On Saturday, control of the United States mission in Iraq will formally pass from the military to the State Department. But after eight years of war, Iraq is still plagued by corruption, sectarianism and violence. And after a year spent in the desert outside Baghdad as the leader of two State Department Provincial Reconstruction Teams, I don’t have much faith that the department can turn things around. We closed down our operations last September as part of normalizing relations, and I am still haunted by the Iraqis we left behind. No matter the strategic value of the war, our legacy will be written in those human lives.
There was so little we could do for people. One Iraqi I met observed that the United States had sponsored expensive art shows in his neighborhood three years in a row, but did nothing about the lack of functioning sewers, electricity and running water. “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head,” he told me. “Everyone comes in and puts ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
When my team tried to give away fruit tree seedlings to replant ruined orchards, a farmer spat on the ground and said, “You killed my son and now you are giving me a tree?”
The memory that lingers most is of an interpreter who worked for us, whom I’ll call Aida. She had been a professor of English at a Baghdad university. Like many Iraqis, she had had to join Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party in order to be approved for that job. Then, after the American invasion, she was fired as part of the de-Baathification process that swept up everyone from preschool teachers to Chemical Ali, a notoriously bloodthirsty henchman of Hussein’s. When our Provincial Reconstruction Team shut down, we had to lay off all our employees, and Aida lost her job again.
Our simple translation work both bored and endangered her. Insurgents singled out Iraqis who collaborated with the United States. (She was sure that the gate to our base was watched, so she always took a taxi to a market in central Baghdad, and got out and walked around a bit before hopping into a second cab to go home.) But her family depended on her meager salary ($40 a day, in cash), and she didn’t know what they would do without it.
On her last day, I brought her to the little anteroom used for out-processing at the gate, where every surface was covered in the grayish tan dust of Iraq. A guard stood with a machine gun in one corner, while another examined Aida’s base pass. He returned her cellphone; local employees were prohibited from bringing their phones onto the base, for fear they would set off bombs remotely. A third guard laboriously searched the plastic shopping bags of office junk she had moved out of her desk. Finally, I watched her walk away between the razor wire. I called goodbye, but she didn’t answer or look back.
As we celebrate in some odd way the transition from military to civilian control of the mission in Iraq, it remains important for Americans to know that this is part of what “victory” looks like. It is a scene that would be repeated thousands and thousands of times all over Iraq, as the drawdown swept inward from the provinces toward Baghdad. With no sufficiently large-scale refugee program planned, we have no way to help the Iraqis who endangered themselves by helping us.
In 2009, in a bombed-out municipal office, I spoke with a tired Iraqi administrator who worked with us, though not for us. She was of an age where all she could remember were the war with Iran in the 1980s, the long years of sanctions in the 1990s and the United States occupation since 2003. She wondered aloud when, if ever, her daughter would lead a peaceful life. I told her I didn’t know. Then I said goodbye; it was dangerous to stay in one place for too long, and our security team had said it was time for us to go.
By Peter Van Buren, a State Department Foreign Service officer in Iraq from 2009-10 and the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.