Tension Builds in Iraq

Violence, cash shortages and infighting shut down reconstruction teams.

Provisional Reconstruction Teams held the promise of breaking down the stovepipes separating the State Department and the military in Iraq, and taking reconstruction out into the country where it could have real effect on Iraqis' lives. But the program that was launched with much fanfare just over a year ago as a centerpiece of the U.S. counterinsurgency drive appears to be broken.

Despite "some outstanding individual efforts," the PRT program has proved a failure, according to Stuart Bowen, special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. An October report from the IG detailed numerous reasons: escalating violence, severe funding shortfalls, the inability of U.S. civilian and military personnel to work together, problems recruiting civilians willing to work in Iraq, and confusion at the highest levels of the government as to who is in charge.

Bowen found the poor working relationship between U.S. civilian and military officials gave rise to bureaucratic "pain points that have undermined the PRT initiative." The worsening security situation in Iraq's western al Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent sanctuary, and in the southern Shiite-dominated areas stretching from Karbala to Basra, led the IG to recommend shutting down all PRTs in those areas.

The bleak audit comes just months after Bowen lauded the new U.S. Iraq reconstruction strategy centered on small teams of civilian and military experts focused on village improvements to win hearts and minds. PRTs were considered an essential part of the Pentagon's "clear, hold and build strategy," announced last year. The teams were designed to prevent re-entry of insurgents into cleared areas.

But like so much of the American endeavor in Iraq, PRTs were starved of money and competent people and crippled by the assumption that oil revenues would cover reconstruction costs. Capturing or killing insurgents remains the military's focus, despite a vast body of literature on counterinsurgency warfare that emphasizes economic development and good governance.

Reconstructing the Iraqi economy and infrastructure was not considered a priority in the planning of the war, and the effort has been at best ad hoc ever since. The Bush administration failed to see just how "broken" the Iraqi economy was, even prior to the invasion, says Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, and it has yet to make the massive resource investment that would be required to repair it.

The piecemeal approach to reconstruction is a recurring theme of the entire U.S. enterprise in Iraq, says Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former professor at the U.S. Army War College. "One of the central problems early on was the lack of clarity in the chain of command and the patchwork quality of the whole operation," he says.

The Pentagon and State Department cannot spell out who is in charge of PRTs, who they answer to and who provides logistical support on the ground. Funding shortfalls meant PRTs lacked computers, telephones, Internet access and even basic office supplies. Members either had to go begging for resources from local military commanders or pay for office equipment and other supplies out of their own pockets. Because no formal agreement exists on where PRT funding will come from, the IG report said, "We are not sure that [it] will have enough financial resources to support its mission" though fiscal 2007.

Most troubling for any future American counterinsurgency work are the turf wars between civilian and military personnel detailed in Bowen's report. In al Anbar province, "The military commander did not support the PRT mission, would not provide resources, such as transportation, and excluded PRT members from attending meetings with other government officials," the report said. PRT's ability to operate was almost entirely dependent on whether the team deputy, a U.S. military officer, also was attached to the military unit in the same location. In Salah ad-Din province, the Navy captain serving as deputy of the PRT was largely ignored by the local Army commander.

Military commanders bristle at the notion of being placed under even the temporary direction of civilian State Department officials. A vast gulf separates the government's civilian and military cultures, Biddle says. "The military operates according to strict chain-of-command principles that make it difficult for them to fold into the organization folks from outside DoD," he says.

A State Department official recently returned from Iraq, who asked not to be identified, says most military commanders viewed PRTs as an unwanted burden because they had to provide scarce troops for security. Some have refused to work with PRTs, arguing that they contribute little to capturing or killing insurgents.

That attitude stands in opposition to the official Pentagon line that heralds interagency cooperation. Speaking at a recent joint State-Defense conference on counterinsurgency, Eric Edelman, undersecretary of Defense for policy, said the military needs the expertise that resides in the civilian agencies. "We believe that the military component should ideally be in support of the broader civilian-led effort, in order to put a particular country on a sustainable, stable trajectory," he said.

PRTs are a counterinsurgency concept brought to Iraq by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilizad, a supporter of the similar program in Afghanistan, where he also served as ambassador and where PRTs generally were considered successful. The teams typically comprise between 80 and 100 personnel, including representatives from State, U.S. Agency for International Development and Agriculture Department, Army civil affairs teams and medics, and troops to provide security.

But an October 2005 report on PRTs in Afghanistan, by the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank in Washington, found that they work best in rural areas with small or medium-sized populations and only limited infrastructure. The report warned that PRTs "would not be appropriate for Iraq, with its large population centers and high-intensity combat operations."

As the fighting in Iraq spirals out of control, reconstruction largely has broken down, says Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, an independent nonprofit organization devoted to resolving deadly conflicts. Since July, Bowen's report said, the Basrah PRT has received rocket and mortar fire almost daily. At times, the staff had to be evacuated to Kuwait. Because of the violence, PRT personnel in western and southern Iraq have been unable to meet with their Iraqi counterparts.

In Ramadi, capital of the volatile al Anbar province, government buildings are not secure, so American officials who want to meet with provincial leaders must travel to Baghdad. Iraqis working with PRTs are at even greater risk, the report said.

American commanders responding to a draft version of the report said they did not believe U.S. personnel need to meet face-to-face with Iraq government and tribal leaders. The State Department official says the military's position is "outrageous" and shows how little it understands Iraqi culture, which prizes personal relationships.

The short six-month tour for civilian personnel on PRTs "is deadly in a culture like Iraq," the official says, adding that the Iraqi people are getting fed up with new personnel rotating through the country who make repeated promises of support and then leave. "The Iraqis say, 'How many more times does our village have to be assessed before you're finally going to do something?' "

The IG report highlighted the problems State has had enticing capable personnel to serve in the dangerous posts. Between Iraq and Afghanistan, employees with the right qualifications are being fast eaten up, says the official, and State now is sending people without language or cultural expertise.

At a number of PRTs, troops filled in the civilian vacancies, but lacked the desired expertise. Biddle said it's unreasonable to expect to recruit State personnel for duty in combat zones when that was never in their original job descriptions.

Speaking Nov. 15 before the Senate Armed Services Committee, David Satterfield, State's special coordinator for Iraq, said finding people to staff dangerous posts in Iraq is now a top priority.

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