Reconstruction in Iraq

Stephen DeAngelis

January 16, 2007

In my post about the President’s new Iraq strategy speech [The New Iraq Strategy], I focused on his recommendations for increasing personnel involved in reconstruction activities. A subsequent article in the New York Times discussed plans for increasing personnel in Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Teams [“Rebuilding Teams Would Swell Under Bush’s New Iraq Plan,” by James Glanz, 15 January 2007]. Glanz writes:

“As part of its latest plan to stabilize Iraq the United States intends to more than double the number of regional reconstruction teams and to add nearly 400 specialists for existing and new teams, in fields from politics and the rule of law to agribusiness and veterinary care, according to an official outline of the plan. The document calls for the measures to be taken swiftly, in three phases, with waves of new teams and personnel expected to be put in place in March, June and September. The teams are to carry out rebuilding and governance projects from small offices all over Iraq.”

The article draws from a leaked copy of the plan provided by a government official critical of the approach. His objections are not to reconstruction per se, but to the fact that the plan increases the size of teams that, hogtied by security rules, are kept from getting involved in the field. Why increase teams if they are to be confined to safe havens? Glanz explains:

“Extremely restrictive security regulations have made it difficult for the specialists already on the provincial reconstruction teams, often called P.R.T.’s, to leave their bases and work with Iraqis, the official said, adding that the cumbersome rules must be followed even in relatively safe areas in the northern and central parts of Iraq. ‘Across the board they have to follow the same security rules,’ the official said. ‘So the P.R.T.’s that could be successful still can’t get out in the field.’ In addition, because oversight agencies have previously reported that the existing teams have had trouble equipping themselves with items as essential as pencils and other office supplies, a fresh wave of officials could find it more difficult than expected to begin their work for reasons other than security. The teams also have been criticized for relying heavily on uniformed personnel whose skills are poorly matched with specialized needs in the field. That concern has repeatedly come up because the State Department has had great difficulty persuading civilian officials to accept jobs at the dangerous, isolated and uncomfortable bases in the Iraqi provinces.”

The fact that civilian experts are reluctant to find themselves in dangerous, uncomfortable places should come as no surprise. Few people seek to place themselves in such situations. The fact remains, however, that such people do exist. They fill the ranks of non-governmental organizations as well as the military. Although these individuals share a common courage, they differ in other ways. Many of the non-military personnel believe they are safer and can more directly benefit victims if they are not entangled in government bureaucracy or are associated in any way with military operations. Having said that, no organization wants to place its people in harm’s way. That is why the security dimension of reconstruction always raises its head and it explains why the President tied the two pieces of his strategy together. Civilian reconstruction workers, government officials, and military personnel are all required to achieve the common goal of helping the Iraqi people. That is why our Development-in-a-Box approach encourages communities of practice. The approach takes advantage of local leaders, NGO personnel as well as government and military experts to achieve objectives by bringing them together voluntarily in situations where cooperation makes sense.

The plan, as laid out by the document, however, poses a real challenge for fostering a community of practice. Glanz reports:

“A summary at the beginning of the document indicates that beyond their purely civil duties, the teams will also be expected to support the counterinsurgency efforts by the United States military. There is no description of how that support would be carried out. Nonmilitary duties relegated to the teams, according to the document, would be to promote moderate political groups and to further reconciliation in Iraqi society. They would also be asked to help by ‘fostering economic development’ and ‘building capacity’ at the provincial level. ‘Capacity’ is a bureaucratic term meaning skill in technical, managerial and other areas.”

Such language scares off NGO personnel, who understand that becoming part of “counterinsurgency efforts” makes them bigger targets for insurgents. NGOs traditionally distance themselves from a specific country’s foreign policy objectives. The Development-in-a-Box approach, with its emphasis on communities of practice, can be used as a framework that buffers NGOs and local civic groups from official government programs. Government groups can be a part of the community of practice, but since communities of practice are voluntary, government groups have no leadership role and can neither dictate policy nor establish objectives. PRTs have done excellent work in Afghanistan and should be given a chance to work in Iraq in consonance with others to help improve the lives of ordinary citizens.