By Blake Stone
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Blake Stone is Adjunct Professor of National Security Decision Making in the College of Distance Education at the U.S. Naval War College. This article represents the author's observations based on his experiences in an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq during a specific period. The editors invite interested Department of State Bureaus to submit their perspectives in subsequent issues.
We're worse than the blind leading the blind because at least the blind know they are blind.1
—David Atteberry, USAID Representative, Rasheed ePRT, September 3, 2007
Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and their much smaller and operationally leaner dependencies, embedded PRTs (ePRTs), have made meaningful and lasting contributions to U.S. postconflict reconstruction and stabilization efforts in Iraq since their inception in November 2005.2 This article presents the observations and experiences of one person on a single ePRT operating in the same expanse of Southern Baghdad Province over a period of 18 months from the tail end of the "Baghdad Surge" in late 2008 through the Council of Representatives election and transfer of power in March 2010. Toward that end, what follows is mostly anecdotal and does not necessarily reflect what surely were different experiences and operational realities on other PRTs and ePRTs in other parts of Iraq.
While much of what is contained in this article is critical of both the Department of State and Department of Defense, it is in no way meant to deprecate the personal efforts, sacrifices, bravery, or character of those who volunteered to go into harm's way by serving on these teams in a dangerous place during a critical time in U.S. history. Neither is it designed to take away from the personal sacrifices and exemplary character of the men and women who voluntarily wear the uniform of our country and daily put their lives on the line in the name of furthering both national security goals and the American way of life.
The purpose of this article is not to cite an extensive list of organizational miscues, which would only raise the question, "What did you do to remedy the situation?" Rather, my hope is to focus on how future attempts at postconflict stabilization and reconstruction may be better planned and executed. More important, I hope these observations and suggestions will drive a more focused analysis of the operational and tactical planning and execution that must occur as preconditions for achieving our strategic endstate. This article also suggests the absence of a clearly defined provincial level plan from Embassy Baghdad for the achievement of U.S. national security and foreign policy goals in Iraq. From the local level, where my team worked in the "Sunni Triangle of Death," there was absolutely no sense of linkage between the reconstruction efforts we were executing and the stated goals of either Presidents George W. Bush or Barack Obama. "Hope," it was once said, "is not a [planning] method."3 At our ePRT, all we had by way of guidance was hope and the Hippocratic oath of "Do no harm."
PRTs were a concept introduced to Iraq during the tenure of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who borrowed the idea from his experiences in Afghanistan.4 The PRT mission was to "assist Iraq's provincial governments with developing a transparent and sustained capability to govern, promote increased security and rule of law, promote political and economic development, and provide the provincial administration necessary to meet the needs of the population."5 PRTs focused on five thematic areas: governance, economics, infrastructure, rule of law, and public diplomacy.6 Our ePRT took on the additional areas of agricultural development and women's social equality issues.
Embedded PRTs were typically smaller, leaner versions of the PRT, and they were embedded with U.S. Brigade Combat Teams (BCTs) in Anbar, Baghdad, and Babil Provinces.7 At the program's zenith, there were 31 American-led PRTs across Iraq, with 13 ePRTs.8 The stated roles of the ePRTs were to support counterinsurgency operations by bolstering moderates who rejected violence as a means of achieving their goals; promoting reconciliation and facilitating dialogue across Iraqi society; and fostering economic development, largely through microfinance initiatives and building governmental capacity, especially as it related to the delivery of essential services.9
When I arrived on-station at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Mahmudiyah in early November 2008, my assigned ePRT (Baghdad 4, later redesignated Baghdad South) had recently merged with teams Baghdad 7 (Iskandariyah/FOB Kalsu) and Baghdad 8 (Madi'an/FOB Hammer/Combat Outpost Cashe South).
At its height, our ePRT had an interagency advisory staff of 14, made up of mostly State Department employees, but also personnel from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Public Health Service–Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The team also had six bilingual, bicultural advisors (BBAs), which were a mix of Defense and State Department personal service contractors who were Iraqi-born subject matter experts within our various lines of operation. We also had several contracted local national interpreters and subject matter experts. Most of the State Department advisors on our team were former Active-duty military with previous Iraq experience. Others, although lacking previous Iraq experience, brought significant prior uniformed experience in providing public health services throughout the developing world.
By way of comparison, PRT Baghdad had a staff of around 100, worked in the International Zone, and lived at the Embassy. Their focus, rightfully so, was squarely on the instrumentalities of the Baghdad provincial government— the Provincial Council, Baghdad Governor's Office, and numerous Iraqi ministry directors general responsible for the delivery of governmental services across the province. The ePRT's focus was much lower to the ground: engaging local councils, governmental officials, tribal leaders, "Sons of Iraq" leaders, business leaders, and other, more informal powerbrokers across a geographically expansive and predominantly rural area of Southern Baghdad Province referred to as the Sunni Triangle of Death.
Sunni Triangle of Death
The triangle is the area of Mahmudiyah Qada formed by connecting the points between the population centers of Yusifiyah, Latifiyah, and Mahmudiyah. This area was devastated by sectarian violence precipitated by the January 2006 bombing of the Al Askari mosque in Al Samarya, which did not relent until the area fell under the combined effects of the Sawha (Sons of Iraq) movement and the U.S. military buildup brought about by the Baghdad Surge of 2007–2008.
Mahmudiyah Qada stretches south from the Baghdad city limits to the southern tip of Baghdad Province near Iskandariyah in Babil Province. It is bordered on the east by the Euphrates and by the Tigris to the west. This was literally ancient Mesopotamia, "the land between the rivers." The population of the qada10 is approximately 493,000, but this figure represents a mere estimate, as Iraq's last national census was held in 1978.
Mahmudiyah is the breadbasket of Iraq. It contains more arable farmland than the entirety of neighboring Jordan. Its terrain is cross-hatched by an expansive system of irrigation canals dating back millennia and perfected by the British during the years of the Mandate. This was our team's backyard and operational environment.
The rural areas of Yusifiyah and Latifiyah are relatively homogenous Sunni enclaves, occupied by formerly staunch Ba'athists and often overt supporters of both Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath resurgence movement. Mahmudiyah is the most populous city within the qada and is primarily Shia, and its political allegiances are split almost evenly between Moqtada al Sadr's Jayish al Mahdi (Mahdi Army) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq's militant arm, the Badr Organization (called Badr Corps during the darker days of the insurgency). Both ostensibly claimed to have renounced violence and represented merely political movements, but in Iraq, one can never separate political movements from their propensity for violence.
The northern expanse of the qada, known as the Al Rashid District, sat precariously upon a Sunni-Shia faultline, which also incorporated one of the most strategically important road junctions in the country, the interchange of main supply routes (MSRs) Jackson and Tampa, the major north-south and east-west highways in the Baghdad area. This region was the hardest hit in the qada during the insurgency, with entire villages either being leveled or their residents forcibly removed from their homes. Local orphanages teemed with the effects of the sectarian violence.
In May 2009, as part of the ePRT phaseout, we merged with ePRT Baghdad 1, which operated in the Doura and Rashid neighborhoods of southern Baghdad, and were redesignated ePRT Baghdad South. Our new area of responsibility stretched from Route Irish in the north down to the border with Babil Province as our southern trace. Therein lay the backdrop for our postconflict reconstruction efforts.
Absence of State Department Planning
Upon arrival, it soon became apparent that our team lacked any sense of operational direction. There was nothing by way of guidance from the team leader, PRT Baghdad, or the Embassy, which left individual team members scrambling to find ways to add value. This resulted in a rather haphazard approach to reconstructing an area decimated by sectarian violence and almost wholly lacking in local governmental capacity to provide even the most basic essential services.
Although our team was made up of professionals capable of using good judgment and initiative in the absence of official guidance, we were left wondering how, or even if, our efforts were at all consistent with meeting the Ambassador's and/or the President's strategic intent. In the absence of such tactical and operational guidance, there was no way to determine how (or if) our efforts were furthering progress toward achieving the strategic endstate.
Such operational guidance for our government's civilian reconstruction efforts at the provincial and subprovincial levels simply did not exist in any usable form. The Embassy's Office of Provincial Affairs (OPA) ran the PRT program and was responsible for planning and coordinating with Multi-National Corps–Iraq to develop the Unified Common Plan, which ostensibly provided guidance on how the civilian efforts of the PRTs and ePRTs fit into the overarching U.S. plan. The guidance disseminated by OPA lacked the degree of specificity needed to be useful. Part of this may have stemmed from each PRT and ePRT having its own unique situation, issues, and challenges. For their parts, however, neither the Embassy nor OPA—nor our titular "mother ship," PRT–Baghdad—ever once issued guidance to the field that was of any benefit to our efforts in planning and executing reconstruction and stability operations at the tactical level.
Certainly, this partially rested with the fact that situations varied widely throughout the country. The situation faced by the PRT in Mosul was certainly different from the rather pacified situation in Ramadi, which differed wholly from Baghdad and Basra. That being said, rarely did anyone from the comparatively large OPA staff leave the relative safety of the New Embassy Compound nestled in the International Zone to venture to our FOB and better understand the situation on the ground.
This lack of specific planning guidance stemmed from the inherent inability of the State Department to engage in this sort of work—executing what essentially amounted to the last two phases of a military operation. State Department Foreign Service Officer (FSO) skill sets are much too passive—the collecting and reporting of information, for example, were the professional stock-in-trade of both of our political cone FSO team leaders. The primary interests of both our team leaders and OPA generally were good reporting and submitting weekly reports to Washington. The absence of the ability to plan, execute, and lead stability and reconstruction operations was painfully apparent—it just was not a required skill set or core competency within State. For those of us who came to the State Department directly from the military, this nearly universal truism was a constant source of frustration and disappointment. Our State Department leadership failed either to plan effectively or to lead the civilian reconstruction effort.
During the latter part of 2008 and the bulk of 2009, the team's focus was building upon the post–Baghdad Surge's security gains in the hope of increasing the capacity of local governments to deliver essential services, especially water for drinking and irrigation, electricity, sanitary methods of sewage disposal, access to health care, access to primary and secondary education, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, trash removal. In the absence of being able to dovetail our operations into a larger, more comprehensive operational level plan, the resulting effect was a high incidence of "feel good" projects—those that produced some tangible example of American good works (typically complete with an information operations event, such as a grand opening ceremony with a conspicuous number of attending dignitaries and robust media coverage). These projects (usually taking the form of brick and mortar construction) often lacked coordination with the government of Iraq to ensure that they fit within its capital improvement planning. Additionally, we had little way of knowing if such projects furthered progress toward meeting the strategic endstate. There was little to no linkage between the strategic and tactical levels of the civilian-led aspects of our national reconstruction and stabilization efforts. We were left hoping we were doing the right thing and advancing in the right direction. It was tantamount to collecting Scouting merit badges, with each project representing another badge. The merit badges could be touted by the Embassy as tangible proof of reconstruction progress, but there was little connection (other than perhaps an accidental one) between the projects and other reconstruction efforts executed at the local level and the achievement of our strategic endstate.
Initially, we unwittingly did more to destabilize this fragile region than to stabilize it. The absence of competent government of Iraq officials to work through at the local level resulted in our local project work (agriculture, economic development, and some of USAID's general development projects) being implemented by either local sheikhs or nongovernmental organizations, which themselves were created in response to State Department funding regulations and designed to benefit the same group of sheikhs. This included projects funded by both the State Department's Quick Response Funds program and the Army's Commander's Emergency Response Program (CERP). Neither the State Department nor the Army understood the effects of project funding on the balance of tribal power in this mostly rural area. Projects or their attendant funding increased the power, prestige, or influence of a particular sheikh or tribe in one area while simultaneously decreasing the influence of another sheikh or tribe. Creating the conditions for stability in one area often destabilized another area.
This truism played out across the entire Mahmudiyah Qada in the form of one battalion commander's desire to assist local stability and tribal reconciliation efforts in Al Rashid nahiyah, which lies on a notorious Sunni-Shia faultline in the northern part of the qada in the vicinity of the intersection of MSRs Jackson and Tampa. The battalion commander purchased over $300,000 worth of tractors to benefit local agricultural associations through the nahiyah council (the Iraqi equivalent to city or township councils in rural areas). The game plan entailed the council delivering the tractors prior to the January 2009 provincial elections.
Delivery was delayed until months after the Provincial Council election due to factors beyond the Army's control, but the ability to achieve nonkinetic effects on election security had certainly lapsed. The tractors, in the final analysis, benefited only a select number of sheikhs in a relatively small area of our operational environment who had allied themselves with Sheikh Ammash Khadim Sari al Robaei, the well known and charismatic (and some would claim corrupt) chairman of the Al Rashid nahiyah council. The anticipated second- and third-order effects of disenfranchising numerous tribes and sheikhs within the qada were known to the BCT's senior leadership at the time of the decision but were disregarded.
Word of mouth on the Iraqi street moves at an amazingly quick pace. Within days of the "big tractor giveaway," sheikhs from other parts of the qada were contacting our civil-military operations center at FOB Mahmudiyah asking when they would be supplied with tractors or complaining that the Americans somehow "owed" them similar treatment because of the support they delivered in the form of security gains during the Baghdad Surge. Every other nahiyah council soon demanded its own tractors. The qada-wide agricultural cooperative association, with member organizations across the qada, flatly refused to work with the Americans until they were provided with equivalent support. The decision proved disastrous, and its negative repercussions were felt for a full year.
Our team leaders championed projects designed to improve local agriculture, which looked good on paper; however, the net effects served only to increase the wealth and prestige of a few select sheikhs to the detriment of others in different areas of the qada. Those areas not receiving direct U.S. assistance invariably felt slighted and often became publicly critical of, if not overtly hostile toward, what they perceived to be American intervention in Iraqi affairs.
This practice continued right up through February 2010, a time when our team leader went to great pains to garner as much media coverage as possible for the grand opening of a local chicken processing plant built largely with CERP funding and ePRT technical assistance. Our team leader personally invited the Embassy's Deputy Chief of Mission to attend the opening. The project was grossly over budget (the project's final cost was approximately $2 million), a year behind schedule, benefited a single sheikh, and was only a staged "grand opening" because the facility was not operational at the time of the ceremony. This is the type of reconstruction we engaged in, but the project's details tended to be overlooked in the name of touting tangible examples of progress.
Lack of Unity of Effort
While the State Department was wholly incompetent to lead our national reconstruction efforts, the Army brigades we worked with operated in only a slightly less incompetent manner. The Army brought numerous assets to the table: a significant number of personnel for the task, a very significant budget, and the logistical and mobility assets that allowed it to be nearly everywhere in the operational environment at once. The downside to this well-intentioned Leviathan was organizational inertia on a grand scale that had no outlet (save reconstruction operations) in the post–June 30 Security Framework Agreement Iraq. Precluded from conducting combat operations, the Army focused on nonkinetic effects—its shorthand for reconstruction operations.
While the State Department was the lead Federal agency for reconstruction and stabilization operations,11 the BCTs we were embedded with had their own separate agendas. This lack of coordination was compounded by our team leaders' willingness to cede primacy to the military in the name of "maintaining good relations with the Army." The first brigade we worked with, 2d Brigade, 1st Armored Division (2/1), viewed the ePRT simply as a "brigade enabler" and expected the civilian efforts of the ePRT to be subordinate to the overarching brigade concept of the operation. This caused friction on numerous levels. First, the brigade's deputy commanding officer ran his own set of engagements with numerous civilian Iraqi governmental officials, often without any coordination with the ePRT governance team, whose role it was to engage with, train, and mentor the same set of officials. This often led to the embarrassing situation of unwittingly meeting with the same official the day after the Army met with them, sometimes regarding the exact same issue.
Programmatically, the ePRT and 2/1 Armored Division's differences stemmed primarily from two wellheads—first, a difference of opinion regarding where we sat on the operational continuum; and second, different timelines. The net effect was an almost complete lack of unity of effort and the Army and State Department working from two completely different playbooks.
The Operational Continuum
The 2/1 Armored Division justified many of its reconstruction/"nonlethal" decisions by framing them in the context of security measures necessary to further its counterinsurgency objectives. Many of us on the ePRT looked at the same local political reconciliation/security situation and felt it had matured beyond "straight-up" counterinsurgency (COIN) operations and was ripe for postconflict governmental capacity-building, which involves the concept of sustainability—for which the Army seemed to have little understanding.
The Army tended to move into a decimated area and immediately start a myriad of reconstruction projects, most of which did improve Iraqi quality of life there. The problem was that just funding projects for the Iraqi government replaced capacity rather than developing it. During COIN operations, using "money as a weapons system"12 in order to produce (or perhaps purchase) desirable nonkinetic effects makes perfect sense. When transitioning to more traditional postconflict stability and reconstruction operations, however, this longstanding practice actually served to retard Iraqi governmental capacity rather than build it.
The United States was universally viewed by local Iraqi governmental entities as the funding source of first resort. Due to longstanding spending habits, our ability to influence eventually became directly proportional to the amount of money we brought to the table. Some local nahiya councils that we worked with completely stopped preparing council budgets for review and funding by the government of Iraq, preferring U.S. Army funding for developmental needs. American money was simply too plentiful and too easily obtained.
Part and parcel of our attempt at teaching local councils to become more self-sufficient (an inherently difficult task in that local councils had no stand-alone budget or income source) was teaching them how to prioritize their developmental needs across the various Iraqi government funding streams and to establish the necessary intergovernmental relationships in order to obtain funding commitments. Our prodding fell largely on deaf ears, as the Iraqis simply approached American commanders who were all too willing to open the CERP checkbook in the name of "building relationships" with local powerbrokers and the achievement of "nonkinetic effects."
Another inherent disconnect between Army operations and those of the ePRTs was different timelines. The ePRT, through its USAID representative, tended to look at longer term, often multiyear projects. The Army, on the other hand, had a time horizon of a year or less, usually benchmarked to the length of the unit's tour. Military projects tended to focus on the "quick win" with visible indices of "progress," such as schools, health clinics, and road improvements. The Army focused on "bright and shiny objects" and things that lent themselves to media coverage and "information operations effects."
This practice made good sense during COIN operations, when influencing the populace is of primary importance, but did little to assist with institutional capacity-building. Again, these short-game wins tended to replace capacity rather than to build it. The Army tended to do projects "for" the Iraqi government rather than forcing them to step up to do things themselves. The Iraqis were more than content to sit back and let the United States do the work they should have done. This practice was the antithesis of capacity-building.
There are numerous things we need to do better in future stability operations. While this list is not exhaustive, it is representative of the problems faced during our ePRT operation over 18 months, three BCTs, and three FSO team leaders.
Our efforts were often derailed by the U.S. Army losing millions of dollars of CERP funding in the name of "spend it or lose it to the Afghanistan effort." This resulted in numerous unnecessary projects being funded, as well as numerous CERP microgrants being made in less than well thought out ways. This problem was exacerbated by the Army's flawed metrics, which evaluated relative "success" by the amount of CERP money obligated, projects funded, and microgrants made without regard to effects. Microgrants, for example, were given primarily to business owners, which created the perception within the community that our only interest was "making the rich richer."
Taken with our affinity for assisting tribal sheikhs under the guise of "security," this perception seemed well founded. The net effect was that our ability to influence, or even get a seat at the table, was directly proportional to the amount of money we brought. When the money dried up, so did our influence.
The use of ePRTs and PRTs as civilian adjuncts to the military's counterinsurgency operations has proven its worth during our military and diplomatic involvement thus far in Iraq. Unfortunately, we seemed to traipse blindly down what turned out to be an uncertain path toward our national strategic endstate. While part of this was certainly due to the relative novelty of such operations (save the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support program utilized with success during our involvement in South Vietnam14), we could have been more effective if the State Department leadership would have demonstrated competency in its responsibilities for planning and executing the civilian aspects of the U.S. national reconstruction efforts. The absence of goals and the lack of progress left many wondering why the department was put in charge of such critically important work in the first place. Second, had the military possessed a more complete understanding of the civilian/interagency capabilities, what they "bring to the warfight," and how to better harness these capabilities, the overall U.S. effort would have been more effective.
In future conflicts, the civilian/interagency contribution will undoubtedly be critical to achieving the strategic endstate. It should be better utilized. To do this, it will need to be better led (presumably by civilian leaders) and better understood by its military counterparts. To "win the peace," we must be just as effective in phases four and five as we are in decisive combat operations. Until we make such successes a priority in our doctrine, training, and resourcing—to include requiring proven competency in the skill sets required for such operations (especially proven leadership abilities)—we will simply remain the "blind leading the blind" down an uncertain path. PRISM
1 United States Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), Hard Lessons: The Iraq
Reconstruction Experience (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2009), 303.
2 Ibid., 241.
3 Gordon R. Sullivan, Hope Is Not a Method (New York: Doubleday, 1996).
4 SIGIR, 240.
5 Unclassified Baghdad 4045, "Action Plan to Build Capacity and Sustainability within Iraq's Provincial Governments," from U.S. Embassy Baghdad to the Secretary of State, 010330Z, October 2005.
6 U.S. Embassy Baghdad, "PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) Fact Sheet," March 20, 2008.
7 Office of the White House Press Secretary, "Fact Sheet: Expanded Provincial Reconstruction Teams Speed the Transition to Self-Reliance," July 13, 2007.
8 U.S. Embassy Baghdad; Office of the White House Press Secretary.
9 Office of the White House Press Secretary.
10 A qada is a political subdivision or "district" within the Bagdad Provincial Governorate. Within the city proper, or amanat, there are 9 districts divided into 89 neighborhoods. Outside of the Baghdad amanat there are six rural qadas administered by the Baghdad Governorate: Mada'in, Mahmudiyah, Abu Ghrahib, Taji, Tarmiyah, and Istaqial. It is probably most analogous to a county within the United States.
11 National Security Presidential Directive 44, "Management of Interagency Efforts Concerning Reconstruction and Stabilization," December 7, 2005.
12 Multi-National Corps–Iraq CJ8 SOP, "Money as a Weapons System (MAAWS)," appendix H, June 15, 2008.
13 Department of Defense Instruction 3000.05, "Stability Operations," September 16, 2009.
14 The Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support pacification program in rural Vietnam is an interesting precursor to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams used in Afghanistan and Iraq. See R.W. Komer, "Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: Institutional Constraints on U.S.-GVN Performance in Vietnam," RAND Report R–967–ARPA, August 1972; Lewis Sorley, A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam (New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1999); and Neil Sheehan, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (New York: Vintage, 1989).