In Memoriam

This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).

Monday, August 10, 2015

Eight Questions - Michael Maxey - USAID Front Lines 2011

FrontLines: What is the one thing you wish someone had told you, and that you can now share with newbies, before moving to the country in which you currently serve?
Michael Maxey
Michael Maxey
Michael Maxey: I would tell anyone who plans to serve in a conflict area that you have to be proactive and seek ways to address short-term stabilization needs while bridging those activities to long-term, sustainable development initiatives. My goal from day one was to get activities underway to help Iraqis have a glimmer of hope, and a chance for them to focus on a better future. We successfully implemented short-term activities, many of which were continued and expanded under long-term USAID programs.
FL: What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Maxey: I most enjoyed being with the young men and women serving in our armed forces; they reminded me in many ways of my own children. They had faced major difficulties and dangers stabilizing our area south of Baghdad. I saw my job as working hand-in-hand with their security operations to support the transition to a stable society in the areas where Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia had been driven out. I was impressed by their intelligence, dedication, and resiliency—some were on their third tour of duty in Iraq. In many ways, it felt as if I had been preparing for this job all my life. And as I began my assignment at ePRT North Babil, I dedicated my service to the memory of a childhood friend, Stan Sargent, who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam. I thought about Stan and the young people I was working with; it gave me a sense of mission.
FL: How do you deal with the hazards posed in working in a critical priority country?
Maxey: The work is fast-paced and there is tremendous focus on the mission, so there is not a lot of time to worry about things outside your control. The military took extraordinary care to protect us when we were “outside the wire” and I seldom felt threatened. If there were any troubling times, I found that the chaplain service in the brigade helped to focus my faith on getting through the task at hand.
FL: What has been the most difficult experience at your job?
Maxey: We lost 17 soldiers in my brigade during my time in ePRT North Babil and every loss was heartbreaking. Those losses, and the death of an outstanding civilian colleague, bothered me more than anything. Everywhere I go in Iraq, I make it a point to visit the memorials that are set up on every Forward Operating Base to remind myself of how precious a price we have paid in our efforts there.
FL: How has your work with USAID changed the way you view the world?
Maxey: I have a much better understanding of the issues related to the Muslim world and how our interaction with countries there are critical to our national interests. I found that there is more that brings us together than separates us. I have learned to manage expectations, to seek to understand rather than change, and to listen rather than instruct. I also better understand the commitment, honor and sense of duty demonstrated by our men and women in uniform. Seeing the maturity and patriotism of these young people, I came away feeling much more confident in the future of our country.
FL: What is your favorite thing to do in your residence country of your days off?
Maxey: I enjoy reading, and I began a book club at USAID/Iraq to share and discuss books on a variety of topics. I summarized books I read on counter-insurgency, social and economic development, and history, and posted those summaries and other thoughts on two blogs: “Sleepless in Baghdad” (see and “Unity of Effort” (see
FL: What is the one thing you took for granted in the United States that you no longer would?
Maxey: I became much more aware of how important it is to have freedom of movement, to be secure, and able to travel, communicate, and interact with others. Terrorism seeks to limit our freedom and to increase the cost of engaging in the activities required to move forward as a society. Not having to be overly concerned about any threats as I do “routine” things is something I do not take for granted.
FL: What is the most important accomplishment that you will leave behind in the country you served in?
Maxey: The most important thing, the most lasting thing, will be the relationships I developed with my colleagues, both Iraqi and American. I do not believe I am leaving something behind as much as I am taking these experiences with me. I remember receiving a letter from a tribal leader in North Babil who thanked us for helping his community. He said, “Our canals once ran with blood but you have changed them into canals of living water.” That message was to the thousands of people who were involved in changing North Babil from an Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia stronghold to a vibrant center of aquaculture production ($35 million in annual production estimated for 2010) and an area that is stable and safe for families to live in again

.Michael Maxey is the senior economic development adviser for the Iraq Reconstruction Office in USAID’s Bureau for the Middle East. Prior to his current assignment in Washington, D.C., Maxey served in Iraq as the manager of a large agriculture development program at the Agency’s mission in 2009; and as a USAID representative on an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (ePRT) in North Babil in 2008.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How It All Started

From a post I made to a friend's comment that the International Zone in Baghdad was still the "Emerald City" --  "I remember my first day in the IZ in early February 2008. Leaving the USAID Compound I walked everywhere. Wandered through the Palace, saw the Saddam Hussein monuments lying on the ground to the side of the Palace. The area between the ...Palace, the PX and Landing Zone Washington was the "center of the universe" to me. Lots of people, cars, helicopters coming and going. I remember thinking, "this is going to be fun." Made my first trip into the "red zone" a couple of days later. Finished up my newcomer briefings and taking care of paperwork at USAID, and on February 17th took a blackhawk at midnight out to Forward Operating Base Kalsu. Got there at 2 am in the morning and found someone that could give me keys to a CHU (containerized housing unit) and dragged my stuff there. Remember waking up mid-morning disoriented and then realized where I was and started trying to figure out how to get to my unit -- Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (EPRT) North Babil. The March 2008 attacks started on the IZ and I couldn't go back for a good while. Ironically, my EPRT with part of it's battle space in the "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad was safer than the IZ with the rain of mortar and rocket fire coming down from Sadr City."

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Castles, Battles, and Bombs

Castles, Battles, and Bombs
University of Chicago Press

"Economics is a science of decision making."

Jurgen Brauer and Hubert Van Tuyll, professors of economics and history at Augusta State University, have written a history of war that uses economic principles (6 of them) to highlight decisions made relating to warfare or military spending through history.  It's an interesting book but a relatively dense read.  The principles are (1) Opportunity Costs, (2) Expected Marginal Costs and Benefits, (3) Substitution, (4) Diminishing Marginal Returns, (5) Asymmetric Information and Hidden Characteristics, and (6) Hidden Actions and Incentive Alignments.   More than anything the book analyzes how decisions regarding war and military spending were made and what economic factors combined with human behavior influenced those decisions.

This is a study in rationality.  The authors cite the work of Herbert Simon, who won an Nobel Prize in Economics, related to "Bounded Rationality."  This was the exploration of the consequences of man's limited rational capability.  Simon's work in "Administrative Behavior" described the work of the company as an adaptive system of physical, personal and social components that are held together by a network of intercommunication and by the willingness of the its members to cooperate and strive toward a common good.   The authors attempted to explain the situation, the economics involved, and the personal behavior of those involved, and how it all impacted the decisions that made relating to war.   Very interesting.

Economics according to the book is a study of behavioral principles by which a rational human being goes about his or her decision making.  People choose one thing that if not pursued would carry the greatest sacrifice, the highest opportunity costs.  In the Middle Ages, even though castles were enormously expensive (the equivalent, in some cases, of the income of the kindgom for a year), sovereigns would spend the required resources because the cost of a standing army was even more expensive.  This was remarkable in that resources were very limited (small tax base, no credit system, etc. -- how long would we have waged war in 2003 - 2010 without being able to borrow money to do it?).  One of my favorite quotes of the book is "A king in 1008 was far more aware of the need to make choices than a president in 2008."

In terms of cost benefit and marginal returns, there was an evolution of contracted or mercenaries armies (used in Renaissance Italy) to standing armies over time.  Cost was one issue but another was the unintended consequences of mercenary armies taking control of client states (I am reminded of William Walker in Nicaragua who was originally contracted as mercenary by one of the factions of civil war there -- he arrived with 80 men and took control of the country -- not good).  In looking at total war during the period 1618 - 1815, "the calculation of expected costs and benefits of each additional engagement in battle them might be said to have had a rational goal: to lower the total cost of war." 

Access to and the use of information was highlighted in the Civil War as the authors compared the battle decisions of Robert E. Lee as he faced a series of Union generals.  An assessment was made of diminishing marginal returns in radically increased bombing of Germany in the last years of World War II (increased bombing, according to the authors, actually had a negative impact for the Allies in that German morale increased under the horrific attack).  A study of substitution was made in the case of the French in standing down their armed forces in favor of developing nuclear deterrent during the Cold War (it should also be mentioned that France suffered incredible losses in Vietnam and Algeria). 

The last chapter focuses on the economics of terrorism in which the authors describe terrorist organizations as rational economic actors subject to opportunity costs and other factors affecting their decisions.  Key to an anti-terror strategy is to either decrease the revenue flow to terror organizations or increase the costs of their terrorists operations.  The authors cite the rational behavior of terrorists: "The overriding message is that the effort to tax terror (increase its costs) out of business calls forth resistance and breeds innovation, substitution, and efforts to increase productivity."

Final section of book assesses the economics of military manpower.  The authors contend that the productivity of military manpower carries implications for the demand of military manpower.  Different battle scenarios affect productivity.  As roles change, productivity of one type of warrior (highly trained, specialized skills in a high tech weapons approach) may not provide the same benefit in a different role (serving as body guards for diplomats).  Alternative mechanisms -- hiring the mercenary forces rather than mantaining them as part of a standing army may be the most economical chocies.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Sebastian Junger: On Combat New and Old

Reading an article in the November 2010 edition of Military History magazine on Sebastian Junger and his book, "War."  Junger covered the 15 month deployment of US Army's 2nd platoon, Company B, 2n Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley during 2007 - 2008. 

When he was asked about the psychological effects of being in a war zone, Junger said: "People see combat through a paradigm of trauma.  But there are also pyschologically  positive things that happen withtin a small group that can not be duplicated back home.  That's another way to look at PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and it's serious.  I think it's as serious as the trauma component.  That's why they (soldiers) want to go back.  They didn't go back because it was traumatic, but because it was a place where they understood what they were supposed to do.  They understood who they were.  They had a sense of purpose.  They were necessary."

Trying to figure out why I want to go back to Iraq, Junger's statement seemed to answer the question.  I'm not sure where I could contribute more than I could there.  I understand what I need to do and I believe our collective efforts are making a difference.  At a certain age you start to worry about your relevance.  A place like Iraq takes those worries away.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lessons Learned from North Babil

Civil Affairs and the QDR: Opportunity and Challenge

by Mr. Howard Van Vranken

Reprint of article -- see

April 2010

As we consider how to sharpen our focus on peace keeping and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, we naturally consider what lessons can be applied from a generally successful "surge" in Iraq. As a career State Department Foreign Service Officer who served as the Team Leader of an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in North Babil January, 2008 - January, 2009, I have reflected on some of the lessons learned in Iraq and provide some observations about our organizations.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the various cultures of disparate agencies in stability operations in Iraq and identify areas of overlap and barriers to efficacy. Its intended audience is the senior level civil affairs practitioner.

Overview of the Mission and Environment

When I arrived in January, 2008, north Babil was the epitome of a conflict zone. The Iraqi Police and Army were still finding their feet and many of the local units lacked the confidence of the US Army, their civilian leadership, and the population. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Sunni insurgents were present and active, but their activities had curtailed significantly thanks in large part to the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program, our 'surge' troops, and years of counterinsurgency efforts. Shia insurgents, primarily the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM), were increasingly active and had successfully infiltrated local government and security services. The province was still reeling from the murder a month earlier of the Provincial Police Chief, GEN Qais Al Mamori, an able patriot and friend of the US intent on implementing non-sectarian rule of law in the province.

Our area of Iraq was about the size of Rhode Island, and COIN was in full swing. The three battalions of 4BCT/3ID were deeply and intimately engaged in a broad array of projects all with the common aim of alleviating the considerable and evident consequences of the conflict while building the capacity of the Iraqi government. Clearly, the emphasis was on helping Iraqis; CERP was generously used to help farmers, small businesses, schools, and clinics restore operations. The SOI program was well under way, with more than 5,000 paid participants.

Taking advantage of the disruption of insurgent activities, Civil Affairs Teams were working closely with local officials on priority projects, largely focused on health, education and essential services. Everyone complained about the lack of electricity; north Babil was one of the few places in Iraq that suffered periodic cholera outbreaks thanks to critical shortages of potable water. Â International efforts to rebuild infrastructure were restarting as USAID-funded programs rebuilt several schools with more construction planned for the worst affected areas. Internally displaced people, often refugees who had abandoned villages to live in small towns or cities 20 miles away, were anxious to return and rebuild.

Militarily, the brigade had cleared a final AQI stronghold in the Khidr, an agricultural village hugging the Euphrates. Several dozen fighters were killed and about as many were dispersed in a fight that killed one soldier. The area had been cleared only days before I arrived and it was one of the first places I visited. Escorted by LTC Tim Newsome, Commander of the Cottonbalers (3/7 infantry battalion), we walked through a devastated village of bombed out shops, houses, and mosques before meeting the local leader, Sheikh Jaffer. Speaking with Jaffer, I learned that Khidr was a largely Shia village in a region primarily populated by Sunnis. However, until about 2006, sectarian problems were unknown and people of both sects mixed openly and without hostility. Khidr included a small Shia shrine commemorating a beloved religious leader. Sunni fighters, chased out of Baghdad thanks to coalition military operations in 2006, had taken over the village, terrorized the Shia population, destroyed the shrine, and used the area as a base to conduct attacks on Sunnis resident in nearby Iskandariya, Mahmoudiah, and Jurf al Sukr. They pillaged explosives from the nearby remains of the Qaqaa weapons complex.

Khidr was illustrative of the challenges confronting us in north Babil. The population was divided and sectarian wounds were deep and fresh. The Iraqi Army and Police did not exercise, consistent, effective control over the area. The humanitarian needs were staggering; housing, health care, potable water, and food were all in desperately short supply. The economy was in tatters and infrastructure had been destroyed or suffered from years of neglect. Importantly, several insurgent leaders had communicated their willingness to lay down their weapons in exchange for a position in the SOI.

The brigade was well-equipped to address the considerable challenge it confronted, both in terms of resources and leadership. While working in a tremendously dangerous atmosphere, the recently arrived soldiers of 4BCT enthusiastically sought opportunities to engage the population. I had expected Civil Affairs to be at near the bottom of a long list of operational priorities; in fact, it became evident in my first days with the brigade that Civil Affairs and EPRT work was a foremost concern of commanders, behind only the safety and wellbeing of troops. As the brigade commander, COL Tom James, introduced me to his senior leaders, I quickly understood the commitment to COIN exemplified by COL James and his deputy, LTC Roger Shuck.

What we lacked, however, was a clear master plan for moving forward. Stated simply, we had not thought about how we wanted the area to look in a year, two years, or how to get there. Our focus was almost exclusively on generating goodwill among civilians and disrupting those who would do us harm. We also lacked experience in Civil Affairs operations, beyond distributing humanitarian or relief supplies. Perhaps most importantly, we did not have well-established relationships with local leaders.

The Vanguard Brigade arrived about a month before me in Iraq. Their leaders—officers and NCOs—were focused professionals, most with experience in Iraq. They had learned hard lessons working with Iraqi counterparts during previous tours and were determined to apply those lessons in North Babil.

The mission was clear: we had to secure the population in order to give civilian rebuilding efforts an opportunity to gain momentum and return the population to normal activities. We had to build the capability of the local security forces and mentor their development in order for them to regain the confidence of the local population. Any former insurgents willing to forego armed activities and return to civilian life would be welcomed back to their homes and watched carefully. Once the areas were secure, we had to expedite the restoration of essential services and convince the Iraqi government to direct resources to an area still widely considered an insurgent stronghold. Without the balance of security and civilian activities, we would end the 'surge' having failed: if we created security without building civilian activities, security would collapse upon our departure. Civilian activities conducted in an insecure environment were bound to fail as insurgents and gangsters terrorized the people.

Mars and Venus: Building Effective US Civilian-Military Relations on the Battlefield

Much has been written about differences between the corporate cultures of the uniformed military and diplomatic agencies (State, USAID, etc) and much of it is accurate. The military and civilians approach the same problems with identical goals from diametrically opposed viewpoints. That proved the case in north Babil, and we constantly worked to overcome these institutional hindrances. Among the most striking differences in approach were:

Timeframe - We joked that while the military thought of changes that could be made before the next daily Battle Update Brief to the division leadership, USAID thought about how its activities would impact the next generation of Iraqis! While an exaggeration, it nonetheless illustrated the significant gulf in focus between the civilian agencies and our military colleagues.

Resources - The military brings to the battlefield tremendous resources—primarily money and people. During my time in north Babil, we rarely considered how to curtail spending and almost never sought to economize for the sake of economy. That was a stark departure from my nearly two decades with the Department of State which had been a constant exercise in the sensitivity of cost; economy was an ever-present priority. While ePRT operations were less constrained thanks in large part to the Department of State's Quick Response Fund, the instinctive reaction of State and USAID officers is to seek a cheaper, sustainable solution whenever possible. Whereas the military's bottom line was accomplishment of the immediate objective, civilian leadership focused on expense, sustainability and transition. Both sides came to incorporate more balanced thinking, but it was a constant effort to curb our respective institutional predispositions.

In terms of people, the military enjoys a significant advantage in the breadth of expertise in its ranks. In addition to recognized specialists, including such seeming anomalies as lawyers, veterinarians, and police officers, the reserves include a richly diverse group of professionals able to apply their civilian expertise. Though sometimes not deployed as intelligently as we might expect, compared with the Army, the civilian agencies lack that depth of diversity and expertise. Simply stated, we are diplomats and administrators, with occasional experience in another field.

Planning - Among the most striking aspects of the brigade was the investment it made in developing plans and considering how to achieve the commander's intent. When considering what to do and how to do it, the brigade's deliberative planning process was a phenomenally powerful asset for decision makers. The time, energy and creativity invested in the process meant that we were rarely surprised and never at a loss for tactical flexibility. Â Coming from an agency where plans are developed in a process sometimes neglected and frequently ridiculed, I quickly came to recognize the value of the brigade's planning.

Accommodating Diverse Institutional Cultures

Working together required accommodating each cultures' strengths and taking into consideration our institutional needs and imperatives. For example, the Army places an understandable emphasis on unity of effort. In the 3ID, that was highlighted by the singing, every morning with enthusiasm, of the division's song, "The Dog Face Soldier". Each morning, before the update, the entire brigade leadership stood at attention and sang, with vigor, the fight song. While it seemed a bit strange at the beginning, I soon understood the value of participating in terms of unit cohesion. When I become known as the Dog Face Diplomat, I knew the EPRT had been accepted.

There were other ways to accommodate the military that I found my counterparts at other ePRTs did not employ, to their detriment. I made absolutely sure that whenever we were asked to participate in a briefing, meeting, presentation, or discussion, our people participated with enthusiasm, were prepared, and took it seriously. The brigade leadership soon recognized that they did not need to ask the ePRT for something twice; when we had issues of substance or style, we made sure to raise them in advance in an appropriately discreet fashion. That helped make the brigade look good, and assuaged any concerns amount[?] our Army colleagues that we were somehow not team players.

Looking out for the interests of our counterparts was a key element in building cohesion and confidence. In working with our Iraqi counterparts, we developed a system to reinforce each others messages and priorities. That helped the Iraqis understand our goals and assured that they could not play us off against each other. Whenever I briefed General officers about the work of the brigade or the ePRT, I always found someone to praise. If we had problems with someone, we never raised those issues outside the brigade. That helped build credibility with the leadership and facilitated good working relations. Occasionally it required us to stifle our concerns when we honestly disagreed with a course of action, but the sacrifice merited the achievement of team cohesion.

The Army tends to attack problems directly and with overwhelming force and action. Civilians on the ePRT, I found, tended to take a more considered approach, preferring to discuss issues in depth, often repeatedly in different forums before deciding whether we should act. Once we determined that action was merited, we spoke at length about how best to proceed. That kind of deliberative decision-making, characterized by consensus decisions, drove the brigade crazy at times. Our approach meant we measured several times before cutting the fabric.

Our military counterparts, however, appreciated that once we had decided on a way forward, we could move quickly to apply intelligent solutions to difficult problems. One team member in particular, USAID's Michael Maxey, was a resource rainmaker able to expertly pull the levers of bureaucracy to deliver informed solutions to vexing problems. Several thousand refugees need to return to Khidr and rebuild their homes? Michael arranged for an Iraqi firm to distribute building supplies to the home sites. Need back-to-school supplies for schools? Ten thousand backpacks filled with paper, pencils and crayons were delivered to schools courtesy of Michael. Need specialist advice about resuscitating fish farms in the Euphrates valley, Michael arranged for an aquaculture expert to meet the farmers, prescribe a solution and distribute fingerlings to restore 600 family fish farms. Our civilians' ability to effect positive, intelligent results was a key to establishing credibility between agencies.

The Importance of Personnel and Training

While our confidence rarely waned, we learned several lessons concerning personnel and training. First, there is no substitute for experience, and very few people have experience with stabilization operations. We hired 'experts' with exhaustive resumes who proved incapable of operating without whatever support infrastructure they had enjoyed elsewhere. In some cases, our team members—civilian and military—could not exercise the flexibility necessary to pivot operations as dictated by developing circumstances. It is telling that about one quarter of our team did not complete their tour in Iraq. Those who succeeded shared a commitment to our mission. They also exhibited the ability to work effectively with a diverse and wide range of colleagues and interlocutors under tremendously stressful conditions. Interpersonal skills were among the most valuable assets of our team members and building a cohesive unit was a constant challenge.

Ideally, civilians would train closely with the military units with whom they work. In reality, that is rarely possible. As a result, close communication is necessary to overcome gaps in expectations and experience. Training for civilians should focus on operational issues. Our greatest asset was in knowing how to access civilian resources to address needs and issues we found locally. Those on our team who could pull the bureaucratic levers with our agencies in order to deliver tangible results were the most valuable members of the organization. It seemed that developing close relations with Iraqis and assessing their needs were somewhat less difficult, surprisingly, than getting our own civilian agencies to move quickly.

Lessons for the Future

So, what lessons did we learn and how can they be applied to current and future operations? While some of these are ideals, and others are difficult to implement, taken as a whole they constitute some lessons we should apply to future deployments.

Team Building counts—While it might benefit unit cohesion for PRTs and brigades to calibrate their tours, the most important goal is to build a unified approach. We did that in North Babil by sharing ideas, keeping communications up and down open, and focusing on professional and team development. When I was tasked by the Embassy with providing a quarterly assessment of progress in our area, I included the entire team and the brigade's leadership in the process, soliciting their views and incorporating their ideas. When we established work plans and priorities, the results reflected the consensus of good ideas generated by our team. Because about half our members were uniformed military, we were well integrated into the brigade.

Think Long-Term, but Act Today—This seems obvious, but despite the crushing, immediate demands, civilian leaders should always think about the intermediate and long-term impact of their actions. However, because the window for facilitating change is small and elusive, we must act today to begin change. When we have the opportunity to initiate a project that will improve a community, we must act quickly and intelligently.

Communication—Living on a FOB, there is no reason or way to avoid communicating constantly with our military counterparts. Likewise, talking to local officials and community leaders is the surest way to build relationships and trust. Making others look good—whether that means a battalion commander or a local school principal—is the best way to assure the mission will be a success.

Hire Local Employees—In Babil, we were hamstrung because the EPRT did not employ Iraqis knowledgeable about the local area. In retrospect, I should have hired local Iraqi engineers, bureaucrats or community organizers to help us plan and execute projects, but more importantly to provide deeper context about our civilian Iraqi partners.

Use USAID contractors—USAID typically hires contractors with tremendous expertise who enjoy a much greater ability to move on the battlefield. One tactic we used was to employ those USAID contractors extensively to provide assessments and execute projects. I was surprised to learn that my counterparts at PRTs elsewhere frequently did not even know the contractors existed. In most cases, USAID contractors have more experience on the ground than anyone in the brigade or PRT; that was certainly the case with RTI, the primary contractor for USAID's Local Government Program. Likewise, the Iraqi and third country nationals working under

USAID's Community Stabilization Program was able to quickly deploy resources to communities to rebuild schools, roads and clinics. They also engaged local leaders and populations to generate support for their programs. Coupled with the SOI program, the work of these contractors was the most important factor in our ability to restore normalcy to North Babil.

Engage Local Officials and Community Leaders—In north Babil, there were several unfortunate legacy projects that illustrated the importance of coordinating with local leaders and officials. In several instances, the USG had constructed beautiful facilities—a school and a clinic—without engaging sufficiently with the appropriate government officials. As a result, the ministry refused to assign staff or budget for operations and, more than a year after construction was completed, the facilities were used as storage or offices. In most cases, local officials know how to deal with their own bureaucracies to coordinate projects and avoid building the wrong facility in the wrong place.

Give Them All the Credit—Frequently, local leaders are very timid about building open relationships with US leaders largely for fear of alienating their populations. The best remedy is to provide tangible inducements demonstrating the value of working with the US. In many cases, US military and civilians can provide resources that solve long-standing problems. When we restore electricity or water to a neighborhood, for example, those local leaders who can claim credit for that improvement will instantly become our friends. Amazingly, those who seemed never to have time for us would eagerly seek our help after we demonstrated the ability to improve the lives of their constituents and enabled them to claim credit for the improvements.

Enjoy the Experience—Though difficult, for most civilians the experience of peacekeeping and stabilization operations are exhilarating, interesting and fun.

Howard Van Vranken is a career U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer who served as Team Leader of the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in North Babil, Iraq, January, 2008 - January, 2009. Currently the recipient of a Una Chapman Cox Fellowship, Mr. Van Vranken will shortly complete an academic year at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He will return to Iraq with the Department of State following a year of Farsi language training.

COL Rickey Rife, Defense is From Mars, State is from Venus - Improving Communications and Promoting National Security, US Army War College, 1998

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Louis XIV and Afghanistan

Foreign Affairs March/April 2010 has an article, "From the Sun King to Karzai," which compares the consolidation of power under Louis XIV (1643 - 1715) as the model that might be used by Afghanistan's President Karzai.  The article contends that France was essentially a collection of loosely affiliated communities with independent institutions, customs, even languages until Louis XIV brought order and central control.  A series of conflicts against the provincial powers from 1648 to 1653 resulted in battle field victories that while successful were enormously expensive.  Louis XIV continued to consolidate power by co-opting his rivals rather than crushing them.  He bought off key individuals, sold national offices to the highest bidders, and created a system that provided a stake in a national authority to local power brokers.  Louis XIV created a state from disparate interests through power, rewards, and creating a situation where a national identity provided more benefit to those in power than their previous provincial realms.  The creation of a French state required bringing these powerful interests into one location under one authority (Versailles served this purpose during the reign of Louis XIV -- it kept the nobility in one place and in the court and under the control of the king).

The author cites modern critics of Afghanistan and other weak states as having undertones, consciously or not, of ethnic or cultural superiority.  The truth is that the formation of a central, strong state has always been a difficult task in that it involves the breakdown of traditional order and long-standing patterns of authority.   In the case of the land that is called Afghanistan, this traditional order goes back several thousand years.    The secret of making a state involves providing benefits for the elites that result in a centralized control of the national terroritory.  The strategic approach in Afghanistan is not in creating a liberal democracy but in finding a way to wield the fragments into a stronger whole. 

I'm not sure if anyone knows how to do that.  The central "whole" for the Taliban is spiritual.  It appears much more difficult in a physical world to find the benefits of staying together.  If the economy could grow and incomes increase to the point where consitutents of local leaders demanded a cohesive whole, then there might be a chance. 

For a history of Afghanistan, see Graveyard of Empires.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

It's Complicated ...

One of the standard responses to any question during our Foreign Affairs Counter-insurgency Training in Washington DC prior to coming to Iraq, was -- "It's complicated." I've been in Iraq since February 2008 and the complexity of the society, the issues that trigger conflict, and how we work with the Iraqis to help them find their own way is still a huge issue. I'm sure the situation is the same Afghanistan, and in any tribal society. The graphic below is something I put together from a couple of maps of tribes and paramount sheiks nationally and in one region of Iraq.