For a month after Baghdad's fall, Gen. Jay Garner's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) led Iraq. Because of length of tenure and also because his successor, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) administrator L. Paul Bremer, cultivated the press which Garner eschewed, ORHA has become little more than a footnote in many accounts. Olson, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, sheds light on this period with Iraq and Back, an account of her time as Garner's executive officer.
Olson's prose is straightforward and unpretentious. As she narrates events, her narrative illustrates ORHA's failure to coalesce. Uniformed military officers disliked civilian counterparts, and the State Department mistrusted anyone who did not hail from the Foreign Service. Olson, like many executive officers, makes instant judgments and boils personalities down into the briefest of descriptions. She noted how Larry DiRita, an aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, spent hours on the phone reporting back to his boss but never executed an order for Garner. She had little patience for then-National Security Council official (and, later, ambassador to Baghdad) Zalmay Khalilzad, whom she suggests was an arrogant showboat unconcerned with those around him. State Department official Sherri Kraham, who later married Patriotic Union of Kurdistan leader Jalal Talabani's son, she depicts as fragile, sobbing with fear at the prospect of a helicopter flight.
As Garner's chief aide, Olson was attuned to her boss. She relates his impatience at ORHA's slow deployment to Iraq, at the problems surrounding the establishment of ORHA's palace headquarters, and Garner's subsequent scramble to pay Iraqi pensions. Without such basic equipment as telephones, the hurdles ORHA faced in completing its mission were huge.
However, ORHA's difficulties were not just an absence of equipment but also a lack of guidance. Olson says ORHA received no instructions about Iraqi governance from the White House, State Department, or the Defense Department. While this should lay to rest the canard that the Pentagon sought to impose Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmad Chalabi on Iraq, it does raise questions about Condoleezza Rice. Was it not the job of the national security advisor to oversee policy coordination and ensure that no vacuum developed? Because there had been interagency agreement on some policies, had Garner ignored these? Did the National Security Council or Pentagon fail to transmit them, or had staff members under Olson simply disregarded them? Regardless, in the absence of instructions on his desk, Garner freelanced, inviting seven prominent Iraqi expatriate leaders into a council. Olson appears unaware that these were the Iraqi leaders chosen by the Iraqi expatriate community after years of negotiation and conferences.
Iraq and Back ends as abruptly as did Garner's tenure. Bremer—the "arrogant jerk" in Olson's words—arrived and casts ORHA aside. He dismisses Garner's fledgling government and orders the sweeping de-Baathification measures Garner had resisted.
While any account of ORHA fills a void, Olson's falls short. Her loyalty to Garner prevents her from asking tough questions about his tenure. How did he make decisions? Why did he publicly embrace high-level Baathists such as Saad al-Janabi, a former aid to Saddam Hussein's sons? Why did he start soliciting political advice from former CIA officials who had moved to Baghdad to form businesses with former Baathist contacts? How did Garner foresee his Iraqi leadership council enforcing decisions down to the municipality? And what interactions did Garner have with U.S. Central Command and U.S. military leaders still operating in Iraq? Nevertheless, Iraq and Back is a good first step at filling in the missing piece of Iraq's postwar narrative.