Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Hunkered Down

It's been a quiet day in Lake Woebegone, my home town ... ooops, sorry, Garrison, didn't mean to steal your line. But it's been a quiet day in Baghdad, at least. Today was one of our Big Milestones, the day when all American soldiers are supposed to be withdrawn from the cities. And they are, pretty much, except for a big bunch here in the IZ and a few at scattered small bases around the city. We've been hunkered down for the past couple of days. All movements outside the wire (meaning outside of bases or the IZ) have been prohibited. My command has restricted our movements even around the IZ. This is a day that's very important to Iraqis, the day that they regain control over us foreign invaders, and we didn't want to upset any schwarma karts.

So we stayed inside our bases and waited to see what would happen. Would there be riots in the streets? Rockets and mortars raining down on our heads? Swarms of Al Qaeda goons crawling over our T-walls? And the answer was: No. None of that. I heard some sirens earlier today, but it turned out to be Prime Minister Maliki's security detail (seemingly half the Humvees in the Iraqi armed forces) racing at high speed to or from some event. That was pretty much it. It was so quiet, in fact, that around mid-afternoon, our restriction to the base was lifted. We celebrated by walking down to FOB Phoenix for dinner. Hey, it's gyros night, and they make good gyros. Can't miss that.

Not that we didn't have a reason to be nervous. As I've noted in earlier posts, and as most of the serious news outlets have commented on, there has been an uptick in attacks over the last week. Most of the violence prior to this was against other Iraqis. This past week, they've shifted to attacking American forces out on patrol. One day last week, there were multiple IED attacks, a few mortar attacks, and some rifle and hand grenade attacks, all but one against our forces. No deaths that day, some minor injuries. Oh, and they kidnapped a 10-year-old girl. Now what does that tell you about these goons? That they're responsible, upstanding citizens with their nation's best interest at heart?

It seems that the only real trouble in Iraq today was a car bomb up in Kirkuk that killed about 25 people. None in Baghdad, at least none that I'm aware of yet. (Pay attention to Kirkuk: it's one of the potential flash points in this country, sitting on top of a huge pot of oil, and a focus of Kurd and Arab disagreement). So, in all, it looks like a successful day. A day in which nothing much happened.

Sometimes that's about all you can hope for.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Coming to a Milestone

Another milestone is coming up in a few days. June 30th is the date that US troops are no longer based in the cities. Beyond that date, our troops won't be in the lead, anywhere in Iraq, any more. Iraqi troops are to be in charge of all operations, with Americans as backup or as trainers if they're there at all.

There are already a lot of other changes ongoing. Back in October, I wrote an entry about going with our Blackwater security detail out to one of our project sites. Our convoy owned the road. Traffic was stopped for us, and if the road was blocked, we simply went around it, going the wrong way around a traffic circle or down sidewalks if needed. There was a logic to it: the more you're moving, especially in unexpected ways, the harder you are to hit. Now, however, we move with the traffic. We merge with the flow, and when the flow stops, we stop. That gets a bit uncomfortable sometimes, but so far there have been no troubles, at least none that I've experienced or even heard of second-hand.

I travel under the protection of a private security company (not Blackwater, or Xe, or whatever they're called today). But the same rules apply to US military vehicles, too. Actually, the Iraqi forces seem to hold military convoys to a stricter standard. So they've taken to moving largely at night, when there's little or no traffic, and people don't see them as easily. Trust me, it's hard to hide an MRAP, but night helps out a lot.

The Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is really talking this up. He's calling it a "victory" and that it's a "repulsion of foreign oppressors". Inflammatory words to some, but we don't worry about it. He's a politician and needs to be seen as standing up to us. We need some strong politicians in charge of Iraq if we're ever going to get out of here.

There are some things we are concerned about, though. Iraqi citizens, by and large, don't fully trust their own police and security forces yet. Some of the forces are pretty good, and some aren't. But they'll be in charge come Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the insurgents are launching more attacks. We expected this. They used motorcycles packed with explosives, nails, and ball bearings to hit two market areas today, killing at least 20. There have been a number of high-profile bombings over the last week. They've stepped up their attacks on US patrols and convoys, too. And they've been launching more rockets into the International Zone, mostly with minimal or no effect. The troublemakers are remnants of Al Qaeda, various Sunni groups targeting Shiites, and various Shiite groups hitting back at Sunnis. So although there is an uptick in violence, it is nowhere near the level of a year and a half ago.

Back in the last days of December, we were all nervous about the transition that was to come on New Year's Day, when the Security Agreement took effect. We thought things might go to hell in a handbasket. They didn't. Now we're coming up on another milestone and are nervous about what it might entail. Let's hope that the result is similar to January's.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wednesday Wanderings

I've had a good few days since my last post. I finished up a project that's been in the works for two months. It was a decision brief on two alternatives for a construction project. Took me a while to figure out what I was talking about, then another while to really understand the two alternatives. Anyway, it's done and gone to our high mucky-mucks so they can make the decision I'm telling them to.

Today I finished up a training course. It was a computer-based program about overseeing contracts. It was about as exciting as you're thinking it was. What is it about these courses done on computer that is just so boring? I'd much rather have a hard-copy text in front of me and a bright yellow highlighter. That's the way God intended courses should be taught.

Tonight I got to spend some time painting. Normally I don't let people see a work in progress, but tonight I'll make an exception. Here's my "hooch studio" with a painting on my "easel".

My easel, in this case, is also my chest of drawers for my clothes. My palette is a white plastic plate that I stole a bunch of from the DFAC. My studio is the walkway between my desk and the bathroom. And my hooch smells like linseed oil and really stinky turpentine right now. Ah, eau de studieu!

So while I've been busy in my own little world, lotsa stuff has been happening all over the world. The Iranians are having a major uprising. Looks to me like the ayatollah's really blew it. They rigged it in the same heavy-handed, non-sophisticated manner that the Soviets rigged theirs for so many years. It was so blatantly obvious, yet they insist that everything was perfectly normal, even though there were more votes in some districts than there were registered voters. So the ayatollahs have shown their true colors to their people at last. I don't know if they'll stay in power or not ... the world is full of repressive regimes that keep their hold on power for years. Cuba, for example. But sooner or later they all fail. Strong men don't live forever, and eventually the population will throw them out. Let's just hope it's sooner.

Baghdad seems to be getting edgier as we count down the days to June 30th. That's when all US troops are supposed to have pulled their bases out of the cities. Everybody, Iraqis included, seem to think that our troops will be out of the cities, period. Not true and it never has been. The agreement is that our bases will be outside the cities. Our troops will still make patrols inside the city limits, alongside their Iraqi counterparts. As one said, "nothing will change except our commute to work will get longer". But you can expect to hear a lot of noise in early July about how we're violating the agreement because our troops will still be seen in the cities. The noisemakers will be either ignorant of the agreement or willfully misrepresenting it. You choose. We're hearing that Maliki is going to declare a national holiday on June 30th. I can't begrudge him that, really. He's a politician and has to make the most of whatever good news he can. Meanwhile, the insurgents are making the most of it, too, with bombings all over Baghdad. We'll see how long that streak continues. Actually, when you look at the figures, the violence is really not that bad. The troublemakers are just making a few high-profile hits these days, rather than lots of smaller ones that don't make the evening news. Yes, they're waging their war in the international press as much as they are in the streets.

And that's the news for now. Time to hit the rack, breathe turpentine fumes, and dream of more pleasant things.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Orange Day

A couple of days ago we had a dust storm blow in.  "Storm" isn't really the right word, since there weren't any high winds or rain.  Rather, we had this thick fog of orange dust that settled in.  It was like a light touch of snow, except it was orange, and it was dust, and it got everywhere.  It even came into my little hooch through the air conditioner and coated the whole room with a fine powder.  So after work, I had a major clean-up to do in my room.  

This is the walkway by my hooch.  No, I didn't hit the "sepia" button in Photoshop, this is really the way an "orange day" looks.

That's pavement under that dust coating.

Here's a sidewalk the morning of the dust storm ...

And here's the same sidewalk about two days later, under clear skies, after it's been washed and swept.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Who Deploys to Iraq?

One of my co-workers, Lisa, has a daughter who's into film-making.  This young lady made a short documentary film that recently played at the DeadCENTER Film Festival.  The film was about Lisa, why she came to work with the Corps of Engineers in Iraq, and the effect it had on her and her family.  This documentary was filmed just as Lisa left on her third deployment to Mosul, a city in northern Iraq that is still pretty turbulent.  

And by the way, Lisa is now on her fourth deployment.

Monday, June 15, 2009


In my last posting, I mentioned our ongoing drawdown a couple of times.  I thought I'd go a little more in depth into that topic, particularly after reading an article in the Stars and Stripes today.

When I first arrived in Iraq last September, it was pretty widely assumed that we would be here for another decade or more.  That was certainly the mindset of the Bush administration.  Those of us involved in the reconstruction of the country felt the same way, regardless of who would win the upcoming presidential election.  I mean, Iraq is just so dysfunctional, so broken in so many ways, that it would take a long time to make it into a functioning member of the world order.  

Then two things happened.  One, we elected Obama as our President.  One of his campaign pledges was to pull us out of Iraq, and he put that pledge in motion almost immediately after being sworn in.  Two, we signed the Security Agreement (also known, somewhat erroneously, as the "Status of Forces Agreement", or SOFA).  This document codified the requirement for us to pull our military forces out of Iraq by December 31, 2011.  But as recently as a few months ago, many of us were still pretty sure that there would be an American presence across the country for the foreseeable future.

Not now.  The change in direction is clear, and if you don't get it, General Odierno will personally come and educate you with a two-by-four.  We are already drawing down, and as every day goes by, the drawdown gains momentum.  The "surge" went away months ago and we're well below pre-surge levels now.  A few weeks ago, I went an orientation/training session out at Al Faw Palace and heard Odierno's Chief of Staff personally stress to all of us that we have a hard deadline in place and that we better be working toward it at full speed.

You don't get much clearer than that.

Then today, I saw an article in the Stars and Stripes newspaper.  Titled "Referendum on SOFA Could Boot US From Iraq in 2010", it discussed something that I have not heard from any of the big-league news outlets.  There is an nationwide referendum scheduled for July 30 in which the people of Iraq will vote on whether to accept the Security Agreement (aka "SOFA") that we negotiated last fall.  Here's the important line:
"If the referendum goes ahead as scheduled and Iraqi voters reject the agreement — a likely outcome, observers say — the United States would be obliged to pull out troops one year after the vote, or nearly 1½ years before the deadline set by the pact."

Now that's huge.  To get all our troops and equipment out on that timetable, we'd be doing nothing but withdrawal stuff.  It would take a full-court press to ship out our equipment, dismantle our bases, turn property over to the Iraqis, close down organizations, ship people and units back to wherever they came from, and maintain our own security as that's going on.  Meanwhile, all the stuff we're currently doing for Iraq would have to cease.  We're training Iraqi military and security forces, helping government officials learn how to run their agencies, working with locals to get them to run their own affairs, trying to keep the lid on sectarian divisions, and keeping the politicians talking rather than shooting.  From my own little perspective, we still have over a billion dollars worth of reconstruction projects going on around the country.  Projects like schools, water treatment plants, hospitals, and electricity.  If we have to do an accelerated drawdown, those projects will have to stop.  I seriously doubt that the Iraqis could pick them up.  They don't (yet) have the organizational skills, nor the people, nor the money, to do it.

The Stars and Stripes article went on to say that some Iraqi government officials are trying to delay the vote until the national election in January.  That may or may not be approved.  But still, there's a very real possibility that the American military will be out of Iraq long before December, 2011.

Note, though, that our military has to be out of here by then.  The State Department and other civilian agencies can stay.  But most of our work is being done by or through the military.  Because of the security situation, Americans can't just jump in a car and drive wherever they want.  We need military escorts and protection.  No military, no protection, no movement.  Simple as that.

What do I think about it?  Well, if you've been reading this blog for a while, you know that sometimes I think we should just pack up and leave, and other times I think we need to be here for the long term.  But you know, it's not our decision.  It shouldn't be.  If the Iraqis want our help, we can help.  If they don't, then we ought to go.

One of my co-workers observed that the Romans pulled out of Britain in about 430 AD.  It was over 1400 years before Britain had running water again.  Let's hope that doesn't happen here!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Getting a Job in Iraq or Afghanistan

I've been asked a couple of times about how to go about getting a job here in Iraq.  There are quite a few options available.  Your choice will depend on who you are and what you want to do.

The first thing to consider is that there are fewer jobs in Iraq every single day.  The military is drawing down.  Contractors are being terminated or redeployed or otherwise encouraged to go home.  The big flood of money and work that we poured into Iraq to stabilize it, and get it back on its feet again, is coming to an end.  I'm going through a drill right now on spending what very possibly could be the last big pot of project money to come to the Corps of Engineers in Iraq.  Meanwhile, we in the Corps are sending people back to the States nearly every day.  Our military forces have a deadline of December 30, 2011, to pack up and leave, and we're already working toward that goal.  Even the Embassy, which will be here for the long term, doesn't have a whole heck of a lot of jobs available.  Still our key end date is  two and a half years away and there are lots of things that need to be done before then.  

The first question you need to ask yourself is whether you want to work as a government agent, a contractor, or an NGO associate.  There are pluses and minuses to each. 
- A US government person makes pretty good money.  You get a decent salary and then get danger pay and locality pay on top of that.  Most importantly, from my own personal viewpoint, is that you're a decision-maker.  You make the decisions on projects.  Another nice benefit is that once you've got a federal job, the job security is pretty good, and it's much easier to get the next position if something happens to yours.  On the downside, the hiring process is slower than molasses.  From the time I first applied to the State Department to the time I stepped off the plane in Baghdad was ten months.  
- The US government doesn't have enough people to do the jobs that need to be done, even if it hired everybody that applies.  So we turn to contractors to provide the support needed, from running the DFACs to doing the engineering analysis for hundred-million-dollar construction projects.  Contractors make obscene amounts of money, at least by my rather modest standards.  On the downside, contractors are supporters and enablers, not decision-makers.  As an example, I'm working on quite a few different projects, including two construction jobs, management of a program that does a lot of things for local governments out in the provinces, and determining how to get a big slug of money into contracts that will benefit Iraqis around the country.  I have several contractors who support me on all these issues.  One does the day-to-day micromanagement of the funds for that program I manage.  She keeps me informed on progress and problems and makes recommendations on what to do next.  But she doesn't decide, I do.  Then she carries out whatever it is I decide.  And she's probably making twice what I am.  So the question to you is, do you want the decision-making authority, or the money?  One thing to keep in mind is that one reason contractors make a lot of money is that they have almost zero job security.  Their contracts can be terminated at a moment's notice.  I've literally had contractors be given 24-48 hours that their jobs were gone and they were being sent home.
- The final group is non-governmental organizations, or NGO's.  They come in all types.  I have had little contact with them so I can't really say much.  They're in between government organizations and contractors: they have their own missions (say, helping rebuild Iraq's medical infrastructure), the people who work there are decision-makers, they're pretty highly paid, but their jobs can be gone in an instant.  In my limited exposure to them, I found them to be very independent, very highly qualified people, who took job-hopping and sudden massive life changes in stride.

So how do you get a job with one of these groups?  Well, the best way is the same as at home: by knowing people.  That's not the cop-out it sounds.  When you're hiring a new person, are you going to go with somebody you never heard of, or will you go with the one you worked with sometime previously?  Usually you'll go with the one you know.  

Once we get past that, most companies, including the US government, use the internet.  Most federal jobs are posted on usajobs.com, which is run by the Office of Personnel Management.  I can't even begin to tell you where to go for civilian companies.  I would just avoid professional job placement services like the plague - it seems to me that they're in business to get your money, not to get you into a job.

Most of the questions I've been getting are about getting a job in Iraq.  As I mentioned before, Iraq is winding down.  On the other hand, people and jobs are flowing into Afghanistan.  I did a quick search on usajobs.com for Afghanistan and it came up with 148 jobs.  And when I went through the Corp's training program, most of my fellow students were on their way to Afghanistan, not Iraq.

So Afghanistan is growing and Iraq is drawing down.  You can still find a job somewhere over here.  Just be ready to be away from home for long periods of time, live in strange places (like my own shipping container), work incredibly long hours, have no place to go when you're off duty, have slow mail and problematic internet connections, and no access to alcohol (if you work for DoD).  And possibly be a target for a variety of bad guys who'd like nothing better than to kill you in some spectacular fashion.  Sound like the dream job?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Minor Construction

The past couple of weeks have been hectic.  Yeah, I know, I say stuff like that a lot as an excuse for those times when I don't post an entry for a while.  But this time it's true.  We've been working on getting some modifications done to a building.  We're going to move into it before long, and I've been the one in charge of doing the planning for the construction.  And how much experience do I have with that sort of thing?  Well, umm, none.  So I've been, as they say, on the steep side of the learning curve.  The kinda situation where you first hear about something at 8 in the morning and you're the resident expert on it by 3 in the afternoon.  

All of which is bad enough, but with this project, there are a lotta people trying to have their say.  They want their rooms arranged like this, or they want that feature added in, or they want me to give them somebody else's spaces.  Meanwhile, the guys On High have been issuing guidance that can be, at best, confusing.  It's kinda like being a passenger in a crowded car that's being driven by a band of maniacs.  Who are blindfolded.  (All except for one, who's not paying any attention to where we're going).  And we're driving at 90 miles an hour.  On the wrong side of the freeway.  At rush hour.

All that being said, hammers will start swinging on the construction project on Saturday.  And at that point, it ceases to be my problem - it immediately gets transferred to a different branch, and they get to supervise the plan I put in place.  (Poor guys).  

Meanwhile, I finished up a briefing today on a major new initiative that might be coming our way.  "Might be" is the operative word.  Since I work in the "Development & Plans" branch, I get to do planning for a lot of different projects that may or may not happen.  This one involves a lot of construction projects all around the country, and I've been addressing how we're going to issue contracts and then manage them.  (Again, how much experience do I have in issuing contracts?  Do you have to ask?)  

And just as I hand off our building modification project, I'll be taking on a different project to either modify or build another office building.  In a perfect world, the answer to this one would be very easy.  However, there are these things called "laws" that keep getting in the way.  So the right answer is pretty much illegal, and we're left with a limited selection of several too-expensive and nearly-impossible alternatives to choose from.  And to meet the required completion date, we should have made the decision and moved out on it about two months ago.

If it's Iraq, it's whacked.

Friday, June 05, 2009

A Few Pictures

In previous posts, I've written about the Rhinos.  These are armored buses that look like a Winnebago from a Mad Max movie.  Recently, I went out to Victory Base for some meetings at Al Faw Palace.  We rode this Rhino out there.  

Here's the dome in the center of the Al Faw Palace.  Mighty impressive.  Just don't look too closely at the structure underneath the marble cladding!

One of the popular attractions in the Palace is this chair.  It was given to Saddam Hussein by his good friend Yasser Arafat.  Since 2003, it has hosted the butts of thousands of American soldiers and civilians.  Add mine to that list.

Yes, I'm sitting around again.  This is our work area.  Rather stylish, don't you think?  We work in what was once a museum ... I don't know what for ... and we've crammed it full of cheap pressed-wood desks that passed their "sell-by" date a couple of decades ago.  Still, it works.

Today started out clear, but this afternoon a heavy dust moved in.  This is the street in front of our compound.  You can barely see a block down the road.  

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

A Cast of Characters

What kind of person would you expect to find working in Iraq?  Soulless military guys who say "hooah" and salute everything that moves?  Mysterious guys wearing aviator sunglasses who have no sense of humor?  A little guy with an unplaceable accent who's selling AK47's by the truckload?  An overcoiffed news reporter trying desperately to make a name for him/her self?  Well, no doubt those people are out there somewhere, but I sure haven't met them.  Let me give you an idea of the people I interact with on a daily basis.

First, there's the Army Lieutenant Colonel who is really your favorite absent-minded professor.  Except he wears a uniform.  He's very smart and very easily distracted by things like birds and rocks (he's got a PhD in geochemistry).  When we're walking anywhere, we're forever having to go back and corral the guy because he's wandered off to take a picture of a pigeon perched on some concertina wire, or pick up interesting pebbles out of the gravel parking lot.  And don't ask him to explain anything because you'll get a rambling 40-minute dissertation on something like radon instead ... and it doesn't matter what you asked about.  Yes, we're fond of the guy, even though he really belongs on a college campus in Missouri.

There's the young Air Force Captain who recently arrived in our shop.  Good-looking guy, slim and fit, extremely smart, a Type A personality in a Type A environment.  Very clipped and professional approach to everybody and everything.  We'll get him loosened up pretty soon.  We better!

We have two women in our area that sit side by side.  Grandmothers, both of them.  Both can talk a mile a minute and they do.  One of them is a teacher who, for some unknown reason, has wound up tracking funding for our projects.  Despite having no previous training, she figured out the process and fixed some things that were giving us big headaches.  A while back, our group was over at another base and a bunch of young soldiers were out playing volleyball.  This grandma perched herself on a stool and made it her business to take as many pictures of the guys as she could get away with.  Now all the women in our area are trying to get copies of her pictures.  Nothin' like a dirty ol' grandma! (And that's our absent-minded professor standing next to her).

You'd think that the guards at the gates would all be Army soldiers.  Not so.  We use a variety of people at the gatehouses.  Including Iraqis.  Yes, it's true.  They are all very businesslike and professional and most are friendly.  One of them, I swear, looks like a young version of Saddam Hussein.  It's very disconcerting to have a Saddam lookalike, armed with an automatic rifle, checking your security badge!  Another one is the poster child for the Unibrow appearance.  He looks like somebody took a big black magic marker straight across his forehead.  I admit, I don't have a clue what the rest of his face looks like, but he's a really nice guy.  With a hell of an eyebrow.  At another compound, many of the guards are young Ugandans.  They have a very fierce appearance, very solemn, brandishing AK47's or whatever they use.  But as soon as you say something as simple as "Good morning!" to them, their faces light up in huge smiles.

I've mentioned the Green Bean coffee shop many times in this blog.  It's an admirable chain that goes wherever the servicemen are out here.  We have one in our compound.  The manager is Indian, a very cheerful young guy.  I don't know how Green Bean trains its people, but it seems like, by your third visit, they know who you are and what you want to drink.  Amazing.

We have several people who are native Iraqi but now naturalized westerners.  One is an engineer most of the time and a translator part of the time.  Working with him is a hoot.  When we're dealing with some ministry officials, he'll do a wonderful job of interpreting back and forth, giving the nuances of what is being said.  And later, he'll dish the dirt, telling us what was really going on in that animated offline discussion between competing ministries.

We also have a number of local Iraqis working within our building.  They're all very good at what they do.  For example, if I have a computer problem, the Iraqi computer guys will be right there.  I mean right there.  No 20-minute wait, not even a 5-minute one.  One is a young guy with a heck of a physique and a penchant for tight jeans and tight polo shirts.  The young Iraqi women go into quite a tizzy when he's around ... in a very restrained way.  Speaking of the young Iraqi women, their outfits are a mixture of brash and modesty.  They'll wear something that meets the letter of the social norms - cover up thy skin - while at the same time demanding attention.  It's like they're shouting "look at me!  I'm all covered up!!"  Or is it, "I'm all covered up!  Look at me!!"  Whatever, the contradiction is an endless source of amusement.  

So that's a sampling of the people who inhabit my daily life.  A small sampling.  Maybe I'll do some more another time.  Life here is interesting, and these are the people that make it that way.