It struck me then that the United States is working to grow something in Iraq, too democracy in very inhospitable conditions.
The will to freedom is strong, but the conditions are difficult and there will not be success without a long and persistent effort.
From March 12-17, I had the opportunity to visit Virginia military personnel stationed overseas in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. The invitation from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived with little notice and at an inconvenient time: The 2006 Virginia General Assembly was grinding to a halt without a budget or consensus on a long-term transportation fix. My staff had advised the Pentagon that I could not make the trip if the legislature went into an overtime session, but once lawmakers opted to adjourn and a March 27 special session was set, I gave a green light for the trip less than 24 hours before our scheduled departure.
I traveled with three other governors to thank our troops and to get a look, beyond media accounts, at what America is doing in the Middle East.
I share the misgivings of many Americans about how we went into Iraq, particularly in the way prewar intelligence was mishandled and in what I perceived to be inadequate planning for the necessary postwar stabilization of the country. I also have concerns about the way America's prewar conduct alienated valuable allies.
But that does not diminish my admiration for the role of our military men and women, or my appreciation for their efforts to build democracy in the Middle East. As commander-in-chief of the Virginia Guard, I felt a special obligation to convey that respect to our troops serving on the front lines.
I met Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee (D), and Republican Govs. Kenny Guinn of Nevada and Jim Douglas from Vermont at the Pentagon Sunday afternoon, March 12, for a briefing about current efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We stopped by Secretary Rumsfeld's house in Washington for an informal and wide-ranging conversation. He told us that the work of this generation would be to imagine international institutions for the world's new set of realities.
The United Nations, NATO and the European Union began in the aftermath of World War II and the onset of the Cold War to deal with a new world order. That old order has passed away, and Rumsfeld said we needed new structures, invented or reinvented, to deal with the challenges of terrorism, clashes between secular and sectarian value systems, rapid global dislocation of capital and jobs, and other challenges that characterize our world in the 21st century.
After a round of handshakes and best wishes, we then headed to Andrews Air Force base to begin our five-day trip overseas.
We landed early Monday morning at Shannon Airport in Ireland for refueling, and immediately noticed a group of U.S. Marines headed home from Iraq. Because of the strict Islamic laws in Kuwait and Iraq, the soldiers told us, they had not seen or tasted alcohol in seven months. And even though it was early in the morning, the Marines were lining up to down pints of Guinness. Who could begrudge them?
After a second, six-hour flight, we landed in Kuwait and immediately helicoptered to Camp Arifjan, a large military staging base located in southern Kuwait, to spend the night.
We headed to the DFAC (that's Pentagon-speak for dining facility, or mess hall) to have dinner with a group of troops from our respective states. My table held about a dozen men and women, Army and Navy active duty, who were either native Virginians or were stationed at military bases in the Commonwealth.
The dinner revealed a pattern I would see repeated often in the next few days meeting Virginians, talking to them about their experiences and fielding questions about matters back home including very astute questions about the General Assembly session that had ended the day before my trip.
An estimated 7,100 Virginians are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of them active-duty or members of the military Reserves. Nearly 500 Virginia National Guard members are serving one-year deployments in the region. My fellow governors soon started asking, "Is everyone in the military from Virginia?"
Surprisingly, I encountered several old acquaintances Virginia state troopers on active reserve duty, men and women who lived just blocks from my home in North Side Richmond even the son of a General Assembly member, Army Brigadier Gen. Anthony J. Tata, a 1981 West Point graduate and son of Virginia Beach Delegate Robert Tata.
After just four hours of shut-eye in the dormitorylike setting at Camp Arifjan, the other governors and I sleepily boarded a helicopter for Ali Al Salem Air Force Base, northwest of Kuwait City, flying in the pre-dawn skies over an eerie landscape of limitless sand, punctuated with orange fires from oil wells.
I met with some Air Force troops based out of Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. Then we boarded a 40-year-old C-130 transport plane for a flight into Balad, a converted Iraqi Air Force Base located just north of Baghdad.
The plane was large, loud, and seemed patched together with duct tape. For half the 90-minute flight, Gov. Jim Douglas and I rode upfront with the four-member flight crew. The four of them pilot, co-pilot, engineer, navigator revealed something great about our country and military: One was African-American, and two were women.
The war seemed very real on our approach into Balad, and our military escorts insisted that we don Kevlar helmets and body armor. We could see shattered concrete bunkers where Saddam once parked Iraqi jet fighters, and the pockmarked landscape revealed evidence of significant aerial bombing around the facility.
Once on the ground in Balad, we split into two teams to visit more troops from our states. Gov. Kenny Guinn and I visited with members of the Nevada Air Guard who operate Predator drones, those unmanned surveillance aircraft. These men and women, decked out in their military flight suits, guide the Predators on crucial intelligence-gathering missions with a joystick while staring at a computer screen. Perhaps parents should be more tolerant of teenagers and their video games.
We then boarded a helicopter to fly 40 miles into Baghdad.
When Americans hear "Iraq," we think of war, but it was remarkable how much daily life goes on in a peaceful way throughout much of the country. The spring season was obvious as we flew low over tiny farms where people were diligently planting, gathering firewood and tending livestock.
We approached the outskirts of Baghdad and saw large neighborhoods, many with obvious war damage: crumpled homes, damaged streets, blocks of land that obviously had been cleared of debris. Many of these neighborhoods now were packed with people and traffic.
We made our way to the "IZ" international zone at the center of the city and landed in a tiny military compound, FOB (Forward Operating Base) Union.
FOB Union once served as a compound for Saddam Hussein's hated Republican Guard. The barracks and dining halls now were occupied by American troops.
The center of the compound is a massive headquarters building constructed for the Ba'athist Party in the 1980s. The compound had been bombed in 2003 and had a massive bomb crater in the middle of the building surrounded by busy offices now occupied by U.S. military personnel.
FOB Union has a great group of Virginians living and working there. In January, 157 Virginia guardsmen from the 654th Military Police Company were called to Baghdad for one year to protect forces, man security checkpoints and provide convoy security. For a number of them, this call is their second tour in Iraq in the last three years.
The 654th provides security escorts for the Iraqi president, vice presidents and prime minister. In a land where these officials are consistently threatened, the duty of guarding them as they make their way around Iraq is dangerous and demanding. Despite the dangers of the job, the spirits of the Virginia troops were high.
I knew a number of them, either directly or through friends or family. The commander of the unit is Capt. Lowell Nevill, a former Richmond police officer I remembered from my days as mayor. He had gone on to teach at Fauquier High School in Warrenton, where I unexpectedly ran into him during a school visit when I was lieutenant governor. What a surprise to travel halfway around the world and run into him again in central Baghdad.
The Virginians had cleared the bomb debris from the compound to build a patio Tiki bar very retro, very cool, and authentic in every detail, right down to the thatched roof except that they were not permitted to have any alcohol.
It was a springlike day sunny, with a smoky haze in the air and temperatures in the mid-70s. As we maneuvered around Baghdad in armored SUVs, we could hear gunfire in the distance but never felt threatened.
We met up with the other governors at one of Hussein's former palaces, now converted into the U.S. Embassy, and the nerve center for military operations. The scale and grandiosity of the palace was immense, and we visited with the commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Army Gen. George Casey. He told us that most of the current insurgent activity is centered in just four of Iraq's 18 provinces.
Leaving the embassy, we made a brief stop in the center of Baghdad to see various parade grounds and monuments built by Hussein. Huge crossed swords marked a military parade ground, and we stopped at a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier built to commemorate the sacrifice of Iraqi soldiers in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The tomb has a museum built into its base, memorable for the fact that each of the 50 or so display cases had been completely stripped of its memorabilia. I was reminded of a great phrase I heard when the Iron Curtain fell in Eastern Europe, resulting in repeated scenes of joyous people pulling down statutes of Stalin and Lenin: "When you topple the statues, save the pedestals they could come in handy later."
Our last stop in Baghdad was at the training facility for Iraqi security forces run by a private contractor near the main commercial airport. Private contractors were ubiquitous in Iraq, and it was hard to get used to the idea of war as a "profit center" for business.
About 30 recruits were being trained with a variety of weapons, and in hostage rescue scenarios. Later, they underwent training as bodyguards responding to a simulated attack on a "principal" that required the recruits to return fire and evacuate the "VIP" from danger.
The spirited training I saw that day demonstrated a growing capacity among Iraqi security forces, but building a police force that is truly a force for law and order, instead of simply an arm of a dictator's power, will be very slow work.
As we flew back to Kuwait at the end of the long day, I was struck with two thoughts: First, my immense pride in the men and women of the Virginia National Guard, and, second, my belief that the United States will remain in Iraq for a long time.
The enormous challenge of forming an orderly, productive government and society that includes the Shia, Sunni and Kurds has been immensely difficult enough. But the role of the United States in fostering this unique experiment in democratic government has made Iraq a target for outside terrorist groups who see value in violently undermining what we are attempting to build in Iraq.
In Baghdad, the Virginia troops were complimentary of the Iraqis with whom they'd been working. They are working in tandem with Iraqis on most of their missions, and they reconfirmed my belief that a forced timetable for withdrawal from Iraq is a policy that would neither serve the United States nor Iraq well.
An eventual withdrawal is inevitable, but its timing must be predicated on the training of the Iraqi police and military, until they are prepared to assume the responsibility for the safety of their communities and country.
The next morning, we began our journey to Afghanistan. The route is complicated because you must fly around, rather than over, Iran. We landed in Islamabad, Pakistan, and switched planes for our flight into Kabul.
The one-hour hop from Pakistan to Kabul is over forbidding mountains that are strongholds of al-Qaeda. The mountains are huge, snow-capped and almost disorienting. Kabul feels very different from Iraq much more primitive, and removed from the rest of the world.
The story of what the United States is accomplishing in Afghanistan is remarkable in many ways, more noble and less morally and operationally complicated than our efforts in Iraq.
The other governors and I met with U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann, and he discussed the progress being made in Afghanistan since the Taliban was defeated in late 2001.
The brutal years of Soviet occupation were followed by a horrible decade of civil war, ultimately leading to control by the Islamic Taliban from 1996 till 2001. Their policies, including their repressive treatment of women and support for terrorists, ostracized Afghanistan from the world community. The Taliban was ousted from power in December 2001 by the U.S. military and our international allies, along with Afghan opposition forces.
In just a few short years, the Afghans have written a constitution, elected a president and now seated a parliament. While the feelings about the U.S. occupation of Iraq are complicated for Iraqis, most Afghans appreciate what we are doing and want us to stay.
A group of three provincial governors met with us at the U.S. Embassy, and the challenges they face basic infrastructure, tribal hostilities, trying to eradicate poppy grown for drugs are enormous.
I realized again, as I did during the time I spent as a missionary in Honduras in 1980, that our challenges are relatively small compared to those that burden great swaths of humanity.
Leaving the provincial governors, we went to the Palace for a meeting with President Hamid Karzai, the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. We sat in an ornate meeting room, conversing in English with this very learned man.
The mountains were visible on a nice spring day all around us. At sundown, a distant voice began singing evening prayers.
Karzai was very realistic about his challenges, and we half-jokingly commiserated with him about learning how to work with a legislature that was still trying to determine its proper role. But I was struck by how formerly warring factions appear to be genuinely trying to work together to make a new political reality in Afghanistan.
More than 90 percent of the world's heroin and opium originates in Afghanistan, and President Karzai was equally realistic about his efforts to eradicate poppy production, which represents, by most estimates, over 50 percent of the economic activity in Afghanistan. Unlike other agricultural products, which spoil over time, poppies can be stored for years and still be sold or used for drug production.
It's difficult to eradicate the drug trade without provoking a farmers' revolt in this country, where the average per-capita income is less than $200 per year. President Karzai must pursue a delicate balance of eradicating drugs while creating other opportunities for poor people to earn a livelihood.
When Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen asked him how we could help Afghanistan's transition to a more democratic culture, President Karzai's answer was simple and dramatic: "Do not leave."
After the visit with the president, we drove over to Camp Eggers in Kabul and visited with troops from our states. I chatted with another group of about 10 Virginians, including one who grew up six blocks from my former home in Richmond's Ginter Park neighborhood.
At breakfast the next morning, I met a young Hispanic woman serving in the U.S. Marine Corps. She told me she came to the United States when her parents emigrated here illegally from Honduras 15 years ago. This young woman was one of the undocumented people the illegal immigrants who we hear so much about in the American media and in state legislatures across the nation.
Eventually, she said, her mother was able to get a green card with the help of her employer. Once her mother had obtained legal status, she helped her daughter earn it as well. As soon as she was a legal citizen, this young woman told me she did what she had always wanted to do: She enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.
As I was leaving, she called out to me, "Please don't make it hard for people like me who want to participate and serve in this great country."
We left Kabul, driving through its frenetic commercial center into the countryside to visit a new school for young girls formerly denied an education by the Taliban. In this tiny country school, no more than 50 girls, ages 10 to 18, were learning basic skills of math, science, language and geography.
A welcoming committee of young girls sang to us upon our arrival, so I felt compelled to return the favor, playing "You Are My Sunshine" on my harmonica.
The other governors and I sat in on a geography class, where the students were learning about watersheds in Afghanistan, and we all noticed the same excitement and nervousness on those young faces that you can see in any grade school classroom in the United States.
We finished our time in the country by driving to the air base in Bagram, a former Soviet airfield now converted into the largest military base for the joint American effort in Afghanistan, and we departed for NATO Headquarters in Brussels. Our long flights fell into a comfortable pattern, with the four governors alternately sleeping, reading and talking about initiatives, problems, and past and future campaigns.
On Friday, our last day, we focused on diplomacy, talking to three U.S. ambassadors before noon. We had breakfast with Boyden Gray, ambassador to the European Union, and Tom Korologos, our ambassador in Belgium. We also met with NATO Ambassador Victoria Nuland.
Korologos' first words to me were, "What are you going to do about traffic in McLean?!"
I laughed, and updated him on our effort to reach agreement with the General Assembly on a long-term fix to our transportation challenges.
One last eight-hour flight, and the trip would be over. It's hard to imagine that we covered so much ground in five days, but it was a very valuable opportunity. Several thoughts come to mind as I write this, and I am sure more will occur in the weeks to come.
Perhaps my biggest surprise was how interconnected the world has become. When I worked as a missionary in Honduras, it took two weeks for one of my letters to get back home. I had the opportunity to make a phone call only once every five or six months, and it would cost $75. Thankfully, the Virginians serving on the front lines have the opportunity to communicate with their families on a daily basis through e-mail and cell phones.
Despite that, a number of the troops were handing me notes, scribbled on small sheets of paper, asking me to contact their spouse, or their parents, or a friend when I returned to Virginia. They simply wanted me to let their friends and loved ones know that I'd talked with them and that they were doing well. I have collected more than 150 of those pieces of paper.
I welcomed these requests. Every week since becoming governor, I have hand-signed condolence letters to Virginia families who have lost a son or a daughter, a husband or a wife, or a sister or brother.
I am working my way through my list of calls as I write this, I've contacted about half of the people I promised to call and the opportunity to talk to families about how well their loved ones are doing is not nearly so heavy a task.
Finally, there is this thought: The United States is the world's great international power, and our successes and mistakes take on massive proportions because of our importance.
Our support for democracy in tough conditions is noble.
And our need to acknowledge the interconnected world, and bring more allies along with us, is critical. S
Photographer Anthony Welcher is director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of State.