Smoke and Mirrors

What the State Department is not accomplishing in Iraq

Five years ago, provincial reconstruction teams were a daring new concept: combined civilian-military units that engaged in humanitarian affairs in remote locations. PRTs got rave reviews from the media and for good reason. They were established in the parts of Afghanistan where security was decent, if not great, and where development was nil, giving American amateurs the chance to win over the local population by building water wells and one-room schoolhouses from scratch.

From the archives:

Debating Iraq
A collection of articles and dispatches by Atlantic authors.

Recently the State Department has been trumpeting PRTs as a strategy for getting Iraq on its feet. Unfortunately, Iraq is not Afghanistan. Not only is security non-existent, but Iraq’s infrastructure is far more complex than Afghanistan’s. Thus, Iraq needs real experts and a supple bureaucracy—both in the Green Zone and in Washington—to help it out of its decrepitude. But both of these are lacking.

The experience of one senior foreign service officer—a woman named Kiki Munshi who came out of retirement to run the PRT in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad, for most of 2006—is instructive. As someone with decades of experience working in shaky countries off the Washington radar screen, she was accustomed to being a self-starter. But nothing had prepared her for this job. Usually, when foreign service officers are dispatched to new posts—especially dangerous and critical ones—they are given an array of content-rich briefings in Washington. But nobody at the State Department or Public Diplomacy (the successor to the United States Information Service) was particularly interested in seeing her, Munshi says. The briefings she did get, rather than giving her the lay of the land, consisted of little more than inadequate generalizations. The embassy in Baghdad, including the offices of the U.S. Agency of International Development, proved just as unhelpful.

When she arrived in Baquba, Diyala’s regional capital, a year ago this month, Munshi’s PRT consisted of two Department of State employees, “an absolutely new and raw” Army civil affairs team, a few interpreters, and 18 guys from a private military company called Blackwater USA whose mission was primarily to protect her. There were six Internet connections for all these people, no desks or chairs, no operating funds, and no office supplies. “If it isn’t nailed down, take it,” she told them all.

The PRT was situated on Forward Operating Base Warhorse. To be effective, Munshi and the team had to get out of the base and into Baquba and the surrounding area to meet with Iraqi officials. But the Blackwater guys refused to move them anywhere without approval from the regional security officer at the Baghdad embassy. The result: Munshi spent the first month as a veritable “prisoner of the base,” trying desperately to shake funds loose from the embassy. As she puts it, “We lecture the Iraqis about being decentralized, yet we couldn’t get anything done without the approval” of a seemingly uninterested central authority.

Fortunately, the Blackwater funds ran out, which meant that the PRT had to rely on the soldiers at the base for security. The solders did not need the embassy’s permission to move Munshi and her team around, and by August, there was progress. Meetings with provincial officials and local non-governmental organizations indicated an interest in a business center, an agricultural extension service, and other projects. Then something unfortunate happened. The office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, appointed a Shiite named General Shakur Hulail Husayn to serve as the new commander for the Iraqi Army’s 5th Division, covering Diyala, Major. Under his watch, Sunni arrests shot up and anti-Sunni death squads became emboldened. The Sunnis retaliated, and the Shiites responded with more violence. The PRT’s nascent projects faded away as Iraqi officials grew afraid to meet with Americans.

By the end of the year, the PRT was facing an ironic state of affairs. On the one hand, Munshi had established better relations with the Baghdad embassy, there was an operating budget, and movement around the area was no longer a problem, thanks to the American soldiers. But because of the deterioration in the security environment, morale did not improve. In contrast with the previous summer, when projects had been waiting on the other side of the red tape, there was now little demand for their skills. Even when there was a need for humanitarian work, it was often impossible for the PRT to help. For example, Iraq’s intricate water and electric systems frequently need to be refurbished, but the PRT teams do not possess the expertise to do this. They must coordinate with nearby municipalities whose utility systems are all linked together, but there is no bureaucratic network in place. The truth is, unlike PRTs in Afghanistan, those in Iraq are often in over their heads.

What Munshi’s team really needed—along with improved security in Diyala—was more financial autonomy and access to a higher level of technical expertise on a short-term basis. They needed real experts dispatched for a month or two to the field, rather than Army reservists with basic skills dispatched for up to a year.

Munshi tried to communicate all this to the State Department upon her return, but nobody especially wanted to debrief her. The after-action meetings she did have were set up at her own insistence, she told me, with bureaucrats who were sympathetic but ultimately powerless. The State Department and USAID apparently have no debriefing system in place, even for someone as crucial as a PRT leader in one of the most violent parts of Iraq. Without a mechanism for reporting lessons learned, any bureaucracy is moribund.

The PRTs, as presently constituted, are often smoke and mirrors operations, Munshi intimated. As a concept, they have been successfully sold to the outside world, but they have yet to be sufficiently staffed and bureaucratically developed. They provide useful fodder for pep talks to the media, but on the ground, they run the risk of irrelevance. Unfortunately, the same could be said of other operations in Iraq.