The Old, New Thing for Iraq

Britain’s “anti-surge” demonstrates its well-founded skepticism of President Bush’s “new” plan for Iraq. The plan contains some tried, and failed, economic and political strategies that are unlikely to achieve better results this time.

Although Tony Blair's recently announced "anti-surge" redeployment had been long-anticipated, it was an audible political slap as the Bush Administration promoted its "new" plan for Iraq. After all, premonition is not preparation, and the British troop reduction confirms a dramatic loss of faith compared to Blair's previously dogged commitment to reinforcing the U.S.-Anglo relationship with British blood and treasure.

Blair's reflection of the British people's broader skepticism is fully warranted. Bush's latest plan not only ignores realities in Iraq, it also resurrects organizational arrangements tried and failed during America's most bitter war. True, Iraq is not Vietnam. But that does not mean-as administration officials seem to believe-that failed tactics employed in Vietnam will work in Iraq.

The prognosis is especially poor for at least two key elements of the strategy-the use of coalition Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and the interaction of those teams with local Iraqi officials. And that is fundamentally important because, even as the public focuses on the military surge, America's own military leaders point out that security will not be established if the political and economic legs of the strategy fail.

Provincial-and Haphazard

The first PRT was established in Iraq on November 12, 2005, following introduction in Afghanistan as Joint Regional Teams by American Special Forces during 2002. By the end of 2006, about half of the 27 PRTs in Afghanistan were managed and staffed by Americans and their coalition partners, while the other half were managed and staffed by individual NATO contingents. In Iraq, six American and one British-led PRT were fully operational, while two others led by Italy and the United States had "initial operational capability", and another Korean-led team had been approved. American PRTs consist of sixty to one hundred persons-somewhere between a third and half of whom are Iraqi employees of USAID and the Departments of Defense, State, Agriculture and Justice, or their contractors. A majority of the remaining staff are American military personnel joined by a substantially smaller number of civilian contractors and staff of those same agencies.

The PRTs' sweeping mission encompasses improved governance, establishment of the rule of law, completion of reconstruction and overall development of the economy. In practice, however, day-to-day operations are substantially more circumspect. The staff spends much of its time gathering local intelligence, hectoring Iraqi officials, monitoring contractors, negotiating ad hoc political agreements with local political leaders, and preparing a vast array of reports required by the various agencies that employ them. Unsurprisingly, they are torn by competing organizational cultures, objectives and incentives.

PRT effectiveness ultimately depends on the ability to influence local governance. But there has not been, there is not now, nor will there soon be effective local government outside the Kurdish region-an area of relative stability to which this essay does not apply.

Actual local governance functions throughout much of Iraq are currently performed by non-formal but de facto political leaders rather than official local governments. Although de facto political leadership also existed in Vietnam, it was associated predominantly with the enemy insurgency and the United States was clearly on one side against another. That is a big difference with Iraq, where the coalition is attempting to broker a peace among a bewildering variety of unofficial, but locally powerful, political groups-including many who are associated with sectarian militias and are unlikely to welcome effective competition from PRT supported local governments.

Saddam's Model Continued

Under Saddam Hussein, there was no legal provision for local governments. When public financing had to be disbursed at the local level, it was transferred from Baghdad to resident treasurers of the central government rather than to non-existent "local" governments. And such transfers were accompanied by detailed instructions about how and under what conditions funds should be disbursed. The primary responsibility of governors, and mayors, all of whom served as both party and government officials, was to ensure the compliance of government bureaucrats to Ba‘ath Party policies.

In the hope of fundamentally reducing the dominance of central government as an instrument of the Ba‘ath Party, a pre-invasion USAID document argued that local governments should establish interim democratic institutions within twelve months, and would need to have the power to impose taxes within 18 months. But in practical terms, that has not occurred. Although Iraq's new constitution provides for the existence of local governments-and some marginal progress toward local decision-making has occurred-local officials are still barred from raising their own revenue. And financial transfers from the central government routinely suffer from very long delays. While local government had no brains under Saddam Hussein, now there are no arms or legs to actually implement policy.

That places PRTs in a classic dilemma. In the words of Department of State's Robert Tillery, "by helping local governments more effectively address the needs of their citizens, they will gain the support of their people." But there is no efficient Iraqi system for funding local governments or giving them the ability to generate employment or improve infrastructure. Such constraints are likely to lead PRT staff to try and "deliver the goods" themselves and that, in turn, will undercut the credibility of the very same local governments they are supposed to support. But that is not the worst of it.