Three months in Baghdad

AUGUST 31, 2003: After three and a half years of attempting Mission Impossible – post-war reconstruction to build pluralist democracies in Kosovo, then Montenegro – my wife, Jan, and I are ready to take on the same task in Iraq. Although we disagree with the invasion and Australian participation, our years in the Balkans give us some reason to think we can get along in a derelict country full of guns. In January we were asked if we would be interested in a "special project" starting in March or April. It's time to move on.


SEPTEMBER 14, 2003: One of the things we did on the way to Iraq was to go to El Paso, Texas – not only for the frequent flyer points. We had to be "processed in" through Fort Bliss, a military base down in the bottom left-hand bit of Texas. When I was sitting in a tent in the Tanami Desert in 1969 planning the rest of my life I never thought I would be a part of a formed unit in the US military, but I seem to be.

Fort Bliss involved several days of parading, standing in endless lines and getting jabbed with every known inoculant, including for diseases that I thought had been eradicated. I am safe if I get bitten by a mad dog or mosquito or receive white powder in an envelope. We and our new colleagues from the activated reserve units and numerous other contractors, who now get paid twice their old military salary, have also been lectured within an inch of our lives, including on the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which does not bind me unless I pick up a weapon. If I picked up a weapon it would probably be because its rightful owner was no longer functioning, in which case the code would be the least of my problems. I can do my gas mask in 4.7 seconds.

By coincidence – I think – the first evening's processing schedule was interrupted so we could attend the theatre to watch an Address to the Nation by President Bush. It was brought to us on the big screen TV by good ole Fox, the official channel of the White House. I forget what George said but he did talk at length about the civilised world, of which Iraq is not apparently a part. He didn't mention oil and he didn't mention John Howard.

The lecture on Arab "culture" – don't point with your toes and never hand over anything with your left hand – was given by an earnest young woman whose husband had been posted to Dubai with an oil company. I did not check for connections with Halliburton. Somehow, I doubted her experiences would be relevant to the majority of our reserve and contract colleagues heading for the front line. We also had a classified security briefing but I can't tell you what the guy said in case I have to kill myself.

We were saved from death by Power Point by a lively little number from a chaplain – First Southern Baptist, I think. If I feel suicidal I'll head off to his tent as he seemed to know how to talk you out of such thoughts. He said he did anyway.

We now each have a genuine US Army medical file, two sets of dog tags, two very nice duffle bags packed with survival gear. (Although I would have swapped the three pairs of thermal long johns for a pair of decent boots.) I am not so sure the military camo flak jacket and helmet are a great idea. Too much like a target-identifier.


SEPTEMBER 24, 2003: On arrival at Baghdad International Airport we are transferred to a hotel in downtown Baghdad. We expect to meet a few old friends from Kosovo as the team builds up. Our new home is some distance from the "green zone" in which, we had assured our family and friends, we would be safely accommodated. It is located across a lane from the hotel occupied by a Kurdish delegation. We share it with some Russian pilots who are running the gauntlet in an ancient Antonov ferrying new currency around the country. Sami the barman is moonlighting from his job as a security man at a bank. He's a good listener. In the local lingua franca, the hotel looks a bit like a "soft target": no external barriers and fronting a main thoroughfare. Some of our colleagues are reassured to wake one morning to find we have been surrounded by three-metre-high concrete barriers. They are less sanguine when told this is a response to a threat reassessment following the recent UN bombing and a "credible threat". We are not allowed to leave except to go to work, which we do in our still unarmoured cars with four passengers, a driver and two "shooters". I now know six different routes to the Palace and four from the Palace to the Ministry.

We work, eat, and sometimes sleep over, in the Palace, the centre of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). Saddam had made numerous, somewhat vulgar, additions, including several seven-metre busts of himself adorning the roof. One achievement of the CPA is their removal – by crane rather than giving us all a turn on the rope. For some days one of these is lying on its collar and nose, with a sign in English and Arabic prohibiting urination. It is not adjacent to a lemon tree.

Although the well-fortified Sheraton and Palestine hotels house most of the journalists, the Palace is the political hub of Baghdad and, quite possibly, the US presidential election campaign. It provides office space for Ambassador Paul Bremer, an impressive and dedicated individual who appears to believe success is possible, although we do not discuss its definition, and several thousand civilian and military personnel, plus a large number of Iraqi translators and advisers. It is all very intense and "busy" with people rushing around the corridors on missions of importance, or lining up for meals prepared by sub-continental employees of Dick Cheney's former company. No Iraqis here. I reckon there are more competing agendas, among those vying for a place in the orbit of Bremer, than I saw in Kosovo under the multilateral United Nations Mission and NATO. Having to convince those who have been here since April that we are not the enemy is, in spite of the previous experience with the UN in Kosovo, a surprise. We are, after all, contracted to the same government, to support the CPA assist and advise the fledgling Iraqi Ministries in laying out the institutional framework and build human capacity to support broad-based economic growth. (All in two years.)


SEPTEMBER 30, 2003: I can't decide how much the generally run-down nature of the place is a result of the recent war, the looting that followed it, the impact of sanctions, the diversion of what resources were arriving in the Oil for Food program to assist in palace building, other diversions or just decades of mismanagement, waste and poor maintenance. I reckon it is safe to say "all of the above". It makes me wonder just a little bit, though, whether Ole Saddo could have organised a decent threat level outside his borders.

I read that the US is throwing about 1 per cent of GDP at Iraq. That is relatively little compared with Vietnam or World War II, but it is about four times the total US annual aid bill for the rest of the world. It is also already more than today's value of the entire Marshall Plan. And that is before any numbers from the British, Australian and rent-a-coalition. It is all a bit crash-through or crash. I reckon the latter is not out of the question.

The expectations on all sides about what "freedom from Saddam" meant were probably always over the top. Even with their immense energy and several billion dollars, the CPA (ie the US) has not magically got the water supply up or the power to every home in the country, or even those that might reasonably expect it less than a year after occupation. Even getting sewerage to 11 per cent of the population, in the next year, will require large sums that only the US Congress appears likely, if not willing, to stump up. No wonder there are efforts to get a few donors into the game. The US Administration does not want to be paying that bill for much longer, especially if it wants to simultaneously reduce the deficit and taxes at home. My instincts are that multilateral approaches are probably better, even with my reservations about the inadequacy of the UN in the lead role. Clearly, any way of doing this reconstruction and institution building while still fighting the war is fraught. We are on a hiding to nothing. I refrain, nobly, from reopening the discussion on the merits of the events that brought us here. Blood under the bridge.

Iraq has about 25 million people stuffed into a moderately sized bit of dirt, with the world's second-largest proven deposits of oil and two rivers running like big arteries from top to bottom. Thirty-five years ago it was a moderately wealthy mid-level place – about the same per capita GDP as Australia. What was once the cradle of civilisation – ancient Babylon, Hammurabi codifying the legal structure – is now broken. Even the locals – or those to whom I talk – seem to agree with that, although the method of repair is open to lengthy discussion. A solution based on international funding and local administration is popular in and around Baghdad coffee shops, but I suspect those who pay the piper might want to do some of the conducting.

Some might ask why the rest of the world's taxpayers should now be asked to foot the bill for a few decades of kleptocracy and worse. Not a bad question really. There is evidence in other places that long-term decline, tyranny and misallocation have been sufficient to get a bit of aid for long periods of time. (Often without actually being raided first.) I forget who said "aid is the transfer of wealth from the poor people in rich countries to the rich people of poor countries" but he or she has a point. Maybe he/she is also the source of my definition of insanity: "Doing the same thing and expecting a different result."

Now, this is a poor country with a big bill to fix a mess and a per capita GDP less than a tenth of Australia's. It also owes the world, one way and another, a few times the size of its economy, for which the asset backing is a bit shaky. I suspect that even a gadzillion barrels of black gold in oleaginous subterranean lakes is not going to lead them headlong back to widespread prosperity, even if the delivery system is not sabotaged. About all it will do in the short run is pay the salaries of the (1.3 million) public-sector workers – a big slice of the estimated workforce – and the food program for all the families, but almost no investment. Tricky stuff, eh?

The tension between an early "democratisation" and a longer occupation is virtually irreconcilable. Either way it seems to me that we should now accept that this is a long-term task for both military and civilian input and that the option of early reduction in both is not viable.

I choose to think we are here to help people rebuild a place that is based on some sort of rule of civil law, with a military that is under the ultimate direction of (elected?) civilians, where the right to own, sell or retain property is fairly well defined and where most decisions are able to be made without coercion. But I am not sure that some people have quite got there. I suspect they may think that "the oldest and most successful continuous democracy in the history of the world" is a model for the Middle East, as well as California. That, however, did take more time than even the most ardent supporters of the action seem to be willing to give here. So, in the scheme of things, I guess another couple of years of benign stuffing around and making lots of tracks in the desert is not much to wait out. After that the power lines could be back in shape at least, if the regular bombing of repaired substations tapers off. As one Iraqi said to me recently: "We have been waiting 35 years, another two will not matter." It pays well, too.

Simultaneous warfare and reconstruction also provide abundant and lucrative employment for anyone who has left the Gurkhas or any form of special forces in the past few years. They are now here providing force protection, close personal protection and other guarding services. I can't decide if that makes it safer or not but I'm pretty sure the National Rifle Association would approve the gun-density ratio.

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