Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Walter Arnheim dinner

So I had dinner with Walter Arnheim last night at a chinese restaurant known for its Peking Duck. Located in suburban Virginia, this was a pretty typical strip mall that could have been anywhere in the country. What made the dinner memorable, other than the company, was the decal that we noticed on the window of a nearby drycleaners. It looked so much like Walter that it seemed almost implausible that he did not serve as its model. This was an uncanny doppelganger with a level of resemblance that few can match. He said that the decal is widely used among dry cleaners and that others have contacted him asking if it was really just a coincidence.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Why work in Iraq?

As I rapidly near the end of my time in Iraq, I've been reviewing the reasons I came in the first place. I was motivated by a range of factors. In no particular order, here's a list of reasons people come to Iraq and how I relate.

Understand the situation first hand: With the level of media coverage devoted to Iraq, one can't help but wonder what the scene is really like on the ground. I wanted to see what was going on in Baghdad with my own eyes. In retrospect, this reason was vague and poorly conceived. Is it possible to know what's really going on in any warzone? From my concrete bubble I can't pretend to know Baghdad, let alone grasp the dynamics that are shaping the future of the country. This was not a major consideration, but it was a reason for coming.

The excitement of working in a warzone: I was surprised when a friend told me that this was an appeal of working in Baghdad. But it seems the threat of death entices a surprisingly large number of people to Iraq. "I couldn't work in Erbil, because its too boring," someone told me. I laughed and said how I relish my time in Erbil where a semi-normal existence is possible. Maybe the lesson is that one man's exhileration is another's fear.

Variety of experiences is healthy: I've often made choices based on the premise that more, different experience is generally a positive thing. Of course, there are plenty of experiences that I can rule out as counterproductive. In general, I think that a new challenge makes a better person. After a year in Iraq, I'm beggining to doubt this. I am concerned about the way that I absorb the lessons from these diverse experiences. If the lessons from the challenge is not synthesized or properly valued, the experience may be useless.

Career advancement: Because of the number of opportunities available in Iraq and the paucity of qualified people to fill them, there are many open posts for less experienced candidates. In some cases, the need for a body to fill the position creates employees who are tremendously incompetent. For example, Michael Ledeen's daughter was horribly underqualified for her job and exhibited gross incompentence (I've heard other stories about her from those who were unfortunate enough to work with her). But I had relevent experience and compensated for holes in my background with motivation and good relations with coworkers who were eager to help and mentor me.

Money: Compensation in Iraq is exorbitant by any standard, and for many people this is the key reason behind their presence in Iraq. It is rarely the only reason and usually there are other motivating factors. For me, I can't complain that my bank account has grown significantly, though I do feel awkward about it. But even if the pay were comparable to similar posts in other countries, which is about half of what I now make, I would still have accepted the position. Actually, I've valued the R&R trips I've taken to Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Belgium/Holland more than the pay.

Making a difference: In the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom was launched I had major reservations about the war and attended anti-war protests. I am less opposed to the invasion now than I was three years ago. However, the legitimacy of the war is not relevant to my decision to come to Iraq or my opinion of the reconstruction efforts. There is important work that needs to be completed and I came to contribute to those efforts. The deeper question is whether I have contributed to these efforts in a unique and meaningful way, or if I have just filled a position that needed a body. My coworkers assure me that it is the former and that I have made a substantive contribution that is not pushing papers or routine. Unfortunately, I'm not convinced and feel like I could have done more.

Professional development: I thought that I would gain some crucial skills in Iraq. Foremost, I wanted to get my Arabic down. I have failed miserably at this and do not have any better grasp of the language than when I arrived. I also hoped that I would have more direction about my long-term career goals. Development projects bring a range of specialists together with unique backgrounds. I expected that after a year I would have enough models that I could comfortably choose a career path that suited me. I am now more uncertain than when I arrived. There are too many people doing important work here for me to choose one area of specialization. Consequently, the question "should I go to law school or business school or a program in IR" is more difficult to answer than it was a year ago. I will most likely be at graduate school in the fall, though I fear an uninspired two years of study. At the same time, I did gain some skills that I did not anticipate. I've developed and conducted numerous training sessions since I've been out here, and my ability as a facilitator and public speaker improved. My superhuman boss gave me a hand in the project management and I gained experience with project design when I took the lead in the developing the implementation plan.

Cultural understanding: One aspect of previous international work that I value is the cultural understanding I gain. In Yemen, I had long qat-fueled debates about the validity of Islam. In Israel, a Bedouin friend explained why the sedentary life traditional to a peasant is difficult to fit with tradition. I can't think of comparable experiences here. Iraqis tell me about their lives, their values, and their aspirations, but from the confines of the compound it seems remote. Also, Iraqis look at Westerners in a much different way than their counterparts in other Arab countries. I arrive with the baggage of an invading power, and Iraqis view me through that prism. Its not surprising that the non-Iraqi Arabs I work with have been more candid about their culture than Iraqis.

Complete change: Iraq has an almost romantic aura that draws people seeking a radical change in their life. There are plenty of people out here who do not fit the typical profile of the development professional, if there is such a thing. They come to Iraq because it is drastically different from anything they've done before. For example, there's the seasoned IT professional who worked in New York but grew tired of the city and his marriage. He came to Iraq though previously he had never travelled anywhere besides Europe. He sought a major paradigm shift that only a radical change of scenery could provide. This was not an appeal to me, though I did hope that I would grow from this experience.

Camraderie: I didn't come to Iraq to make friends. In fact, this was not on my radar. Though many people involved in security work say that this draws them to Iraq. In a warzone relationships take on a certain intensity. Describing his experience in the military, a security manager said that "you work together, sleep together, fight together, and fuck together." I can only relate to the work part, but I have bonded with the rest of the team in ways that I never thought possible. I have made lifelong friends in Iraq and that may be the most important thing I take away from this experience.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Compensation Considerations

In Iraq, compensation seems mostly unrelated to risk. Jobs that entail the greatest risk of death often pay least, while the cushiest jobs are sometimes the most financially rewarding.

There is no shortage of examples. An enlisted US soldier who spends days on patrols in dangerous areas of Iraq makes a pittance by any standard. Their risk is much greater than PSDs, who sometimes spend weeks without leaving secure areas. Both soldiers and PSDs are here because of their military expertise, but PSD assignments entail fewer risks and their missions are less physically demanding. PSDs are not as much of an insurgent target and have better living facilities. However, the average PSD salary hovers around six figures.

In a comparison of Iraqi and expat salaries, the difference is even more pronounced. Iraqi guards staff the lookouts of most compounds and the perimeter security. They're the first ones that would be killed if there were an attack, and as collaborators in the eyes of insurgents, they're more of a target after they leave work. Though these Iraqis serve as the first line of defense and possess years of experience, their wages are typically an order of magnitude less than their expat supervisors.

This same disparity exists outside of security work. Local staff are the engine behind most development projects. This is more the case in Iraq than elsewhere, because Western staff are not able to travel freely. Though Iraqi staff, even those in senior managerial positions, rarely make more than $2,000 a month. No expat I know would stay in Iraq one day if their salary were anywhere near that level.

I've never heard an Iraqi protest this situation. Some have joked with me that they'd prefer a foreign passport and an expat job in Iraq than asylum in a Western country. Iraqis are pleased to have a job amidst the high unemployment rate and the desperate economic situation. Working for Western firm, their salary is still much higher than if they were employed by an Iraqi company. This does create some awkward situations. An aging waiter told me about a boy cleaning the sidewalk who worked for a development contractor. Though a teenager, the cleaner's salary was several times more than the waiter's. There are economic consequences to these distorted salaries, which are mostly negative. An Iraqi doctor I know performed hundreds of surgeries under Saddam. Though now he'd never go back to work as a doctor. His job as a medical advisor to a relief organization pays him three or four times more than the $300 or $400 Iraqi doctors take home in a month.

How to remedy this situation? One suggestion is to modify the allowance schedule to more accurately compensate for risk. Right now, most development contractors receive a 70% bonus on their base salary. This accounts for some of the disparity in pay between locals and expats. This bonus consists of 35% for danger and 35% for hardship (or post-diffential, in development-ese). However, the danger pay is the same for a post in Erbil where security detail is unnecessary or a base in Anbar whether mortars land every day. The percentages are decreed by the State Department on a country-by-country basis with a few intra-country fluctuations. These rates should be revised with much more geographic specificity and updated as the situation changes. Similarly, the 35% hardship allowance should only apply in situations of genuine hardship. Even if this doesn't remedy the pay disparity, in the interest of fairness this should change. Some development workers in Sudan are living without water or electricity though their rate is only 25%.

This wouldn't resolve the disparity in pay for Iraqis like the waiter and the cleaner, or my surgeon friend and his government counterparts. For the sake of fairness though, the Iraqis should be receive a bonus based on their risk. But this is hardly realistic given the range of factors that contribute to risk in Iraq. Would Iraqis be paid more if they came from an ethnic group that was more likely to be killed? There aren't any solutions. The problem is rooted in basic supply and demand. There are too many unemployed, unskilled Iraqis, and too few expats who will come to Iraq. With so many Iraqis eager to work, danger pay isn't necessary as an incentive. If the extra pay created additional productivity, this wouldn't be a cause for concern, but that's not the case. Maybe the excessive pay for expats helps forget these questions.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Foosball and Baathism

In stark contrast to the difficulties of wiping out the insurgency, the visible remnants of the former regime have been completely removed. Driving through Baghdad, the places where statues stood or paintings of Saddam glowered are easily identifiable. But the pictures have been painted over and the statues removed. The palaces that still stand are unmistakably Saddam's, but these are home to US government operations, and their former purpose and history is only evident in the architecture or the lore that surrounds certain features.

One piece of Iraqi history that is easy to overlook is the tomb of the intellectual father of Ba'athism, Michel Aflaq. His name is usually mentioned before his co-founder, Salah al-Din Bitar, because Aflaq was born a Christian. Both were European-educated Syrian intellectuals who worked as school teachers and later in the Ministry of Education. After a falling out with the Ba'athist Syrian government, Aflaq sought refuge in Iraq. Saddam was eager to bolster his Ba'athist credentials and welcomed Aflaq in return for his support.

Wikipedia's entry mentions that Aflaq is buried in the Green Zone, on the site of the new American embassy. The construction site of the future American embassy is vast, easily three or four times the mall in Washington by my estimates. A recent article tries to depict its size, but it seems even more expansive than the description. Soldiers manning the site told me that the embassy will be a virtual city, complete with its own water and trash collection services.

Last Friday I went to visit the grave. The PSDs who had to escort me were not pleased and had little patience for tourist excursions. I didn't know the location of "FOB Union III" and lost among the embassy construction, it was difficult to find. As foreign nationals, they weren't allowed to enter the premises, and we exited our armoured vehicle and walked the five minutes from the entrance of the base to the mausoleum.

The exterior of Aflaq's tomb

Aflaq is rumoured to have embraced Islam before he died. Apparently, whoever planned his burial did not want to leave any doubt about his religious affliation. The exterior of the mausoleum, which looks like a traditional mosque.

When you look inside, and before you get to the headstone, you pass a foosball table. Weights and a bench press are adjacent to the tomb. The US military has converted the interior to a rec room. A dusty chandelier is attached to the ceiling, which is decorated with a sort of faux-mosaic. The walls have been covered with wood, for reasons that are not immediately evident. Perhaps to allow for bookshelves? Two stairs lead down from either side of the grave to cramped, makeshift barracks constructed with plywood. There are dozens of soldiers who live beneath Aflaq's grave. The empty display cases next to the rooms suggest that the area might have been a museum earlier.

A view from the entrance

A lone book and water bottle sit on the tomb, which is covered in dust. The inscription on the headstone features Sura al 'Asr, and does not say who is interred.

Paying proper respect?

What will happen to this landmark in the future? Compelling but flawed arguments can be made for its destruction. Baathism was a fascist ideology, and its founder should not be commemorated. However, it was only in practice that Baathism became odious. As it was conceived by Aflaq, Baathism was grounded in freedom, nationalism, socialism, and Pan-Arabism. Incompatible ideals, perhaps, but few intellectual systems are flawless. Leaders like Saddam and the Assads in Syria distorted the ideology and used it as a source of legitimacy for their baseless, corrupt dictatorships. Aflaq envisioned a secular, modern state that united the Arab people across sectarian and national rifts. As Iraqis struggle for a post-Saddam national identity, surely that is a vision worth preserving.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Dumb luck?

The security manager uses a sophisticated program called FalconLite to plan the routes of his team's missions. It's similar to the Google map program, but has more views and offers a unique set of overlays that detail the location of every "sigact," which in non-military speak means any enemy action that's significant enough to record. Most of the sig acts are IEDs, though after the bombing in Sammara, the program started recording the number of murders. I placed the overlay of all the incidents that have happened in Baghdad since the beginning of the month. Though we're just a little more than half way through May, nearly all of the map is covered with incidents and our compound is completely obscured.

This makes me grateful that in the time I've been here, we've never been attacked. The reason for this is a matter of some debate. The PSDs, ever wary, contend that it's only a matter of time and attribute our record to dumb luck. I prefer to think that Iraqis can tell we're not with the military, and aren't bothered by our presence. There's no official policy barring them, but I've never seen coalition forces enter the compound. Also, many Iraqis know that we're creating jobs and trying to improve lives. Of course the Zarqawis aren't able to look beyond our nationalities and would be happy to take us out all the same. But as targets go, we're lower on the list because of the work we're doing.

Though there have been some close calls.

A few months ago, an explosion on the main street outside the compound caused the building to shake. No one was killed in the blast and after a few minutes of trying to glimpse the damage from my window, I went back to work. Apparently, there were plenty of explosives packed in the car. Though the car was parked almost 100 yards away, the door handle, pictured above, was launched into the compound and landed next to our generator, a few steps away from the entrance to our building. Despite the close proximity, the consensus is that the compound was not targeted. Amazingly, the cars adjacent to the IED were damaged but still operable after the explosion. The force was diffuse and not channeled properly, which lead some to comment that it was detonated prematurely.

Recently, the insurgents seem to have a new target: liquor stores. The recent attacks on stores selling alcohol have taken place in our neighborhood. If these insurgents knew the amount of inebriants that are consumed in the compound, it would certainly outweigh any points earned from our development work.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Baghdad Signage

One of my Iraqi coworkers regularly laments the situation in Baghdad during our conversations. Recently, she's been complaining less about the Americans and focused more on the Iranians. Strangely, she believes that the Americans are partnering with the Iranians to exploit Iraq. She reaches this conclusion from the premise that the Americans are omnipotent as they are the most powerful country in the world. Consequently, since there is Iranian influence in Iraq, the Americans must be encouraging it.

She emailed me this picture of a sign in her neighborhood, Adhamiya. The part in red reads "Entry Forbidden to Police..." and the text that follows (I needed alot of help with this part) continues with adjectives describing the police "....the followers of Solagh, [the interior minister] the Iranian fire-worshippers ['majoos,' an epithet related to Zoroastrianism], to the grounds of

I asked some Iraqis why the sign was posted. Was it because Adhamiya has its own militia and doesn't want challenges to its authority and control? Or is it that the police, because of their connections to Iran, are not trusted? The response I received was "Where did you get that picture from?" I think its more the latter, as even my Shiite coworkers agree that the police have been infiltrated by Iranian intelligence.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Musings about the Military

One of the assumptions that grounds much of the thinking about Iraq is that more troops will create more stability. The point is central to the lucid and well-cited Brookings' strategy paper. The authors, including the eminent Ken Pollack, advocate 20 security personnel for every 1,000 Iraqis (excluding Kurdistan). By their calculations, this requires an army of 450,000, which is double the current level of Iraqi and Coalition forces.

But do more "boots on the ground" bring greater stability? At first it seems that this must be the case. More troops provide greater surveillance. It's soldiers will catch Zarqawi and are detaining insurgents. These forces are finding weapons caches before they fall into the hands of the enemy.

However, troops and especially Coalition forces have the potential to alienate large portions of the population. There's a story I heard from an ex-serviceman about a convoy in Kirkuk. Some MNF vehicles were lingering beside a market. An old man walked up to one of the humvees and dropped a grenade in the door. He didn't flee while it detonated, killing himself and several Americans. Why? His family's house was searched a few days earlier, and his wife was frisked. The fellow had no ties to the insurgency. The anger that resulted from the humiliation boiled over. His story, while unusual, is not unique. Many of my Iraqi friends have shared similar hostility against Coalition troops that mistreated them.

Clearly, there's a tradeoff here. Troops gather intel and capture insurgents, saving lives and bringing stability. But there's a cost in the numbers of Iraqis that are alienated, which leads to more insurgent attacks and greater instability. One factor that's never mentioned in this calculation is that American troops in downtown Baghdad are an affront to Iraqi pride. Moderate Iraqis - my project's staff - don't feel secure when they see an American tank on the street. The reaction is better characterized as resentment. Fortunately, they're level-headed enough that it would take alot of aggravation to push them towards violence. From what I can tell, this hostility does not exist towards Iraqi troops to the same degree. The Brookings' paper advocates protecting the civilian population as the key to stability, but because of the tradeoff it cannot be done effectively with foreign troops.

What would happen if non-Iraqi troops were taken off the streets? This is not a suggestion for withdrawal, but an arrangement similar to what the US maintains in Saudi Arabia or Turkey, where there are large numbers of troops among a less-than-friendly population. If the Saudi monarchy were threatened and their own forces were inadequate, the US would probably call on the resources at these bases. Otherwise, the troops stationed there sit tight. Though most Saudis detest the US presence, because the troops never appear on the streets of Riyadh, there is little overt animosity and few attacks.

Similarly, what would happen if the US never left its bases in Iraq unless there was something that was absolutely critical to the future of the Iraq? Unearthing a new weapons cache or finding a safe house is important, but its not critical to the future of Iraq. Critical is something that would overthrow the government or cause a large portion of the country to come under insurgent control. If that happens, the US would emerge from its base and bring its firepower. Otherwise, the troops would sit back in Camp Victory or wherever and let Iraqis do the dirty work.

Someone who's served with the US Army in Iraq has pointed out that this wouldn't work for several reasons. First, Iraqi troops aren't ready. Second, you need American troops to gather intelligence (psyops, as he put it). Third, unless you have regular patrols, large parts of the country would fall under insurgent control.

I won't contest the perception that most Iraqi troops are ill-prepared and poorly trained. But these small tasks - going door to door, gathering intel, finding weapons caches - seems like an excellent way to build their skills. Perhaps these Iraqi troops can also do "psyops," or this skill can be taught from the safety of a US base without ever having US troops leave their base. There is reason to doubt the effectiveness of these operations, anyway. Eventually, the Iraqis will have to do these tasks on their own, and its better that we start now with duties that are not mission critical.

Regular patrols are necessary to ensure that areas stay safe and free from insurgent control. Iraqis can do this, too, though not as well as foreign troops. But Coalition forces are not completing this task perfectly, anyway. Certain parts of Baghdad are still "no go" and have a large insurgent presence. Key cities - Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah, etc. - have come under insurgent control despite these patrols. Again, these regular coalition patrols may be one of the reason the population in these places would harbor insurgents in the first place.

And another comment I received after I made this suggestion: The US doesn't back down. This is a silly point. Surely accomplishing our objectives and bringing stability to the country is more important than misguided displays of machismo. At best, keeping troops on the bases would reduce the number of US casualties, decrease civilian support for the insurgents, and increase the capacity of the Iraqi army. At worst, this would increase the turmoil and the level of violence, though the country may be heading in that direction anyway.