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« Enemy Forces Sighted and Dispatched | Main | Need Help Tracking Unknown Ordnance »

March 13, 2007

Seven Months of Progress

-Patrick S Lasswell

(Pictures and Editing to Follow as Bandwidth Allows)

Iraqi Army HMMWV 1.jpg

Nothing says "I'm in Iraq" like a Hummer with a turret coming down the road. This one belonged to the Iraqi Army and they were transit somewhere. Anybody sane would rather schedule a convoy through Kurdistan.

Michael Totten and I had a much different, though still badly jet-lagged, journey this time. Instead of creeping in during the middle of the night on a chartered plane from Amman, we arrived on a scheduled flight from Vienna in the middle of the day. The capitol of Austria is an inspired monument to a most uninspiring imperial dynasty. Say what you like about the Hapsburg's...because it's probably true, but they sure knew how to squander funds on impressive stone-cutting and inspire others to do so. If they had a clue on earth about how to govern effectively or respond to change they would probably gotten a good gig as figurehead monarchs hanging out in the lovely palace of Schonnburg. Apparently they weeded the effective governance gene out through selective inbreeding. In order to make up for the lack governmental skill, the national airline has gotten good at competing in developing markets. Because of this behavior, Austrian Airlines is now the official carrier of Take me places nobody else wants to go!

Michael Fixated on His Coffee.jpg

Michael Attempting to Recover from Jet Lag by Fixating on his Coffee. (Not actually a bad plan, this is Vienna and the coffee is really great.)

Compensation for Travel Includes Sights Like This.jpg

Compensation for Travel Includes Sights Like This

The gaggle coming in to the aircraft was late and prone to excitement. Young Kurdish women with glowing smiles and daring eyes kept shifting seats, giggling, and talking with all the other Kurds. This is very different from last summer's determined crowd of brave people who came in quiet and controlled. While the security was not lax, it was also not belligerently intensive. At the risk of reducing donation flow, it was much less of a grim showing than last trip. The presence of cute, long-legged blond stewardesses does not lend itself to inspiring war stories.

Also not Good for War Stories.jpg

Also Not Good for War Stories, but My Wife Loves Daffodils. (I found these in Vienna on the way here.)

I landed at Erbil International Airport for the second time in seven months yesterday, but this time I arrived in Kurdistan, not Iraq. Since I left, some tipping point has been passed and the complex of awareness, trust, and money that allows independence has been reached. The Kurds are not pushing for legal separation from the portion of Iraq that wallows in dysfunction, but they are clear now they can manage by themselves. The sense of tentative optimism from the last trip has been replaced by confidence. Last time they were deliberately choosing to hope, this time they are deciding to succeed.

News Crews Thick on the Ground in Kurdistan.jpg

News Crews Much Thicker on the Ground in Kurdistan.

Upon arrival, Michael got the more interesting stamp on his passport telling him to check in with immigration. Showoff. But the policeman's heart really wasn't in it as much, and Michael really had to work at being nervous about the transit this time. We were also quite fascinated by the BBC crew in the line opposite us, one of whom was carrying a camera that cost about as much as my house. Our filming capacity is much smaller, but our ambitions are higher. Today you can get about 80% of the video quality from a camera that costs 10% as much, but if you are the BBC you have to spend the taxpayer's money somehow. We are much nicer and seeking donations for our upcoming web video projects. Of course, if I was an entrenched British media bureaucracy, I might feel differently. I'd probably be more interested in tea and anti-Americanism, for instance.

After picking up our luggage, which was blocked by the mounds of pelican cases the subsidized reporters put their toys in, we made our way out to meet our new fixer. This was a delicate moment, because your fixer is somebody you have to like and trust immediately based on your most shrewed observations. You also have to make this decision while jet-lagged. Our new guy, whose name I am withholding until he gets a chance to read this post, is an alright guy. He is clearly alert and welcoming and interested in the West. Michael and I have met tens of thousands of people over the years, some of whom liked us, some who hated us to their very core, and some in between. Part of the job is the capacity to assess and deal with the people who you depend upon. Within seconds we can tell this is going to work, because if we couldn't we wouldn't be in the international consulting business.

The trip into town is different this time, too. Okay, the traffic still sucks. Seven months of progress is not going to make driving around town any easier and light rails are only a mad gleam in frustrated would-be city planner's eyes. I see two young women jogging in the late afternoon. This would have been unthinkable seven months ago, not because of oppression, but because in the July heat it would have been suicidal. One of the women is wearing a headscarf, but freedom is where you make it. The people here do not need to make their women unhealthy, exercise is good. After we make sure we have a room we set a time to meet our driver in a few hours so we can recover from the flight. Energy management is key, and you always fail when you meet while exhausted or strange.

Something for the John Ringo Fans.jpg

Found in the Souk, Something for the John Ringo Fans. (Obscure reference, but definitely a BPW.)

Instead of napping or showering, Michael and I decide to go for a walk. Due to a conference soaking up all the available rooms, we are stuck in the same space. This is bad in general because we have to work together, and in particular because I snore...loudly. The walk lets us interact with the world instead of staying cooped up in a small space. The sun is just about to set, but we don't take the cameras. Our walk takes us the mile or so to the Souk. I change some money after finding our way through the labyrinth unerringly. On the way back I see a tripod on the street and we buy it for not much at all. This is important because Michael was not interested in camera shops last time and did not believe that we could find such things. A few feet further down we find a camera shop with all but the very latest recording equipment. I'm in charge of selecting and obtaining gear, Michael doubted me, and now I'm being mean to him about it.

New Mosque in Kurdistan.jpg

A New Mosque in Kurdistan. (Our fixer showed us lovely video from inside.)

When we meet back up with our new fixer, he is astonished to learn that we have been out and about so quickly. Perhaps some of that is concern that we won't need him, but he shouldn't be worried. There are many things instantly and easily available to locals that we will need along the way. Speaking Kurdish, for instance. We've learned this the hard way and are very clear how to work with our friends. We talk for a long while about the primary job as well as the journalism projects and eventually go to dinner with our fixer. We meet up with some other friends from previous trips. As I thought it would be, the meeting upon return is very nice. There is nothing as sincere as returning to Iraq.

Michael is asking direct questions about Kurdish matters and is getting interesting and new responses. As a consultant, I would have danced towards the issues, but Michael considers himself a journalist foremost. The answers this trip are different in tone, if not official line. The Kurds are not going to split from Iraq until it is absolutely in their interest to do so and not while the American forces are present. While they are not agitating for separation, they are acknowledging now that it is inevitable. The difference to them between the Arab Sunni and Shia is that the Sunni cut your throat and the Shia drill holes in your head. By not responding to the deliberately incendiary violence in Mosul and not wasting their young men on endless rounds of retribution, the Kurds are much more secure and internationally palatable.

Kurdish Gentlemen Talking on the Corner.jpg

Kurdish Gentlemen Talking on the Streetcorner.

Sincerely they do not want the Americans to leave, and if this means that they do not get independence for fifty years, so be it. On the other hand, with fifty years of American security assistance, this place will make most of the Arab world look like a slum. I'm not just saying that because fifty years ago Dubai was a slum. In the near term, the Kurdish Region needs in their control a refinery to convert crude oil and power generation capacity. Those two can be obtained in a lot less than fifty years and will give them the opportunity they need to keep themselves prosperous and free. They weren't saying this seven months ago which leads me to believe that they don't mind people knowing it now.

I'm paying for much of this trip on my own dime. If you want to help sponsor independent reporting, please donate using the Pay Pal button.


sounds like hog heaven. Your mom is having computer problems..[Wife's Name Redacted] is keeping her up on your fun and games..roy


We're doing well. Yesterday was very busy with things I can't blog much about. I was able to get a regular perscription filled for about 1/8th the US price with German medicine.

Please don't put my wife's name on this blog. My business partner has a Hezbollah supporter troll on his blog and I'm sure that I'm going to get some of the same human garbage here. The Hezborroid tried to post Michael's address.

Regarding the Habsburg dynasty.

It is not exactly true that the latest Habsburgs were political dinosaurs. This is sort of a historical equivalent to an urban legend.

Actually, the Austrian-Hungarian empire in 1914 was one of the politically more developed countries, surely comparable to Germany and probably superior to contemporary France. The management of the empire was quite efficient and the overall economic development very promising.

But the Great War was especially exhausting for the Central Powers, since the British Navy totally cut off any overseas commerce with them, which, at that time, was already an important factor in national economies. Poverty and hunger followed. In early 1918, both Germany and the A-H Empire suffered from severe lack of food and other necessary provisions.

In this situation, Austria-Hungary was basically torn apart by national resentments that were too large to be contained. The only reason why Germany did not follow suit was that it was much more nationally homogeneous. But the Germans had their fair share of political violence as well in 1918-1920.

Greetings from Prague, CZ.

Marian - CZ,

I will grant your point to an extent, but I hope you will concede that the Habsburg fixation with Catholicism did it no favors. The compromises the Saxe-Coberg-Gotha line made on religion allowed them to become the ascendant dynasty of the 19th century. I strongly suspect that if the Habsburgs had been able to yield more graciously to religious tolerance they would have done much better in the modern era.

Dear Patrick:

Thanks for the plug.

Damn, man, it sounds like you're having fun. But jet lag do suck don't it?

Back in the oooold days, one fix I found was to just skip a day if I had the time. Take some sleeping pills (Ambien would probably do) and get up at the "right" time locally after sleeping the intervening period.

Have fun.

John Ringo

Dear Patrick,

I definitely agree that the Habsburgs were devout Catholics. They were even the ones who carried on the title of "King of Jerusalem", obsolete since the Crusades.

On the other hand, religious tolerance was not the main issue in A-H in 1914. All the main nationalities were Catholics: Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs (the forced re-Catholization of Bohemia in the 17th century was wildly successful), Croats, Italians (in Alto Adige). The non-Catholic nationalities (Rusyns, Romanians, Bosniaks) did not play an important role in the empire.

The Habsburg dynasty has previously had a bad record regarding the Jewish community, and some of the rulers even expelled significant Jewish populations from the cities. But in this, the last 50 years of Austria-Hungary was a significant progress, at least in the Austrian part of the monarchy: and the urban,German-speaking Jewry in Prague and Vienna relatively flourished in that time.

The real problem for the late A-H Empire was the general Slavic resentment to the idea of German dominance. It was especially untenable in the Czech lands, where the Czechs were in strong economical and political position, and in the Polish-speaking parts of Galicia, where ethnic German element was almost nonexistent. Unfortunately, German nationalism was on the rise simultaneously, and the German inhabitants of the Empire would not tolerate any abrogation of their privileged position.

The situation definitely cracked when lack of food in the country drove people definitely crazy. In 1918, there was no meat, milk or normal flour. Widespread hunger followed and tuberculosis was rampant.

The conscripted soldiers on the front were aware about this situation of their families, and in October 1918, the morale collapsed beyond point of no return. Though having reasonable amounts of ammunition and supplies on the fronts themselves, the soldiers lost trust in the cause, and refused to fight on.

Hope you enjoy your stay and come home safely, I have talked to your wife several times, and she awaits your return. As do I, I can not wait to see some of your other pictures.


Very glad to see you here. I hope to have more content soon, but connection speed in Dohuk is glacial. There are a variety of good stories to share that just can't go on the net. I'll try to catch you at a convention soon. could come to Kurdistan... You've got the skills and I can hook you up with the KRG...big time. Your stuff would sell big here and you can find a translator.

Come on, it's getting hotter and you know your productivity is going into the toilet when that happens. You know you want to...

Did I mention that JW Blue Label is $130 a liter? (Bring your own cigars...)

I know your lady; "The presence of cute, long-legged blond stewardesses" could easily lend itself to war stories.

Good point - Patrick

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