It’s All About the Sex

I bet that title got your attention, it got my attention too some 9 years ago when it was uttered by Major General Mark Hertling, Multi National Division-North (MND-N) Commander, at the ribbon cutting ceremony for an Iraqi operated asphalt plant on Joint Base Balad.


Asphalt plant opening on Joint Base Balad – 2008

He was referring to the counterinsurgency in Iraq and after that statement got our undivided attention he went on to explain what he meant.  You see, the General said, in Islam, premarital sex is expressly forbidden and is punishable under Sharia law.  The punishment varies but starts with public whippings and in some cases, you can be put to death. So, getting caught having premarital sex means at a minimum public humiliation, and at worst case, it will cost you your life. So that leads young men in many Muslim countries wanting to get married as soon as possible. But that is where the problem lies.  Typically, to get married in these cultures you must provide a dowry to the bride’s family, and it’s not a trivial amount. For men that are not from a wealthy family they must work and save money for several years to have enough money for the dowry. Well after the United States invaded Iraq and shut down the State-Owned Enterprises, disbanded the military, and fired the Baathist bureaucrats who ran the country, their economy collapsed and unemployment surged to nearly 30 percent for men under the age of 30. So, this meant that many young men did not have jobs, could not save money for a dowry, could not get married, and subsequently could not have sex without putting themselves and their partners at extreme risk. This is where the insurgents came in.  The truly bad guys (al Qaeda) would pay the local Iraqi men large sums of money to plant IEDs in the roads and otherwise do harm to Americans and our coalition partners.  General Hertling surmised that many of these men would rather have less risky jobs than planting IEDs, if only they could find them. General Petraues, the Multi-National Force- Iraq (MNF-I) Commander at the time, recognized this dynamic as well, which is why he made rebuilding the Iraqi economy and decreasing unemployment key elements of the Joint Campaign plan for Iraq.

General Petraeus in fact co-wrote the Army counterinsurgency manual (FM 3-24) between assignments in Iraq and when he returned in 2007 as the Commander, Multi-National Force – Iraq (MNF-I), he put the theory into practice. He teamed with U.S. Air Force Major General Darryl Scott, head of contracting at the Joint Contracting Command – Iraq/Afghanistan (JCC-I/A) and created the Iraq First program.  The purpose of the Iraq First program was to award contracts to local Iraqi’s to boost their economy and employ Iraqi’s so they did not have to rely on funding from Al Qaeda to survive or obtain money for a dowry. After General Odierno replaced General Petraeus as the commander of the forces in Iraq I wrote an updated Iraqi First memo for him to sign that said “A key aspect of our Economic Line of Operation is the creation of economic expansion, employment, and skills development for the people of Iraq.

Iraqi FirstIn 2008 alone, my staff awarded 14,624 contracts to Iraqi companies valued at $2.5B.  General Scott understood this in spades and coined the term “effects-based contracting.” What he meant by this term is that the impact of contracts we awarded was much more than just the immediate and tactical support we provided to coalition forces, but it was the larger strategic effects of improving the economy and decreasing unemployment that made Iraq a more stable country that would help win this war. I still recall a quote from an Army battalion commander at Mosul, Lieutenant Colonel Ben Matthews, who said “We haven’t killed our way out of this insurgency. We have bought ourselves out with other means. Employment and money are my biggest weapons. It’s like a free enterprise and trade thing I’ve got going against the insurgents.”

This concept was not new, early on in the war the Army established the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) to help battlefield commander’s make immediate impact in the local community. The rumor behind how this program got started was that after the United States defeated Iraq and took over control of the country they discovered $300 million in cash that Saddam Hussein was hording for a rainy day, which he no longer needed since he was eating rice and living in spider holes near Tikrit.  Not knowing what to do with the money, the U.S leadership decided to give the money back to the Iraqi people in the nature of local community infrastructure projects. Later, after this money was “expended” the military commander’s saw the benefit of this program and they petitioned Congress for U.S. appropriations to fund future community projects. Congress obliged, and soon appropriated funds were flowing to U.S. Forces to rebuild the Iraq communities. Typically, expenditure of appropriated funds must follow a very complicated rule set called fiscal law, as well as the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR).  The FAR is a labyrinth of laws that federal contracting officers must skillfully navigate to award contracts. Contrary to popular myth it was not dreamed up by bureaucrats with nothing better to do, but rather it’s a collection of acquisition statutes enacted by Congress. Every year Congress passes the National Defense Authorization Act and section 800 of the law contains a multitude of new rules that must then be incorporated into the FAR. Contracting officers are wary of violating the FAR because more often than not it means they would be violating a law. Fortunately, use of the appropriated CERP funds did not have to follow the FAR, which provided Commander’s more flexibility, but we did establish a framework to ensure the dollars were properly expended.  In Iraq we had written our own Acquisition Instruction (AI) to supplement the FAR tailored to the environment (warzone) that we were operating in.

AISection 25.1000-102 of the AI said “CERP is a battlefield tool that commanders can use to create an immediate effect on the ground.  Congress and DoD recognized this and made sure only a minimum of rules apply to CERP.  In keeping with the intent of the program, JCC-I/A policy is to streamline contracting processes to provide fast and effective support to the commanders.

The AI went on to say that “While the FAR does not apply to CERP contracts, sound business arrangements and stewardship should govern these transactions.  In order to meet these objectives, the execution of the CERP project must be fair, transparent and accountable.”  Those are indeed good guiding principles but often these noble ideals clashed with reality.  Giving line infantrymen stacks of cash and telling them to do the right thing created the opportunity for bad things to happen, and they did. Years later the Special Investigator General in Iraq, known as SIGIR, audited the program and found it ripe with abuse.  But, despite these lapses in judgment, overall the program served its purpose of rebuilding Iraqi communities and employing Iraqi citizens.  Recognizing the inherent risk of giving young, poor soldiers stack of cash the Army in its bureaucratic fashion published extensive guidance on how to spend money in Iraq in a short 434 page policy book titled “Money As A Weapon System” (MAAWS).

MAAWSAs the title implies, the expenditure of funds in Iraq and its non-kinetic effects was as important as any traditional weapon system and its kinetic (explosive) effects. The introduction to the MAAWS stated “Resources, particularly money, have a central role in ongoing operations given the effects they bring to bear on the fight. Money is truly a weapon system here in Iraq, especially in light of the non-kinetic effects and arsenal of supporting financial resources.” Unfortunately, the 434 page guidance befuddled the soldiers at the front lines trying to win the war. I vividly recall a meeting at Multi-National Division-South (MND-S) in Basra sitting next to the 2 star Army Commander when an “Iron” Major stood up and complained that contracting was taking too long. I asked her what specifically the problem was and she complained that the MAAWS contained too many levels of approvals to get the funding she wanted for her projects. I then asked her at what point does contracting get involved and she replied after the project got funded. The light bulb then went on in her head, and she slowly sat down, realizing that she had found the enemy and it was the Army bureaucracy.

In addition to the extensive Army policy that spelled out the rules for spending money in Iraq we still had to follow the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) when obligating appropriated funds that were not CERP.  This cumbersome regulation was not written for the high speed combat environment and contained many policies and procedures that were detrimental to what we were trying to accomplish in growing the Iraq economy and employing Iraqis.  Recognizing these shortcoming General Scott worked with the acquisition staff in the Pentagon and got legislation pushed through Congress that allowed for us to award contracts to firms that produced products made in Iraq or provided services that employed Iraqis.  This is similar to our very own Buy American Act that contracting officers stateside must comply with.  This new law was referred to as Section 886 because that was the section of the 2007 National Defense Authorization Act where it was made law. Later it was codified into the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) section 225.77. This law gave U.S. contracting officers in Iraq explicit authority to award contracts to aid in rebuilding Iraq and its economy and we used it frequently.  One of the biggest section 886 contracts we awarded was the Oasis water contract that supplied safe bottled drinking water to all coalition forces in Iraq. This was a $485M contract that in the course of 3 years produced 42 million cases of water, which equated to over 1 billion bottles.  That is a staggering amount.


The OASIS water plant located on Camp Victory in Iraq

The water plant at Camp Victory alone produced 420,000 bottles of water daily! When I drove past the plant I saw acres of pallets of water ready for delivery to the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) across Iraq. This contract had multiple strategic affects.  First, the water was produced at 6 different plants across Iraq reducing the logistical challenge of trucking the water in from other countries over the most dangerous roads in the world. Secondly, it employed Iraqis. Thirdly, the plants would provide safe drinking water for Iraqis after the coalition forces departed. Amazingly, the price per liter bottle was only 88 cents, right in line with what you would pay for a bottle of water in America.

Another major initiative led by General Petraeus was the Civil Service Corps (CSC) that was patterned after the American depression era Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program.  The CCC was established by President Roosevelt during the height of the great depression when unemployment was approaching 25 percent.  Its purpose was to employ young men, teach them trade skills, develop natural resources and improve the national infrastructure. One could argue that we need a CCC program today to improve our national infrastructure and train young unskilled people in rural America. But unfortunately, the Iraq CSC program was not as successful, even if the intent was good.  There was no management framework and engineering staff to successfully execute the program and projects were literally drawn up on a napkin and then turned over to contracting to award as rapidly as possible, without proper specifications and little to no oversight. It was a good idea poorly executed.  Luckily, the program only lasted one year.


LtGen Bill Phillips at an IWOB event

Another program was the Iraqi-Women Owned Business initiative, which we affectionately dubbed as IWOBs. Our analysis indicated that many of the companies led by Iraq men did not last long.  Once they made their money from coalition contracts the men often closed their operations and took their money and jobs out of the country, whereas the women did not. The women had their roots and family in Iraq and did not leave. Whether these woman-owned businesses would survive once the western led government fell apart was debatable, but there is no doubt that Iraqi women were strong and capable, and the best hope that Iraq had for a stable future.

We also established Iraqi Business Zones, referred to as IBIZs, near or even on coalition bases.  The intent was to jumpstart businesses near bases to grow the industrial base and once again employ Iraqis. One such event I attended was the opening of an asphalt plant on Balad Airbase where Gen Hertling uttered his famous line.

IBIZ cake

Cake for the grand opening of a recycling plant on Joint Base Balad

This plant had several tactical and strategic implications. First, roads paved with asphalt were much more difficult to plant IEDs. Secondly, it expanded the Iraqi industrial base, and thirdly it employed Iraqis. We set up IBIZ’s at most of the larger coalition bases, each offering a variety of services and commodities to the base and surrounding communities. One of the most common products offered was T-walls, the large, very tall, ubiquitous concrete barriers used extensively throughout Iraqi to secure areas and protect against Indirect Fire. Many a resourceful Iraqi sheik got rich selling T-walls to coalition forces and anyone wanting to secure a compound. They say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, well in Iraq the road to hell was lined with T-walls.


Rows of T-walls

The IBIZ initiative was generally successful as long as there were large coalition bases and US cash flowing.  However, as the U.S. drew down it forces and closed the bases the IBIZ’s collapsed one by one, like dominoes. Hence one of the enduring lessons of fighting a counterinsurgency through economic means is the sustainability of your programs. Whether it be powerplants, industrial zones, government agencies, or political structures. If it is not sustainable, then you are only kidding yourself and wasting precious American lives and resources for temporary gains.  Whether it be Viet Nam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, we seem to keep learning this lesson over and over.

The other valuable lesson is that indigenous people act in their own best interests during a war and insurgency. Whether it be the interests of young men, or the population at large. If they suspect that the American forces will leave before the new government has been firmly established, (and in recent history we almost always do), they will place their lot with the insurgency out of a sheer need to survive.  To truly prevail in a counterinsurgency the local government must have the strength of character, determination, leadership, and resources to prevail. If they do not, it will not end well.

This months song is “Start a War” by my favorite band The National. I listened to this song frequently when I went jogging in my Iraq command in the Greenzone at night:


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