by Mike Greene '07
I enrolled at Trinity in the fall of 2003. With Sept. 11’s wounds still fresh, the “Coalition of the Willing” had crossed the line of departure to liberate the Iraqi people and prevent weapons of mass destruction from falling to our enemies elsewhere in the world. From the perspective of an 18-year-old, foreign policy was black-and-white: the unassailable tide of the enlightenment was under attack yet again, not from imperialists, fascists, or communists, but from a reactionary religious sect bent on destroying hundreds of years of progress and tolerance.
So I joined the Marine Corps my freshman year through a program that allowed me to train during summer breaks and enter active duty upon graduation. In the interim, I gravitated toward the political science department at Trinity, in hopes it would help me better understand the dynamics of the situation unfolding on the other side of the globe. A few classes stand out—political science professor Sussan Siavoshi’s “State, Society and Change in the Middle East,” and retired political science professor Guy Poitras’ “Nationalism and Ethnicity in World Politics.” My time at Trinity broadened my perspective and helped me understand the shades of gray in foreign policy and international affairs.
Seeing the conflict firsthand during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan deepened my understanding of the challenges of nation-building and left me with a better appreciation of the humanity of the Iraqi and Afghani people.
After graduation and some additional training, I joined 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, an infantry unit part of the storied “Old Breed”—the 1st Marine Division. We deployed to Nineveh Province, Iraq, in 2009, with the mission of interdicting weapons smugglers from Syria. A month and a half into our deployment, we moved to a string of bases in western Al Anbar Province and received a new mission: to foster economic and political development and maintain security for the Western Euphrates River Valley.
The former portion of our mission—fostering economic and political development—is an assignment with which units like mine were frequently tasked yet ill prepared. While the Army and the Marine Corps made leaps and bounds in counterinsurgency—partnering with citizens to train local militias and root out destructive guerrilla groups—it was apparent on the ground that we lacked the resources and capabilities needed to transform the political and economic landscape of Iraq (and later, Afghanistan).
That is not to say we did not try. We were augmented with career NYPD police officers and additional Judge Advocate staff to help train Iraqi police and prosecutors. We collaborated with civil affairs units to build roads and schools.
We proudly reported progress in terms of schools built and dollars invested in infrastructure, the best we could do for an objective measure. We built with the best of intentions, but with no functioning education administration—no one to register students, hire and pay teachers, purchase textbooks—a school is just a building destined to be abandoned. And with no firm willing to invest in Iraq—build a plant or a refinery or a call center—a road is just a stretch of gravel or concrete destined to be forsaken.
Each week, our staff briefed the commander on the capabilities of civil, police, and military leadership against dimensions like “rule of law,” “economic development” and “civil institutions.” Our assessment was wholly subjective; none of the career infantrymen (with whom it remains my proudest honor to have served) leading our unit had any expertise in economic or political development. Tellingly, each unit began their seven-month deployment assessing these elements as “red to orange” and moved them to “green” over the course of their deployment, only to be replaced by another unit who re-assessed each dimension as “red to orange.” Each unit made progress, but it is tough to say if we made lasting change.
After seven months, 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines returned to California to rest and reconstitute for a deployment to Afghanistan a year later.
In the fall of 2010, we deployed to southern Helmand Province, Afghanistan, assigned to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) and root out and destroy the Taliban, which was still very active at the time. Our unit, composed of approximately 1,000 troops, occupied more than 50 bases, ranging from company headquarters with more than 100 people to four-man outposts led by a corporal no older than a fraternity pledge. The combination of an active enemy and a highly distributed footprint created many logistical challenges; one of the unique tools in our kit to address these challenges was the Field Ordering Officer (FOO) program.
The FOO program allowed field units to purchase services and materials below a certain dollar threshold from local Afghan contractors. As a logistics officer, I was placed in charge of our unit’s FOO program. Through the program, I developed a close relationship with Agha Mohammed, an illiterate and exceptionally warm Pashtun businessman and father of three girls, the oldest probably 6 or 7 years old. Agha became our go-to guy, capable of sourcing virtually anything we needed, ranging from household appliances to construction crews and heavy equipment.
As his main point of contact, I got to know Agha quite well; he would even bring his daughters to our base when he would check in on his work crews. Agha and I spoke through an interpreter, but his daughters understood our sergeant major’s magic tricks and knew they had free rein of the candy stashed from a thousand different care packages from the States. Like any little girl around dad’s business contacts, his daughters were bashful around us; but Skittles and magic tricks are universal, and I know they cherished their visits to our base.
Agha would also bring dinner once or twice a month—lamb, rice, and naan cooked by his wife in their home a mile or two away—to sit and eat with my logistics chief and me. I always looked forward to dinners with Agha. It was a chance to enjoy local cuisine and talk to someone who had seen Afghanistan under Taliban rule, seen the turmoil after the U.S. invasion, and now enjoyed relative peace and stability. My sense is that the political dynamics meant little or nothing to him—above all else, he wanted safety and the chance to provide for his family.
It has been five years since I returned from Afghanistan and started a new career. While I was there, we made progress: Iraq and Afghanistan were better, safer places to be than they were before we arrived. For a time, people like Agha were able to return to their normal lives because we prevented insurgent groups from creating havoc.
However, we struggled to create lasting social, political, and economic change. Today, ISIS controls much of Anbar and Nineveh and the Taliban is gaining ground in Helmand. We achieved progress, but perhaps not transformative change; I cannot say definitively whether our efforts were a success or failure. For my part, I was fortunate enough to befriend Pashtuns, NYPD cops, and many among the “Old Breed of American Regular”—and I certainly do not see the world as black and white anymore.
Mike Greene is a management consultant with McKinsey & Co. in Chicago. He served four years in the Marine Corps after graduating from Trinity in 2007.