Memo from Iraq:

Fables of the reconstruction

[Below is the full text of the redacted memo upon which Jason Vest’s April 20 article prepared for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (AAN) is based. AAN’s original intention was to withhold the release of the full memo, as it includes a section with new and useful leads on corruption in the United Nations Oil-For-Food Program that Jason Vest was working on developing as a separate story. However, given the high degree of reader interest and number of media queries the current story has generated, we have decided to go ahead and release the memo. It was originally sent as an e-mail and was received by Vest with the headers redacted.-- Editor]



I want to emphasize: As great as the problems we face, and the criticisms back home, and mindful of the sacrifice that almost 600 Americans have made, what we have accomplished in Iraq is worth it. While Iraqis joke, “Americans go home — and take us with you.” The gratitude which they express is sincere and unsolicited, and not limited to a single political class. The political bickering back in the United States has worried Iraqis, who fear that a Kerry victory will mean an American withdrawal, short-term civil war, and long-term empowerment of the most radical elements of society throughout the Islamic world. Nevertheless, several Iraqi political movements have begun reaching out to Senate Democrats to keep their bases covered.

I have conflicting impressions of where Iraq is going. It is easy to see progress in Baghdad. Driving from Jadriya to Mansour around 7 p.m. on March 4, shops were bustling. Women and girls, some with hair covered and other not, crowded shops selling the latest fashions from Italy via Lebanon, cell phones and electrical gadgets, fancy shoes, and cell phones. Baghdadis are out and about, looking more self-assured. Gone is the confusion that permeated Iraqi society in the aftermath of Saddam’s fall. Shwarma and ice cream shops do a booming business, and families patronize restaurants. Twenty-somethings and teenagers meet in internet cafes. The internet cafes that we see from the roadside on the main streets are just the tip of the iceberg; many mahalla have their own internet cafes set off in alcoves off side streets. Even in poorer areas like Baghdad al-Jadida, new plastic signs plaster the sides of buildings. Pundits and others harp on lack of security, but shopkeepers pile electrical appliances, clothes, bicycles, and other goods on the street. New cars crowd the street, as well as older models long forbidden (Saddam used to forbid cars of a certain year from entering Baghdad). Car dealerships continue to open around the city. Traffic police go through the motions, but remain too fearful to enforce regulations.

Street lights function irregularly and traffic lights not at all, but private investors have brought in generators so that shops can function after dark. Electricity in Baghdad is fluctuating between three hours on and off, in rotation, and four hours on and off. There is no consistency.

Despite assurances to the contrary, neither the CPA nor the Ministry of Electricity publishes a schedule of power cuts and rotations. It is now starting to get hot. I hope that the Ministry of Electricity will be ready for the summer. You can’t run an air conditioning unit on a household generator, and the demand this year will be greater than ever before because of the influx of new appliances. If we are basing our goal on last year’s figures, we are going to come out flat. Despite the progress evident in the streets of Baghdad, much of which happens despite us rather than because of us, Baghdadis have an uneasy sense that they are heading toward civil war. Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurds professionals have say that they themselves, friends, and associates are buying weapons fearing for the future. CPA is ironically driving the weapons market: Iraqi police sell their “lost” U.S.-supplied weapons on the black market; they are promptly re-supplied. Interior ministry weapons buy-backs keep the price of arms high.

The frequent explosions, many of which are not reported in the mainstream media, are a constant reminder of uncertainty. When a blast occurs, residents check their watch. If it’s on the hour, chances are that it’s a controlled explosion destroyed confiscated ordinance. The explosions are frequent. Twice in recent days, nearby explosions woke me up. I was staying with friends on the opposite side of the Mansour district when a loud explosion rattled the windows — apparently when rockets hit the nearby phone exchange. Given that I had gone to sleep at around 3 a.m., it had to be big to wake me. (As an aside, most Iraqi politicking occurs between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., and so if CPA bases its cables on Governing Council meetings and an occasional dinner with primary actors, it is missing a great deal). This morning, I heard a loud blast at 8:40 a.m. My guards told me I slept through an explosion a bit earlier.

We have made the most progress in Baghdad; the south may be calm, but it seems the calm before the storm. Iranian money is pouring in. British policy is to not rock the boat, and so they do nothing that may result in confrontation. This is a mistake. We are faced with an Iranian challenge. Whether Iranian activities are sanctioned or not by the Iranian actors with which the State Department likes to do business should be moot, since those Iranians who offer engagement lack the power to deliver on their promises. In Bosnia and Afghanistan, we were likewise challenged by the Iranians. In both cases, the Iranians promised their intentions were benign. In Bosnia, we rolled up the Qods Force anyway, and Bosnia has remained pro-Western in its orientation. In Afghanistan, we wrung our hands and did little, worried that the Iranians might respond to confrontation as if we did anything to enforce our word. This projected weakness. Today, Iran holds as much influence over Western Afghanistan than at any time since after the Anglo-Persian War of 1857. That said, I do not think that a deliberate bombing such as we saw in Karbala or Khadimiya will be the trigger for a civil war. Rather, I worry about deeper conflicts that revolve around patronage and absolutism. Bremer has encouraged re- centralization in Iraq because it is easier to control a Governing Council less than a kilometer away from the Palace rather than 18 different provincial councils who would otherwise have budgetary authority. The net affect, however, has been desperation to dominate Baghdad, and an absolutism borne of regional isolation. The interim constitution moves things in the right direction, but the constitution is meaningless if we are not prepared to confront challenges.

Throughout Iraq, we are handicapped by our security bubble. Few in CPA- Baghdad get out of the Green Zone anymore, at least outside the normal business of going to their respective ministries, etc. Most drivers work during the day, but not in the evening hours when Baghdad is most alive. The U.S. Government has spent millions importing sport utility vehicles which are used exclusively to drive the kilometer and a half between the Convention Center and the Palace. We would have been much better off with a small fleet of used cars, and a bicycle for every Green Zone resident.

CPA’s isolation will get worse with the transfer to the State Department. The job of Regional Security Officers [RSOs] is to ensure safety and minimize risk. In the view of most RSOs, the best assurance for the safety is to not leave the Green Zone. This is the same policy which the British now apply for their CPA personnel. The irony is that the Green Zone is less than secure. Despite the success of the Information Collection Program in rolling up Baathist and Salafi cells targeting Americans, large concentrations of Americans and Brits do make tempting artillery targets. While managing the risk from the Baathist remnants, we may leave ourselves vulnerable to other risks. Our screening for Iranian agents and followers of Muqtada al-Sadr is inconstant at best. The isolation is two-sided: Iraqis realize that the entrances to the Green Zone are under surveillance by bad-guys, and they also fear that some of the custodial staff note of who comes and goes. No one prevents people from entering the parking lot outside the checkpoint to note license plate numbers of “collaborators.” Perhaps the paranoia is justified, perhaps it is not. But, the net effect is the same, as a segment of Iraqi society seeks to avoid meeting Americans because they fear the Green Zone.

The use of Personal Security Details [PSDs] also handicaps out ability to report on certain key trends, especially in the south and south- central. PSDs are necessary for protection, but they hamper communication with ordinary people. It is ingrained in the Iraqi psyche to keep a close hold on their own thoughts when surrounded by people with guns. Even those willing to talk to Americans think twice, since American officials create a spectacle of themselves, with convoys, flak jackets, and fancy SUVs. No one in Hilla, Nasriya, or Basra can surreptitiously complain, for example, about Iranian influence to Americans or British officials in CPA-SC or CPA-S when they feel that all eyes — including those of people reporting to the Iranians — are watching them. Likewise, no one in Baquba can complain of the presence of Baathis when they feel that Americans’ ability to be inconspicuous may bring them personal harm. Iraqis fear entering the headquarters of provincial CPA offices when they perceive, as in the north, that many of the guards and translators report to regional oligarchs.

How to balance out the need for security with the need to get an accurate on-the-ground report? We need to send out people to rove and who approach the streets with a fresh outlook. It may not look pretty on an organizational chart, but it works. We have people in OSD who speak Farsi and/or Arabic but who are preventing from even visiting. There is an unfortunate trend inside the Pentagon where those who can write a good memo are punished by being held back from the field, despite the fact that three weeks’ experience could bolster their ability to serve the Pentagon hierarchy and write an informed memo, position paper, or answer accurately a snowflake. Three weeks is enough to get a sense of the lay of the land, especially for those whose language ability is far better than mine. We have all heard that the job of an OSD desk officer is to sit at our desks, in case we are needed on any particular day. More often than not, we sit idle, even when superiors tell others we are busy. OSD harms itself, and its constituent members’ individual credibility when it defers all real world experience to others. There is not a single person I know working in OSD who have any other goal than to serve the best they can. Some people have chosen not to go to Iraq for reasons that are known only to them, but others very much want to come to Iraq, but are prevented by superiors who have misinformed leadership that people want to stay put. This is simply not true, and is a factor in the poor morale which afflicts the Pentagon.

Allowing reporting outside the compartmentalization which both the State Department and CPA crave would not compromise security. There is security in anonymity when not tied to a specific area. In my case, outside of Iraqi Kurdistan, I need not fear being recognized on the street. Unlike many members of our provincial governorate teams, I do not let the mayors and governors I visit put me on local television. When the television cameras appear, I tell the governor or mayor that I cannot appear. Not only does this increase my own security but is also creates a bit of a mystique which allows me to better function in the eyes of some Iraqi officials. Ironically, allowing a portion of political officers to roam would not create any more administrative chaos as that which already exists. One CPA official, who will remain anonymous, drew an apt metaphor: Watching CPA handle an issue is like watching six-year-olds play soccer. Someone kicks the ball, and one hundred people chase after it (hoping to be noticed), without a care as to what else happens on the field.

On a micro-level, avoiding the media is my way of addressing what I see as a failure in our strategic communication, which tends to promote American individuals above Iraqis. Iraqis present at the 4 a.m. conclusion of the Governing Council deliberations on the interim constitution were mocking Dan Senor’s request that no one say anything to the press until the following afternoon. It was obvious to all that an American wanted to make the announcement and so take credit. Our lack of honesty in saying as much annoyed the Iraqis. Iraqi politicians are savvy enough to understand political posturing, but resent the condescension of our press operation. The resulting press, not only in al-Mutamar and -az-Zaman, but also in The New York Times and The Washington Post focused on Iraqis, and not on U.S. actors. It is what we should have been aiming for all along.

The interim constitution has been quite a success. I can be quite cynical about most Iraqi politicians, but I do think that it’s hard to not give Ahmed Chalabi credit for getting the deal we got. When I see the results of his maneuvering and coalition building, I wonder how much farther we could have gotten if so many in the U.S. government had not sought to undermine him at every possible opportunity. Of course we could have gotten a better deal had we come in and used our momentum, but the importance of momentum in international relations is something neither the interagency process, nor the CPA, nor the Pentagon fully grasps. If they did, we would not waste time changing “happy” to “glad” oblivious to the fact that Iraq does not operate on Washington time.

I had dinner with Chalabi the evening after the constitution was announced, after he returned from a visit to Khadimiya (the evening before the bombing). He was extremely happy with the deal Iraqi liberals and the United States got.

Then again, as I wrote in a memo earlier this week to some of you, the interim constitution is just an exercise in Governing Council and CPA masturbation if not enforced. The fact that we do nothing to roll up Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaysh al-Mahdi which is running around Najaf, arresting and torturing people, and trying Iraqis before their own kangaroo courts signals to Iraqis that we lack seriousness. It also telegraphs weakness not only to Muqtada al-Sadr, but also to others who realize they cannot win legitimacy through the ballot box, and therefore will seek to grab it through violence. Yes, we would have violence for two or three days after arresting Muqtada (whom, after all, has had murder charges leveled against him by an Iraqi prosecutor), but that would subside. Since so many of us have gone through it, allow me a metaphor to the small pox vaccine: Getting the vaccine results in a pustule which is unpleasant, but the vaccine also prevents the potential of thousands of other pustules. Arresting Muqtada would signal weakness, and would make other populist leaders think twice.

Our failure to promote accountability has hurt us. If we fail to fire corrupt ministers, we promote an air of unaccountability. Bremer’s less than subtle threats have aggravated the situation. Whenever Bremer repeats that he has the power to veto what he does not like, he gives a green light for Governing Council members to pursue their most populist demands, knowing they can build constituency without ever having to face the consequences.

Iraqis politicians, ordinary Iraqis, and U.S. contractors have the sense that Bremer’s goal is to leave Iraq with his reputation intact. He therefore hesitates to take tough but necessary decisions, instead hoping to foist them onto his successor or international organizations. Success should not be seen as the state of Iraqi on June 30, but rather the state of Iraq on July 31, September 30, or November 30. It is essential we transfer sovereignty to an Iraq built upon the strongest possible template. We need to use our prerogative as occupying power to signal that corruption will not be tolerated. We have the authority to remove ministers. To take action against men like [REDACTED] would win us applause on the street, even if their GC sponsors would go through the motions of complaint. The alleged kickbacks that [REDACTED] is accepting should be especially serious for us, since he was one of two ministers who met the President and has his picture taken with him. If such information gets buried on the desks of middle-level officials who do not want to make waves, then short- term gain will be replaced by long-term ill.

We so share culpability in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis. After all, we appointed the Governing Council members. Their corruption is our corruption. When [REDACTED] work to exclude followers of other trends of Shi’a political thought from minister and deputy minister positions, Iraqis blame Bremer, especially because the Governance Group had assured Iraqis that their exclusion from the Governing Council did not mean an exclusion from the process. As it turned out, we lied. People from Kut, for example, see that they have no representation on the Governing Council, and many predict civil war since they doubt that the Governing Council will really allow elections.

In retrospect, both for political and organizational reasons, the decision to allow the Governing Council to pick 25 ministers did the greatest damage. Not only did we endorse nepotism, with men choosing their sons or brothers-in-law; but we also failed to use our prerogative to shape a system that would work. It is true that several Governing Council members have real constituencies, for example, [REDACTED], but what we ignore is that these constituencies are not based on ideology, but rather on the muscle of their respective personal militias and the patronage which we allow them to bestow. We have bestowed approximately $600 million upon the Kurdish leadership, in addition to the salaries we pay, in addition to the USAID projects, in addition to the taxes we have allowed them to collect illegally. I spent the night of March 3 and morning of March 4 watching The Godfather trilogy on DVD with an Iraqi Kurdish contact who had ridiculed me for never having before seen any of the films. The entire evening was spent discussing which Iraqi Kurdish politicians represented which character. It is telling that it’s remarkably easy to do — it was even easy to identify [REDACTED] in the film.

Patronage and oligarchy are the same the world over. Abdul Aziz Hakim receives support from the Iranian government, which long was his host. The ironic thing is that, with proper funding of Iraqi liberals, we could have helped advance them much farther than we did. It is a lesson the Supreme Leader understands in Tehran, Shaykh Zayid understands in Abu Dhabi, and Crown Prince Abdullah understands in Saudi Arabia.

It would be a very grave mistake to transfer authority to the United Nations. Kofi Annan once said that “Saddam Hussein is a man I can do business with.” Not only can we expect such a tape to be aired often on Iraqi television, but also we can expect further revelations that Kofi Annan was speaking literally and, not just figuratively. I spent a great deal of time with Claude Hankes-Drielsma, chairman of Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, when he was in Baghdad earlier this week. Many of you may remember him from his service with the 1985 South African debt commission, and as an investigator who exposed the Nobel Foundation scandal several years back. He is currently serving as advisor to the Finance Committee of the Governing Council, in which capacity he is organizing the audit of the UN oil-for-food system. Already, the audit has uncovered serious wrongdoing in banks, and discrepancies of billions of dollars. Anger is rising at just how little Iraq got for its money under UN auspices, when the UN oversaw contracts that inflated prices and delivered substandard if not useless goods. While the Western press has focused on officials like Benon Sevan who, according to documents, received discounted oil, the real scandal appears to be in some of the trading companies which would convert such oil shares to cash. For example, Sevan cashed his oil share with a Panamanian trading company, which, it turns out, was controlled by Boutros-Boutros Ghali. This scandal is going to run deep, and will likely erupt prior to the U.S. presidential election. Senior UN officials know that an independent audit is being conducted, and are not cooperating. It would be a shame if it turns out we knew about this, and yet did nothing to ensure that key UN and bank documents were not shredded. Regardless, to allow the United Nations to again loot Iraq will be problematic at best.

A real problem remains the lack of security over Iraq’s borders. I do not believe those up high fully understand the problem. When I first returned to the Defense Department in November, the first assignment I had was to answer a snowflake about how we are securing Iraq’s borders. It came less than two weeks after I was stopped by an illegal PKK checkpoint about 20 kilometers from the Iranian border. I answered the snowflake honestly, but was told to elaborate on the procedures in place. The problem was that no one was following procedures. That CPA had a Border Enforcement policy is completely irrelevant. It is too easy to say the borders are indefensible. After all, while sanctions smuggling did occur, it is undeniable that a crumbling Baathist regime did better than have we. There are military roads along the frontiers, even in mountainous terrain. Infiltrators may not have nefarious purposes for entering the country — some may simply want to go on pilgrimage while avoiding the excessive tax and license fees which the Iranian regime charges. However, if we want to truly secure the border, we need to deploy far greater numbers than we have now, jail anyone caught taking bribes, and imprison any infiltrators for more than a year to send the signal to neighboring countries that such behavior will no longer be tolerated. [REDACTED] might be politely told that his job is as much to reform the foreign ministry and set it back on its feet instead of just seeing how much he can east at a succession of state banquets.

Lastly, before I sign off, our diplomats fear using leverage. It is much nicer to sleep at the resort [REDACTED] appropriated for his own personal use when you don’t have to listen to him harp and complain. Likewise, it is better to keep [REDACTED] a happy drunk rather than an angry drunk. If our diplomats and CPA officials feel uncomfortable being bad cop, it is essential that people in Washington play the role. [REDACTED] and [REDACTED], for example, are much more compliant when their checks are “delayed” or fail to appear. The same is true with other Governing Council members. The key is subtlety. They will figure out the connection on their own; they need not have it pointed out by Bremer or Greenstock in a way that will cause them to dig in their heels.

If anything significant occurs in my final week in Iraq, I will send it along, but otherwise, thanks for putting up with my diatribes and large attachments.