Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Road Trip: Back to Baghdad

We rolled out of Kirkuk this morning at 0630 headed for Tikrit. It was still dark at that hour and traffic was pretty much non-existent. Our little convoy made good time. I haven't said much about what our convoys are like, nor talked about our security measures - with good reason. I will say, though, that with a bunch of burly battle-tested guys watching over me, I felt pretty safe.

We went south by a different route than the one we took up a couple of days ago. The land south of Kirkuk is about as flat as eastern Colorado or western Kansas, only a grayish tan rather than bright green. There are a lot of farms, many of them using the wheeled irrigation systems like Americans use. Iraqi farmhouses in that area, though, are nothing like American. These are pretty small, maybe 400 or 500 square feet, made of blocks (often mud), with flat roofs. Often (not always), they'll have a courtyard that's maybe 100 by 100 feet surrounded by an 8-ft block wall, with a big metal gate covered with brightly-painted sheet metal.

We saw a lot of kids, maybe 7-10 years old, heading off to school. The boys were dressed like boys everywhere, and were clowning around like boys everywhere. The girls were usually dressed in black robes with white headscarves and seemed to be more reserved than the boys.

The trip through the countryside was pretty uneventful. Once we hit Tikrit, though, the tension in our convoy wentway up. Tikrit is still unfriendly territory and we hit it at rush hour. Americans do not want to spend any amount of time sitting stuck in traffic because we will draw unwanted attention. Fortunately, the police don't want us to sit in traffic at their checkpoints for the same reason and they stopped traffic and made plenty of room for us, as much as they could, at any rate.

The drivers in our convoy were pretty aggressive about moving through traffic, making holes where none existed, blocking other cars, using the horns, sirens, and squawk boxes pretty judiciously, and staying together. It wasn't like a Hollywood chase movie, it was more like "excuse me, pardon me, coming through, make a hole, sorry" as we cut and wove through backed-up lines of cars. I breathed a big sigh of relief when we hit the open highway again. The Aegis guys? They relaxed and joked about it.

We arrived at Camp Speicher, outside Tikrit, at about 0900. I had enough time to stretch my legs for a bit and then was bundled into another convoy and off we went again, bound for Baghdad. This leg had no drama, which was fine, since Tikrit was enough drama for me.

In the US, our roadside stops are often something like a big Mini-Mart, with the cashier tucked away inside, and you pump your own gas, thank you very much. And all the food is sanitized and wrapped for your protection. In Iraq, well, things are a bit different.

We cut around the town of Abu Ghraib, another place that is still not very fond of Americans, and arrived back at our base about 1 pm. Finally! I was glad to stretch my legs and get out of my body armor. After dropping my stuff off in my own little room and grabbing some lunch, I was back in the office to play catch-up. And by the signs of it, not much changed in the office while I was gone.

I've wanted to get out beyond the wire ever since I arrived fifteen months ago. This trip finally let me see more of Iraq. Different parts of the country are very different: landscape, people, politics, business, economy, everything. This trip was invaluable for making decisions on at least one of my projects, which is why I took it. But it also brought home to me a simple fact of life for Americans in Iraq: you don't go beyond the wire unless you have to. I felt safe, but as I noted, I had a bunch of combat-tested guys taking care of me. If you're going to risk their welfare and possibly their lives, the trip had better be pretty damn important.

If you've been reading the last couple of posts, they unfortunately didn't have any pictures. I'm going back to them right now and adding some, so go take a look.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Road Trip: Erbil

This morning, we headed out bright and early for Erbil, which is one of the major cities in the Kurdish region. We didn't have much trouble with rush hour here in Kirkuk and our little convoy was soon heading out onto the wide rolling flat plains to the north of the city. It was a really gray morning and even more gray looking north. We passed a Hyundai dealership on the way out ... first car dealership I've seen in Iraq. (I know there are some in Baghad, but I've never seen them). We also passed a huge trash dump. They don't have very many regular landfills here, there are just vast areas where they dump trash, and this was one of them. Right in the middle of it was a soccer field that had been carefully graded flat and kept clean.

The main highway is in pretty good condition and we were moving pretty fast. Our security team relaxed our security posture a little ways into the drive. As I mentioned yesterday, Kirkuk is still a contested area and there are some (not a whole lot, but some) insurgents in the city. To the north and east, though, is Kurdish-controlled area, and they don't put up with Al Qaeda nonsense.
There are lots of animals to be seen in the countryside. Camels, wild dogs, and flocks of sheep are common. And donkeys: attached to donkey carts, being ridden energetically by kids, or just standing patiently in the middle of the highway median. If you want a chicken for dinner tonight, there are lots of guys set up by the side of the road with eight or ten chickens walking around. Take one home, kill it, pluck it, and cook it ... they don't get any fresher than that.

There was a big traffic tie-up where a tractor trailer had tried to pull over on the shoulder, but the shoulder gave way and dumped the truck with its load of fruit all over the road. Quite a huge mess.

The further we got into Kurdish area, the better everything was built and cared for. There's much more small and medium-sized industry up there and the buildings were more modern. And there is lots of construction going on: homes, industrial areas, and apartment complexes. It's clearly a very energetic economy.

It was raining by the time we got to Erbil. The city itself looks like a contemporary European city. It's quite large with something like 3 million people. There are working traffic lights up there and, wonder of wonders, people actually pay attention to them. We passed a bustling university, a whole Miracle Mile of car dealerships, lots of new modern hotels, and a shopping mall. Some of the stores are quite high-end, too, and there are even a bunch of liquor stores. Absolut seems to be the poison of choice. Traffic was pretty wicked and our convoy had a heck of a time sticking together, but they did by ignoring traffic lights when needed and judiciously using their sirens and squawk boxes.

I had a good, productive series of meetings with my contacts once we arrived. Some of them are Kurdish engineers; very smart, very experienced guys who gave me a lot of insight into the issues that my project is trying to address. We had a Kurdish lunch: chicken, a very spicy orange cucumber/pickle thingie (really good), rice, and American sodas. Lots of fun with some very good people.

The trip back was more of the same. As I was the only passenger this time, I had a good chat with the young Brit and Irish lads in my vehicle. The truck was still on its side when we passed and they hadn't made a lot of headway in cleaning up the fruit. Iraqi/Kurdish drivers are even more wacked-out than Italians: one car ahead of us whipped out to pass a truck, and the car behind him whipped out to pass both the truck and the car, and there was oncoming traffic to boot! And this on a two-lane crowded road.

We arrived back in Kirkuk before rush hour and zipped right through town to the base. I took care of office business in time to catch pizza and a movie with the local Corps of Engineers crowd. The pizza was good; the movie (2012) was pretty bad but fun anyway.

All in all, a good day. Tomorrow will be interesting, too.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Road Trip: Kirkuk

Yes, I'm on a road trip to Kirkuk, Iraq. Kirkuk is in NE Iraq. It's a city that is central to the future of the country. Kirkuk sits on top of some of the largest oil reserves in the country. It's claimed by both the Kurds and the Arabs. Years ago, Saddam Hussein forced out a lot of Kurds and bused in a lot of Arabs in a deliberate effort to change the city's ethnic makeup. Now the discussion centers on whether they're going to undo that change, or live with it, or what. There has been no agreement on any way forward yet and there doesn't appear to be any breakthrough on the horizon. It could cause serious trouble to the future of Iraq in the future.

But that's not why I'm here. I'm meeting with a lot of different people about how to move one of my capacity development programs forward. It's been a very interesting trip so far and there's still more to come.

I left Baghdad on Sunday morning. Our little convoy of armored SUV's headed north out of Victory Base. We passed a lot of Shi'ite pilgrims who were walking back home from their pilgrimage to Karbala, a city about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad that is one of the holy centers for their branch of Islam. (Yes: the ones we saw walked at least 60 miles to Karbala, and were walking back home.) Almost all the pilgrims wore black. There were men, women, children, and even some dogs on leashes, heading north along the road. Some of them carried black flags. None of them looked particularly friendly to us, but at least none did anything unfriendly. Enterprising young boys had set up small stands to sell water, drinks, and snacks to the pilgrims.
We headed north up the main highway past Balad (where a huge US air base is located) to Tikrit. Along the way, I saw a bunch of "gas stations in a box". There are a lot of cars on the road, but the large filling stations must be charging a fortune for gas. So there's a company called Patrol that takes the short shipping containers and put a tank and a fuel pump in them. They drop them off every few miles along the side of the road. They don't even put 'em on cinder block foundations - just plop it down on the dirt, open up the doors to reveal the pump, set up a chair for the guy operating it, and they're in business. And if that guy is too expensive, well, there's always the kid down the road who has a bunch of 5-gallon containers lined up, ready to provide service for somebody. They don't even give the kid a chair.

There are a lot of security forces on the roads. You can't go a mile without going through a checkpoint manned by police or Iraqi Army soldiers, or passing by some soldiers or police or even some Sons of Iraq on the side of the road. (The Sons of Iraq are civilian paramilitary forces - the subject of a whole 'nother post).

We rolled into Contingency Operating Base Speicher outside of Tikrit (Saddam Hussein's hometown) about three hours after leaving Baghdad. We'd made pretty good time. I then made like a Pony Express rider: a quick pit stop, a run to the Subway shop next door for a sandwich (yes, we have Subway's on our bases), and then I changed to another team that would take me on the next leg.

We rolled out about noon and continued north to Baiji, which is where the oil fields begin. There's a huge refinery there, as well as a large power plant. Which, to judge from the black smoke pouring from the stacks, has no pollution controls whatsoever. Once over the small mountain range by the power plant, the road ran straight as an arrow to Kirkuk. That's not to say that we went straight. The road is full of potholes and we were constantly zigging and zagging to avoid them. And in a top-heavy uparmored Ford Expedition moving at high speed, that's quite an interesting experience.

Some of my fellow travellers go right to sleep as soon as they get rolling with one of these security teams. I don't. Can't. If I'm in a new area, I'm wide awake, looking around to see what's there. Fortunately, the security team is doing the same thing, only they're usually looking for something different. I took a lot of pictures and will post some once I get home and can download them to my own computer. Some of the things I noticed:
- Everywhere I go in Iraq, I see piles of dirt. It's as if somebody swept up the rubble, put it into a big wheelbarrow, and then randomly dumped it. I don't care where you go: north, south, west, the piles of dirt are everywhere.
- So is junk. Serious junk. Stripped cars. Truck bodies. Big rusted metal casings that could have gone around industrial air conditioners. Piles of URO's (Unidentified Rusty Objects). We passed a junkyard with squashed cars, trucks, buses, and other vehicles that seemed to go for miles. They could do a huge scrap metal business in this country. Maybe they will, eventually. Meanwhile it all just sits there.
- Once we got into the oil region, it was pretty obvious. Oil is everywhere, all over the ground, leaking out from trucks. I saw one tanker that had backed into a depression so that the driver could finish draining the oil out onto the ground. Environment? What environment?
- Never thought I'd see a mud hut with a big satellite dish on the roof. Now I've seen a whole bunch.

We arrived at the US base outside Kirkuk in mid-afternoon. I jumped right into discussions with some of the people I'd come to see, and it turned out to be very worthwhile. Then I got settled into my room, had some chow at the DFAC (theygripe about their DFAC just like I gripe about mine ... only theirs is better), and hit the rack early. It was a long, tiring day, and I was a beaten little puppy.

Today was just as interesting. Up early, over to the DFAC for breakfast, and then on the road again. Today we went to Sulaymaniyah. "Suly" is in the Kurdish autonomous region. It is almost a separate country. We rolled through Kirkuk right during morning rush hour. Our security team knows the town like the back of their hand, and we went through neighborhoods and down alleyways that I'd have never suspected led anywhere. Eventually we popped out onto the divided highway that led eastward. The landscape became hilly and dry, much like some parts of the American southwest, and we climbed pretty steadily up a very long, slight incline.

We were able to relax our security posture as soon as we crossed over the provincial border. In the Kurdish region, everything was in markedly better condition: roads, buildings, everything. There were crews out repairing roads and re-installing guardrails (which were demolished a few years ago to prevent them from hiding roadside bombs). There was little visible war damage - occasionally we'd see a building still damaged or even destroyed, but not often. Off in the distance to the north and east we could see high mountain ranges with snow at the top. Very beautiful country. The people seemed much more friendly toward us. Not that there's a lot of interaction between people on the street and passengers in armored SUV's, but there's a noticeable difference between the cold hard stare we got in, say, Baghdad, and the open, friendly expressions we saw in Kurdistan.

The team dropped me off at the office on an Iraqi-controlled base outside of Sulaymaniyah. Slight correction: a peshmerga-controlled base. Peshmerga are the Kurdish military forces. There's not a whole helluva lot of cooperation between the Arab-dominated Iraqi military and the Kurdish-controlled peshmerga. The two forces have fought many battles over the centuries and so they still keep their separate identities. The peshmerga seemed very efficient. They certainly have more Western ideas: I noticed that almost all the crew at the gate to our compound were female. Can't imagine a woman in the army in Baghdad ... where would you put rank insignia on an abaya? Anyway, I had another very productive meeting with several people about my program. They opened my eyes to some aspects of it that I had not foreseen ... which, of course, is exactly why I wanted to come talk with them.

We had a great lunch and finished up with a good bit of coffee to get ready for our afternoon discussions. And that's what gave me trouble. About as soon as we got back into the office, I found out that my team was going to be leaving very soon to head back to Kirkuk. Uh oh ... there's no way my body could process all that coffee that fast. I delayed as long as I reasonably could, made a final pit stop, and off we went. Ten minutes into the trip, I knew I hadn't delayed long enough. Thirty minutes later, my teeth were beginning to float. I tried to keep myself busy by looking out the window, but all I could see were things like a man watering his plants, or a big yellow gas can, or the splash from a car going through a puddle. It was NOT FUN, so quit laughing! I made it back without embarrassing myself, but it was a near thing ... a portajohn never looked so good.

So now I'm back in my room. This place has its own bathroom, a good internet connection, and even a phone on the desk. I'm waiting on my wife to call right now, as a matter of fact. Very cool and much better than my own room back at Victory Base. Tomorrow I have some more adventures planned. Hopefully, tomorrow's post won't be quite as long as this one.

And I won't have any coffee at lunch.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

'Twas The Day After Christmas

This tree kinda sums up how I felt most of the day yesterday: pretty sad. Three of us celebrated Christmas Eve by going over to the clinic and getting our H1N1 innoculations. I had an extra bonus shot with an anthrax vaccination. Yessir, we know how to have fun on Christmas Eve in Baghdad!

Christmas was a full day off for us and I finally had an opportunity to sleep in. So, of course, I woke up at 5 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep. The shoulder that took the anthrax shot felt like Mike Tyson had landed a huge blow to it. No bruise marks, but man, was it sore, and I think my body's reaction to the H1N1 shot left me feeling a bit down, too. And I wound up not getting any coffee in the morning, for no good reason at all. Combine that with my main gripe: this was the second Christmas in a row that I've been deployed to Baghdad and away from my wife and friends and dogs. So with lack of sleep, lack of coffee, sore shoulder, H1N1 shot, and general Christmas blues, I was not exactly on top of the world yesterday. Waaah.

So what did I do? Caught up on my reading. Opened a few Christmas presents from family. Went to the gym to push some weights around and loosen up my shoulder. Finished up a painting. (At least, I think I finished it up ... often I don't know until sometime later whether it's really finished or not). Not much else.

Our DFAC has been the butt of many of my sarcastic comments, but yesterday they did a good job. The DFAC elves worked overtime to redecorate the place during the night and to cook up quite a spread for lunch and dinner. Ham, turkey, steak, veggies, several different salads, soups, deserts, and more. Quite a big variety. Was it much better than normal? Well, no, not really, but it was a lot of enthusiastic work and I appreciated their effort.

The decorations, though, still make you scratch your head and go "huh?". Gone is the Thanksgiving painted backdrop with the Spanish conquistadors and in its place was a styrofoam-and-plaster Santa, with sleigh and reindeer. That was good, but we didn't understand the styrofoam-and-plaster woman with gorilla arms in a white dress, sitting with her feet in a pond with some styrofoam ducks. There was a big section of the dining area that had been cordoned off for a couple of days; yesterday a big structure appeared there. We think it might be a chapel, but nobody's sure. It's made out of styrofoam, of course. They must have gotten a helluva deal on styrofoam. And in front of the White House, there's a figure that we think is President Obama, along with a hunter toting a shotgun. Any of that make sense to you? Me, neither.

After making a run to the Green Bean with some friends in the afternoon for a cappuccino, I felt much livelier. And we had another beautiful sunset to cap off the day as we were getting ready to head over for dinner. Despite the occasional bout with the blues, life here really isn't bad.

And today? Today's Saturday. It's another full 10-hour workday.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Eve Eve

It's hard to get in the Christmas spirit when you're forward deployed. You can't go shopping in the mall with several thousand of your new closest friends. Well, you can go to the BX, or one of the little Iraqi marts on base, but that's not the same thing. There are no lines of kids waiting to sit on Santa's lap and get their picture taken. No Christmas carols blasting. No sales clerks frantically trying to get you to buy something - the clerks in the BX don't care whether you buy something or not. Actually, most of the Iraqi store owners don't seem to care, either. They got what they got; if you want it, buy it; if not, there's another store next door. Even the weather isn't cooperating: our highs for the past week have been about 70, and lows around 50. Perfect jogging weather at lunch time. Not so good for getting psyched up for Christmas holidays.

To be sure, our DFAC is certainly doing what they can. They took down all the brown and gold streamers and put up red and green ones instead. Little cardboard Santa faces hang like little decapitated heads from the ceiling. The DFAC workers took down the plaster Pilgrims and put up a couple of Charlie Brown prefab Christmas trees. Oddly enough, they didn't take down the painted Thanksgiving backdrop, so now we have these two trees standing in front of a really weird Thanksgiving scene, which appears to include an oversize Irish elf, a hippie, a Spanish conquistador, a midget, and a few Indians ... from India, not North America. And we still have this mysterious 10'x20' styrofoam model of the front of the White House. Nobody has yet come up with a rationale for that particular decoration. Yes, Victory Base is a strange place.

My whole office went out to eat at the Babylon Restaurant last night. It's a new restaurant located on a far part of the base. I ate there once before and it was really good. I mean, it was really good - and not just for Victory Base, either. So we were pretty excited: good food, good company, Christmas, the whole deal. And we were let down. We discovered that the restaurant staff has no clue how to handle a crowd. By "crowd", I mean anything over, say, four people. Total. In the entire restaurant. We had nine in our group, and there were three other groups of similar size that arrived at various times, plus several small groups of two to four. "Chaos" is a pretty good word to describe the experience. To make a long story short, we finally got most of our orders about two hours after we got there. At least the food was good. To tell the truth, I didn't mind all that much (although it would've been nice to get a glass of water at about the 1-hour mark). I was deep in discussion with one of our support contractors. He is an Iraqi who left in 1989 and settled in the U.S., eventually getting US citizenship. He came over here several years ago to do what he could to help his old country get back on its feet. He's sorta optimistic and sorta not, and it was very interesting to hear his viewpoint.

A lot of people have gone on R&R. Seems like a bunch of them left here just in time to get snagged by that big snowstorm that clobbered the US. I imagine we'll hear lots of horror stories when they return. I'll be heading home on R&R next month, right in the deepest part of winter, but hey, it's a trip home. I am NOT going another six months without seeing my wife and dogs again, not if I don't have to. From the "work" side, the timing looks pretty good. I should have a lot of my projects out for bids from contractors, and when I come back, it'll be time to hit the ground running hard so we can get those contracts awarded and launched.

So that's the scene from my little corner of Victory Base, Iraq. I hope you and yours are having a wonderful Christmas season and that you get to spend time with your families. If you're a veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, or any one of a number of other conflicts, a tip of my hat to you and enjoy your holidays. You earned it - and the young soldiers out here right now are holding up your tradition.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A USO Christmas Tradition

Last night the USO brought a Christmas show to Victory Base. I went with a small group to have some fun. The turnout was good: several thousand soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, civilians, and contractors gathered by the stage near the Oasis DFAC. I was sitting in the bleachers with a bunch of junior soldiers and sailors - a rowdy bunch, to say the least, but enthusiastic and totally into the experience.

There was a large open area in front of us and many people brought fold-up chairs to sit and watch the show. The area filled up until there was only a narrow strip in front of the bleachers. Then along came an older couple (KBR employees, by their tags) who brought, not chairs, but cardboard boxes to sit on. The soldiers and sailors around us thought this was hugely funny. Then it got worse: the woman parked herself on her box, but the guy just couldn't get himself down: he was leaning on other chairs, people, his wife, and having a really hard time getting his butt down to box level. Finally he did, and on the count of three, the box collapsed. So did all the soldiers and sailors around us. I tell ya, some civilians give the rest of us a bad name. The gent? He sat on his collapsed box the rest of the evening.

We had a surprise opening act. ADM Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his wife opened the show. They came out and had a lot of really nice, appreciative things to say. Very cool and a class act.

The next act was comedian Dave Attell. He was quite funny and very crude - but we're talking about a pretty crude audience, anyway, and he played to it. Then he brought out Anna Kournikova. She can't sing or dance or act, but who cares? She's great eye candy and was definitely a bigger hit than Dave was. The fact that she just recently became a US citizen endeared her all the more.

As I mentioned, we had a big, enthusiastic crowd.

The main act was Billy Ray Cyrus. He brought two members of his band with him and they put on a really good show. I'd never thought of "Amazing Grace" done as a blues song, but he did, and it was indeed amazing. They did a great job of getting people up, moving, and laughing.

At the end, they got everybody up on stage, including one guy from the audience who showed up as Santa, complete with his pistol. He got to pose for pictures with Anna and every guy in the audience is going to show up as Santa the next time she comes through town.

The USO has been around for 70 years now, and it was really cool to be part of a tradition that goes back to World War II. I used to watch the Bob Hope Christmas shows about the tours he'd do in Viet Nam. Now I've been to one. Many thanks to USO, to Admiral Mullen and his wife, to Billy Ray Cyrus and his band members, to Dave Attell, Anna Kournikova, and everybody who worked to make this happen. Our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines loved it. So did I.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Our Office Christmas Tree

As promised in my last post, here's our pink office Christmas tree, courtesy of Gus, our macho Latino.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunday Morning

I can't believe it's been almost a week since my last post, but Janis was on my case about it this morning. Since my trip on Monday, it's just been Groundhog Day, every day. Not a whole heckuva lot is new.

We have a young Iraqi rug merchant on our compound. He's turned a shipping container into a rug store. He's a great young man, full of energy, always with a huge smile on his face. And he seems to be doing a fair business as well.

I'm able to get a little painting in once a week. Here's what my "studio" looks like these days, now that I've got an easel. (It's a piece of junk easel, but an easel nonetheless). All of you painters out there will appreciate my fine taste in taborets and lighting.

We're starting to get into the Christmas season. Some people are heading home for the holidays, a few decorations are starting to pop up here and there, and we have an inordinate amount of candy, cookies, and other sinful foods floating around the office. We also have a Christmas tree in the office now. My co-worker Gus, a macho Latino from Los Angeles, has a friend who sent him a small pink Christmas tree with a feather-boa angel on top. Gotta get a picture of it and post it here. As for me, I haven't really gotten into the spirit yet. Hard to do with our work schedule and this will be the second year in a row that I've been gone for the holidays. It'll also be the LAST time I'm gone for the holidays. No more.

Last night we had a big rainstorm move through. Big rainstorms mean big mud for the next five to seven days. Yuck. I could have done without that, thank you very much.

Okay, back to work. I have five contracting packages that I have to make some progress on today, and I can't make progress while poking away at my blog. Hope you all have a wonderful day!

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Road Trip: Ramadi

I took a road trip today to Ramadi. Two of us from my office went out there to meet with some people about two projects that we're about to launch. This was my first trip to that part of the country and it was quite interesting.

Ramadi is about 90 minutes by up-armored vehicle west of here, pretty much a direct shot on their major east-west highway. Our little convoy went by the town of Abu Ghraib, including the infamous prison (now run by the Iraqi government). The land out there is FLAT, reminding me of, say the Texas panhandle. It's an odd mixture of desert and prairie, too - the reason is that even though there's almost no rain, the water table is just a few feet down, so trees grow remarkably well. The highway was in much better shape than I would have thought and we zipped along pretty quickly. I did notice, however, that the guardrails had been literally ripped out a few years back so that they wouldn't provide hiding places for IED's. Security now is pretty good. The Iraqi soldiers manning the checkpoints were invariably efficient and polite - I spoke with an Iraqi about that, and he said that this is a result of the training that US Marines provided over the past few years, so the troops they trained will understandably have some of the Marines' clipped efficiency and politeness. Good on 'em.

We met with some Americans at Camp Ramadi to discuss the projects. A little while later, a large cadre of Iraqi officials arrived. They will be the beneficiaries of one of my projects. One of my purposes in going out there was to meet with these officials and assure them that the project really is going to go forward. They've become very skeptical over the past few years of our efforts. Some of this is our fault: previous teams have told the Iraqis that the US would do this or that for them, only to have the project shot down at some other level. Of course, part of this is their own doing as well: they have a tendency to hear the phrase "we are going to try to do something" as "I promise you it will be done and that we'll give you $X dollars as well". So they didn't really believe that this project would happen. Since we need their cooperation and active participation, I wanted to make sure that they understood that, yes, it really is going to happen, and here's the timeline, and here's what they need to do to make it a success. Message received. I think. Insha'allah.

The trip home was much the same as the trip out, except that the Iraqi soldiers at the checkpoints were much more particular, and had to check everything out. Our security team said that part of the reason was that they are, in general, more particular about vehicles heading toward Baghdad; another part is that there were five bombings in Baghdad today and so they're being more vigilant ... after the fact, of course. But despite the checkpoints, the trip home went well and we got back on time.

I shot a whole bunch of pictures out the window of our vehicle. Please excuse the quality; we were usually moving pretty quickly, so getting anything was just a matter of luck. This is a typical side street off the main highway.

Out on the highway, there are lots of vendors selling fruits and vegetables. Our convoys don't stop, but I hear from some of our Iraqis that these fresh fruits and veggies are quite tasty.

Just to the north of the Victory Base complex, there is an area that was fiercely fought over during the 2003 invasion. Because it was a poor area, it has never been rebuilt.

Home, finally, after a long, successful day!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

A Little This 'n' That

I just got back from dinner at Taco Bell. Yeah, I hear some of you out there making gagging sounds, but sometimes you just gotta have something that's NOT FROM THE DFAC. Doesn't matter what it is. It could be old shoe leather wrapped in a Stars and Stripes newspaper and you'd think it was the greatest thing in the world. Hey, it didn't come from the DFAC, it has to be good!

Our DFAC recently won some sort of award. None of us can figure out why. It has essentially no variety whatsoever. If it's Tuesday, you know what they're serving: the same thing they served last Tuesday, and the Tuesday before that, and the third Tuesday from now as well. As for quality, well, it's really not bad, but after a while, the same ol' same ol' kinda tastes the same ol'. Right before Thanksgiving, they actually decorated the place a bit. They hung yellow and orange and brown streamers from the ceiling and taped up cardboard cutouts of pilgrims and turkeys on the wall. Up front, they set up a scene with several plaster of paris figures that looked amazingly like inflatable dolls dressed in plaster pilgrim and indian outfits. They also, inexplicably, put up a 10' high, 20' wide styrofoam model of the front of the White House. Even the people that work there don't know why.

The internet in our rooms is pretty much unusable now. If I try to go online from there, I literally get a book or a magazine to read while the pages load. The reason for the slowness is that the barracks only have a certain amount of bandwidth, and over the past few months, we've moved more and more people into the barracks as we downsized and centralized things, and everybody has a computer nowadays, so there we are. We probably won't get any more bandwidth since it's so frickin' expensive. So I go to my office in the evening, like now, and use my computer at work. Just what I wanted to do in the evening: spend even MORE time at my desk!

We haven't had any rain in a couple of weeks now, which is a good thing. Any time it rains, it takes at least five days for the mud to dry out. Walking on concrete-hard dirt is much easier than walking on slippery goo.

Despite my griping about the DFAC, the internet, and the mud, I have to say that I really love what I'm doing at work now. I'm convinced that I have the coolest job in the entire command. After months of work, two of my projects will finally go out for bids from contractors in the next couple of weeks. Both of them are projects to provide training to Iraqis all around the country in things like equipment maintenance, urban planning, construction management, facilities management, and several other areas. The Iraqis, at the worker level, are showing more interest in learning how to do these things for themselves. I've got three more projects in the development stage to create detailed plans for some critically needed services in one city, economic growth in another province, and a significant improvement to a large university. Not only are these important projects in their own right, but the Iraqis involved, from the provincial governor on down, are excited and anxious about them as well. To me, that's critical: what good is a master plan if the people you're giving it to just put it on the shelf? But it doesn't appear that's going to happen. Not only do they want the master plan, they want to be actively involved in putting it together. That's some serious buy-in.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Presidential Ponderings

There’s a lot of discussion today about President Obama’s speech last night. I gotta throw my two cents’ worth in. I read the transcript and thought it was an excellent speech. It shows a deliberate, thoughtful, and reasoned approach. Obama’s refocusing of the mission, I think, is right on target. Our main concern should be in ending the threat from Al Qaeda and other such extremist groups in the border area. Those are the loonies who attacked the World Trade Center and are the threat to the US and other western nations.

Lots of people are wondering why we care about Afghanistan. It has nothing in the way of natural resources, no industry, nothing much to trade with the rest of the world. Which is why it’s so poor, and because it’s so poor, the people (young ones particularly) turn to anything that offers them a smidgeon of hope and purpose. Which is what the extremist groups offer.

I don’t think we’re really there for Afghanistan. We’re there because its neighbor, Pakistan, has nuclear weapons. Al Qaeda would love nothing more than to get their hands on one of nukes. Pakistan is unstable, with a weak and corrupt civilian leadership, and its military and intelligence services have a long history of ties to Al Qaeda and other extremist groups. Apparently, those who support the extremists are still leery of giving them nuclear weapons, but who knows how long that will last. As long as the extremists were just a bunch of loonies running around Afghanistan, the only danger was that Pakistan and India would start lobbing nukes at each other. Now, though, the extremists are threatening the very existence of Pakistan. We can’t go into Pakistan to fight them (at least, not overtly), so we have to fight them in Afghanistan. I think that fight is worth it.

I like Obama’s approach toward the Afghan central government. He’s giving them a timetable: quit dicking around and weed out the corruption, because we’ll be leaving in 18 months, after we take care of Al Qaeda. (Well, we’ll see). Obama is already bypassing the central government and providing aid directly to those government agencies and local governments that have proven themselves capable. Good for him.

So, my bottom line, I think Obama’s on the right track with this approach. He’s got my support.

His predecessor, though, is coming under some scrutiny overseas. For the past couple of weeks, the British have been conducting an inquiry into the beginning of the war with Iraq. You really have to look to find any coverage of this in the US press – CNN seems to think that whether or not Tiger Woods was cheating on his wife is a much more important story. But today’s Wall Street Journal ran a report on the British proceedings. The revelations have not been surprising; rather, they’re high-level confirmations of things we’ve known or suspected for some time. The former British ambassador to the UN told the board that Bush was “hell-bent” (his words) on going to war with Iraq from the very beginning and even undermined the UK’s attempts to build international support. The former British ambassador to the US told the board that the White House was trying to make connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda within hours of the attacks. And Tony Blair bought into the invasion in April, 2002, five or six months before Bush & Co. started their public march to war.

No surprises there, really, since Bob Woodward reported many of the same things in his books Bush At War and Plan of Attack several years ago. Still, it’s one thing when a reporter says these things in a book he’s trying to sell, and another when they are coming from high-level officials who were involved. This investigation promises to be very embarrassing to Bush and Blair for their arrogance, duplicity, and stupidity in the run-up to the war. As it should be.