By ANGELA SHAH
There’s been an increase of news reports recently assessing portions of the legacy of the work and money spent by international forces along with aid workers in Afghanistan.
If the book, “We Meant Well: How I Helped to Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People,” provides any insight, the legacy could be defined by a few successes, but also, sadly, an overall environment of inefficiency, ignorance and a startling cluelessness that even billions of dollars couldn’t cure.
Written by Peter Van Buren, a career U.S. foreign service officer who volunteered to lead one of Iraq’s Provincial Reconstruction Teams in 2009-2010, the book describes the civilian side to counter-insurgency, the reconstruction effort that was supposed to salve the military campaign started by coalition forces in 2003.
His eyewitness account of a year spent in Iraq working with civilian and military colleagues, along with on-the-make opportunists on both sides, is often hilarious. On describing two colonels prone to speak entirely in sports metaphors, Van Buren writes, “this must have driven the al-Qaeda spies listening in insane, wondering where the hell this ‘goal line’ was.”
But the humor doesn’t mask his ultimate conclusion about the nation-building efforts of America and its allies. “Our efforts, well-meaning but always somewhat ignorant, lacked a broader strategy, a way to connect to local work with national goals,” he writes. “Some days it felt like the plan was to turn dozens of entities loose with millions of dollars and hope something fell together,” something akin to letting loose a troop of monkeys typing, and thinking the effort might produce Shakespeare.
In “We Meant Well,” Van Buren chronicles jaw-dropping sums being spent on a dizzying array of programs. At $63 billion and counting, “we were the ones who famously helped paste feathers together year after year, hoping for a duck.”
Projects to repair or build the basics of Iraq’s infrastructure – water and sewage systems, the electricity grid, even picking up the trash – failed due to a combination of crossed communications, moral hazard and simple disorganization. A profound naivete and ignorance – boosted by a seemingly endless supply of cash – pervades the narrative. “It wasn’t so much that we were conned, it was as if we demanded to be cheated and would not take no for an answer,” he writes.
It’s an unexpectedly candid account from a sitting foreign service officer and it seems he’s paid a price for it. A 20-year veteran of the U.S. Department of State with posts largely in East Asia, he says he is now banished to a sort of diplomatic purgatory, employed but stripped of the security clearance he needs to take postings abroad. Forbidden from entering the American diplomatic mothership, he currently works from his home in northern Virginia.
A notable success was a 4-H club, “a sort of Boy Scouts for little farmers,” as he calls it that became a community center for local residents in Mahmudiya. Trips to get children dental care were organized, pen pals from Montana obtained. “We spent almost no money on it, empowered no local thugs, did not distort the local economy, turned it over as soon as possible to the local Iraqis and got out of the way,” he writes. “The kids’ selection of officers for the club was their first experience of grassroots democracy. The powerful sheikh’s son went home crying because he lost the race to a farmer’s kid, and did not have anyone’s throat to slit in retaliation.”
He expresses hope that the 4-H club would still be a thriving enterprise a year later, unlike so many of their other ventures. But when an IED exploded across the street the day after the club’s building had been filled with children, Van Buren realized how close it came to be that a place that had been a source of so much joy could be turned to one of sorrow. He writes, “Every small step forward seemed followed by some tragedy.”
(Angela Shah is a freelance writer based in Dubai and has written for The New York Times and TIME magazine, among other publications. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)