“Bring NATO Back:” The Story of How I (and Others) Enabled Iraq to Fight Terrorism Through a Partnership with the Allies

On one of the most beautiful days I had seen in Baghdad, Iraq in my five months being posted to the Political-Military Affairs section of the US Embassy there, I had my final lunch with Colonel Mike Russell, and Irishman and officer in the British Army. We went to the dining facility and had what the dining staff called “carbonara.” We weren’t sure what it was, other than some army noodles with a white sauce. There was no bacon, no egg, no parmesan cheese. We grabbed ourselves a table, a long, standard folding table lined with simple chairs. As we slurped up our pasta dish, we reminisced. We talked about what Col. Russell’s job would be when he returned home from Iraq, the future of Mesopotamia, and shared stories of the NATO training team in Iraq, the group for which Col. Russell was the chief of staff. The NATO training mission had about 150 people and had been operating in the country since 2004. But now they were leaving. Negotiations between NATO Headquarters in Brussels and the Iraqi Government failed to produce a mutually agreed upon agreement to continue the mission, so they had to pack up. It was mid-December 2011, and the NATO team’s current agreement expired at the end of the month, and today was the day they were departing to ensure they had room after their withdrawal to ensure all its people and personnel had departed.

As we finished our meal and walked out of the dining facility, we took a stroll down the main street on the compound and enjoyed the weather: about 75 degrees (21 Celsius) and beautifully sunny, as the minor sandstorm we had earlier in the day had cleared. Strolling down the main street on the base, we asked a passing colleague to take a picture of us. One last one in case we never saw each other again. We had worked closely together for the past four months, but today it came to a close.

“Parker, I have something for you,” he said, handing me a small box.

I opened it and gave a beaming smile. It was the British Union Jack flag that flew in the NATO mission headquarters. It was small, about two feet by three feet, and had a fringe lining. I felt so honored. What a present to bequeath to someone like me. I didn’t think I deserved something so symbolic. I told him how thankful I was, that I’d never forget it, and I’d always have the flag, as I still do today. I gave Mike a hug and said that I hoped I would see him again. Mike and the few NATO officers who remained departed that night.

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Above: Colonel Mike Russell, getting ready to depart Iraq

The next day, a Reuters article informed the world of the mission closure and that the negotiations had failed to produce a new agreement. The last sentence in the article boasted how NTM-I’s 100 or so troops trained more than 15,000 Iraqi police forces from in an eight-year period.

The next day, I ran into Jim Jeffrey, the US Ambassador to Iraq, in the hallway outside his office. He didn’t ever say much to me, but when I saw him this time, his words were even more pointed than ever in his thick Boston accent.

“Pahkah, NATO’s dehpahted?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bring NATO back.”

This three-word directive would be the defining moment of my year-long assignment in Iraq and the ultimate task of my government service. Ambassador Jeffrey gave me no specific guidance on how to proceed, but his order was clear. The partnership needed to go on. The Iraq-NATO-US alliance had to be strong. Iraq must be tied to the West.

Bring NATO back. So began a five-month-long endeavor.

The first thing I had to do to in my question to bring NATO back to Iraq was to get to NATO Headquarters-sponsored “Lessons Learned” conference at the NATO base in Naples, Italy. The NATO officers in Baghdad requested my presence there via email, and civilians from NATO Headquarters did the same. But I had a road block. His name was Bob Caslen. He was a lieutenant general (three-stars) in the US Army and the chief of the newly anointed Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, a 100+ person contingent of the US embassy that handled military-to-military relations with Iraq, as well as being also dual-hatted as the NATO commander in Iraq. He’d only been in Iraq for about three months, having arrived in late September, but he brought with him a massive supporting command staff, filled with colonels, lieutenant colonels, and majors to do his bidding. Simply put, he didn’t want or need any civilian embassy support to accomplish what he wanted, he had his own people.

Therefore, LTG Caslen wasn’t keen on my participation in the lessons learned conference, for some reason still unknown to me as of writing this. I had introduced myself to him and his staff on numerous occasions and tried to show value to him and his mission. Whether I failed to do that, or he just didn’t want me around from the beginning, I would never know. All I knew is that he didn’t want me to go to this conference. He wanted his people to go.

Considering the conference would be the start of whatever new relationship Iraq would have with NATO, I needed to be there, and I needed to be strategic to get it done. So I did what I did best: I schmoozed.

I talked to everybody I possibly could who had any influence over or with LTG Caslen, including the embassy’s Deputy Chief of Mission, the head of the Political-Military Affairs section, LTG Caslen’s aides, his deputy’s aides and executive officers, more people from NATO, and even some in the Iraqi Government. I spoke with the right people, at the right times, and used solid arguments to support why my participation in the conference was key. I thought of the potential sore spots and had answers for them.

Two days later, LTG Caslen acquiesced, but stipulated that I couldn’t travel with him and his staff to the conference, I had to arrange my own transportation. While an inconvenience, it wasn’t a problem, and I was happy that I was able to accomplish this first crucial step of my mission.

However, the conference was only a week away, and I had to make sure we had everything ready for the conference, including decision points, talking points, and extra meetings on the fringes of the conference, as necessary. While the conference was January 10th through the 12th, a Tuesday-Thursday, one of the most important meetings would occur on Monday, January 9th at NATO Headquarters. It was called the Political Partnerships Committee meeting, the single committee responsible for all NATO’s outreach programs with non-member countries. Iraq was a non-member country and this committee meeting would help determine the way forward for NATO’s relationship with Iraq. While everything had been agreed upon in principle via email and phone, this meeting would formalize the stance of each member of NATO.

In preparation for the meeting, Washington DC-based State Department officers wanted to compile guidance from all the necessary players involved, which included US Embassy Baghdad and the two relevant offices from State Department headquarters, the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and the Bureau of Near East Affairs-Iraq Office. The team in Washington would then compile it and send the compiled response to the US Mission to NATO in Brussels in time for the meeting.

I was the lead on writing the memo from the embassy’s perspective, answering three questions:

  • Do we support a new NATO cell in Baghdad?
  • How will we contribute (manpower, logistics, security, etc.)?
  • What do we see the cell doing regarding working with Iraq?

The answers to the questions were very simple. We fully supported a new team in Baghdad, would support the cell with logistics, security, life support, etc (but no manpower), and we see the cell setting the state for a formalized partnership between NATO and Iraq.

The problem was, while this was simple to me, it wasn’t simple to other people and the tale that the US Government takes a long time to accomplish simple things is true. But it was already January 3rd, a Tuesday, and the NATO meeting was happening on Monday the 9th. All cables from embassy posts must be cleared through the Ambassador, and that only happened after everyone has read and approved it.

I received approval from LTG Caslen’s office on Wednesday the 4th, but then the 5th and 6th came by without approval from the embassy’s front office. We were getting close to Washington’s closing time, at which point no one would be in the Washington office until Monday, which might be too late. My mission of bringing NATO back to Iraq was faltering because I couldn’t get an approval on a simple cable to which everyone had already agreed in principle on the answers. While I turned on the proverbial afterburners to get the approvals, explaining the criticality of the issue and urging a response I didn’t seen to get anywhere. The United States was going to be the primary supporter of any NATO presence in Iraq and our lack of response would put any future presence in jeopardy.

Later on the night of the 6th, I got a call from a colleague at NATO headquarters, Amanda Sellers, an American civilian working directly for NATO. She was going to be leading Monday’s meeting.

“Parker, the US is the only input I don’t have!”

All I could do was apologize and tell Amanda that I was working as hard as I could to get the response.

To Amanda and the rest at NATO, I imagined we were looking ridiculous. All other NATO allies had provided their policy support, as insignificant as some of that input might have been, except the most critical player in the whole equation…us.

Friday turned into Saturday with no response from the front office. Saturday turned into Sunday, and I found myself in the State Department’s special annex at the Baghdad airport. Senior State Department security officers assessed that it was still too risky to fly large amounts of Americans on commercial airlines into Baghdad, so we had our own small, 40-person aircraft to fly us between Baghdad, Iraq and Amman, Jordan that parked at this special annex. And there I was, awaiting my flight from Baghdad to Amman to begin my travel to Italy for the conference and I still had no response on this critical cable.

So I sat there in the 1970s-era row of chairs, watching highlights without sound of American sports happening back home via ESPN on a small television screen across the waiting area, hitting the refresh button my Blackberry, expecting something to show up. The front office secretary told me that Deputy Chief of Mission Steve Beecroft would be looking at the cable on Saturday, but now it was Sunday and when I checked my phone I still saw nothing. I became more hopeless.

I hopped on the plane and made the uneventful trip to Amman, Jordan, where I had to stay for a day because there were no flights from Jordan to Italy until Monday. While making a day trip to the Dead Sea and Mount Nebo, just two of the amazing tourist attractions in Jordan, my Blackberry vibrated in my pocket. The embassy had released the cable with no changes, and much to my surprise, someone in Washington came into the office that same day to compile the response and send it to the US Mission to NATO in time for Monday’s meeting. While the phrase “all is well that ends well” popped in my mind, I learned that there was a caveat to that phrase: “all is well that ends well except that you might have an ulcer at the end of it.”

Upon arriving in Naples, I paid 30 Euros to get from the airport to my hotel, where I checked in and entered my room. There were a few preparatory meetings that were happening that Monday, so I needed to get going quickly and get over to the NATO base.

I didn’t want to look like a schlep, so I needed to iron my clothes as they had been folded in my suitcase. Looking around the room, I couldn’t find an iron or an ironing board, two things I figured were staples in hotel rooms. I called the front desk.

“Hello, is there an iron in my room?”

“No, we don’t have them,” the attendant responded. “You can go to a store and buy one or use our laundry service.” Considering my clothes were clean and I needed my suit in 30 minutes, not 24 hours, I hung up and tried to look my best.

I walked through the main gate of the base, showing my diplomatic passport and having the guard check my name against an official record. All clear, I headed in and thought about how cool it was that I was there and able to represent the United States at something like this. As I walked up the hill, I looked to my left and saw the Gulf of Naples and Mediterranean Sea. It was gorgeous. The air had a slight crisp to it, and it was perfectly clear. “What a day to bring NATO back,” I thought.

The conference went well the first day and it was great to see all of the NATO guys from Iraq whom I hadn’t seen in a month since they left the country. I saw Col. Russell and we exchanged handshakes, hugs, and smiles.

“I guess we would end up seeing each other again!”

“Parker,” he said in his Irish accent, “stop talking and join us for a beer.”

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Above picture: Colonel Russell and I at the happy hour, along with a British Lieutenant Colonel (center), British Brigadier General (2nd from left), and another American civilian (left).

After a brief happy hour, I retired to my room having been up insanely early for my flights (my flight from Amman to Rome departed at 4:30 a.m.), I took it easy the rest of the night and decided to call room service. Not to my surprise, the number wouldn’t go through.  I ate a Kit Kat candy bar for dinner and went to bed. I reached over to the nightstand to set the alarm for the morning. There was no alarm clock. Luckily, I had a watch and my Blackberry.

Tuesday morning was the real start of the conference, a multi-day affair of analyzing operations plans, budgets, lessons learned, and future training programs. Series of back-to-back briefings filled the day, with breakout sessions happening on the fringes of breakfast, lunch, and any coffee breaks. On Wednesday, during a discussion about the future presence and future relationship between NATO and Iraq, I started our position:

“The US Embassy in Baghdad fully supports the NATO Transition Cell returning to Iraq, and we look forward to providing the necessary space on our compound and any associated life support, logistics, and security.” NATO knew this, considering they had received the guidance from the US Mission to NATO in time for the conference, and replied that they appreciated and needed the support and that the United States had the only embassy in Baghdad which was in a position to provide that level of support.

Amanda Sellers briefed that NATO headquarters assessed a five-person team would be the foundation of this new Transition Cell, and the team members would come from NATO Allies, who either had an interest in Iraq’s security or felt that the mission was important enough to contribute.

“The Transition Cell is the stepping stone to a formalize relationship with Iraq,” Amanda said, referring to NATO’s Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program. It was NATO’s formalized manner of specifically laying out for non-member countries the activities it would conduct with those countries: interoperability and capacity building, security reforms, and bilateral cooperation. The Transition Cell was the first piece to securing the official partnership, the formalized the long-term, strategic relationship keeping Iraq tied to the West. Everyone agreed and Amanda reported that, once approved by NATO leadership in Brussels, NATO would send out calls for Allies to provide personnel.

To celebrate our success, albeit a minor one, I went out to experience Naples with a US Army finance officer who had been working in Naples for almost eight years and played soccer on the women’s team at West Point. She knew the town well and knew the things I should do before I left. A huge “football” fan, we got tickets to the Napoli soccer game against Cesena. While on train to the stadium and enjoying some pitas and beer, a guy came up to us. He wore a white shirt, black pants, and black shoes. He had a name tag on his shirt.

“Hi, I’m sorry to bother, but are you Americans?”

“Yep,” I responded, taking a bite of my pita. “You?”

“Yes, I am. I just haven’t spoken English to someone in so long. I’m here in a mission from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. I’m not here to preach or convert, I just want to speak English for a little. Do you mind?”

I looked at my colleague, looked back at the Elder, took a swig of my beer, smiled, and said, “Not at all.” We eventually parted ways and he thanked us for the brief company. A few hours later, with a Napoli victory in the books with its 2-1 victory of Cesena, I made it back to my hotel and called it a night.

Italy was a strange place, I determined, but regardless of what had happened with my hotel or a random encounter with a Mormon missionary, we had achieved our goal: support for a Transition Cell in Iraq. It was time to get back to work.

I spent what seemed like the next two weeks following up to the conference, turning my notes into formal cables ensuring that all US personnel knew of the conference’s outcome and the good news on the way ahead: NATO wanted to be back and we wanted to support it.

The conference attendees agreed that the NATO Transition Cell (NTC) would consist of five officers from NATO allies, supported by the United States on our compound. Amanda and I both knew that funding was the most important next step in the negotiations. If the cost was too high and unrealistic, the Transition Cell might not happen.

I worked with all of the necessary embassy personnel, including our finance, facilities, legal, and personnel officers to begin obtaining the Transition Cell cost estimates, which I compiled and sent to Amanda. It was important that they had these figures as early as possible so we could work out any large discrepancies before Amanda and her boss returned to Iraq in a few weeks. They wanted to meet with Iraqi political and military counterparts and start paving the way for the Transition Cell.

In the succeeding weeks, Amanda and I split the tasks of coordinating the meetings for her boss, James Appathurai, NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy. A long title, it basically meant that he was in charge of securing and maintaining partnerships, which was critical that he have successful meetings with the right people in Baghdad. I secured meetings with American personnel, including Ambassador Jeffrey and LTG Caslen, and Amanda scheduled meetings with Iraq’s National Security Adviser Falih al-Fayyad, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari (who deferred us to his deputy), and prominent Council of Representatives member Humam al-Hammoudi.

While these formal, high-level meetings were important, they really only served a formalized purpose. Although I had only been in my position for about six months at this point, I learned that a lot of diplomacy got done outside of these formal meetings, on the fringes, at the one-on-one meetings that we had with our direct, working-level counterparts at the dinners, happy hours (not that we had them in Baghdad), and other more casual affairs. The formalized meetings, particularly between senior leaders, were strictly that: the formality. Don’t get me wrong: I always understood that there were plenty of very strategic issues being worked out directly between the US Ambassador and the Iraqi Prime Minister, but for things like this, the onus was on Amanda and me to pave the way with Iraq and ensuring US support.

Mid-February rolled around and my NATO visitors arrived. I had done my legwork with my Iraqi counterparts to help set the stage, including contacting Hamza Shareef, a long-time contact in the Iraqi National Security Advisor’s office, and asking some of my Political Section colleagues in the embassy to make phone calls to their counterparts at Iraq’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I had also primed US personnel who would be providing support to the Transition Cell to secure the office space, computer systems, and lodging that the Transition Cell would need.

Mr. Appathurai and Amanda arrived as scheduled and I escorted them to their rooms on our compound. We had a brief dinner at our dining hall to ensure the next day’s schedule and ensure our talking points matched. We kicked out of meetings the next day, starting with the Iraqi National Security Advisor, and continuing from there.

The meetings went as planned. Mr. Appathurai focused on the talking points that Amanda had drafted for him with my input, and the Iraqis all agreed that they wanted to continue the relationship with NATO. They were not interested in starting new partnerships with China or Russia because they valued the experience, knowledge, and expertise that NATO provided via its many centers of excellence across Europe.

The picture on the left is a meeting between James Appathurai, second from left, and Humam al-Hammoudi, second from right. I am taking notes slightly off camera on the far left. The picture on the right is a formal meeting between members of the Iraqi National Security Council, James Appathurai, and Lieutenant General Bob Caslen.

One of the last stops we made was to the set of an Iraqi television news channel. He was experienced at this, having been NATO’s spokesperson for six years before his assignment as a Deputy Assistant Secretary General. The only issue for us was that the television channel was not in the “green zone,” the area of Baghdad that was secured and locked down by Iraqi security forces. That meant we needed body armor, helmets, three vehicles, and a 12-person personal security detail. Violence in Iraq, particularly Baghdad, had gone down significantly, but the threat of any Western being killed or captured would have been detrimental.

We arrived at the television station, which had been “pre-surveyed” by an advance personal security detail, removed our helmets and body armor, and walked inside. To my surprise, despite some of the rubble outside the main entrance, the set looked professional: several large television cameras, quality microphones, good lighting system. I was impressed.

The host asked Mr. Appathurai questions in Arabic, which were translated to him, and he responded in English, which the television station would translate back into Arabic when they aired the interview.

Upon re-donning our personal protective equipment and returning to the compound, we were proud of our accomplishments. Mr. Appathurai secured the high-level support we needed, and Amanda and I celebrated a successful visit. Mr. Appathurai returned to Brussels the next day, while Amanda stayed in Iraq for two extra days for follow-up one-on-one meetings with me and our other direct counterparts at the embassy and in the Iraqi Government.

Although we had accompanied Mr. Appathurai to meet the National Security Adviser, Amanda and I returned to his office to meet with Hamza Shareef, our point of contact there. Hamza always got things done and it seemed that he was the only one in his office to actually work. He always treated me very well, offering me piping hot sweet tea upon entering his office. His desk, always cluttered with stacks of paper, was in the corner of a large office that sat Hamza and about four of his coworkers. I was sure he carried the office on his shoulders, which probably is why he would always start off our discussions in the same way.

“Mr. Parker, I’m tired.”

“Sayed (Arabic for “mister”) Hamza, I know you are…you’re always tired,” I’d respond as we would lift our tea glasses to take a sip.

This meeting with Amanda was no different. Hamza knew Amanda from the previous visit she made to Iraq in November, and they kept in email contact since then. After some brief discussion about the visit to that point, we got down to the real business matter for our visit.

“Hamza, the relationship between NATO and Iraq is very important to the United States, and it’s important to NATO, as well,” I said. “And I know that Iraq truly valued the support it received from NATO.” Amanda explained all of the benefits that NATO brought to the table: its schoolhouses, its advising capability, and in many cases, its funding. I continued, “We need to be sure that the National Security Adviser will support the NATO Transition Cell to ensure that relationship endures.” Hamza was nodding. “Will Mr. Fayyad [the National Security Adviser] support the mission?”

“Yes, yes, of course. We look forward to it.”

Although Amanda and I had been in contact with Hamza for months, this is what we needed. If Hamza said something would get done, it happened. If he ever said “inshallah,” meaning “God willing” in Arabic, we knew there was no chance. It was just how Arab culture worked. Yes meant yes. Inshallah meant no. We had our affirmative response. As long as the Iraqis supported it, the US and NATO could work out any petty differences.

Mr. Appathurai, upon returning to Brussels, sent a formal letter to Ambassador Jeffrey thanking him for the support to his visit, and I got a shout out: “Allow me to highlight the efficient and attentive support given by Mr. Parker Schaffel throughout the visit.” I felt good about that and called Amanda to tell her how nice it was to see that.

“Yes, Parker, it’s great,” she said. “I wanted to make sure you were recognized for your hard work,” she added. When Ambassador Jeffrey received the note, he tasked me to write his response, thanking Mr. Appathurai for the letter and confirming the embassy’s support for the NTC.

With everyone on board, we needed to start filling the positions on the Transition Cell. The problem was that this wasn’t a prominent post for NATO positions, so most countries weren’t keen on nominating an officer. The British seemed unlikely, and the Polish were shaky. There was potential from Romania, thanks to support from the Romanian Ambassador to Iraq, but that too was unlikely. Greece had offered to lead the NTC, and Turkey conditionally offered to send an officer. During a dinner I had with the Italian Ambassador and the US and Italian defense attaches, I pressed for Italy to provide an officer for the Transition Cell because Italy had such a prominent role in training Iraqi police as part of the NATO training mission. The Italians were indecisive.

And after a 30-minute discussion, I was able to determine the root cause of their indecisiveness, the Italian motto: Buying things they don’t need with money they don’t have to impress people they didn’t even like. That’s what was happening here. Italy wanted to participate to gain stature in NATO but didn’t want to pay for it. When I told Amanda about how I deferred them to discuss any cost issues with her and the others at NATO headquarters, her response was simple:

“Nice line…and true.”

Besides, the makeup of the Transition Cell was Amanda’s task because she had access to the 28 NATO allies. My task was ensuring that the necessary formal agreements were drafted so the team could “legally” stay on our compound and reimburse us for any costs. I had no legal background and in my former life as a financial advisor, as I was highly encouraged to stay away from lawyers. When financial professionals meant lawyers, it usually meant we were headed to jail. But here, they would help get this done. Coordinating with the lawyer from the US and NATO, I was definitely behind the eight ball and had no idea what I was in for.

But I learned that lawyers do two things well and often: provide advice and tell you when you’re likely to end up in jail.

“Do a non-binding agreement between the US and NATO to start, then do a second one for binding and payment issues,” Peter Olson, the NATO Legal Advisor, told me during a visit to Brussels in March, providing the much-needed advice.

Despite having no idea what that meant, I wrote down what he said word for word. Our lawyers at the embassy would be able to figure it out. When I asked how the reimbursements for services between NATO and the US would happen, Peter gave me the other kind of advice: “I don’t care. It could go either way. You’re not going to go to jail whichever way you pick.”

When I returned to Baghdad, I briefed my leadership and the legal advisers on the situation. They agreed and we determined our next steps: Confirm the agreement between the US and NATO and work out the necessary details, then send, what they called an “Exchange of Letters” to the Iraqi Government. It was an informal, formal agreement. While not a formal treaty, it was a memorandum of understanding between the US and Iraq, and this one would state that Iraq accepted the presence of foreign personnel on the US compound.

Amanda and I drafted the policy decisions and sent the details of the Transition Cell to our respective lawyers, who put the documents into legalese. We coordinated them back in forth, included securing initial draft approval from our principals. I learned this was the way business was done in foreign policy and diplomacy. By the time any official letter gets to the desk of another principal, the work is already done and the agreement already agreed upon. It was the formality of the hundred’s hours of work. We reached that milestone in mid-April, at which point NATO had secured the personnel for the Transition Cell.

On April 28th, NATO sent its letter to the National Security Adviser’s office outlining the agreement between NATO and the Iraqi Government. The Iraqis were agreeable and on May 11th, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari went to Brussels to meet with NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow, James Appathurai, and Amanda Sellers to discuss the specific detail of the program. Amanda reported back that everything had gone as planned.

A few weeks later, on May 15th, NATO’s letter arrived in the email inbox of the embassy’s secretary, routed through the US Mission to NATO. And it came as expected, describing the official makeup of the Transition Cell, where they would live on the US compound, and the services to be provided by the US for NATO personnel, including housing, office spaces, communications equipment, food, electricity, life support, among others, as well as costs for reimbursement.

The next day, we sent the response, a letter I had already drafted on behalf of Ambassador Jeffrey. “I am pleased to confirm that the arrangements specified in your letter are acceptable to the United States, and I look forward to the arrival of the NATO Transition Cell members,” the first line of the letter said. The last item remaining was the signed agreement between NATO and the Iraqi Government. The days seemed to slow down as we waited, until a week later, an email with two documents showed up in my inbox. They were scanned copies of documents with Iraqi Government letterhead, one in Arabic and one in English, written to Ambassador Dirk Brengelmann, Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy at NATO:

“I have the honor to refer to your letter dated on 26 April 2012, and to the discussions held in Baghdad on 28 February 2012 [the trip I supported], confirming the shared commitment of Iraq and NATO to ensuring an effect transition to an Iraq-NATO partnership program following termination of the NATO Training Mission-Iraq.” The letter then listed out the specifics of the agreement and closed with this sentence: “The Government of Iraq agrees to the above arrangements, which accordingly will come into effect for a period of six months as from the 1st day of June 2012.”

We did it. It took the work of a lot of dozens of people, tens of thousands of dollars, international travel, late-night responses, occasionally heated negotiations, and meetings between numerous countries. It practically took all of my work time, which occasionally reached 80 hours per week, from November 2011 – June 2012.

In the end, I had accomplished my mission: “Bring NATO back.”

Amanda, who would be on the cell and its unofficial leader (because of her experience), would be the first to arrive, which she did in late May. The Transition Cell’s formal lead was the Greek Ambassador to Iraq, who would spend most of his time at the Greek Embassy, but travel to the NATO office as necessary. The other Transition Cell officers arrived in early June.

While I was on my final rest period from Baghdad in late June, Amanda forwarded me a link to a news report on the NATO website, entitled “NATO and Iraq transition towards strengthened partnership.” The fine line said it all: “In June, NATO opened a temporary Transition Cell in Iraq to smooth the path towards strengthened partnership and cooperation. NATO and Iraq have agreed to further promote strategic dialogue and strengthen Iraq’s security capability through capacity building, exchange, and education and training.” I was proud of what we had done. It felt good to read that article, a hard copy of which I’ll always have.

Amanda took the reins of the Transition Cell, and I eventually moved on to other tasks the embassy needed me to handle as I finished my assignment. I departed Iraq in mid-August to return to the United States, and in September 2012, while I was enjoying some time off before returning to work, I saw another NATO news article with an even better headline than before:

“NATO signs cooperation accord with Iraq”

“NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow and Iraqi National Security Adviser Falih Fayyad signed the so-called Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program (IPCP) at NATO headquarters. The accord inaugurates a full-fledged partnership. The signing of the accord follows NATO’s Training Mission in Iraq (NTM-I) which ended last December.

“The Alliance is committed to assisting Iraq as it builds a modern security sector which can cooperate with international partners. The partnership will promote dialogue and address shared threats. NATO and Iraq intend to work together to develop the capacity of Iraq’s security institutions and to cultivate the expertise of its national defense academies. The agreement also creates a framework for regular political dialogue and for training cooperation in areas such as counterterrorism, crisis management, disaster relief and logistics.

Cooperation between the two sides is based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, respect for international law, joint ownership and mutual benefit.”

There it was. The NATO-Iraq partnership. Formalized. Secured. Amanda and the Transition Cell had accomplished its primary mission and secured the strategic, long-term partnership between NATO and the new democracy in Mesopotamia.

I eventually moved on from Iraq issues and, following a deployment to active duty with the US Navy Reserve in 2013, I switched professions and started a career in strategic communications, all but completely removing myself from strategic geopolitical issues. Amanda and I fell out of touch, as did the rest of us from Embassy Baghdad and NATO.

But I’ll never forget that day, two years later, in September 2014, when I received an email, out of the blue, with the subject line: “Fruits of your labor at Wales.” I clicked on it.

“Hey, would you ever have guessed in 2012 that NATO heads of state would be highlighting the Iraq-NATO partnership in the summit? Funny how things come back around! Hope you are well, Amanda”

At the bottom of her email, she provided context.

“We re-affirm NATO’s continued commitment to the NATO-Iraq partnership, through which we will revitalize our effort to help Iraq build more effective security forces. That partnership encompasses, within the existing Individual Partnership and Cooperation Program, cooperation in the areas of: political dialogue; education and training; response to terrorism; defense institution building; border security; and communications strategy.”

The text was from the official declaration from the 2014 NATO Summit in Wales, a gathering that takes place every two years and provides opportunities for heads of state and governments of member countries to evaluate and provide strategic direction for NATO’s activities.

My response to Amanda was simple:

“I think that what we did with NATO in Iraq is my greatest accomplishment I have achieved in my US government service. I still have emails that I have printed off and saved for posterity about the approval of the Transition Cell and other things related to the partnership. And now, knowing that [the partnership] is being used…our work is being used…[by Iraq] to fight a terrorist organization that is tearing apart the Middle East….I couldn’t be more proud knowing that.”

We brought NATO back.

2 thoughts on ““Bring NATO Back:” The Story of How I (and Others) Enabled Iraq to Fight Terrorism Through a Partnership with the Allies

  1. Colonel (Retired) Mike Russell November 17, 2017 — 11:09 am

    Brilliant, simply brilliant! I shall be contacting Parker separately with a personal message. He is a courageous and dedicated guy whose moral compass never wavers. I read this chapter twice, it was so damned interesting! It was an emotional departure and I told myself that this was the last time I would ever see Baghdad. We actually evacuated as this was a high threat operation. I was the second British soldier to depart Iraq. I tried to be the last but my Brigadier General had other ideas and he ordered me into the helicopter in front of him!
    I did return to Baghdad two years later, this time as a civilian, running a private security company for the oil and gas industry in the southern oilfields but this time I was in the red zone. I recall standing on the roof of our headquarters or head office (whatever!) and I could see the Forward Operating Base (FOB) with the blue dome and Saddam’s former Ba’athist Headquarters with the massive hole in its centre – the legacy of one of the very first Cruise Missiles. And there was the truly massive US Embassy.
    Great memories and special relationships forged under the constant threat of “INCOMING!!!!”

    1. Thank you Colonel Russell. As. I mentioned in the story, I’ll never forget our times together!

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