In Iraq, there’s plenty that can go wrong. For our group, there was plenty that went wrong, but in ways we would never have imagined.
In the US, it’s safe to live by the cutesy little cliché “Trust but verify.” In Iraq it’s “Trust no one, especially not the people telling you to trust no one.” And even this wouldn’t turn out to be sufficient.
Even now, with considerable time separating us from the trip, the members of our group still have a difficult time pinpointing exactly when it was that things started going downhill. And things would go from downhill to rock bottom with the swiftness of an unopposed vehicle speeding down an open Iraqi road.
How deep a hole we’d manage to dig ourselves into would leave us in awe, especially given the fact that on paper everything had seemed to make so much sense. We had everything we needed—vehicles, equipment, security, a list of objectives and well-detailed plans. And none of us were amateurs either. Regardless, it wouldn’t take more than a few simple steps before our group would break up, and Mac, the trip’s organizer—whose name has been changed—would find himself one decision away from ending up on the inside of a jail cell.
Step 1: Poor Planning
Wait. To be clear, the poor planning was not on my part. It’s important that we get that out of the way, especially as my wife will be reading this. The poor planning was one of those curveballs deceitful enough to render all manner of planning—whether in abundance or in dearth—indiscriminately immaterial. What was my role in this curveball metaphor? Let’s just say I was the umpire who identified the curveball as it approached, while most of the group had labored under the false assurance that we wouldn’t be playing baseball.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, the consulting firm seemed to have everything worked out. Okay, not everything. No one in our team of 50 reporters, cameramen and election monitors had plane tickets arranged, and this was a mere three days before our scheduled departure.
“There’s been a last-minute change in place,” Mac explained. “The funders decided to cut the size of the group.” And just like that, we were down from 50 to about a dozen, which conflicted directly with whatever arrangements and coordination had been worked out prior to that point. Not that there were any in the first place, we’d come to learn.
Actually, when I had requested an advance itinerary so I could see what the trip was expected to look like, I was told that it couldn’t be provided due to security concerns. “We cannot risk having an itemized list of our travel plans fall into the wrong hands,” someone explained to me. Except, as I would later find out, there had never been such a list in the first place. Or perhaps there had been, but there were no commitments on the part of the people we were supposed to interview and meet with. This resulted in empty slots, plenty of down time, and hastily made arrangements. And down time gives people time to reflect on the possible basis for the down time and hastily made arrangements.
Step 2: When Great Security Turns Out to
Be Bad Security
Our Kurdish security detail, with their assortment of AK-47s, handguns and RPG launchers (yes, literally RPGs, tons and tons of them!) seemed highly competent. They had squared off against ISIS for years; they had the scars to prove it and found plenty of opportunities to show them off. These individuals had become conditioned, through both their personalities and their culture, to run toward the firefight.
In a country where even those who have jobs don’t always expect to get paid, working as security for an American delegation is a gold mine. It’s the everyday Kurd’s opportunistic equivalent of pawning confiscated drones on eBay. And how is great money earned in the security industry? With a sterling reputation. Reputation, plus a cunning dose of chicanery. Working the security beat, coupled with high quantities of reputation and cunning, can create a somewhat lavish lifestyle for the average Kurd.
Iraq is very dangerous. You’re not safe anywhere. In fact, no one is safe anywhere. Which is why you need security. Lots and lots of security. The more security, the more time we would have to make a run for it when ISIS showed up. At least, that’s what security kept telling us. And we were inclined to believe them, in blatant violation of the rule “Trust no one.”
In certain areas, instead of a security entourage, an armed fixer or two would suffice; at least, that’s what the fixers tried to convince me. But could I trust them?