About this blog...

I am a former leader of a Human Terrain Team in Iraq. My intent with this blog was to identify relevant, open-source materials on Iraqi culture, society, politics, religion and economics - just about anything on or about the Iraqi population in general.

I am continuing the blog now only sporadically, as a means of information distribution in support of efforts to improve a vital program hamstrung by failures in execution.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

In Memorium

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and friends of Michael Bhatia, as well as to the members of the HTS community with whom he worked. Michael was an HTS social scientist on the Afghan 1 team, killed last week in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Warner's inquiry, and more feedback

One big development in the last week:

We've received notification from Senator John Warner (R - VA), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, that he's submitted an inquiry to the Army based on the documents they've received, including the packet that Zenia and I submitted. This is a very encouraging development -- in addition to his extensive background with the military, Sen. Warner has been an important voice on the intersection of Homeland Security and Government Oversight.

If anyone wasn't comfortable addressing concerns to POGO, but is interested in providing feedback for this more "official" inquiry, you can mail statements or documentation here:

ROANOKE, VA 24011-1714

Or, if you prefer to remain anonymous, you can also send a fax to 540-857-2800.

High Noon....
A few weeks ago, we received anonymous correspondence from someone within the program. First off, we're grateful for your coming forward -- attempts to discredit our feedback have focused on the fact that my most recent direct interaction with the program was January and Zenia's was December, so corroborating input from current members is very helpful. Unfortunately, the email address was flagging the spam filter, and we only saw it yesterday. If you read this post, check that account -- Zenia has sent you a reply.

On that note, thanks to all of the HTS participants and bystanders who have reached out to us privately or anonymously in support. The most helpful thing for the process will remain those who have been willing to step forward and provide written feedback through POGO, Congress or other venues. However, these private messages of support and corroboration do much to remind Zenia and I that we are not alone in our assessment of these problems or our desire to remedy them, and that we are speaking for a number of people that have too much to lose to speak for themselves.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Provide your feedback

A few days ago I posted a copy of our detailed statement to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), where we describe program shortcomings in recruiting, retention, training and execution. The following few days were a visceral reminder that many others have experienced some of these shortcomings first hand--both as HTS members and customers--and are interested in corroborating or expanding on them in detail.

For those interested in doing so that haven't already reached out to us, you can provide completely anonymous input to at this website, or email your input to this address: info--AT--pogo--DOT--org.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

HTS in Hindsight - Newsweek and POGO

Most of you should be able to guess that I shut this site down (or at least stopped posting) upon my return from Iraq in January. [That last post was just an email sent to my entire address book, but I had forgotten that I had enabled Blogger's helpful post-by-email function to get around Army web-censors.]

It turns out, though, that even out of Iraq, I'm not quite through with HTS. In recent months, it has become increasingly clear that my fiancée, Zenia Helbig, was released from HTS after repeated instances of identifying (and trying to fix) problems associated with the implementation of the program. However, since the pretext for firing her was a security violation, it has stymied her entire career in government before it could start.

Now, the only way to clear her name has been to demonstrate the veracity of our criticisms of HTS, and make the case that demonstrates that she was terminated for voicing these criticisms. I describe these developments not only to explain our active cooperation with the article in this week's Newseek, but by way introducing this statement that we submitted last month to the Project on Government Oversight. After appeals to her Congressional Representative and to the Army's Inspector General were ignored without consideration, POGO seemed to be the next reasonable recourse. Their initial response has been very positive, and we are working with them now to build the case. This is from the introduction of the statement:
"Below, I highlight a number of concerns with the program that I raised to program management and my superiors at British Aerospace Systems (BAE). As an academic partaking in my first experience in government, I naively thought that my suggestions for correcting these problems would be welcomed. Instead I was alternately ignored and threatened, until being ultimately dismissed... It is important that one critical point, explained in the middle of this document, be highlighted upfront: The focal point of the current breakdown of the HTS program is a conflict of interests created by program management’s competing incentive structures–they cannot fulfill their oversight responsibilities over BAE’s numerous failures to fulfill their contractual responsibilities without arming critics seeking the cancellation of the entire program."
In the full text, we go on to describe failings in recruiting, retention, training, contracting practices and oversight.

Ultimately, we both still believe in the program and how important it is for it to succeed in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Our intentions in raising these concerns while within HTS were always for the betterment of the program, and they remain so. The fact that clearing Zenia's name has become inextricably tied to this makes it more personal for us, but no more pressing.

For more back story, you can check out two previous posts from Noah Shachtman at Danger Room, Zenia's memo to Congress or her statement at the AAA conference. Stay tuned for more...

Friday, January 18, 2008

Back from Iraq

Hi all-

Just wanted to drop you a line and let you know I'm back from Iraq. A lot of you getting this email probably have no idea who I am -- sorry for that. Gmail automatically captures the address of anyone with whom you send or receive, which has left me with an address book that's far too large to manage. In my laziness, I'm just sending to all...

I'm currently demobilizing at Fort Leavenworth, and will be returning home to Charlottesville soon. Yes, for now, Charlottesville will be home. Zenia has one more semester of course work on the PhD, and I didn't make it back in time for UGA's semester anyway, so we'll be there at least until summer. After that, who knows? For now, I'm job hunting. We're still planning on finishing out the PhDs -- either at UGA, UVA or a player to be named later -- but for the right jobs we might put it off or walk away from it.

If you're curious, this article has a little about what I've done the last 8 months: http://www.usnews.com/articles/news/iraq/2007/11/30/the-pentagon-deploys-social-scientists-to-help-understand-iraqs-human-terrain.html

So that's it here. Thanks, all of you, for your thoughts and prayers, messages and care packages. They all meant a lot. It's been a really rough time for both of us, and we're still dealing with parts of it, but we're looking forward to a new start together. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, this is a brief intro to what Zenia's been going through, and what we're still dealing with as we try to repair what they did to her clearance: http://www.campus-watch.org/article/id/4586. The issues I dealt with in Iraq are something separate, and took a lot out of me in their own ways, but not in any way that will have an enduring impact on me.)

Well, I hope that this finds you all well, and I'll talk to you sometime!



Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Scary, Sicko or Sick: What's in a name?

The International Crisis Group recently released a great backgrounder on SCIRI. If nothing else, it's helpful for finally putting to rest the group's preferred acronym since they dropped "Revolution" from their old name -- the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. (Apparently, we took care of that small matter for them.) You see, if you look in English language press since then, no one can decide if it's now SCII or ISCI or SICI or SIIC.* Originally, the group released a statement in May clarifying the English name as the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC). Somebody didn't like that, though, so they amended it later:

The new name in Arabic was Al-Majlis al-‘Aala al-Islami al-Iraqi, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council. Confusion in the media over the name’s translation – should it be SICI or SIIC in English? – led to an official announcement at the end of July that the English name would henceforth be 'The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq', 'ISCI'."

There's a lot more to the report than the name change, though. After an introduction to the group's history, and its role in the Iran-Iraq war, the report details at length ISCI's recent relationship with both the US and Iran, and the potential future for both of those relationships. Even here though, the name change offers fair insight into the group's complex and evolving relationships with Iraq's two biggest foreign... um... "partners":

"The name change was made to suggest SCIRI’s transformation from an exile-based rebel group associated with the Islamic Revolution in Iran to a responsible party of government in Iraq...
This clarification [of the official "ISCI" acronym] appears to have been made at the urging of SCIRI’s backers in the Bush administration, who were concerned about the possible negative connotation of the words 'siic' and 'sici', which are close to the English 'sick' and 'sicko'..."

And no, I'm not making that last sick/sicko bit up. (Al Kamen can even vouch for it.) Never thought I'd say this, but if "sick and sicko" are the extent of our forethought these days, then the steady hand of Karl Rove at the helm of the spin machine is sorely missed...

A closer look at the group is valuable though, as they continue to play a pivotal role in the future of Iraq. In October, ISCI made a much-remarked and widely heralded agreement with its erstwhile rival, the Jaysh al Mehdi, led by Moqtada al Sadr. However, numerous reports and analysts have suggested that the truce is just a political show, and that conflicts between the two groups continue unabated.

*For what it's worth, here's a google scorecard for the terms:

Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council SIIC


Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq SICI


Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq ISCI


Supreme Council for Islamic Iraq SCII


Obviously, somebody (quite a few somebodies) didn't get ISCI's memo. Whatta bunch of sickos.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Playing with Numbers

There's been quite a bit in the press lately--Iraqi and international--about refugees suddenly returning to Iraq in droves. However, other reports have suggested that all the hype is just a government PR job that's been particularly effective, and that the numbers are pretty exaggerated.

This is important stuff, since it wasn't that long ago that all the reports were about refugees that were leaving the country in droves, or about the countries turning them away and the horrible conditions they faced in the few countries that would accept them.

Of course, all of this is beyond Iraq's internally displaced persons (refugees that don't cross a border)--both current and historical--and groups whose plight is so desperate that they came to Iraq as refugees.

It's no surprise that every little development gets lots of play in the media, though; as one of the reports noted, "returnees have essentially become a currency of progress".