Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq | AspenTimes.com

Lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq

Steve Benson
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Iraq and Afghanistan share similar stories – both have endured years of war and oppression, and both are currently occupied by U.S.-led forces. But as Glenwood Springs resident John Barbee has discovered, the future of one may be more promising than the other.

Barbee has spent time as an aid worker in both countries, and his latest voyage to Iraq with USAID in June was an eye-opening experience. Inept planning on behalf of the Defense Department, Barbee claims, has created widespread disorganization and frustration, which has limited relief and peace-building efforts in Iraq.

“They had no plans in place,” Barbee said. (“They” being the Defense Department, which Barbee commends for its military accomplishments, but criticizes for its peace-building strategy.)

“It was abundantly apparent by the time I left that if a plan was in place, we could have gotten a lot more done, a lot faster,” he added.

Barbee speaks from experience. Starting with the Peace Corps in Afghanistan in the mid-1960s, Barbee has contributed aid to war-torn or otherwise suffering countries for close to 40 years. He spent seven years in Africa, six years in the former Soviet state of Tajikistan and, prior to Iraq, a three-month stint in his first true love, Afghanistan.

It was that voyage to Afghanistan earlier this year that turned Barbee’s Iraq trip into such an eye-opening experience.

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“It seems like there were a lot of lessons we could and should have learned from Afghanistan,” Barbee said. “A lot of learning we seem to have not learned.”

The U.S. State Department managed the campaign in Afghanistan in the beginning and succeeded in drawing support from the international community. The Defense Department took over last month. In Iraq, however, the Defense Department has been in the driver’s seat from the beginning and has directed a virtually unilateral invasion and occupation.

“I do not think we should have gone in unilateral,” Barbee said. “We need multilateral agencies like the United Nations to foster cooperation and improve security.”

Barbee believes a unilateral invasion of Iraq never would have happened if the State Department had been running the show, and he doesn’t think it’s too late for them to get involved. But as Barbee admits, it’s not that simple.

As isolated attacks continue to plague U.S. forces in Iraq, Barbee said another fight is brewing, one that he calls a turf war between the departments of Defense and State. And Barbee hopes – for the sake of Iraq and the soldiers still stationed there – that the State Department wins that contest.

Lending a helping hand

In 1965, Barbee enlisted in the Peace Corps and was stationed in Afghanistan. He spent two years as a volunteer followed by a year as a staffer, thus sparking a lengthy love affair with Afghanistan.

“It’s a land of great beauty and fantastic contrasts,” Barbee said. “You wouldn’t believe people could survive there, much less thrive and raise families. The Afghans have a lot of character; they are a very strong people with strong beliefs – they are survivors. My heart just goes out to them; look at what they’ve been through. They were definitely the Vietnam for the Soviets.”

His attachment to the people and the landscape fostered his path and devotion to providing aid and relief to struggling countries.

“I guess you could say that I am a lifelong believer in the critical importance of sustainable development – that is, assistance to people and communities worldwide who are less fortunate than we are,” he said. “I have sought and found work to put that belief into action – helping people to learn to help themselves and others.”

Barbee left Afghanistan in 1967, sooner than he would have liked. After discovering a tumor behind his left eyeball, which would eventually damage his sight and hearing permanently, Barbee was evacuated from Nuristan (meaning land of light), a remote mountain village in northwest Afghanistan.

Raised on a farm in Aspen, Barbee returned to Colorado and began ranching in Paonia. Over the next 20 years, he attained two master’s degrees in interactive training and developed the area arts council. A Peace Corps reunion in 1986 inspired him to move to Africa with his family, where he helped run Peace Corps operations, providing drought relief and assistance in Malawi.

“That was something else for the kids,” said Barbee, who has three boys.

From `no man’s land’ to hot spot

Two years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Barbee moved to Tajikistan, where he helped foster the first nongovernmental organizations in the country.

All the while, Barbee kept a watchful eye on Afghanistan.

“After the Soviet Union collapsed, a lot of us were really concerned about the U.S. ignoring Afghanistan,” said Barbee, who still has many Afghan friends. Barbee was right. He said he was later informed by the U.S. government that Afghanistan was “not a strategically important area.”

For Barbee then, what developed in Afghanistan was no surprise.

The United States, Barbee said, made the mistake of viewing Afghanistan as nothing more than a buffer zone, a no man’s land.

“But it isn’t a no man’s land,” Barbee said. “There’s such diversity.” Throughout history, Afghanistan has been an ethnic crossroads. Alexander’s troops, Mongols, Dravidians and Arabs all traveled through and even settled in Afghanistan, Barbee said.

“I have seen people with red hair and blue eyes,” Barbee said.

Following the Soviet-Afghan war, the country was left in virtual ruins with thousands of refugees, most of them young and desperate and eager for direction.

“When you thrust a lot of people into refugee camps, people can capitalize on that,” Barbee said. “They can organize youth propaganda and brainwashing.”

The Taliban and al-Qaida did just that, recruiting from the refugee camps and rapidly rebuilding their armies. Suddenly, this “buffer zone” became the center of the radical Muslim world, and a sanctuary and training ground for global terrorists. For the average Afghan, however, it was the center of oppression and misery.

Following the U.S.-led bombing campaign and eventual coalition invasion, peacekeeping forces from a broad international theater revived Afghanistan’s dismal existence, and provided them with hope for the future, Barbee said.

A plan for peacekeeping?

In Iraq, Barbee and his three USAID colleagues found a starkly different situation.

USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, is the major body responsible for implementing U.S.-supported international development and humanitarian assistance since its inception in the late 1950s. (It was first called ICA, the International Cooperation Agency, a spinoff from the European Marshall Plan.)

“Our focus was on the soft infrastructure,” Barbee said. Among other tasks, they hoped to engage the local government, screen out the Baath Party people, tear down the walls between the ministries, and open communication and cooperation between the departments of agriculture, health, electrical, transportation, food – “All we could get together,” he said.

“It could work if there was a well-thought-out plan, but there wasn’t,” he added. “All we were able to get accomplished was to organize a meeting with the five governors.”

Those are the governors of Najaf, Karbala, Al-Kut, Al-Hillah and Diwaniyah. His aim was to further strengthen the governors’ relationship and help achieve the goals of USAID and the local Iraqi population.

As one of the first parties of USAID workers in Iraq, Barbee and his three USAID colleagues were responsible for the entire south-central region of Iraq, in the heart of Shi’ite Muslim territory.

“We found basically the Iraqis were very good, eager, open and willing to engage and get on with the peace building,” he said.

In an area that relies on trust and dialog, every little bit helps. Unfortunately, Barbee said, the United States did not develop a relationship with the Shi’ite population, which dominates southern Iraq.

“That was a mistake, a big, big mistake.”

The borders of Iraq are porous gateways for Saudi Arabians, Iranians, Syrians, and Turks who may have malicious intent for U.S. operations.

“Basically, they’re operating in quasi-independent cells,” Barbee said.

Another concern Barbee has is with the troops – both the enemy and the U.S.

“One of the biggest problems was the demobilization of the Iraqi military – what are they going to do when they put their guns down? There was no plan,” Barbee said. “The end of the worst of the hostilities caught everyone by surprise.”

As for the U.S. troops: “Right now we’ve got warriors that have been there since the beginning. They are all frustrated, too, and very ready to get out,” Barbee said. “They did a fantastic job and are still doing a fantastic job, but they were supposed to be rotated out. Why didn’t we have plans in place to make sure that happened?

“There needs to be plans for peacekeeping, multipartisan peacekeeping. The Marines are not peacekeepers, they are warriors,” he added.

In Afghanistan, the State Department and the United Nations are working together, Barbee said. “They have a duly elected power in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we have not powered that process, we have not instigated that process,” he said.

Furthermore, the peacekeeping process in Afghanistan is now being handed over to NATO.

“[NATO] is a multipartisan entity. Therefore they have much greater resources and good experience in peacekeeping from the Balkans and elsewhere,” Barbee said. “I think that’s a good model also for Iraq; it needs to be put into place very, very soon.

“But peacekeeping has not been proposed as anything serious, because we came in with a very narrow process and haven’t contacted some of our old allies and friends,” he continued.

“We’ve alienated them in the process.”

`Practice what we preach’

Barbee knows what the solution is, but doesn’t know how it can be attained.

“I wish I knew what the hell is going on in the White House regarding the decisions on Iraq and now on Afghanistan,” Barbee said.

“It is obvious that Colin Powell [of the State Department] has been marginalized and that people in the Department of Defense have been put in the driver’s seat, in charge of things about which they know nothing and without the capacity or inclination to admit it and to find help from those with the necessary understanding, experience and perspective.”

And with Iraq looking more and more every day like another battleground in the fight against terrorism, Barbee warns that we must use more than just force.

“We – U.S., our allies, U.N. and other countries – must also take major steps to practice what we preach in terms of building a more just and civil society in each of our countries and worldwide,” Barbee said.

“We must support and respect the institutions of democracy and justice, even when it may be difficult to do so. If we are even minimally successful in all of this, we will have drawn the teeth of terrorist movements and reduced them to petty gangs.”

Steve Benson’s e-mail address is sbenson@aspentimes.com