My Reasons for Volunteering in Iraq

Posted by Philip Kosnett
November 28, 2007

Ask three people serving with the Foreign Service in Iraq why they're here, and you'll get three different answers. I've volunteered for three tours in Iraq, and I'll give you three different answers, too -- one for each tour. I first came to Iraq in January 2004, seconded from State Department to the Coalition Provisional Authority as the deputy CPA chief for the province of Najaf. By the time I arrived it was clear that the road to a free and peaceful Iraq would be long and hard, and I don't think I harbored any illusions that we were going to find any quick fixes or that the work was going to be glamorous. My reasons for volunteering were not at all ideological, and nobody asked me what I thought about the decision to go to war. With twenty years experience in the Foreign Service, I saw myself as a professional troubleshooter specializing in international security and crisis management. I had joined the Foreign Service to serve my country when called; Iraq was center stage; I wanted to contribute; I might learn something.

By March I had moved up to become CPA chief for the province, just in time to lead the CPA team in responding to the uprising of Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. For weeks our headquarters was effectively under siege, assaulted twice by day, mortared nightly, as we worked to gather intelligence, shape political developments, and prepare for the re-establishment of legitimate Iraqi authority. I would learn what it was like to be responsible for the lives of American, Iraqi, and Coalition partner teammates under fire. Najaf was the greatest leadership challenge of my career, and my experiences there will never leave me.

I departed Iraq for a posting in Europe when CPA handed over sovereignty to an Iraqi interim government in June 2004, and didn't really expect to return. But at the end of 2006, State and the military began to expand State's Foreign Policy Advisor ("POLAD") program to Iraq, assigning FSOs to senior military commanders as policy advisors and liaisons to the Embassy's civilian agencies. The incoming Corps Commander wanted an FSO with Iraq experience as his POLAD. State asked me if I would come back. The job sounded too fascinating to pass up -- I had worked with the military my whole career, but had never worked inside a military staff. And I expected to learn a great deal in a world where diplomacy is increasingly an interagency business (and not just government business, either, with the growing role of non-governmental organizations in international affairs) and State just one player. It would be, as one colleague told me, "like War College without the term papers." It has been a fascinating year -- I don't know how much I have contributed, but I have lived among heroes and been the better for it.

In a few weeks, my POLAD year comes to an end, and I will begin a third Iraq assignment: eighteen months in Embassy Baghdad's Political-Military section. "Back to your tribe," my Army buddies say. This time the central challenge will be helping to manage the transition from a primarily U.S.-led security effort to an Iraqi-led system to which the U.S. provides support. And there's another personal reason I'm on staying in Iraq. My wife Alison, an international development consultant, has recently begun working in the Embassy's Office of Provincial Affairs. This is the "headquarters element" for the Coalition Provincial Reconstruction Teams dotted around the country, where they support local governance, economic development, and sectarian reconciliation. It is a rare opportunity for both of us to be able to put our professional backgrounds and skills to work in the same country and we are grateful for every day we can serve together.

Some will read this and dismiss us as selfish careerists. From our perspective, we are just two people trying to support the people who have borne the greatest burdens -- the people of Iraq, the Coalition and Iraqi troops, the PRT staffs in the field -- to help the Iraqis build the country and the future they deserve. Back in 2004 I wrote, "I am very proud of what we are trying to accomplish here, and proud of the people around me." I still am.



November 30, 2007

Ed in Iraq writes:

Phil, you wrote: "the central challenge will be helping to manage the transition from a primarily U.S.-led security effort to an Iraqi-led system to which the U.S. provides support." A sub-challenge of managing that transition will be for us to accept that we are less and less in charge, that is, we'll have to learn to ask before acting rather than informing as we act. Our skills to persuade, influence, and convince rather than direct, impose, or compel will be put to the test - an exam we've sat many times before. The place is different, but it is familiar territory.

December 7, 2007

Joe in Australia writes:

A true, sefless, and dedicated American who is working to ensure that the iraqis enjoy in the future an independent country. Perhaps we should send our university social science students to Iraq for a semester, so they can help spread the freedom that they enjoy and use to tear down the Bush government. Some of these ss students are so bent on seeing totalitarian governments thrive, thereby contributing immensely to misery around the world.

United Arab Emirates
December 7, 2007

M in U.A.E. writes:

Mr. Philip, you made an idol that other's should follow.

That's what America need right now more people involvement on the ground to help the Iraqis.


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