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Can you hear me now, Mr. Bremer?

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When the technological history of Gulf War II is written, will it be concluded that Iraq was lost for want of a decent cell-phone network?

InsertArt(2018025)U.S. MILITARY OFFICERS and reconstruction workers, who have been toiling in postwar Iraq these past months, are complaining that a major cause of their troubles is that they’ve had neither the resources to do the job nor — literally — the ability to talk with those who do.

When they started work — initially in Kuwait, then in Baghdad after Saddam fell — they had no cellular phones, to talk either with each other or with anyone else. If Paul Bremer, the chief of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, wanted to know conditions at a hospital, a police station, a school, an oil field, a town down the road, he had to send a staff worker to go find out. Then the staff worker had to come back to the office to tell him. Needless to say, all this wasted time and energy; it drained morale; it choked attempts to establish credibility for the entire operation.


In mid-May, the Pentagon, without going through any of the normal bidding procedures, awarded a $45 million contract to WorldCom/MCI to build a cellular network. The award prompted much grumbling among industry insiders, since that company — besides having just settled the largest financial fraud case in American business — had no prior experience at building cellular networks. (For a while, MCI had resold AT&T wireless carriers within the United States, but it had recently dropped even that line.)

Not until July did the cellular network in Iraq start up, and it turned out to be less than occupation officials expected — or needed. According to officials who were there at the time, they could use the phones (which cost a staggering $4,000 a piece) to talk only among themselves. The network did not extend, or link, to Iraqi telephones.

The U.S. reconstruction officials in Baghdad could not even talk with U.S. military officers down the street. The Army had, in June, contracted Motorola to create a separate network for security forces.


According to a Defense Department official, if someone working for the U.S. occupation authority needed to talk with a battalion commander, there was no way to make direct contact. He or she had to call a desk officer back in the Pentagon, who would jot down the message and call the commander himself. If the commander wanted to reply to the message, the same desk officer would jot down the response and call back the occupation authority.

This, some officers say, is why the U.S. authorities in Baghdad so often look like they don’t know what they’re doing — because they don’t. Many of them are smart, talented, and eager. But they can’t talk with the Army about security, they can’t talk with Iraqi specialists about civil needs — in short, they can’t find out what they need to find out — so, for far too much of their time, they sit, paralyzed and helpless.

The blame here cannot be laid on some interagency squabble between, say, the State Department and the Pentagon. Keep in mind: Bremer’s office is a division of the Pentagon; he reports to Donald Rumsfeld. No, this particular foul-up falls in the same category of neglect as failing to send in military police, failing to secure power stations, failing to imagine that things might not go as planned.

Fred Kaplan writes the “War Stories” column for Slate.