Burdin worked in Kirkuk in northern Iraq with the US State Department. While working with a Provincial Reconstruction Team, he oversaw a number of economic development projects in the region and worked with Iraqi ministries. In the interview, he discusses working next to the World Trade Center on September 11, what it was like working with Iraqis in Kirkuk and some of his experiences since coming home.
His website can be found here.
Interview conducted on September 10, 2015 in Manhattan, New York
Present: Richard Hayden and Burdin Hickok
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Burdin Hickock: Burdin H. Hickok.
RH: What organization did you work with in Iraq and what years?
BH: I was with the US Department of State. I was in Iraq from May, 2008 through the middle of April, 2011.
RH: Were you in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: Iraq? OK. What motivated you to join the State Department?
BH: It actually was a, it was an ad on the website. My wife and I had both worked in Washington at one time. I was on Wall Street for many years – twenty plus years. That was great but Wall Street was changing. I was leaving Wall Street and was interested in a career change so I decided let’s take a look at what’s going on in Washington. Literally on the State Department website, there were Iraq jobs and they had one that they needed a banking and finance advisor. The description of the position was exactly my resume. It was exactly what I’ve been doing for the last twenty years and I put my hat in the ring. I filled out the application – this was November of ’07. I filled out the application and it was silence for about two months. Then I get a phone call from somebody at State asking to update my references because they weren’t accurate and I’m like, “so what does this mean?” “Well, we want to call them and put you in front of the board for review.” Great, fine, super. Nothing for two months.
March – was it February or March? – March I get a phone call and they offer me a position. I had really had not said anything to my family or anything like that but it was worth my while to pursue this. I had chatted with my wife and with my kids. My young boys, their first reaction was, “can we come?” [laughs] I got her blessing and the kids were very excited about it so I said, “sure. I’ll take the position.” No in-person interview. I had a long, four page questionnaire they sent me and that was the interview process. Didn’t meet anybody. I really didn’t talk to a soul until they gave me the offer.
When I was hired, I’m a 3161. [pronounced thirty-one sixty-one] That is the line item in the State Department budget that funded outside subject matter experts to come in and bypass the regular Foreign Service process to become a State Department employee. It was a temporary hire, non-career, however I was a United States diplomat. I had a diplomatic passport. I had a get-out-of-jail free card in Arabic and in English and I was reminded at a number of occasions from Foreign Service officers and superiors that I am a US diplomat. So the 3161 was the line item. It’s what we were called. We were essentially the Christmas help.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Where were you on September 11th?
BH: I was at Lehman Brothers. Lehman Brothers is at the World Financial Center right across the street. I was catty-corner to both towers. I’m on the twenty-ninth floor or thirty-ninth floor. I can’t remember now. Maybe the thirty-sixth floor. Beautiful crystal clear day. I had just walked by the towers to get to my desk. I’m a bond salesman at Lehman Brothers and my seat literally looks out on both towers, right over the Marriot hotel.
I was at my desk when it happened. I heard the thud and the windows shake. Paper was flying everywhere. There was a big ball of fire and I learned later was the front wheel section of the first airplane. It went right in front of me. Nobody knew what was going on so we stayed there in place and when the second one came in we evacuated. When we evacuated we were across the street so I came out front looking at the towers on fire watching people jumping out of windows right in front of me.
RH: What was the mood in New York for the next couple of months and maybe the mood of Lehman Brothers as well?
BH: We had a horrible twist of fate where Lehman Brothers, I believe, only lost one employee in the towers that day. Everybody pretty much got out of downtown. The trading floor was pretty much destroyed because when the towers fell the debris went through the windows and such. It was much lower. It was around the eighth floor.
So we were in New Jersey and I was commuting from Connecticut to New Jersey. It was a two hour commute. It was horrible and all this kind of stuff. Everybody’s obviously displaced. We get an office space about two weeks later in midtown on Park Avenue and, oddly enough, it was the first building that I worked in when I came to New York City. Some clown pulled the fire alarm every day, twice a day. So you’re coming out of a situation that’s obviously traumatic and every day we come in and there’s somebody pulling a fire alarm. Your first reaction is, “oh my God it’s happening again.” Every day for a few weeks. They finally caught the idiot. They figured out that it was coming from a nearby phone booth. It was bomb threats. So they trained the security cameras of all the buildings in the area – it was all financial institutions so they all had security cameras – and they trained them on the various phone booths. They were able to catch the individual making the phone call by one of the security cameras. And it was just some idiot who wanted to come later in the morning, he was going to be late, and come back later at lunch. So he would pull it in the morning and he would pull it in the afternoon or call in a bomb threat which is essentially what happened.
RH: That’s crazy. [laughs]
BH: So it was really pretty unnerving for a long time.
RH: Were you in New York in the lead up to the Iraq war?
BH: No. So the Iraq war was 2003. I’m sorry, that’s not true. I was in New York. I left Lehman Brothers in July of ’03 so I guess I was, yes. Absolutely.
RH: What was the mood like in New York leading up to Iraq?
BH: Let me answer that in two ways. Right after 9/11 we were in New Jersey in makeshift offices when Congress passes the war resolution and effectively declares war on terrorism. Afghanistan was first obviously and everyone was very excited. We’re responding. It was essentially, we equated it to a declaration of war but it wasn’t against a state, it was against terrorism. So it was a little vague but it was a state of war. Everyone was very excited about that.
I recall the night we started the war with Iraq. If I recall correctly, I hope I’m not getting this confused with – no, I don’t think so. It was a Tuesday night when we started bombing Baghdad. And I don’t know. I obviously paid attention to this stuff pretty closely – after all my academic background was international politics – so I’d been following it pretty closely. It was pretty clear to me that they were going to do something that night. I told my clients on the phone that there was a high likelihood that it’s going to start tonight so hedge yourself. And, sure enough, seven o’clock I turn on the news and, boom! We were banging Baghdad. The markets were crazy, obviously, responding to it. But the initial trade beat the dollar down but then it was obvious that we were going to be pretty overwhelming against Baghdad and against the Iraqi army and the dollar came right back and markets recovered pretty quickly. So obviously it was what everybody was focused on.
RH: At the time did you ever consider or ever think that you’d be getting involved with it?
BH: No. Furthest thing from my mind. I figured I was too old. It was a military event for the first two, three or four years, really. The PRTs – the Provincial Reconstruction Teams – did not get started, I don’t think, until ’05, the beginnings of them. Now, they had them in Afghanistan and they were modelling the Iraqi PRTs somewhat after Afghanistan. However, a big difference was that, in Afghanistan, it was all military controlled and military-led. In Iraq it was going to be civilian-led – obviously paired with the military very, very tightly. So that was a different approach. I really can’t say much about the Afghanistan experience of the PRT. I don’t know how effective it was. I really can only talk about the Iraqi PRTs and, really, pretty much the Kirkuk PRT.
RH: Perfect. Let’s jump right into it then. You went over in May of 2008, correct?
RH: What was your job exactly with the State Department?
BH: I was hired as a Senior Banking and Finance Advisor to the Provincial Reconstruction Team in their efforts to help the Iraqis rebuild their banking system. So that’s what I was hired for. I didn’t know where I was going up until, actually, not until the day I left. I was originally scheduled for an EPRT – an embedded PRT – in Karkh which is a suburb of Baghdad but they closed that EPRT just before I got there. I found out on the Friday that I was supposed to leave that night – that I would be going to Kirkuk. I knew where Kirkuk was. I didn’t know that much about it but I knew where Kirkuk was. I also knew it was an oil producing province.
So I was hired as the Bank and Finance Advisor. I got there and it took me about two weeks to realize that all the banking industry both private and public – they have two publicly owned banks: Rasheed and Rafidain and there was about thirty-four private banks – all of it was centrally located and centrally controlled out of Baghdad. The ability for me to affect any kind of change from a PRT standpoint was pretty miniscule.
Now, because where Kirkuk was – which is right at the edge of Iraqi Kurdistan in Iraq proper – I was able to bring in some of the Kurdistan banks. So we did have a banking conference that brought in local Kirkuk banks as well as Kurdistan banks as well as Ministry of Finance from Baghdad and we had a conference about problems with banking in that area. But what happened was, I was there maybe two weeks in, I came to the PRT team leader who was a Foreign Service Specialist and said, “look, this is a reality. My ability to affect change here is going to be pretty limited.” And the team leader was faced with a pretty big challenge in the economic and agricultural section of his PRT.
Kirkuk is an oil producing province and is also part of the Iraqi breadbasket. So agriculture is a big part of the economy and, arguably, eight-five/ninety percent of the economic activity in Kirkuk is agricultural related. The oil company may be making all the money but they’ve got, maybe, twelve thousand employees. Kirkuk is about seven hundred and fifty thousand. So it’s a small portion of the economic activity. Outside of the town proper it’s an agrarian economy both livestock and grain.
So if you’ve got a problem – if you’re a PRT trying to manage a sustainable reconstruction of a province that’s agriculturally based and you have a dysfunctional agriculture section – you have a big problem. And the team leader recognized he had a big problem. So he asked me to take over all economic development responsibility within the PRT. From his standpoint that included a municipal budget, capacity building, it meant agriculture, it meant private sector development. There was microfinance that we were very involved with – small business development on the private side. So it ended up being the largest section within the PRT from a manpower standpoint.
He wanted me to fix the agriculture section problem which was fine with me. It was a personality issue with the people that were there. Very competent people, very intelligent people, but big egos and he wanted me to fix that. Coming from Wall Street I’ve seen my share of big egos so that wasn’t a problem. I had his backing and I told him, “look, I’ll be happy to do it but you’ve got to stand up publicly and say I am taking over these areas and if you don’t like it there’s the door.”
Two days later everything was fine. The change was really quite noticeable. There was a twenty-five year veteran of the natural resources agency within AG – the Department of Agriculture – and he was under the thumb of this one individual that would not let him really get creative and do anything. Really, he was working on a soil survey of the whole province. When I came in I learned, one, that Baghdad wasn’t going to support a country-wide soil survey. So this guy who’s been there for six months was pretty much wasting his time. I explained to the three professionals – it was an economist, a natural resources individual and a veterinarian – and I told all three of them, “you are now reporting to me, not each other, and we have things to do. I want a plan from each of you immediately of what we’re going to go forward with.”
This one individual who had all this experience and was working on one project came up to me with thirteen ideas. I looked at all of them and I thought they were all very relevant to the environment. They were small scale. They were pilot programs like irrigation – which, obviously, we’re in almost a desert environment. So these were all very useful projects to pursue but he’s been there for six months kind of under the other guy’s thumb not doing anything and I said, “just show me what you want to do.” The veterinarian, the same thing, and even the agronomist. The agronomist had a very large project that he was working on and it was going to be extremely valuable to the province – renovating an old Soviet silo for grain – and he had set this whole thing up. So breaking the group up, having them all report to me independently, we were getting a whole lot more done.
RH: Alright great. What were some of the development challenges that you found while you were there?
BH: You mean economic development?
RH: Economic development. Yes.
BH: You’re in a combat environment so our ability to get out was limited but not as limited as in other provinces. One of the great benefits we had was that Kirkuk was disputed by the Arabs and the Kurds and the Turkmen. They’re at each other’s throats but having the US Army there prevented them from shooting at each other so they wanted us there. Having a significant US military presence – and when I got there it was the 110, First Brigade Combat Team and the Tenth Mountain – who had about a hundred tanks. They were replaced by the 2-1 CAV. They probably had about a hundred tanks. And then they were replaced by the 1-1 AD. So it was a tremendous American military footprint which gave the Arabs and the Kurds and the Turkmen comfort that we were a neutral third party and it kept them from shooting each other. They wanted us there because they knew as soon as we’d leave, they were going to start shooting each other. So that actually – even though we’re in a combat environment, it’s a high threat environment – we used that to get out. We would get out to the villages, to Hawijah, to Taza, to various villages north of Kirkuk which was more Kurdish. That was relatively easy.
So our biggest challenge is that you’re looking at an agrarian society that has gone through, well, ten years of war with Iran, sanctions by the United States, looting, plus five years or six years of war from 2003 so all of the infrastructure’s been depreciated, looted, destroyed. There were two thousand kilometers of canals, irrigation canals, throughout Kirkuk. None of them were working because they had not been cleaned, kept up or anything. So we walk into an environment that has nearly no indigenous agricultural output because of all the wars and destruction. It’s the breadbasket of Iraq, part of it, and all of the food now – eighty percent of the food is being imported from their neighbors which can be a problem when one of your neighbors is Iran. So in one sense we were starting from scratch but on the other side the Iraqis appreciated us being there, they were willing to work with us and they were more than happy to tell us where to spend our money which could be a problem.
One of the largest challenges in that environment is institutional knowledge within the PRT or within the military. If you think about it – I’m sure you veterans have said this – we didn’t fight an eight year war, we fought eight one-year wars. That’s a problem when you’re trying to create sustainability and capacity on a long-term basis. The PRTs were the institutional knowledge. I was there for three years so there were people that were there longer and continuously so when the new brigade came in, we were the institutional knowledge to explain where we are, what we’re trying to do and what doesn’t work and what does work. It’s a tremendous challenge.
On the other hand, we couldn’t do anything without the military. We were thirty, forty people in the PRT. It was five thousand soldiers. They’re out there every day. They’re doing key leader engagements with all the districts, with all the sheiks, with all the tribal leaders. We couldn’t do that because we’re not big enough so when the battalions would come in on a weekly basis and do the weekly briefings that we were always involved in, always, they were our eyes and ears of what was going on locally – “this road is out, this bridge is out. They need a well here. There’s no irrigation. They can’t get their crops to the silo.” All the problems that they could tell us that we can’t see. And at the same time, there may be a squad of soldiers going out to a district who could take one of us with them. We would go with them all the time. We had civilians in Hawijah. When I got there it was Hawijah and one other area that a small forward fire base that was subsequently brought in. Hawijah, Fort McHenry was among the last forward firebases closed just prior to the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
So we depended on the military as a force multiplier and they looked at us as a force multiplier because we brought all the expertise. You come to the village and the sheikh comes up to us and says, “oh, we need a well. We have no water have no well.” And you bring the civilian along and the civilian looks at the sheikh and says, “we know you need a well but you have a well here and here and if you have another well you’ll have brackish water. You can’t put another well here. What we can do is pipe water from this well that’s good because it’s a deep well and we can probably pipe water to your village. That would fix it.” The military wouldn’t know that because they just got there but we were able to say, “we’ve been here, we’ve seen this. We know this guy. We know what the problem is and we also know what the constraints are.” So it worked really well within a very difficult environment.
RH: So you were in Kirkuk. How separate was the economy in the area kind of loosely known as Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq? Was it integrated or was there a demarcation?
BH: There was a war in Iraq, there was not a war in Kurdistan, at all. You cross the border into Kurdistan it’s like going to eastern Europe. You had no idea there was a war going on except for there was a military base not that far outside Erbil. But the economy was booming. There had not been an American kidnapping since, I think, ’03. So it was night and day, no question about it.
So I wouldn’t say it was integrated. It was more integrated with Kirkuk because Kurds wanted Kirkuk and that was the disputed part of it – the whole province was. They did everything they could to bring money into Kirkuk. And you could see north of Kirkuk city, far more money going into the Kurdish area than south of Kirkuk which is the Arab area. That was a problem from our standpoint because it was obvious. If we try to compensate the Arabs for what’s going on in the north, now we’re favoring the Arabs. So we couldn’t do that. It was a problem. The Kurds were our strategic ally in Iraq and in the Middle East but we worked very closely with the Arabs. You had to. We worked close with everyone – the Christians, the Turkmen, etc.
RH: Did you interact with the government in Baghdad at all?
BH: Very little. I was the oil guy. I was the US principal official dealing with the North Oil Company, North Gas Company, which was all the oil north and just a little bit south of Baghdad through to Kurdistan. So I dealt with the Ministry of Oil. I dealt with the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Interior primarily because of all the land disputes. The land was owned by the Ministry of Finance so we had to go back and forth with Finance to get clarification on a lot of things. Plus, the budget would go through the Ministry of Finance so I worked on that as well. I went down to Baghdad once for an oil conference at the Ministry of Oil but mostly when I’m in Baghdad I’m at the embassy and I’m dealing ith the individuals at the embassy that are dealing with the central government.
RH: Alright. Perfect. So you talked about how agriculture was woven into the economy. How did oil fit into the economy in the north?
BH: In Kirkuk, oil was there. It really had very little actual benefit to Kirkuk, initially. As I said there’s about twelve thousand employees but that’s going to be every oil worker south of Baghdad to Kurdistan so that’s not necessarily Kirkuk. Kirkuk has a super giant oil field. There are three of them in Iraq – that’s one of them. There are also many other smaller fields that they are developing. There was some resentment because the oil company was run by the Arabs.
The other thing is that there is also the North Gas Company. It’s the only gas company in all of Iraq. They flare an enormous amount of associated gas. In Basra it’s unbelievable how much they flare because they have no way of capturing it. At least in Kirkuk they captured it but they still missed out on fifty thousand cubic feet a day approximately. There’s a lot that they miss. And the gas company furnished the gas that ran the power plants so they piped gas to the power plant. So from a number of employees it was a pretty small footprint but the contribution to the economy is huge.
Now in 2010 they finally passed the “dollar per barrel” of oil law in Baghdad which meant that each province would receive a dollar per barrel of oil production and a dollar per a specific unit of gas production. That went directly back to the province so subsequently they were beginning to get the financial benefit of having the oil field there. That was a big plus because it allows the provinces to do all kinds of municipal projects. The first instance, no, it was not much of a factor but definitely, by the time we left, it was a big deal.
RH: Alright. What are some of the unique aspects of doing business in Iraq?
BH: [laughs] I was overseeing, I had three ‘terps. At least three, probably more. You had to be able to speak Arabic, Turkmen and Kurdish because the Iraqis in Kirkuk were generally multilingual. The Kurds speak English and Arabic as well as Kurdish. The Turkmen speak Turkmen and Arabic and maybe Kurdish. The Arabs speak pretty much just Arabic and English. A lot of trade from Turkey – a lot of trade and investment in and out of Turkey – so the Turkmen had a good relationship with Turkey. The trade was facilitated through Kurdistan because of the border there. Everything we did was with an interpreter and that’s unavoidable. The U.S. government needed subject matter experts in country now, today, and you can’t teach them how to speak Kurdish, can’t teach them how to speak Arabic in two months or two weeks. You’ve got to get them there quickly so we had plenty of ‘terps.
I relied on my ‘terps and I trusted them. I had no problem trusting them. I trusted them with my life every day and they were very good. I thought that they were very good. I never saw any situation where there was a discrepancy that anyone could tell me about what was being said and what the ‘terps were telling me. And I had ‘terps at every meeting, every meeting. At some meetings I had to prep the ‘terps on some of the terms I was going to use because there would be terms – financial terms – that they had never heard of before.
You know, it’s interesting. You could argue that it was kind of a crutch. On the other hand, they provided valuable cultural insight. We had what were referred to as BBAs – Bilingual Bicultural Advisors. These were supposed to be PhD-level engineers or other specialist that were there to provide cultural insight though all the ‘terps effectively did that, particularly when I went to meetings at the oil company. In the infrastructure business like pipelines and the refineries the senior manager’s English was not as good. However, the guy that ran the oil company was educated at Oxford so his English was fine but the other levels and the different infrastructure areas, their English was broken. I had a BBA that had run the ministry of oil in the initial days of the war. So he had subject matter knowledge, cultural knowledge and language knowledge so he was invaluable not just in interpreting but in providing some clear insights into cultural issues that might come up – how terms such as gasoline is called benzene in Iraq. Simple things like that. So we understood exactly what was being said. They were very valuable. It’s tricky. It’s different.
RH: What are some of the economic development programs or projects that the State Department implemented that worked and, maybe, what were some that didn’t work?
BH: Part of my job was to try and prevent those projects that weren’t going to work ahead of time. Was the technology appropriate? Was it doable in the time that we had to do it? How expensive was it? Can the Iraqis pick up?
One of the things I instituted as soon as I got there was that projects were no longer going to be our ideas, they are Iraqi ideas. The Iraqis come up and say, “we need this,” and we would vet the idea. We would work very closely with the Iraqis on how to implement it. The Iraqis would be involved with the design, with the implementation, and if there was a bidding process to get a contractor to come in. They were involved with every level of the project process. We also changed our project vetting process from the standpoint that the Iraqis had developed an internal project vetting system. It was called the Provincial Budget Plan and The Provincial Project Plan.
The project had to be in their budget for the U.S to consider funding. If they couldn’t finance it then we would take a look at it and maybe we would do it but it was going to be all Iraqi led and Iraqi involvement. Before I got involved, the PRT members would take the initiative. The PRT would go in and say, “we’ll fix the school,” and the local Iraqis wouldn’t take it because it wasn’t on their list. It wasn’t their decision, they had no ownership on it. I stopped that right away. I said, “we’re not going to have that problem anymore. The Iraqis tell us what they want to have done. We’ll decide if we’re going to do it or not but they’re going to be involved from day one so there is no question that this is theirs. They’ve got ownership from day one.”
A lot of what we did was agriculture – drip irrigation, cleaning out the canals. And this was an extremely valuable use of manpower because you have a farm society. The average number of individuals in a family farm was about eight to ten. If you’re not operating your farm that’s eight to ten individuals – maybe military age males – that Al Qaeda or ISI could say, “you know, you go plant this bomb and kill Americans – this IED – and we’ll feed your family for a month.” So it’s a big deal. [Burdin is describing the role of economic development as part of the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy – COIN.]
What we were able to do – and the Sons of Iraq was kind of an idea that was along the same idea – we took military age males and gave them a shovel and had them start clearing the irrigation canals. It’s not the most efficient. It’s hard work. They’re digging ditches but there’s a lot of them doing it, they get paid and they don’t have an AK-47 on them. So that was extremely valuable because it did clear the canals. Then we worked with the Ministry of Water and Natural Resources to fund a canal program where the ministry would pick up a certain number of these individuals on an annual basis to keep the canals clear. That’s an important success.
I’m sure we had projects that didn’t necessarily work out as planned. Oh! I know. Hoop houses. Hoop houses are essentially greenhouses. The idea is that we wanted to create the opportunity for value added agriculture. Very important because this could lead to import substitution. So this is very important to try to get this to work. And these are pilot programs. We picked, maybe, sixty or seventy farmers and they created an association and we were able to give small grants – less than five thousand dollars – to put these hoop houses on their property for them to grow. And it came with a drip irrigation system to grow squash, etc. – value added vegetables.
Now going back to the challenges, we would get sixty, seventy farms from all over Kirkuk. They would come to Kirkuk to pick up the hoop houses. For us to know if they got put up, we had to go out there and look. So now we’ve got to go out into some pretty dicey areas and see if these hoop houses are up. On some occasions we’d go there and there’d be no hoop houses and we were like, “where did the hoop houses go?” Well, the Iraqi farmer sold them. To who? Sometimes to the farmer next door. And we were like, “well, that’s not that bad. It’s not the guy that’s supposed to get it but it’s still a hoop house that’s working.” So yeah, that didn’t work quite the way it was planned but that’s because it wasn’t structured properly. You always have to have the farmer put some money into a project because now they own it. If you give it to them for free, many of them will sell it and that’s what was going on. But if you make it so that they have their own money into it and it’s enough so that they can’t sell it for profit, then the farmer is less likely to sell it and more likely to participate in the program. So lesson learned. But it was interesting because even though we could see that the intended farmer didn’t have the hoop house, we could look on the horizon and there’s a bunch of hoop houses, more than we knew that farmer got. OK. They’re being used. That’s what counts. And so it ended up being a relative success.
Most of these small project agricultural ideas worked well. We worked on hoop houses, drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation, we considered center pivots which is much more expensive and – ah, there’s some other ones. So what is your measure of success? We worked with the Ministry of Agriculture locally on all of these projects and by the time we left the Ministry of Agriculture had included in their five year plan all of the pilot projects that we had dealt with and showed the Iraqis how to implement. So they were going to continue on and, far as I was concerned, that’s as much success as you could possibly get.
RH: So every time you would go out, you would go out with the Army, correct?
BH: Oh yes. A full military movement.
RH: So I guess a convoy?
BH: Yes. A convoy. A minimum of four MRAPs.
RH: OK. What was the relationship to economic develop and the insurgency or violence in the north?
BH: Big. As I mentioned before, you have a lot of farmers out of work and their family is not being fed. Fertile ground for insurgents to give the money to farmers or their children to put IEDs on the road and that was happening. So our major objective was to get those farms operating again and get the farmers and their families back on the farm – that is, canal clearing. Anything to get water to them so they could get the farm going.
There was a large strategic silo that the Iraqis and we were very interested in renovating. Getting the silo up and running more efficiently would mean that the farmer can get their product to the market. Of course you have to keep in mind that the Iraqis were still operating in an affected economy. The government told you what to plant, when to plant, how much they could plant, how much you could pay for your seed and how much you could sell your harvest for. The Government of Iraq still subsidized seed and subsidized purchasing of the harvest but that was about it. So this is all new to a farmer. Now they’ve got to work in a private environment which they never had to before.
We tried to improve the seed if we could and that was challenging because you could only import certain seeds in Iraq. I know that this may sound odd but Iraq is a very legally structured country. If the law, regardless of where it came from, said, “you can’t do this,” nobody does it. You can’t do it. Now, granted, if you did it in Saddam’s time you probably were never seen again. So they had very detailed bureaucracies, very detailed rules about what kind of seed could be used and how it could be approved and all this kind of stuff but the result was that they were using very old seed, old generation seeds. It was not high yield. We wanted to try and fix that and get a higher yield but that was hard to do. We fixed their silo so they could at least get their grain in there quicker so that they’re not spending money renting the truck and they’re not paying off the cops to be given a better position in line. So a lot of corruption you had to deal with – a lot of corruption. It may be small corruption but these are small farmers and it was a big deal to them. So getting the basics in there is incredibly valuable. It’s bread.
The value added products, the vegetables, turned out to be surprisingly effective. 2010 – somewhere around there – Iraq was more effective in enforcing embargoes against Iran and imports from Iran. Their border is pretty much a sieve but they were more effective about it. So therefore, being able to put locally grown produce into the market was huge and, without going into a lot of detail, makes a big difference in the insurgency because Iran was behind a lot of it and financing a lot of it. To the extent you could cut that, which was one of the main places you could do that, it was extremely impactful. On the economic side, it was.
The other thing too is that, being involved in as much of the economy as we were, we were seeing things that maybe would have gone by the wayside because it’s not obvious. Import substitution. How does growing tomatoes in Kirkuk make a big difference? Well, it does. We saw the oil smuggling was huge. It was the crude oil smuggling and there were tanker trucks going across to Iran. They would come back with refined product. From what I understand, what they would do is they would take a tanker truck, create a false bottom on the tanker truck, fill it full of small arms and put refined product on top of it. I guess x-rays can’t go through water or can’t go through liquids so you couldn’t see the false bottoms so you actually had to stop the truck and do a dipstick to find out if it had a false bottom or not. We could see the trucks going back and forth. The intelligence – drones or whatever – they could see them. Everybody knew what was going on.
So all of these things – the fluctuations in the price of gasoline, benzene, locally – why is it fluctuating? Is it purely because of problems at the refinery at Baiji? If you drive along the road there are these five gallon tanks, rectangular tanks, piles of them full of gasoline. Well, that gasoline was about eighty-four octane. The stuff there were putting out of Baiji was about seventy-three. So the high quality stuff was coming out of the Iranian border. When you sold that where do you think that money goes to?
RH: Probably back to the Iranians.
BH: Or the bad guys in Kirkuk. What can you do to improve the quality of the gasoline coming out of Baiji? We really couldn’t do much because of the constraints of Baiji. So your economic development gives you some tremendous insights into money flows and to how people are getting finance and the bottom line is that the Iraqi economy is a cash economy so you can’t really follow the money because it never really makes it to a bank. It’s all cash.
RH: Did you find any relationship between poverty and the insurgency? Was there a clear line?
BH: Yes, that was what I was saying about the farmers. The vast majority of people working in Kirkuk are farmers and farmers’ families. So if they’re not working and their kids aren’t working and they’re a military aged male, they’re looking for food. So, yes. It has a role there.
Now that’s distinguished from the organized insurgents like Naqshbandi or ISI or Al Qaeda. They’ll just use the farmer kids to do their bidding. These farmer kids aren’t jihadists for the most part. They’re looking to get paid for food. Al Qaeda will be using that as their ability to get bombs out there so it is an important factor. If you get everybody working it will mitigate the insurgency because now you’re focusing on the real professionals. The US military had done an exceptional job and by the time we were leaving, ISI was completely sidelined. So was Naqshbandi. What you’re seeing today with ISIS is an outgrowth of ISI but ISI that was forced out of Iraq into Syria because the military was successful.
RH: We’ll get there in a minute. How did you measure success? Did you look at growth? Did you maybe use HDI or maybe some of the other measurements that the UN uses?
BH: OK. So official data, worthless. Surveys, worthless. Why? Iraqis lie. They lie. They tell you what you want to hear. I mean, you walk into a village and the sheikh will come up, “you’ve done nothing for us.” And you’re standing on a bridge that we rebuilt on a road that we rebuilt and he is talking to you drinking water that we provided for him. So they’re always saying that we didn’t do anything. Fine. But the point is that you can’t rely on any of the data. There’s no official data.
The only thing that you could do was view anecdotal data. I know I did that all the time. We used to do market walks in Kirkuk. I would go into the shops, and questions such as, “where do you get your inventory? How do you pay for it? Do you get any kind of financing? Where does it come from? How often do you go back and forth,” essentially, how often are you turning over your inventory, “how’s this month versus last month?” That would be my way of trying to get a sense of the economy.
Every morning we went to the Kirkuk government building – we had offices there – so we did a movement every morning through town. We could see in the mornings on the corner the number of guys standing around and they’re just looking for a job for that day. So you could tell if it was crowded or not crowded how the economy was doing. What was the unemployment rate? Probably about fifty percent. Probably. For instance, it was so hard to get an idea of the unemployment rate because if you did a survey and asked a question, “do you have a job?” A job, by definition, is a job with the government. If you don’t have a job with the government, you don’t have a job. So the question isn’t, “do you have a job?” The question is, “do you get up in the morning, go somewhere and somebody pays you to do something?” That’s going to be a completely different answer than, “do you have a job?” Because if you’re painting somebody’s house and you’re getting paid for it, that’s not a job because you’re not doing it for the government but you’re employed.
So the official statistics are irrelevant – completely irrelevant. Even the data where you have to go and register every week and every month if you’re unemployed you get a food basket and other benefits – incentives for gasoline – those numbers aren’t accurate. We went to the Chamber of Commerce many times to talk to them about that. Official data is almost non-existent so it’s almost all anecdotal. Are the houses in the town – are they looking better? Are they getting painted? Are they well-kept? That’s a huge indicator that capital’s coming into the town. That’s a huge indicator that there’s been wealth creation. Did we have anything to do with it? I don’t know but it happened during the time while I was there. We did get some intelligence that the impact on the farms was pretty significant. I know that the big deal we did with the silo was successful because we know that the production numbers, we did get production numbers and refinement numbers out of the silo which we could trust. So at one time they had a ten percent capacity, we doubled the capacity of silo and we know by talking – we had a really good relationship with the manager – so we got his data. Plus, you could count the trucks and how long the trucks would stay in a line to deliver the grain. So we could get some anecdotal evidence.
I instituted a poultry initiative. Eighty percent of the chickens in Iraq are imported. USAID said, “you can’t compete with the importation so forget trying to do anything.” I’m like, “you completely miss what’s going on in Kirkuk.” First of all, even though they are halal compliant frozen birds from the US and Brazil, they’re frozen birds from the US and Brazil. The Iraqi housewife wants to see that the bird has been killed halal compliant and most importantly they will pay up, they will pay a premium, to go to the butcher, see him pick a live bird out of a cage and watch the butcher butcher it halal compliant and take it home for dinner. They’ll pay a premium for that. USAID didn’t see that in their report on the market. I knew that because I was living in Kirkuk and talking to farmers who said we need to redo their poultry industry. Driving around the province we could see boiler houses empty. Lots of them! There used to be a huge poultry industry in Kirkuk that helped feed all of Baghdad and all of Iraq.
I focused on that. There were so many nodes in the value chain that were broken but the most important one was that the boiler houses were looted and didn’t have waterers and feeders. I don’t know anything about chickens but I had a veterinarian that did on my team so he and I got together and made this idea work. Big impact. And how do I know? Because I went to them afterwards and I saw the equipment still there, that they had a run of birds that they sold in Baghdad and the Iraqis poultry farmers were getting ready for another run. And I saw it. I could see it. I couldn’t see all of them but I saw a representative sample of it. That’s a huge success. These guys now are making money and they’ve got a sustainable business. So it’s huge.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What were your interactions with the Iraqis like and do any of them stick out?
BH: I interacted with Iraqis every day. Every day. With the provincial council members, with farmers, with farmer associations, with the ministries and of course the oil company. The oil company sticks out just because they were very pro-western, they were well educated and they were frustrated in trying to get their production up because of Baghdad’s bottlenecks. So we met on the economic side and we also met on the security side. I learned all about the pipelines. I know every inch [laughs] of the Kirkuk petrochemical industry. We had other sheiks that we dealt with that were very helpful to us in reaching out to areas that we couldn’t get to, kind of like our eyes out there and we could trust them. So there were a number of Arabs and a number of Kurds that really stick out in my head. Individuals that I would love to go back and follow up with and see how they’re doing. We had a close relationship with some Kurds that had a small business administration or a small business center. We had a small business training center that USAID put together run by women.
We did women’s entrepreneurial initiatives so we focused on trying to enable women, in a challenging environment for women, to empower them to start their own businesses. We were using the Iraqi small business center that was put together by one of the – Tijara – contractors from USAID. Managed by an Iraqi woman, she was the one who put4 together the teaching component of this woman’s initiative. We put together the syllabus and the content. She taught it. When the Iraqi women put their business plan together, we reviewed them and we provided some of the financing as an individual grant. They had to go and get a micro loan from a microfinance institution that USAID created but run by Iraqis and then they had to put their own money in. The program was expanded to include sixty women in the province. Hugely successful. Challenging for the women. They had to sneak out to go to the classes because they are not allowed to be out without a man but they wanted to keep everything away from their brother or their father because of fears that the men would steal their assets. Huge success.
Did I answer your question?
RH: Any other Iraqis that stick out?
BH: Just a sheik that we dealt with who helped us get some equipment across the border from Syria I believe, or Turkey. I don’t want to use his name but there was a lot of them that stick out and I’d love to go back and see them if I could.
RH: Good to go. What do you remember most about the soldiers that you worked with?
BH: I’m an outsider. I’m not a State Department career guy and I’m not a CIA career guy and I’m not a soldier. I had none of the biases. I’m from the business world. Everybody’s got to work together as a team to get shit done so that was my attitude. So I was welcoming to everybody. There were institutional biases, no question about it. However, while we were on the front lines, those biases go away really quickly when people start shooting at you.
The experience I had at Kirkuk at the PRT, very different than if you talked to somebody in Baghdad, a civilian in Baghdad – particularly a 3161. You talk to a 3161 in Baghdad and I would suspect that they’re completely different on how they got along with everybody. I had five brigades and six Brigade Commanders and I would say I got along with all of them – some better than others. Soldiers are made to make things happen and now. There’s nothing that can’t be done. In a way I’ve got to kind of pull that back a little bit and say, “I know we can do it. I need the Iraqis to do it.” So it’s a different mindset. It’s not like it’s a bad thing that the soldiers want to go do this. That’s not a bad thing at all.
They were more than willing to take us out anywhere, any time because we were reinforcing each other. So they wanted us to come along and we wanted to go along. All of us went out. We went out in full battle rattle. I had a vest on and a helmet. I did not carry a weapon. But we went out with them and we’d go where they went and happy to do it. We want to meet these people too. So the key to the success of a PRT is leadership. The PRT team leader was on the same plane as the Brigade Commander. They were both equal seniority and rank.
RH: Equal pay grades? Government pay grades?
BH: Yes. Exactly right. Both have equal rank. Coming out of Baghdad – from Odierno or Petraeus and from Crocker down – saying, “you two will work together as a team.” So if that relationship isn’t good, it’s going to be really hard for the PRT to operate. And it wasn’t good in a lot of PRTs. I know that, I’ve heard it, and I’ve talked to guys that were stuck in PRTs where it was just terrible. They were fobbits. They couldn’t get off the damn FOB. Our experience at Kirkuk was different. Yeah, there was tension at times but from my standpoint it never inhibited my efforts at all. In fact, I would say we couldn’t have done most of the stuff we did without cooperation.
Ours was all Army, it was always Army. Even the challenging guys, we found common ground. The worst thing you could do from a civilian standpoint was to try and pull rank. Forget it. But at the same time, if the military tried to do that to us, there was no support from their commander’s standpoint. If a Battalion Commander wanted XYZ done and we didn’t want to do it because of rational reasons, his Brigade Commander would just shut him down because we had to work together. We were the subject matter experts. If it was security-oriented we had nothing to do with it. It was all military. Whatever they say is security. If they have to paint that schoolhouse gray for security reasons, I’ve got nothing to say about it. But our experience in Kirkuk was, for the most part, very, very positive.
RH: Good to go. What was the most challenging period of your time in Iraq: the beginning, the middle or the end?
BH: The very beginning. Oh, the very beginning.
BH: So you go through three weeks of training at the State Department and it was conducted by a retired soldier who had been in Iraq for many years. We did “crash and bang” which was learning how to drive a vehicle, a counter-terrorism vehicle, evasively and go through cars. It was really a lot of fun. It really was. And then we had weapons familiarization. I shot an AK-47 and a 9mm and M-4 and such because, obviously, we’re going to be around it. And also we watched a car bomb go off. So it was called crash and bang. We had triage, first aid, a day of doing that. We had a week of PRT training. We had a week of cultural training in Iraq and then we had a few days of what to expect when you get on the ground – your living conditions, the food, kind of what to expect.
So you get off the plane in Iraq and the first thing that you really don’t know is how hot it is. It’s the hottest place on the planet! [RH laughs] Oh my God. I got off the C-7, the C-7 back comes down so the AC is gone now. We have temporary battle rattle on so I walk out and they don’t cut the engines off so you’re walking around the wings and you figure the jet blast is so hot. As soon as you get to the wing you’re like, “alright.” You get to the wing, it doesn’t change! There’s no difference! [laughs] Oh my God. Welcome to Iraq! It was amazing how hot it was.
We took a helicopter that night, a Chinook, into LZ Washington which is the Baghdad landing zone of the embassy at the palace. I’d never been in a helicopter. I was the last one in so I was right next to the tail gunner, got an open back, just sitting there. There’s two helicopters and the one behind me shoots off flares which I didn’t know anything about and I thought the goddam thing was just hit by rocket fire. I’m just like, “oh my God.” And then I’m thinking, “that’s probably a flare. He’s OK.”
We land at Baghdad and, this is the middle of the night – it was two or three in the morning – and I could hear small arms fire from Sadr City because it was hot still there. A lot of small arms fire. You could see there were tracer bullets going on and it was like, “whoa! This is war.” The rocket attacks – it was as advertised. We were told exactly what to expect and that’s exactly what we got. Reality’s a little different than hearing about it but I remember the first night or two. The first night, it had to be the first night, I’m in this little CHU and there were sandbags around me but I’m in a little CHU, single bed, and the alarm goes off. The alarm red goes off and I remember crawling out of bed and going on the floor, duck and cover kind of thing, because it could have been a rocket flying anywhere. And then it was quiet, all clear, and I climb back into bed.
I didn’t really think much of it at the time but looking back on it now I was obviously pretty stressed. When I got to Kirkuk the stress, I thought, kind of went away right away. You’re just too damn busy. Yeah, we got rocket attacks all the time. We had rocket attacks all the time but you’ve got to recognize that they were like bottle rockets. They have no directional capacity at all. If it hit your CHU it would have been a really bad day but one time, twice, that I was there did a rocket actually hit and did we have people that were hurt. So from a war standpoint, from a standpoint of the realization, that was pretty tough. After that it was a tremendous experience. I have to admit, I was there for thirty-six months – no, that’s not right. Yeah, thirty-six or thirty-seven. And that’s too long.
RH: How so? Did you get burned out?
BH: You get impatient. You get impatient with the new kids coming in because they come in every nine months. You’ve got to restart everything every nine months. The first three or four times it’s no big deal. I could tell myself that I was getting shorter than I had been before and I really couldn’t face another summer. My time was well up so I just took April as the opportunity to bug out. But I would say it’s valuable because of the institutional knowledge. I knew everything that was going on and where things were but towards the end I was getting a shorter temper, less patient, and that’s no good. You just have to have patience – a lot of it. You’re dealing with a lot of bureaucracy. Even on the front lines you’re dealing with bureaucracy, you’re trying to get stuff done, it’s very challenging at every step and for the first two and a half years it’s no big deal. That last six months I was kind of like, “eh, I’m really tired of doing this.”
RH: You were obviously going home for vacations and taking some time off?
BH: Yes. The State Department did a very good job. They understood that we were not career Foreign Service Officers. Most of us had never done this before. We were in a combat zone. They paid us to be there and they also recognized that you need to get out of there about every three months. The result of that is people stay longer. That’s good. Soldiers are there for nine months and they get two weeks off. I was like, “that’s brutal.” But then they’re only there for nine months. But they’re getting shot at and they’re doing a lot of other stuff. Getting those breaks were invaluable from our standpoint but it also allowed, at least it allowed me, to stay longer.
Skype was huge too. Now, internet was pretty spotty. It was equivalent to a dial up so you could really only do Skype at night which is fine because that’s the only time you had time to do it anyway but invaluable. I had two Christmases on Skype.
RH: And your family was supportive the whole time?
BH: Oh yeah. They were very supportive. And you know it’s interesting, that’s something that’s not discussed much about the spouse at home. In our case we’ve got two boys. One just graduates high school and is going to college and, let me see now [quietly counts age], one was already in college and, let me see now. They both graduated. That’s right. One was already in college. One was just graduating high school and was going to college. My wife had to take him to college all by herself. He was a real star athlete so I missed a lot of big games but for Jane, her support system was – she had a very good one but it was pretty small. She could reach out to the State Department any time if there was any issue, which there wasn’t, and Skype helped hugely. But she had to pick up and start, you know, doing the bills by herself. She had to deal with issues all by herself when she’s had a partner for twenty years, twenty-five years. It’s really, really hard. I’m busy as hell, it’s kind of exciting, this is new, this is awesome. It’s a big diversion. She’s at home and there’s no change there except for everything is now on top of her. So it’s very, very challenging for the spouse at home.
RH: Can you talk a little bit about your immediate experiences after you got back from Iraq when it was all over?
BH: Everybody was very anxious to hear about it. Everyone wanted to know about it. Even today people can’t believe I was there for three years. I did interviews, I did public speaking engagements in the area. The local town and various towns in Connecticut. People wanted to hear the story. Now the economy here was still in the toilet so getting a job has been very difficult. I don’t know if that has anything to do with Iraq or not. I mean, I was in the bond market. That whole business is gone now. Banks don’t even really do what I used to do so I have to reinvent myself. Overall, my church, very happy to have me back. A lot of people were very concerned I wasn’t even going to make it back which was very surprising to me. I didn’t really try to hype the danger situation there. I mean, yeah, it’s a warzone.
People didn’t know. That was the biggest impression on me when I returned was how little people knew of what was going on in Iraq. I thought the State Department, the White House, did a very poor job of PR, just educating the American people about what was going on. There should have been a lot more. My speaking engagements were entitled “Planting Seeds of Success” and we had success. You didn’t hear about any of this stateside. I come home and they’re like, “how much money did you waste?” or whatever. I’m like, “we didn’t waste any money.” People didn’t know about the successes we realized. And there were lots of successes but nobody wanted to hear about it so I went on the road and told people that we had successes and these are them, some of them.
RH: Good to go. So how do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
BH: Avoidable. Didn’t have to go this way at all. Northern Iraq, in particular Kirkuk. We told everybody more than once. We told Baghdad, we told the ambassador, we told representatives from Congress that came out to see us – Lindsey Graham, Biden. We told all these people, “you cannot leave without a residual force in the northern part of Iraq. If Iraq falls apart on a civil war, it’s because of the Kurd and Arab conflict in Kirkuk.” That was our argument.
Now as it is, you have ISIS. Well, what is ISIS? ISIS is an outgrowth of ISI – the Islamic State of Iraq – that was defeated by the US military, the Marines and the Army, that went to Syria and took advantage of the instability of Syria to rebuild. Now, we had the best intelligence gathering platform in the Middle East in that area since 1979 and the Iranian revolution. We could see Iran, we could see Syria, we could see everybody. From Kirkuk we had a tremendous platform, a tremendous platform. Left it all behind. Now, what if you had left five thousand US troops in Kirkuk, would the 12th IA – which is the Twelfth Iraqi Army – thrown down their weapons when ISIS came through Mosul? Would they have done that?
RH: Probably not.
BH: I find it hard to believe. I find it hard to believe, first of all, that ISIS would have gotten that far in the first place. If we had five thousand troops in Kirkuk, do you think Fallujah would have fallen again? Or Ramadi again? They’re a hundred klicks away. Not even that far. I just don’t see that happening. It’s impossible to prove a counter-argument or whatever but I firmly believe that the ISIS situation in Iraq would be very different had we maintained a presence in northern Iraq.
RH: Do you think that the lack of economic development had anything to do with the rise of ISIS or, maybe I should ask, how did Iraq’s economic state contribute – or not – to the rise of ISIS?
BH: I would argue that it was by far the instability in Syria that caused the resurgence of ISIS because in Iraq they were defeated. Baghdadi had to regroup his military force in Syria, in the chaos of Syria. He couldn’t do it in Iraq. I mean, that’s where he launched his attack into Ramadi. It was from Syria. So the political situation and the economic situation, it’s interesting because ISIS made a foray into Kurdistan. They were like thirty miles outside of Erbil. There’s no economic problems in Erbil or in Kurdistan. So, no. I wouldn’t say that it was economic conditions in Iraq that led to that.
I would argue that, predominantly, it was the Maliki government sidelining the Sunnis in northern Iraq and the military – which was predominantly Sunni in that area. Why should they fight for a government that ignores them? I don’t think they paid them to tell you the truth. So I would put almost all the blame on the central government, Maliki’s government, and his treatment of Sunnis and his willingness to divide the Shia and the Sunni in Iraq for the rise and the success of ISIS initially. That is, of course, recognizing that we had no presence there at all.
RH: Are there any lessons that you learned while you were over there that are relevant to the current situation?
BH: What I just said. [laughs]
RH: Alright. [laughs]
BH: I think one thing, I would expand on one issue. It’s very, very difficult – and this is kind of broader – it’s very difficult for a democracy to wage war. It’s very difficult. When I argued that the White House and the State Department did a poor PR job, in a democracy you’ve got to constantly sell the people on what you’re doing because there are children, there are sons and daughters getting killed in Iraq or wherever. If you can’t justify being there, you’re going to lose that battle on the home front in a heartbeat in a democracy. So even if there is every strategic reason to be there and it’s a just war, whatever you want to call it, if you can’t sell that at home you’ve lost the battle. You’ve lost the war.
We should have maintained troops in northern Iraq. The new administration said they’re going to stop this supposed “war of choice.” That’s just such a misunderstanding of how the war started, of why we were there and why we needed to stay there. An unwillingness to amend a campaign promise based on information that he could not possibly have known on the campaign when he came into the White House on the situation in Iraq. It was just a campaign promise – we’re going to get out of Iraq.
Those are some of the lessons there. There are reasons to commit US force but if you can’t sell that to the people on a regular basis and adjust your strategy based on the facts on the ground – which Bush did do with the surge but this administration decided not – due to fulfilling a campaign promise – you’re going to have that problem. And I think Syria and the refugee problem out of Syria today is an outgrowth of Europe and the United States choosing to ignore the situation in Syria.
RH: In your opinion, are there any best practices or other things that development agencies or other actors be they the US, the UN, NGOs or other countries should engage in when working in Iraq?
BH: You have to recognize that it is a lot of work and it takes time. It takes hands on. One thing that really struck me is that we got a lot done but it was a lot of work. A lot of time was put into it by the professionals in the PRT and by the Iraqis. Manage your expectations. Be ready to change direction. Be ready to change your tactics if it’s not working with whatever the ground truth is. You’ve got to have some institutional knowledge of where you are. What’s worked in the past? What hasn’t worked in the past? It sounds contrite but it’s not.
It’s a lot of work. You’ve got to be there, you’ve got to pay attention, you’ve got to have a relationship with the locals, you’ve got to have some institutional knowledge. All that takes time, it takes work, it takes money and if you think that you can do it on the cheap there will be failure. If you’re willing to put the time in, the resources and the patience you can get a lot accomplished as long as it is with the local population from the very get-go and you’re listening to them and you’re not saying, “we’re all knowing. We have the answer for you.” No. They’ve got the answer. They may need some help getting there and that’s what the aid organizations can do. Too many times it is a cookie cutter approach and it does not work. You can’t do it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. We’re going to shift a little bit. Has your time in Iraq affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
BH: Hmm. Well, first of all, the church that we belong to was very, very supportive – very supportive of my wife and very supportive of the community in general. Really, very supportive. I actually studied international politics and I also studied the Arab/Israeli conflict so I kind of had some pretty good foundation on what to expect from a cultural and the kind of dynamics of that area. There were some things about Islam that I knew. I think it reinforced a lot of what I had learned in graduate school. It really reinforced it, not much contradicted it.
There are a lot of bad people in the world. There are a lot of people that don’t like America regardless of what we’ve done. It has nothing to do with it. They don’t like Christians. They don’t like Jews. America is both. The political agendas are kind of the same everywhere: power. If you’re in a tribal environment you’ve got to understand that you’re in a tribal environment and that’s different. People are different in a tribal environment. The whole culture’s different. If you can’t adjust to that and recognize that, you’ll fail.
But from a spiritual standpoint, it reinforced pretty much everything that I’d seen before. I studied Reinhold Niebuhr in graduate school and he is a theologian but he also was an international political theorist. If you understand the Judeo-Christian tradition of human behavior, everything that I saw in Iraq confirmed everything that I’ve read. I’m not saying that Islam is a Judeo-Christian tradition although it does go back to Abraham. What I’m saying is that understanding human behavior, it was evident every day in Iraq.
RH: Did your time in Iraq change your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
BH: I’m not concerned about it. I was never scared over there. I can’t think of a time when you wake up with adrenaline going. Now, I wasn’t on the front lines shooting people. We were shot at. I heard the “ding ding” on the truck. We had rockets coming at us. We probably got pretty complacent about it – that is a defensive mechanism. I just never really thought about it. Maybe I’m stupid. I don’t know. I never really thought much about it and I don’t think much about it here. [laughs]
RH: Good to go. Let’s switch it up a little bit. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you were in Iraq?
BH: Great relationship building with other members of the PRT. The civilians had one advantage over the military which is civilians didn’t have to adhere to General Order Number One. That means we could have alcohol.
RH: OK. Alright. [laughs]
BH: And we did. In Iraq, even though it’s a Muslim country, there are liquor stores and they’re all owned by the Christians and we had Christians on the PRT. So we could access pretty much the best scotch, vodka, anything you could imagine, for pennies. Just nothing. So in the spirit of M*A*S*H I got some blue Christmas lights and wrapped them around the door of my CHU and had them on all night and had guys come over and we had cocktails pretty much every night. We were very sensitive to the military that were there. We wouldn’t show it. It wasn’t in their face. But we got together, the team leader had a double wide CHU and we would get together every other night at his place and have “strategy sessions” which we would just be talking about what we were doing but have drinks the entire time. And they were tremendous. It was tremendous. And this would include the women in the PRT, the men in the PRT – anybody was open to come into the PRT team leader’s CHU and have a scotch, vodka or whatever and talk about the day, talk about what’s going on, talk about anything. So yeah, I miss that. I’ve never had so many great scotches in my life.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Actually, this kind of piggybacks. What, if anything, do you miss about Iraq, maybe aside from what you already said?
BH: Well I really miss the job. I miss the job. The job was great. I mean, I’m helping to rebuild a country. I’m working very closely with the people that own the country and live in the country and they’re looking to me for advice. And that’s pretty cool. So yeah, the logistics were a headache, summers were hot but the MRAPs for the most part were air conditioned, the rooms were air conditioned and the Iraqis appreciated us being there. So it was tremendous. The job itself was great. I had a team of about twelve to fifteen professionals all doing their job and I’m essentially supervising them but I’m essentially just giving them as much rope as I could and doing everything that I could to empower them. So it was me in front of the Division General asking for more money and why this project was worth the money. It was me in front of the Brigade Commander saying, “we need to go in this direction.” And it was me in front of the Battalion Commander saying, “can you take my guys out with you? I know you guys are going to go out anyways and it’s a high threat environment. My guys are ready to go.” And they’re like, “yeah. Absolutely.” So the job was tremendous. It really was. I really miss that.
RH: What kind of food did you eat while you were there?
BH: We were so lucky. The brigade headquarters was where we were so we had a DFAC.
RH: Oh nice. OK.
BH: So there was a huge DFAC and it was not military food, it was KBR. So where we were we had tremendous food, tremendous food. But don’t forget that this was high calorie diet for eighteen and nineteen year-olds that are out in the field all day. But the infrastructure of the FOB, there were gyms, there were movie theaters, there were PXes and there was a DFAC so the food was great. During the day when we were in Kirkuk at the government building we used to order in Iraqi food which was great. So we would have the local interpreters go buy us four or five dollars’ worth of Iraqi food which is more than you could eat and we would eat tikka and kebab and hummus. Oh, it was great. We had great bread too. Tremendous bread. So the food was not a problem. [laughs]
RH: Excellent. Good. You never had to deal with MREs, did you?
BH: No. I never had MREs but I do know that I went down to McHenry a few times. McHenry wouldn’t be necessarily a FOB, it’d be like a fire base which is much smaller. They had military food. It wasn’t MREs. It was just those big green coolers and heated…
RH: MRATs I think they’re called.
BH: Is that what it is?
RH: I think so. MRATs or… [trails off]
BH: Well, it was real food but it was prepared off site and then brought in these big giant…
RH: Oh! The big green coolers.
BH: The big giant green things.
RH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. OK.
BH: So I had that there and I was like, “yeah, it’s a little different.” I can see why weekends these guys would lug up to the FOB and get DFAC food.
RH: Where was that fire base exactly?
RH: Alright, great. What are some of the funny stories you have?
BH: This is terrible. This is funny but this is terrible. So down in Hawijah, we had two guys there permanently in a CHU, a CHU office. And right outside the CHU is a latrine. One day we got a mortar round right on the latrine. And the CHU and some of the stuff went through the CHU and just purple or green crap all over the place. [laughs]
BH: Nobody got hurt but oh my God what a mess. On another occasion, this is not really funny but just amazing. We had a guy down there and so you have – they’re not hardened but you had sandbags up to about eight feet – and he’s at his desk and a rocket goes off right in front of the CHU. It shatters his glass and he was fine, he was not hurt, but on the wall behind him was his silhouette. From the holes in the shrapnel, it was his silhouette. Unbelievable the guy wasn’t hurt. Unbelievable! Amazing.
What other funny stuff? In the economic area we didn’t have a lot of drama. We were doing projects, we were meeting with people. For whatever reason we didn’t have a lot of drama. Some of the other sections had a lot of drama. We had a few people that I call “hair on fire” – everything’s a panic. A few of those. When those would erupt it was like, “it’s not that big a deal.” A lot of them that were Foreign Service, younger Foreign Service Officers that felt that they had to impress, that this was a big stepping stone for them, their career was on the line so they thought that little things, particularly protocol things which I had no interest or cared about or knew anything about, were big deals. I didn’t really appreciate the protocol and they were hair on fire and that stuff. It was fun to watch.
Sandstorms and dust storms. Horrible. Just horrible. It grounds everything. So we had a meeting down in Tikrit at the Division headquarters and we wanted to get back reasonably and reliably before the next day so the team leader and I decided we’re smart enough. We’re not going to sign up for a helicopter, we’re going to hitch a ride with an engineer unit going up to Kirkuk in MRAPs. We’ll get back before everyone else because there’s a sandstorm coming and we’re going to be fine. So we get into these MRAPs in the afternoon or whatever and Tikrit is sixty klicks from Kirkuk, seventy-five klicks from Kirkuk. It’s highway pretty much straight down but you got to go across the Tigris. So we get into the MRAPs and we’re motoring along and we get to the first bridge – it’s out. The bridge is out, can’t cross. Now we’ve got to go all the way to Mosul to go up to the next place to go around Tikrit. So we’ve got to go all the way up to Mosul and then back down. It takes us twelve hours. In the meantime, there were two female engineers in the MRAP that we’re in and when they had to go the bathroom, we had to stop the movement, we had to get out, they went to the bathroom, then we got back in and then we started up again. [RH laughs] Then all of a sudden we’re going thirty miles an hour and we’re like, “what the hell is going on?” One of the MRAPs blew a tire. So we’re crawling back. We get back to the base just as the guys from the helicopter get off. [both laugh]
RH: That sucks. [laughs] Cool.
BH: Pretty funny.
RH: Any more before the last couple questions?
BH: I’m sure there are. I can’t think of it right off my head. No, go ahead.
RH: Alright. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about Iraq and its economy?
BH: Sixty-five percent of the economy is oil. Ninety percent of the budget is oil. So that means thirty-five percent of the economy is something else. That something else is agriculture for the most part.
From an economic development standpoint I would much rather be in Iraq than Afghanistan. There is a lot of potential in Iraq. Kirkuk, I’ve seen pictures of Kirkuk in the ‘50s and it looked like any city in eastern Europe in the ‘50s. It was well-developed. It was the snob appeal in Iraq. To people in Baghdad, if you lived in Kirkuk you were doing pretty well. And then in Kirkuk there was Arafa which is the Christian area which is also where the employees of the oil company lived. So that was like the best of the best. So there was a history of industry, a history of development in that country that they’ve got to tap into.
The Shia and the Sunni problem really has been instigated by the prior government, or has been exacerbated.
RH: By the Maliki government?
BH: Yes. The Maliki government. I don’t know how that can be resolved. I don’t know. I don’t know that it will. Look, in Kirkuk you’ve got Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen. They intermarry. On the individual level there’s no problem. It’s the political level that there’s a problem. All the politics, they have an interest in keeping the animosity going for their own reasons but on the people level it’s not there. So if you can get that through to the government, Iraq has a much stronger likelihood of surviving. Right now Iraq is on the verge of completely disintegrating – broken up, essentially, into Kurdistan, northern Iraq and southern Iraq.
RH: My next question is do you think Kurdistan eventually is going to get its independence?
BH: Oh, I don’t know about that. I’ve talked to them directly about this – nationalists – and I’ve told them that the United States is the least of their concerns. If you want to have your own country you better talk to Tehran and Ankara because there’s twelve million Kurds in Turkey and about eight million in Iran and they will want to take the land with them. That’s a problem. So I’m not sure if you do see an independent Kurdistan. Right now it is an independent region. It’s called the Kurdistan Regional Government. There is an independent region that is allowed for under the Iraqi constitution so it’s kind of a federalist kind of structure. But a lot of Kurds view themselves as Iraqis. I don’t see a lot of real strong nationalist movement to break away from Iraq. They talk about it but I’m not sure if you see much of it on the street level. But they have their own economy. They’ve got a lot of oil but, like I said, you’re going to have a lot of Kurds in the surrounding – in Syria, too – that are going to want to be part of this greater Kurdistan. How’s that going to happen?
RH: If you could communicate something to people in the State Department that will be doing this type of work in the future, what would it be?
BH: Well, first of all, the State Department really isn’t equipped and geared for development.
RH: Actually, do you know what? Let me rephrase that. If you could communicate something to 3161s that are going to be doing this type of work in the future, what would it be?
BH: Well, most likely, think about it if you’re a 3161 – if there’s one again – it’s probably because you’re in a conflict situation. I guess my advice or my thoughts are manage your expectations. Don’t go there with the idea that you’re going to change the world. Small victories are huge – small victories on the basis of what the local populace feel is what they want. You’re not there to impose your idea of how it should be done, you’re there to help them be successful. Come at it from that attitude and then recognize that it’s going to take time. It’s going to be a lot of work and hopefully you’ve got the support in Washington and locally to get it done.
The PRT structure and, in consideration of the counter-insurgency strategy, is probably the model of future conflicts that the United States might be involved with. The PRT is there to support failed states in a conflict environment or to rebuild a state in a post-conflict environment – to help them do it. I think it’s a very effective tool because you are reaching out and trying to touch as many parts of the society as possible. Not just government but economic. When you talk about rule of law – huge stuff. The Justice Department had a whole team in there on a regular basis. Rule of law. All of these pillars are there to create capacity and sustainability. It seems to me, I’d say Kirkuk was very successful. The key is that it can be very successful. The drawback or the possible drawback is the ability of the leadership within the PRT to work with the leadership of the military in a conflict environment to recognize that you’re working together, you both have something to offer – obviously on security but also on sustainability and to help mitigate the violent extremists. So it seems to me that future conflicts that the US might be involved with, this model would be extremely valuable.
RH: OK. Good to go. How has your time in Iraq affected your life since you’ve gotten back?
BH: Well I don’t think I would ever have been on CNBC if not for Iraq. [laughs] I think I leave the door open for anything to happen. Who would have thought – not me – that I would have been in Iraq at all? Yet there was an opportunity to go and I went and it was a tremendous opportunity. I’m hoping that just my daily efforts – and there might be a door open that is similar to that – clearly, having gone to Iraq there’s no hesitancy on my part to take that step. The ability to kind of step out of your comfort zone in a big way and I think I was reasonably successful. I was awarded the Superior Honor Award by the State Department so I think I was pretty effective and that gives me a great deal of confidence to look at any situation that comes up, any opportunity, if someone asks me, “do you think you can do it?” My response is going to be, “yes. Most likely I can do it.”
So I think that obviously you come out of there with a great deal of confidence and a different perspective, probably a broader perspective, that things that happen over there don’t stay over there. And we better understand that. It’s a little frustrating in the current environment that people – even on both sides, both parties – have an isolationist bent and a strong isolationist bent. Both sides. It’s just naïve and it’s dangerous. So coming back from there I very much recognize that the United States can and should have a leadership role in the world. Now we’re not going to be the policemen of the world – I’m not saying that – but we have to have far more of a leadership role than we are playing right now.
RH: Alright. Is there anything that I left out that you’d like to address?
BH: Gosh. I don’t know. How long have I been talking? [RH laughs] Jesus. [looks at the clock] Five o’clock. No, I don’t think so.
Today, it is very upsetting to watch ISIS and knowing that, in all likelihood, that could have been avoided. I don’t see anything changing in Washington under this administration that’s going to change anything with Syria or any other conflict in the world. I can’t imagine how the soldiers that fought in Fallujah and Ramadi and Mosul must feel to hear of the takeover of ISIS of those places. I firmly believe – and I think there’s a half a dozen Colonels and Generals that will support me in this – that we should never have left. We should have left a residual force in northern Iraq fully loaded with all the support and intelligence and whatever else we may have needed.
RH: Last question. Which specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your time in Iraq?
BH: That I didn’t get killed. [both laugh]
RH: That’s a good one.
BH: That’s a tough question. I haven’t really thought about it. I was kind of managing lots of projects so none of them were my projects really. They were all staff projects and what they’re doing. They’re the ones who thought it up and implemented it. I just made sure it happened. For my stuff, it was extremely rewarding to see how effective I could be managing a team – a very diverse team, educational and cultural – and not have the drama that I talked about. There were a few times that I would butt heads with people but they got their job done. It didn’t stop them from getting their job done.
I came away with the impression that the people that worked for me on my team appreciated what I was doing for them. I would say that that was reflected in that every 3161 or government signee from another agency had one year commitments and – you’re in a war zone – pretty much every one of my team members renewed their commitment under their choice. Now, if you’re in a war zone and you’re away from home, the last thing that’s going to keep you there is if you have a lousy manager. So something’s got to be going right for you to stay there and I take it that I was a good manager, an effective manager with people, empowering them to make them want to stay. That would be my biggest takeaway from my time in Iraq, that I can manage in a very diverse environment, a very challenging environment with very sophisticated people.
RH: Alright. Anything else?
BH: That’s it.
RH: Alright! Thank you very much.