responsibility for restoring a functional public service structure, but needed help to get past the interim political leaders (many of which were our own); and (3) that joining these insights into SOFA negotiations could provide rapid transition to Iraqi government, and enduring value for future U.S. and Iraqi relationships.

Where Emma Sky’s limitations, as a former CPA Administrator and Odierno adviser are most apparent, is perhaps unintended bias toward what the United States, rather than Iraqis, shoulda or coulda have done during and after a chaotic and ill-informed occupation which drove out the very Iraqi engagement and responsibility that was the only viable way forward, and the lack of training and technical experience in the actual systems of government needed to address the lingering issues.

If anything could be recommended at this point, it would be for the Obama Administration to abandon the unwanted meddling in Iraqi police affairs and ineffective training, and to openly and effectively engage that broad Iraqi public through positive political focus on the "plain vanilla" operations of civil government systems and technical advice, which the United States has an abundance of and the Iraqi public seriously needs.

It is clear that the spooks and spies, by not leaving a basically functional, and somewhat reconciled government, lost their entry, and, perhaps, ceded that U.S. role to Iran (actually more to Turkey).

Focus on what the Iraqi public actually needs, and they will tolerate, if they have to, a handful of spooks and spies, but it is axiomatic that if the United States is viewed by that Iraqi public as a helper rather than an unwanted intervener, less spooks and spies would be required, and valid intelligence on the actual Iraq and its problems would be abundant and routine.

The Lesson from Benghazi and Syria: Effective U.S. engagement in these countries is going to require a more sophisticated and meaningful exchange with these many publics than the current military and diplomatic systems consider. Big U.S. footprints, soldiers, and colonial occupiers are unwelcome. Better to use internet engagements to link Iraqi administrators to U.S. technical resources, then re-engage overtime.

Stephen Donnelly, AICP, is a Crofton, MD-based planning and development consultant who served as Senior Urban Planning Adviser, US Department of State, Iraq Reconstruction, during the civilian surge (2007-2009).

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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