Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Still not about doing the work







Last week, Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz had a column in the Los Angeles Times on the financial costs of the ongoing wars:

Many of these costs were unnecessary. We chose to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan with a small, all-volunteer force, and we supplemented the military presence with a heavy reliance on civilian contractors. These decisions not only placed enormous strain on the troops but dramatically pushed up costs. Recent congressional investigations have shown that roughly 1 of every 4 dollars spent on wartime contracting was wasted or misspent.
To date, the United States has spent more than $2.5 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon spending spree that accompanied it and a battery of new homeland security measures instituted after Sept. 11.
How have we paid for this? Entirely through borrowing.

The wars put the country into debt. And how was that money spent? Who benefitted. A very ugly answer -- not the Iraqi people -- emerges from a US government employee. Peter Van Buren is a US State Dept employee and he was part of a wave of diplomats sent to Iraq in 2009 in Barack's "surge." Julian Brookes (Rolling Stone) interviews him. In the excerpt I'm labeling the speakers to make it easier to follow and I've also put one remark in single quotes:
Brookes: And so then you went to Iraq and your job was to help get the local economy up and running?
Van Buren: Well, we didn't know what we were doing! When I arrived in Iraq my expectation was that I would step into the middle of this storm of busyness and somebody would tell me what to do, but it turned out everyone -- my State Department contractor teammates and the military unit I was embedded with -- was looking at me saying, "We though you knew what we were going to be doing here!"
[. . .]
Brookes: And where exactly was the money going?
Van Buren: The stupidest, most amazing thing -- I still see myself doing it -- was the micro-grant project. And this was decided on that we would kick-start small businesses by literally handing $5,000 in cash to Iraqis and encouraging them to use at the start of business. And we literally would drive into town and round up some people and hand them bundles of $5,000 in cash and say 'Please start a business.' No obligation, no follow-up. Nothing. They looked at us like we were completely insane.
Dave Davies: Now when you went to Iraq, this was in 2009. And this was far beyond the days when a lot of people would say American military policy was so misguided. By then, a lot of people think, we had figured this out. The military was much more committed to friendly engagement with the Iraqi population and reconstruction and winning hearts and minds. So you're there to do good things, to help rebuild the county. But, as you tell the story, you certainly weren't out among the people. Just tell us a little bit about your living kind of situation and how -- how that meshed with the mission that you had.
Peter Van Buren: What the PRT -- Provincial Reconstrution Team -- was supposed to do was to operate at a grass roots level, embedded with the US military to bring stability and economic success to all of Iraq -- particularly operating outside of the major cities. One of the key problems was the inability to reconstruct something while it was essentially still falling apart. The American presence in Iraq basically had three components. You had the military command which sat in a place called Victory Base. The army has no irony in its naming conventions. And they had a very limited view of things, they were very isolated. And then you had the American Embassy, the world's largest enemies surrounded by the world's largest walls that kept both bad guys and reality out. The joke was that the Embassy kept an eye on events in Iraq from the roof. And then you had the Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- me. We were small groups of people. We were embedded with military units. We would roll out in military convoys, typically riding in a military vehicles called MRAP which is like a giant monster truck. It has all sorts of armor and special electronics on it that make it less vulnerable to the IEDs that plague the campaign in Iraq for its entire life. It had machine guns at the top and full of soldiers with their game faces on. Guns, rifles, grenades -- the whole manner of stuff. Myself, I would wear body armor and a helmet, just like the soldiers wore. I wasn't armed. I didn't carry a weapon. We made quite an impression on people when we rolled through town. Sometimes when we rolled through the center of town we made quite an impression because our vehicles were tall enough that they tore down all the electrical and phone lines that were strung across the rodes. Sometimes we made quite an impression when we roared through fields and left ruts where there had been rice or wheat planeted. And often times we made quite an impression by attracting a lot of attention to people just by our presence. It was difficult to say that we ever could have normal interaction with anyone. The mere presence of us made us look like aliens descending from armored space ships in the middle of no where. Every interaction with every Iraqi took place with soldiers with weapons standing around. Often times I was told to leave my helmet and body armor on while I was speaking with the Iraqi people for my own safety. We rarely could stay in one place for too long without fear of attracting too much attention and an attack. Setting up appointments was difficult because it was dangerous to tell people too far in advance that we were arriving. We didn't want to give the bad guys too much time to get ready. And under those conditions, the ability to meet with people, to interact with them was a failure.
Dave Davies: And I believe that one of your first interactions with Iraqis involved this fellow -- I think he had the nickname McBlazer. And you had this issue you had to work out. Tell us that story.
Peter Van Buren: State Dept people love to wear blue blazers with brass buttons. It's almost kind of a uniform. And one of the Iraqis that we interacted with regularly had adopted this as his form of dress so he was nicknamed McBlazer among us. The Embassy constantly was tasking us to put on presentations, shows, lectures. We were going to tell Iraqis, "Here's how democracy works. Here's what women should be doing. Here's the way you should be running your businesses." These were hard to put on and it required a lot of logitstic arrangements, things that we couldn't possibly do on our own in a country where we couldn't travel freely, where telephone service was sporadic and where there was no infrastructure for us to work with. It became necessary for us to seek out these middle men, these operators, these carpet baggers. Slick guys, like McBlazer, who, for money, could make things happen. The very first day, as I arrived and met my team, the very first task I was handed was a -- was to commit fraud so that we could properly pay off McBlazer for the last thing. Now fraud is a nasty word to use --
Dave Davies: Let me just interrupt here. What do you mean fraud? What did you have to do?
Peter Van Buren: Well it turns out there were limits the State Department put on how much we could spend on refreshments. This was very important because without refreshments Iraqis wouldn't come to our meetings. We simply couldn't get a crowd unless we fed them. To feed them costs money and the cost of that food often times exceeded the maximum that we were allowed to spend. This doesn't stop a guy like McBlazer. He
simply created fake receipts for printing that covered the cost of the food. And my very first diplomatic action in Iraq was to be told by my colleagues to sign the fake receipts so that we could pay McBlazer for the food that we had to use to bribe the Iraqis to come to the meetings so that the Embassy would be satisfied that we were reconstructing Iraq.
That may seem like a great deal of tax payer money to waste; however, maybe the US government saw the war as a way to enrich the defense industry? Adam Entous and Nathan Hodge (Wall St. Journal) report that the US and Iraq have finalized a deal for Iraq to purchase eighteen F-16 planes with hopes of buying another 18. Thus far, they've put down $1.5 billion towards the purchase of the first 18. Suadad al-Salhy (Reuters) quotes an unnamed "senior U.S. military official" who estimates the cost for the 18 will be "roughtly $3 billion." Bob Cox (Fort Worth Star-Telegram) adds, "The sale, which has been widely expected for some time but not completed, would be the first in some time for Lockheed Martin which assembles the F-16 in Fort Worth." If you're thinking, "Well, maybe that 1.5 billion down -- on a 3 billion purchase -- saved some jobs," think again. Kevin James Shay (Maryland's Gazette) reports that Lockheed Martin announced they were laying off 540 workers in the state of Maryland. KERA (link is text and audio) notes that Lockheed Martin announced today that Fort Worth will see 370 layoffs -- this comes on top of "another 300 Fort Worth employees [. . . accepting] voluntary terminations, either through early retirements or resignations, and the company will not fill another 300 vacant jobs." David Markiewicz (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) reports Lockheed announced today they were "laying off 114 employees at its Marietta plant". Those may not be all the layoffs. (I'm surprised Palmdale doesn't have an announcement.) A few get rich. Most Americans suffer as a result of all the money wasted. And some Americans gave their lives in this war. 4 US service members have died in/from the Iraq War this month. DoD has tracked all four deaths in their official count (click here) but they have only issued announcements for two. Sunday a perfuncturary announcement was issued and, supposedly, only due to a US Senator stirring things up last week when his office called several people at the Pentagon demanding to know why deaths were not getting announcements and whether this was an accident or an order from the White House? Here's the Sunday announcement:

The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation New Dawn.

Sgt. Andy C. Morales, 32, of Longwood, Fla., died Sept. 22 in Baghdad, Iraq. He was assigned to the 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), Orlando, Fla.

For more information, media may contact the 143rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) public affairs office at 1-800-221-9401 ext. 1132 or e-mail Maj. John Adams at john.adams16@us.army.mil .

Over a million Iraqis -- well over a million -- have died in the Iraq War. And they continue to die because the war has not ended. As the war continues, violence continues to rock Iraq. Today Aswat al-Iraq reports a Kirkuk car bombing claimed 3 lives today and that two additional bombings did "material damage." In addition, they note, "An Iraqi soldier has been killed and another soldier was seriously injured in a joint US-Iraqi security operation in al-Fudheiliya township, 15 km to the east of Nassiriya city, the center of southern Iraq's Thi-Qar Province on Monday, a security source reported." Reuters adds that Mohammed Ali (Ministery of Health worker) was shot dead in Baghdad, an assault on a Baghdad police checkpoint left 1 police officer dead and two more injured, 1 Iraqi soldier was shot dead in Mosul and an attack on Mosul police checkpoint left one police officer injured. Hamid Ahmed (AP) notes the assassination of Mohammed Ali but gives his name as Mohammed Ali al-Safi and identifies him as a "senior Finance Ministry official" and Ahmed reports a Baghdad assassination attempt on Judge Munir Hadad that the judge survived; however, he was left wounded in the hand by a bullet.
Yesterday Karbala was slammed with four bombings. Aziz Alwan and Dan Zak (Washington Post) counted 15 people dead and one hundred and thirteen wounded. They also quoted Gamin al-Karbalie who is not smarter than a fourth grader. Though the bombings had just taken place, al-Karbalie just knew who was responsbile: al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. And he knew why: Because, he says, the group wants to demonstrate that Iraqi forces cannot handle security without the US.
Over 40,000 US troops are still on Iraqi soil and the bombings happened, that's A. B, how is it in al Qaeda's interest to keep US troops in the Middle East? Granted al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a splinter group and one formed after the US invasion of Iraq; however, the goal of al Qaeda is US forces out of the Middle East. Why their motives would suddenly be to keep the US in Iraq, I don't know. But Ganim al-Karbalie apparently does. I have no idea who was responsible or why. But if you're going to point a finger and supply a motive, your little reenactment should make sense.
AP quoted provincial council member Hussein Shadhan al-Aboudi stating, "The aim of these explosions is to ignite the sectarian sedition after the killing of 22 Karbala residents in the Anbar desert two weeks ago. They also aim to destabilize the security situation in Karbala." Is he right? Who knows? But his hypothesis does add up. Tim Arango (New York Times) noted provincial council member Tariq al-Khaikani hypothesis, "Mr. Khaikani attributed the persistent violence in Iraq to the lack of ministers of interior and defense, two positions that have essentially been overseen by Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki since the formation of a new government late last year. At the time, Mr. Maliki promised to name new heads of those ministries soon, but he has not yet done so."

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