I have been home from Iraq now for two months. Taking some leave time – what we call decompression – and getting started in my new position at the Civilian Response Corps fills the days. And, of course, I am enjoying flying my Mooney airplane. As of this writing, it is sitting in a hanger in Willmar, Minnesota. During an annual inspection (which is required), an engine casing fracture was found, so the aircraft is grounded for six weeks while repairs are done. In this article, I comment on the Middle East region that has been my life the last four years. The news is mixed.

In Iraq, the U.S. military troop strength is now less than 50,000 troops. Keep in mind that there are many other U.S. personnel there, including civilians that are part of the civilian surge. News that the State Department will take over the important role of training Iraq police will require additional civilian capacity. Yet in the last few days an uptick in bombings, especially in and around Baghdad, appear coordinated and certainly give us civilians cause for concern.

I clearly remember the transition in the Green or International Zone. Over time, Iraqi police manned the many checkpoints. The familiar green uniforms of our own military disappeared and this was clearly part of the transition. For civilians working in the International Zone, and transiting outside of it, we all owed an increased awareness in travel status. Or, as we sometimes say, heightened situational awareness.

The work in Iraq is not done and will not be done anytime soon. My time there is over, but I still think about what we could get done. At the core of this thought is the very foundation of all reconstruction and stabilization work – identifying and mentoring good leaders. This is a real challenge. But we should attempt this challenge nevertheless. And we should demand good leadership here at home.

I have been away from Afghanistan now for three years. We (U.S.) certainly have a large presence there. Several dozen USDA employees are working there and continued recruitment for more exists. I have lost track of what they are doing there, but my guess is the work is local and relatively small projects are being installed. I often state that in the reconstruction and stabilization world, we need to think more strategically and perhaps on a national level. I was not successful at making this case in Iraq, and therefore the several national strategies I suggested were not pushed to any kind of implementation level.


Why? Well, anything requiring a visionary plan and long-term commitment is difficult, and, if local or national leadership is poor, then we and they make little progress. We also have to ask leadership what they want in terms of long-term development. Our job as diplomats is nurturing these leaders so they can think about the next five years or ten years.

We also must remember that Afghanistan is a completely different culture than ours, and has been in a state of civil strife and war for decades. Strategic planning can be done now, but actually implementing the plan will likely require a stable society. And only the Afghans can make their country stable. Once again the need for good leadership is obvious.

The flooding in Pakistan is particularly disturbing for agriculturalists. The flooded region is nearly through the country’s east section. The region includes Punjab Province, the primary agricultural region of Pakistan. The country of more than 170 million people (sixth-largest in the world) does have a reasonably well-developed irrigated agricultural system, but much of it has been destroyed. Many farmers have been displaced and this year’s crops ruined.

One of the fundamental drivers of conflict is food insecurity. Yes, humanitarian aid is flowing into Pakistan, but after the food deliveries have run their course, the longer-term work of repairing the agricultural infrastructure is required. This takes place outside of the standard news cycle. Look at any of our major newspapers today and the photos show the devastation of the flood, of people lined up in food lines, with animals displaced and sediments overtop what once was productive farm land.

Obviously it is in our best interest to help repair this devastation. To not do so is inviting conflict, as people in a region no longer have food security. Civil strife will follow, and people move elsewhere and try to put their lives and families back together. Stable cultures and productive societies help mitigate civil strife.

Pakistan is inexorably tied to Afghanistan, and that means the two countries could work together in the best of any developmental model. Working together requires the kind of leadership I write about...the men and women placing the interests and well- being of their people ahead of their own. That economic development trumps all military actions as a result of civil strife.

Good leaders somehow figure out how to move forward with building better lives through education and then once educated, people can be employed to build a better world. Good governance and justice and vision are cornerstones of their political ideology.

Mitigating the food insecurity conflict potential is enormously difficult. We have been working in regions all over the world for decades, and still people are hungry. However, if people elect good leaders, and by “good” I am referring to leaders of peace, security, reconstruction, stabilization and economic development, then we can help them do this. We have the brainpower right here in the U.S. to mentor and guide and encourage them. This is the strategic work of reconstruction and stabilization, and the work requires the long-timeframe view.

I am recalling here a couple of months ago when the good news out of Afghanistan was the discovery of a huge mineral deposit worth many billions (possibly trillion) of dollars. I thought at the time what a great opportunity for an Afghan national leader to view this as the spark for visionary renewal. What wonderful leadership could be if someone were to say to the world...“help us develop this national wealth; we will keep the value of this wealth right here in Afghanistan so all of you can soon go home. We can do this with your help…”

This all may seem somewhat idealistic, an imaginary model that cannot be written or implemented. Not at all. For those of us in expeditionary careers, we go because we do believe in models just like this. I am not the first, nor the last to say true development comes only when good leaders are elected. For all of the developmental money that is poured into places soon after the humanitarian effort is moved to the background and certainly away from the current news cycle, the return on investment is squarely a function of its allocation by local and national leadership.

Finding, mentoring, training and then getting out of the way of good leaders is our great calling. We cannot afford to simply install projects like irrigation canals or increase soil fertility or import hybrid seeds (or tractors, cold storage units or even Extension training) without asking what comes next.

My experience of disappointment for what comes next is a failure of these assets in terms of sustainability. For there is no long-term strategic plan, because this work is difficult...and without good leadership in Iraq, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan, then development slows to a crawl or is even non-existent.

This is our challenge. Our economic development models around the world must be based on good leadership. The same is true right here at home. The question, admittedly, of defining “good” is a challenge itself. But if this were easy, it already would be done. PD

Mike Gangwer