Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Irony: I'm over here safe in Iraq and my neighbor just got shot to death in Berkeley

(Photos are of the new MRAP, the PRT team leader, me at the council meeting with the new radio antenna in the background, a happy street scene in Hit, a sad street scene in Berkeley -- -- and us fighting over the last Beanie Baby.)

Here I am, over in Anbar province with the Iraqis and the Marines. You'd think that it would be dangerous here but it's not. Things in Anbar are pretty safe -- but the irony of the situation wasn't lost on me when a friend e-mailed me an article yesterday about someone getting shot to death in the streets of Berkeley, CA, my hometown.

"OMG," I immediately e-mailed back. "I KNOW that guy! That guy was my NEIGHBOR!"

Here I am sitting around Al Asad airbase in western Iraq, listening to some US Marines, a State Department PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) and a US-AID rep giving me the 411 on how they are helping to rebuild Anbar province, while back home my neighbor couldn't even safely walk down the street.

I've got about 25 pages of notes from meeting with the various reconstruction teams here. Let me try to make sense of them for you so that you can get a clearer picture of what's going on. First I interviewed a Marine officer in charge of civil interaction with local Iraqis.

"The Marines are approaching their reconstruction missions here in the same manner that they approached a combat mission," said the officer. "We identify a target and then initiate a development process. We add to the target list, prioritize it, develop a plan, conduct reconnaissance, develop the project, execute it and assess." He gave me some examples of how they use this strategy to also identify, organize and tackle civil development projects such as sewage treatments or electrification.

"So instead of using these organizational techniques to design the best way to take out, say, a bomb factory, you use them to target and initiate civic development projects?"

"Exactly." Then he gave me copy of the Marines' "Targeting Cycle" flow chart template. Hey, maybe I could use this to plan an assault on all that junk in my apartment when I get home.

Then I got sent off to interview the PRT leader for this area. "Basically," he said, "there weren't very many mid-level bureaucrats in Anbar when we arrived because Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a top-down operation." There used to be a lot of yes-men in Iraq. "So we are trying to help develop bureaucrats who can make decisions by themselves."

The PRT expert, a career diplomat for the State Department, talked about encouraging more bureaucratic executions. "Under Saddam, 'bureaucratic execution' had a whole different meaning and back then it was safer just to sit on your hands.

"One of the biggest challenges that we face here is money. There is plenty available -- but how do you transport it? Because the banking system still needs development, we have to make most of our payments in cash. We can't just issue ATM cards or checks. So all that cash has to be accounted for at all times."

Then I asked him about distributing oil revenue money to Iraqis. "This region has a lot of potential due to its resources and location but in order to get these projects off the the ground, the Iraqis need manpower and so just handing out oil revenue could make things worse by taking away incentives to roll up their sleeves. Plus its like when people win lottery money. First the money is here and then it's gone." So I guess that my assumption that handing out more oil revenues will be the solution to Iraq's problems is rather simplistic. Sigh.

Another big problem here is that Saddam didn't support the infrastructure so that most of it needs to be repaired or replaced. And they didn't build refineries for the oil. And transportation is still a challenge. If it is run right, Iraq has the potential to be a great country. But for the last 40 years, it hasn't been run right."

"Is the PRT making progress and, if so, how can you tell?"

"The way that I judge progress within my subject area is by observing little things -- like bananas. Can one ship bananas to the stores before they turn brown? When you see yellow bananas for sale, that indicates that a good distribution chain has been set up."

Next I talked with the PRT's language and liaison specialist, an Iraqi-American who was born in Mosul and studied at the American University in Cairo but now lives in San Diego. "It's not that Iraq lacks in trained and intelligent people," he said. "Iraq used to have more PhDs per capita than any other country in the world. But for the last two decades or so, there has been a brain drain as the intellectual and professional classes left because of Saddam and the wars and the embargoes -- so this is another reason why the bureaucracy is shattered today."

The third person I talked to on the Provincial Reconstruction Team was their agricultural adviser, who had just gotten back from a field trip to Haditha. "This area could be another Imperial Valley," he told me, "if enough water was made available. You look around you now and all you see is barren desert but if you just add water, the desert comes to life." Sort of like those post-card flat sponges that kids like so much where you just add water and they turn into rubber duckies.

"I just spent most of last week opening up a spring in the Haditha area that is now an oasis about one acre square. Finding springs here is easy. You just look at satellite photos, pick your spot and go out there with a backhoe." He had just spent the last four days sleeping under his bulldozer. "No, I only slept next to it." Yeah, but sleeping under it sounds more, er, nomadic.

"If we can help get a lot of water out to the desert and use the right irrigation practices, they can achieve another Garden of Eden here." Really? "They can grow date palms, citrus, pomegranates and alfalfa. But this type of operation would probably take around 15 years to complete. And another problem we're facing right now is sheep."

"Sheep?" I thought they were only a problem when they were lost. Or am I thinking about nursery rhymes?

"There are approximately 1.2 million sheep in Anbar, tended by nomadic sheperds. The issue is that the sheep eat the entire grass plant, including the roots -- they just pull the plants out of the ground like tweezers, roots and all -- and this leads to the degradation of the desert. In the American west, this problem was addressed by the use of barbed wire fences but here in Anbar the sheep are free to roam everywhere. And in order to keep these tremendous eating machines from being out there running loose and degrading the ecology, private land ownership may have to come into play if you want to develop better resource grass management."

Then me and the PRT team leader suited up in our Kevlar, jumped into our Humvees and MRAPS and convoyed off to the city of Hit to meet with the mayor and some city council members to discuss setting up a radio station. "Humvees, like SUVs have a tendency to tip over," said the PRT leader, "so your job, while sitting in the back seat, is to grab the gunner's legs if the Humvee starts to roll." What? My job is to grab at a young, handsome Marine's legs? Well, if I have to....

At the city hall in Hit, the Marine officer in charge of civil affairs in west Anbar gave a nifty presentation on how a local radio station could be set up in a very small space for only around $4,000.

"But nobody listens to radio any more," said one sheik. "We want TV." At first I was shocked. Having a local radio station? That's GOT to be a plus. You could communicate locally, listen to it in your car, get advertising revenues, etc. What's not to like! Heck, if I spoke Arabic, I could start my own radio talk show. I'd be a big hit in Hit!

But then I sort of realized that what was happening here was that the council was bargaining. Bargaining is big in the Middle East. They were trying to see if they could purchase the transmitter for less. "And will you throw in the software?"

Then we went walking through the city's streets and talked with some of the residents. And then the PRT leader pulled out a bag full of Beanie Babies to give to the kids. Hey! I want a Beanie Baby! Don't give it to him. Give it to me!

Then I got to interview the US-AID rep when we got back on the airbase. His office is in a tent. "Our emphasis is on interfacing with the Iraqi provincial government and developing a five-year plan involving economics, agriculture, social services, infrastructure and governance/rule of law."

In the agricultural phase, one of the big challenges is to clarify property rights and clean up the deed offices. "Trying to find water is another large task. Most of the wells here used to be run by electrical pumps but now, with the diesel fuel shortages in place, they have to both switch back to using old-fashioned windmills and water wheels and to start making plans to build an oil refinery to supply fuel."

Then he showed me the local US-AID budget. "$532,000 for agriculture, $3,229,000 for infrastructure, $1,759,000 for social services. Of course the money aspect is interesting but most important is the outcome. For instance, how much electricity is the generator we paid for providing? And are people being employed after the economic packages are in place? And we are also trying to coordinate efforts between ourselves, the Iraqis and the Marines. There are a lot of people out here doing a lot of things. You'd be surprised. And also you need to factor in that this is NOT a post-conflict situation."

But the US-AID guy was hopeful. "We are all taking baby steps here but we are at least TAKING them. I like to use the tent-pole analogy. If we gave Iraqis a tent pole, they could use it while we are here -- but then what will they do when we take it with us when we leave? Better to help them learn how to fell trees, strip bark, use a lathe. And also I have hope for the future because of the city councils. They are really taking care of business."

I agreed. I'd seen the Hit city council in action and they were definitely on top of things.

So. Today I learned a lot about the reconstruction process here in Anbar province -- that it IS happening. And I walked around the city of Hit and was perfectly safe. But my heart still cries out for the people of Baghdad and Mosul and Basra, where day-to-day life is still a crap-shoot. And I also cry out for the wife and three children of my neighbor who was just murdered in Berkeley.

Am I about to come up with a moral here? No. The only thing I can come up with right now is a deeply-felt wish that all human beings will finally learn to live in peace.

PS: I can't believe that I just brushed my teeth with Kool-Aid. Strawberry Kool-Aid! Does this mean that I am drinking the Kool-Aid over here? I don't think so. But I've definitely been brushing my teeth with it.