Greetings, from the heart of Baghdad and the International Zone. I write from the third floor of the Embassy Compound Office, which is home to several agencies including the one to which I am assigned: the USDA’s Agricultural Affairs Office that is administered by the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).
This will be my home for the next 12 months. I will likely write 15 to 18 articles from Iraq. My tour of duty, or what we call a temporary duty assignment, extends through February of 2010.
I arrived on Feb. 8, 2009. My journey included a commercial flight to Kuwait City, then riding in a number of military vehicles, fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft along with various military transports, to reach Bagdad. The trip here, over eight time zones (EST as a starting point), took 2.5 days.
I reside in embassy billets, or what might be called apartments. I have one roommate who is also an FAS employee. Our apartment is in one of several buildings here for long-term employees and those of us here on year-long assignments. The embassy compound is the largest U.S. Embassy in the world. It is several degrees larger than the one I cycled through in Kabul, Afghanistan. Embassy staff moved into the compound just recently from the palace quarters as part of the infamous Green Zone. In fact, it is so new the landscaping is not yet done. There is still some construction underway too.
The Chancery sits next to our office building. This building houses the ambassador and his staff as well as planners, economists, strategic advisers and military personnel assigned to the Chief of Mission. One large component to this facility is the presence of security personnel. Because we work in a war zone, the embassy compound is a huge strategic asset for the U.S. government, as well as a target of opportunity for any insurgent group here in Iraq. We completed an extraordinary amount of training so that we could live and work here, all of which focused on reducing our threat level and minimizing our exposure as government employees in charge of sensitive or classified material.
In this view, much of the work here is classified. And I cannot write about it or share specific details in this column. Yet there will be much to write, especially once I get started with my program here.
I am the soil and water ministerial adviser. I will work with two Iraqi ministries: agriculture and water resources. Agriculture will include higher education, which includes both the research component and training in the formal setting of classrooms and laboratories. For water resources, the largest agricultural issue is irrigation. I do not know yet the degree of integration between these two ministries, but I will find out soon. Iraq is largely a top-down national government administration, with the ministers and the director generals making the important decisions.
We also have on FAS staff, a veterinarian, an economist and an extension specialist in similar roles as mine – ministerial adviser. We have several bilingual, bicultural advisers, or BBAs, that work with us. These folks are Iraqi nationals with some resident time in the U.S. They provide the bridge for us, reaching into the national government here so we can build relationships with Iraqi ministerial personnel. In fact, so important are they that without them we could not possibly know how to do our work. The Arab culture is one, first and foremost, of human relationships. Our BBAs help us establish these so that we can advise Iraqi government personnel.
I often write that these kinds of positions in different cultures half-way around the world have no blueprint. Yes, there is U.S. government policy and specifically USDA policy that is in place. We formally have an SFA, a Strategic Framework Agreement, between the Iraq government and the USDA. The SFA does guide our work here at the U.S. Embassy and also helps our USDA agricultural advisers with their work as provincial reconstruction team advisers. The SFA is new. It exists because the security threat level is reduced to the point that we can actually start concentrating our work on putting this country back together.
And that means transformation. I use that word a lot lately. As the entire U.S. government presence in Iraq, especially the U.S. military, is reduced, the Iraqi people will transform their country into a productive and civil society. They will join the international community in all things like trade, commerce, banking, economic development, political democracy, and they will begin to implement the rule of law concepts.
I seek to complete my service here without someone following me. That means I will work myself out of a job. A soil and water policy adviser is not a normal component of U.S. embassies around the world … except here in Iraq. At this early point in my service, I certainly do not have any already-formed ideas about whether or not the two ministries assigned to me are functional or not. And the definition of functional means different things to different people. I do know the preliminary reports from the field indicate we have much work to do in terms of infrastructure rebuilding and technology transfer.
This, then, is transformation. The term may describe nation-building, or it may describe helping another culture recover from 30 years of tyranny and destruction. Certainly the dynamics are complicated, and the change from day to day is enormous. But that’s OK. In the coming year, I’ll attempt to write to you a factual, honest account of what I do, see and accomplish. I’ll write about the failures too, and certainly there will be some of those.
Above all, I will represent the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the citizens of the U.S. to the best of my ability. Nearly everything I have done in composing my life has prepared me for this assignment … I embark upon it eagerly and humbly. In your service. PD