Thoughts on nation building

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Vincent Zaleski
  • 95th Reconnaissance Squadron commander
I've often joked that I went to Iraq to fly something more modern than a 50 year old airplane; that aircraft being the mighty combat Cessna used for Iraqi pilot training. The reality, however, was that I was blessed to partner with a nation for a year to help re-ignite their smoldering Air Force from the ashes of Operation Iraqi Freedom. For a brief moment in my career, I was intent on building and not destroying.

What the coalition toiled to accomplish as they rebuilt a nation was honorable. As a combat air advisor entrenched within an Iraqi squadron, it was apparent this endeavor was extremely complicated, with many fits and starts. Each independent component such as police, army and air force tried to kick-start their portion of the Rubik's Cube, but often were affected by the stutter-stepping of other cogs in the wheel. Yet, through amazing partnerships and incredible ingenuity, obstacles were overcome one by one to build Iraqi self-sufficiency and provide a path with which we could exit.

My in-the-trenches viewpoint isn't sufficient to comment on how our overall nation-building efforts could have been better. However, as I witnessed the Iraqi pilot training program grow, I was able to hone in on certain cultural strengths and weaknesses my teammates and I brought to this new nation building arena. We were adept at instructing new technical skills as well as being natural harbingers of hope as witnessed by the Iraqis in our natural desire to help. On the other hand, we seemed to struggle with the humility to partner effectively with our Iraqi counterparts as we tried to construct a self-sufficient Iraqi-centered program.

To a tee, every combat air advisor provided hope to the young Iraqi officers we instructed. These young Iraqi's would consistently wake and wonder about their family's safety, and what possible goodness could be in store for them down the road. Yet, you could see the hope in their eyes when they sat down opposite us for formal instruction as we continued to build their skillsets, knowing these skills were the keys to a safer and stronger future. This formal instruction was usually the pre-cursor to true nation-nation bonding on an individual level.

Conversely, one of the areas I felt we were poorly equipped was the ability to partner with the Iraqi leadership, allowing them buy-in. Novelist C.S. Lewis provided some insight into effective partnering when he stated that "humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less". It was natural for us to stand beside our Iraqi counterparts, knowing in our hearts that we had the best pilot training system if they would simply adopt our ways.

This "knowing" however, shut down any possibility that we were going to give the Iraqis a voice in building their new pilot training program. Without their buy-in, we could pump out as many pilots as we could muster, but the system could fall apart the day we walked out the door since the Iraqis didn't own the process.

Additionally, there are strengths in their cultural mindset we will never understand. It only makes sense for an emerging autonomous air force to capitalize on strengths inherit in their culture as they tackled tasks. In other words, they are stronger when they embrace their strengths rather than adopt our strengths.

I am deeply honored to have stood by my American teammates and Iraqi partners. In no way do I advocate any member didn't give 100 percent to the cause. My teammates and their family's sacrifice is why we aren't in Iraq en masse today. I will say it is a challenge to radically change the mindset of trained warrior; from destroying to partnering with another nation with cultural and resource barriers as they re-build from nothing. It is worth noting lessons learned as we will likely need the skills to re-build again somewhere down the road. These lessons also transfer into everyday mentoring for our younger Airmen. Some of us are driven to be absolutely correct at all times, lest the mission fail. However, leadership growth can be stunted if we fail to get buy-in from our subordinates. We must constantly weigh the greater need.