Books

09.14.13

We Abandoned Them: Kirk Johnson’s Fight to Save Iraqis

One man has fought for years to try to right one of America’s least forgivable wrongs in the Iraq War: our abandonment of tens of thousands of Iraqis who helped us. Kirk Johnson speaks to John Kael Weston about his book and why the fight goes on.

I first met Kirk Johnson mid-2005 in Fallujah. A former Fulbright Scholar in Egypt and fluent in Arabic, he served as the USAID representative, helping oversee projects to rebuild the city, which was the site of the biggest street-to-street battle of the Iraq war. Marine-led American troops leveled half of Fallujah in an effort clear insurgents and al Qaeda-linked terrorists. The massive assault began in November 2004 just after President George W. Bush was reelected to a second term. The ambassador told me pre-battle, “Not that I have any inside information, but I don’t think the White House wants Fallujah on the front pages before election day.”

Exactly, I thought. War: continuation of politics by other, bloody means.

Johnson’s book, To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis the Americans Left Behind, combines memoir, his own tough journey in the war and after, with an account that movingly chronicles numerous Iraqi interpreters who were abandoned as U.S. troops departed. Few other post-9/11 books give voice to Iraqis, who paid the highest price in our unnecessary, elective war. This is a credit to Johnson’s close relationships with them and his persistence in recording their stories—and the book’s publisher, Scribner.

In one memorable section titled, “Incoming,” Johnson includes an excerpt from “A Short Guide to Iraq.” The government distributed it in 1943 to U.S. military personnel inbound to Iraq, sent there in order to blunt Hitler’s geopolitical moves. Troops were advised, “You aren’t going to Iraq to change the Iraqis. Just the opposite. We are fighting this war to preserve the principle of ‘live and let live.’” In another nod to Johnson’s Nordic family heritage, he references the Viking “Saga of Njall Burned Alive.” It should serve as fair warning to those gung-ho deskbound warriors in Washington with cruise missile, battle-plan maps of the Middle East still adorning their office walls.

The well-written book—the author is an honest, engaging and indomitable guide—warrants a special place in nonfiction shelves. He captures the tragicomedy of Iraq better than anyone else’s chronicle I have read so far (and I’ve read a lot). Most importantly, here is an American who went to war and, once back home, cared enough to remember our endangered local partners. He then did something about it. He started a list. Like World War II’s Oskar Schindler, he saved lives. Many. To Be a Friend is Fatal is exacting writing of conscience and accountability—personal on his part more than national, alas—that deserves wide readership. Its themes will resonate as rumors of more war in Syria gain momentum in Washington.

The final page of Johnson’s book—an excerpt from an Iraqi on his list named Hayder—should be placed into the inbox of the current commander in chief and others in the White House war cabinet.

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Tell us about the motivation for your book and its title, an ironic one given the quote it is based on. 

I wrote this book to do some small measure of justice to the thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives in service to America. There are shelves of books about one particular battle or another American’s “year in Iraq.” I wanted to introduce the country to these heroic Iraqis whose decision to help us cost them their country. I wanted to refract the war through their eyes inasmuch possible, rather than write something trivial about the time a mortar landed nearby and how I felt afterwards. The story of what happened to these Iraqis is ongoing and cuts to the heart of who we are as a nation after a dozen years of war, and it is a regrettably unpleasant story: we shower these Iraqis with certificates of appreciation when we need them, but regard them as potential terrorists when they need us.

The title derives from a quote of Henry Kissinger’s, which was relayed to me in an email from a former Iraqi colleague at USAID who was then running for his life: “To be an enemy of the United States is dangerous, but to be a friend is sometimes fatal.” Of course, Kissinger was referring to the South Vietnamese who were about to be overrun by the North, but the relevance is obvious.

Describe U.S. government-issued badges and life outside the “Green Zone” and in the “Red Zone” (i.e., the rest of Iraq) for our Iraqi partners. The cover image of your book—a dangling badge—resembles a noose, understandably so.  

In order to work alongside U.S. diplomats, aid workers, soldiers, and marines, Iraqis had to go through security screening, in which their retinas and fingerprints were scanned. After clearing a polygraph examination, they were then issued U.S. government ID badges, allowing them to get through military-manned checkpoints at the entrance to the Green Zone and bases throughout the country. These IDs were a death sentence if any other Iraqis noticed them, though, so America’s Iraqi employees went to great lengths to conceal their badges when they were out in the “red zone” (what American officials called any part of Iraq beyond the blast walls). My colleagues at USAID hid theirs in shoes, brassieres, and secret pockets.

You’re right to pick up on the noose imagery. In the book, I write about one Iraqi I met on a return trip to Baghdad in 2009 to visit with scores of Iraqis who emerged from hiding with the hope that the List Project could help advance their cases. After days of meetings in run-down hotel rooms at the Rasheed Hotel, where Iraqis showed me the stumps of their amputated limbs, knotty, bullet-ridden flesh, and the badges, awards, and commendation letters from U.S. officials that had since abandoned them, I found myself sitting across the table from a young Iraqi interpreter who had traveled for days to meet me. When I asked for his badge, his face clouded, and he told me about how he had been taken hostage at a Shi’a militia’s checkpoint the previous year. They threw him in the trunk of their car because they believed he was a Sunni. As he’s lying there, he realizes that his U.S. government badge is in his sock: if they find out that he’s helping the Americans, they’ll surely kill him. If they only think he’s a Sunni, they’ll just force his family to sell off their belongings to pay a ransom. So he breaks the hard plastic badge into small pieces and swallows it. A year later, when I met him, he was languishing in the bureaucracy of our government. If you really worked for us, where’s your badge?

The first Iraqis you introduce, Yaghdan and Haifa, preview their stories a bit. Zina’s too, which comes up later. 

There would be no List Project without Yaghdan. He’s an incredible human being who wasn’t not particularly ideological or politically engaged. At the time of the invasion, he was running a small computer supply shop with a friend. When security devolved, he was shot in the leg by a group of men robbing his store. Six months later, once he was capable of walking, he took a job with the Americans, helping us with reconstruction projects in the education sector. He was a highly-valued Iraqi employee of USAID, where I first befriended him in 2005, but already having to live a double-life because of the lethal stigma that had grown around Iraqis ‘collaborating’ with America.

In the early days of the war, the Iraqis who stepped forward as interpreters were hailed by their countrymen. It wasn’t considered an act of betrayal when everyone’s hopes were still high. It wasn’t until the horrific bungling of the reconstruction, the spiraling lack of security, and our heavy-handed responses to the fledgling insurgency (Abu Ghraib, kicking in doors, widespread arrests, etc.) that the rift opened and our Iraqi employees – tens and tens of thousands of them – were seen as traitors and spies.

Give us an overview of the “List Project.” How it got started. That first LA Times op-ed—and the roles of George Packer, the late Senator Edward Kennedy, and pro bono help from leading law firms. 

I wish I could say it was part of some grand strategy, but the story of the List Project is one seven year struggle to find a way to solve a problem so that I could move on with my life. After a draining year in Baghdad and Fallujah, I took what was meant to be a five-day vacation in the Caribbean. During my second night there, I entered into a PTSD-driven dissociative fugue state and sleep-walked out of my hotel window, landing on concrete and breaking both wrists, my jaw and nose, and cracking my skull in two places. It took about 70 stitches to sew my face shut. I spent most of 2006 wallowing in PTSD, depression, and a sense that I had failed completely in Iraq: nothing I had done would last, the projects I’d started unraveled in my absence, and nobody was sent to replace me in Fallujah. I just hadn’t been good enough to help solve any of the problems.

It wasn’t until Yaghdan wrote to me that I snapped out my self-pity. He had been identified by a militia while emerging from the Green Zone one afternoon in October 2006. The next morning he found a severed dog’s head on his front step, with a note saying that his head would be next. He brought the death threat to USAID, which told him he’d have two weeks of unpaid leave to sort out his problems on his own before they gave his job to someone else. That’s how three years of service were repaid.

I was pissed off, so I wrote an op-ed about his situation in the Los Angeles Times. Within hours of its publication, I was bombarded with dozens, then hundreds of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis who were desperate to tell me their stories and seek help. In the absence of any better idea, I opened up Excel and started added names to a list. In early 2007, I brought the first list to the State Department, which is around the time that George Packer began work on a huge exposé about the Bush administration’s shabby treatment of our Iraqi allies for The New Yorker. The publication of that piece, which touched on my list, funneled hundreds more names into my inbox.

I launched the List Project on World Refugee Day in June 2007 with an incredible group of lawyers from the country’s top law firms: Holland and Knight, Mayer Brown, and Proskauer Rose. Suddenly, thousands of Iraqis on my list had access to their own free attorneys who tenaciously pushed their cases through an impossibly opaque and complicated bureaucracy at the Departments of State and Homeland Security. Many more firms eventually joined, making it to my knowledge the largest pro bono commitment on behalf of refugees in U.S. history.

As for Senator Kennedy, it wasn’t until he took up the cause that the Bush Administration started to budge. He spearheaded the bi-partisan Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act, which created 25,000 Special Immigrant Visas for our Iraqi allies, to be granted at the pace of 5,000/year over five years. But I had no way of anticipating how effectively the Bush and Obama administrations would be in neutering the Act through bureaucratic fiat. That legislation is set to expire in just a couple weeks with roughly 15,000 unused visas, which is particularly bitter for the many Iraqis who are still desperate for some action on their case.

Government bureaucracy. You write about initially being more hopeful with the Obama administration versus the Bush administration. Compare the two for us regarding their efforts to help Iraqis and Afghans who worked with us, risking everything. Your chapter, “Subjective Fear” highlights how Orwellian government can be in it circular word games.

I’d like to let the book speak to this point, but the short answer is that the Obama administration is posting admissions numbers that are frequently lower than Bush’s. Discouraging isn’t a strong enough word. With Bush, I at least knew that the White House was opposed to my mission: it conflicted with their messaging that we were on the path to victory in Iraq after the magical ‘surge.’ I had high-ranking Democrats that were willing to drag administration officials in for tough hearings. The lines were neatly drawn.

With Obama, we had a president who spoke forcefully (as a candidate) on the need to protect our Iraqi allies. “This is not how we treat our friends…that is not who we are as Americans. Keeping this moral obligation is a key part of how we turn the page in Iraq. Because what’s at stake is bigger than this war – it’s our global leadership.” I had access, suddenly, to a sympathetic White House and Samantha Power at the National Security Council.

But this was never their war, and this issue was never really embraced. The numbers started dropping and within a couple years, all I heard in NSC meetings were Bush-sounding lectures about how those of us outside the government don’t have access to the same intelligence that they do. I’m no longer on their invite list after writing a critical op-ed in the New York Times on the last day of the Iraq War, but that’s fine: there’s nothing that I could say in those meetings that isn’t already plainly obvious to everyone in the room. The prospect for saving our imperiled interpreters in Afghanistan, which one could argue was more ‘their war,’ now seems doomed.  

Have USAID and the State Department retained lessons-learned from these two long wars? You reference how former USAID head Andrew Natsios predicted total rebuilding costs would be under $2 billion dollars and of course U.S. troops would be welcomed in Iraqi streets. 

It takes some powerful self-deception to indulge in the notion of “lessons learned” after a dozen years of war. Look at the flood of embarrassing reports surfacing in the final year of the war in Afghanistan as a result of the tenacious John Sopko, who is the first serious Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction that we’ve posted there. A $34 million command facility built by the military in Helmand that will now sit empty. We’ve dumped $95 billion into the reconstruction there, but he can’t even get State, USAID, or the Pentagon to give him a list of their 10 most successful projects. Friends of mine that served there with USAID find it difficult to point to lasting impacts.

It doesn’t seem like we care to learn lessons, even when there’s an unbelievable and unprecedented wealth of knowledge from which to draw. Ask SIGIR or SIGAR how many people download their audits and investigations. The overwhelming majority of the ‘best and brightest’ that I knew flared out in Iraq: it was such a crushing experience for many of us. USAID is essentially a contract-oversight organization at this point, so we get $3 billion from Congress to rebuild Iraq’s electrical infrastructure, which we then give to Bechtel. Bechtel then spends about 30-50 cents out of every dollar on overhead and security, and then gives a big chunk of the balance to a subcontractor to implement a project, which can take years to complete, and doesn’t really matter if they succeed or fail because the contracts are cost-plus. I sat in meetings at the Bechtel compound in where it’d be two frustrated USAID officials versus twenty Bechtel officials and another twenty Bechtel lawyers patched in through on a conference call: it was made quite clear to us who wore the pants and wielded the whip in this relationship.

Learning lessons means studying history, which has never been an American pursuit. I am convinced that our textbooks will eventually merge the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars into a vague “War on Terror” which will likely become our generation’s Korean War: great cost, great sacrifice, horrendous casualties, and completely forgotten or disregarded. A confusing conflict that ended in stalemate. We prefer cleaner narratives like “good war” (WWII) and “bad war” (Vietnam). Anything in that muddy in-between is washed from our memory.

Which leads me to “The MOAG”  … symbol of all that was and went wrong? (For Afghanistan veterans: the MOAG is Iraq’s version of the bloody white elephant, Kajaki Dam project, in Helmand Province.) 

I had to write about MOAG, the Mother of All Generators, because it so powerfully reflects just how insanely misguided our reconstruction efforts were. After all, the amount of generated electricity quickly became the principal barometer of violence: the U.S. could speak loftily about its reconstruction programs, but Iraqis were only getting a few hours of power a day and losing confidence in us.

It’s a nutty story: in 2003, USAID purchased a Siemens V94 generator for $50 million. It was intended for a newly-constructed power plant in Kirkuk, but we first had to get it from the Syrian port city of Tartous. With a weight of 700 tons, it had to be transported on special 120-tire trucks at a maximum rate of five miles per hour. We got MOAG to the Tishrim Dam on the Euphrates river east of Aleppo when we reached our first problem: the U.S. Government had imposed sanctions on Syria, which retaliated by refusing to let us drive the generator across the dam. So the decision was made to reroute the fragile generator through Jordan and then through Iraq’s most volatile Anbar province. This added years of delays. For most of 2004 and 2005, the generator sat near the Jordan-Iraq border, costing us about $20,000/day in private security to protect it. In order to securely get it to Kirkuk, we had to repave roads, clear away low-hanging power lines, rebuild bridges, and somehow navigate it through the heart of the insurgency. A single Kalashnikov round could destroy the generator.

Miraculously, and thanks to three hundred Marines and Cobra attack helicopters, the convoy made it to Kirkuk. I flew up in the Ambassador’s Blackhawk as part of the public affairs effort to sell this as a huge success story. What the journalists didn’t know – in addition to the appalling cost overruns – was that nobody had bothered to train the Iraqi plant workers in the operations and maintenance of this state-of-the-art generator. So, months after it was handed over in a triumphant ribbon-cutting ceremony, the generator was broken.

What’s depresses me is that for that amount of money, we could have trucked in hundreds of smaller-bore generators on the backs of semi trucks in a matter of weeks. But that’s a much less sexy ribbon-cutting opportunity.

There are still thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis desperate for a visa.

I was impressed by your consistent public messaging of the U.S. role in a prior war, Vietnam – your dad’s and my own -- when Washington did not abandon our local allies. Remind us of that chapter, the “better angels” of a Superpower ending a war, and two heroic diplomats named Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone.  

Very early on in my work with the List Project, Ken Bacon, the venerable and dearly-departed head of Refugees International, sent me a scan of a weathered Washington Post article about two young Foreign Service Officers named Lionel Rosenblatt and Craig Johnstone. They were outraged by the lack of contingency planning to protect the Embassy’s South Vietnamese employees, so they went AWOL, posing as French businessmen and secreting their colleagues through checkpoints and onto departing military aircraft. For their efforts, they were rewarded with an arrest warrant from the State Department.

Vietnam cannot be separated from Iraq. Most of the people making the decisions in Iraq had served (or avoided service) in Vietnam. A lot of the grunts in Vietnam became our generals and senators. It’s pointless to draw simple parallels because these are tremendously complex wars, but I was driven to understand why and how so many Vietnamese refugees were eventually resettled to the United States, when I was having such a hell of a time resettling even small numbers of Iraqis.

I won’t repeat the whole history here since it’s in the book, but suffice it to say, it wasn’t until President Ford took control of the situation that we started to do right by the Vietnamese who risked their lives to help soldiers like your dad and mine. The country, exhausted from a long war, wasn’t keen to open its doors to Vietnamese refugees, but Ford said that “to do less would be to add moral shame to humiliation.” In a matter of a few months, Congress passed a $450 million Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act and we resettled 130,000 refugees. Over the course of the next several years, America admitted over one million Vietnamese and Laotian refugees. It never occurred to me to wonder why I grew up with Laotian and Vietnamese classmates in West Chicago until I studied this part of our history.

And James McDonald from a World War II-era U.S. government? 

Learning about what we’d done in Vietnam only made me more eager to search for other historical precedents. I soon discovered the recently-published diaries of James McDonald, a special adviser to FDR who struggled mightily throughout the 1930s and early 40s on behalf of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. He came up against anti-Semitic visa policies in the State Department, which stymied his efforts on behalf of lists of imperiled Jews. His diaries include a cable from June 1940 from Breckinridge Long, the Assistant Secretary of State in charge of the refugee bureau, which laid out the marching orders for consular officers: “We can delay and effectively stop for a temporary period of indefinite length the number of immigrants into the United States. We could do this by simply advising our consuls to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.” It’s like a blueprint for the State Department of the 21st century. 

Do you think literature from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has sufficiently addressed the question of “what was it like over there?” Do you have other books or authors to recommend?

I don’t know that this will be a popular answer, but it’s just far too tall an order for one book to convey what it was like over there. People who want to know need to be diligent and read as many books as they can, and even then, it’ll still be only a wisp of an understanding. I sound like a scold, but I can only claim to know what it was for a young civilian working on reconstruction efforts at a particular moment in the war, and, what happened to the Iraqis who worked for us. This book is not an Iraq-through-the-crosshairs account, which would give readers a completely different sense of what it was like. But you’d have to have zero humility not to acknowledge that the Iraq of 2005 was quite different from the Iraq of 2008 and from the Iraq of 2013.  

Perhaps there are U.S.-based Iraqis on your list who will one day write a book about the war experience from their perspective. What might he or she have to say? 

Yes, I hope that they’ll write their own stories one day. You’d think I’d be pretty numbed by this point, but every time I talk with any of the 1,500+ Iraqis resettled by the List Project, I am floored by the stories that emerge. I’ve tried to do justice to a number of them in the book, but was forced by space constraints to leave many out.

How many names, life-death cases left unresolved, are on your list right now? And are you optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects of helping more Iraqis and Afghans relocate to the U.S. under current immigration procedures?

There are still thousands of U.S.-affiliated Iraqis desperate for a visa. At the beginning of this year, the queue in Embassy/Baghdad was roughly 2,000 cases (meaning upwards of 4-5,000 individuals). The List Project was told that unless an Iraqi’s case receives a coveted and rare ‘expedite’ order, it will be about two full years before they can come in for their first interview. Such is the capacity of the largest embassy on the face on the planet. Anyone who doesn’t have a visa in hand by the end of September is screwed unless the legislation is reauthorized, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves: even if we renewed the bill, it would still take something like 15 years to hand out the remaining visas at the current, glacial pace.

It’s impossible to look at these figures and come to any other conclusion: the government could care less about these people once they’re no longer needed. Afghans are now writing to me in mounting numbers. One of them just sent a pile of recommendation letters, nearly 100 pages in all, a few of them from the current Ambassador in Kabul. After 11 years of service, his visa was just denied due to “derogatory information.”

They’re in for a far worse fate than the Iraqis.

This interview has been edited and condensed from the original.

To Be a Friend is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis the Americans Left Behind

By Kirk W. Johnson

352 pages. Scribner. $26.