The Old, New Thing for Iraq

February 27, 2007 Topic: Security Tags: Iraq War

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.

PRTs are expected, again in the words of Tillery, to "transition from working with [Iraqi provincial governments] to spend U.S. money to working with them to spend Iraqi money"--a proposition that harkens back to earlier expectations that oil revenues would finance the war.  But whatever else might be the case, substantially reduced U.S. funding of projects managed directly by PRTs will likely result in a performance closer to the languid beat of Iraqi public administration than to the accelerated rhythm of American expectations. And that problem is compounded by Iraqi perceptions that PRTs' "technical assistance" is too much like the earlier role of the Ba‘ath Party.

Vietnam Remembered

Interestingly, the army's new "Counterinsurgency" manual erroneously credits the wrong organizational arrangements in Vietnam-"CORDS" -as the model for PRTs. But CORDS, which is considered by many to have been a unique success, integrated all American military and civilian staff at provincial and district levels into a single unified structure.

The PRTs lack such unified structure and look instead more like CORDS' short-lived and failed predecessor in Vietnam-the Office of Civil Operations (OCO). Like the PRTs, OCO was tasked with coordinating separate U.S. agencies at local levels. But effective integration is seldom obtained through coordination, because individual staff members almost always continue to respond to guidance from their separate parent agencies.

In addition, even if the PRTs' strength in Iraq were to double to approximately 580 during the next few months, it would still pale by comparison to the more than seven thousand CORDS advisers in Vietnam during 1969. And given past experience in Iraq, even the substantially smaller number of PRTs would not be staffed by enough career civilians. Revealingly, Washington has begun advertising for consultants to join PRTs on time-limited contracts-further diminishing incentives for regular career staff to seek such assignments.

Organizational arrangements of course cannot assure victory, but without them failure is almost certain. The first civilian chief of CORDS, Robert Komer, concluded 35 years ago that a unified management and financing structure was introduced several years too late in Vietnam. That failure has been repeated in Iraq by an American administration that has refused to learn from past experience.

Rolling Back Ambitions

The fact remains that America's ability to effectively conduct counterinsurgency operations has never been-nor is it now-an important part of American military doctrine or civilian thinking. But the Iraq war reminds us that failure to review past experience for useful insights can be disastrous.

The United States cannot effectively "build" foreign nations. Rather, it can only support governments or groups that have their own reasons for combating America's enemies. American counter-insurgency efforts should therefore focus primarily on identifying effective governments that are at the same time relevant potential allies, are reasonably effective, and are under threat or are likely to be under threat. And direct support should be limited largely to the provision of financial and material resources.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, training is of only marginal importance and is most effective when limited to use of American equipment and software. When local allies require "capacity-building" before they can implement necessary political and economic policies, the prognosis cannot be good. Finally, creating effective counterinsurgency capacities requires establishment of a distinct career service to oversee ad hoc organizational arrangements that would respond to conflicts as they arise. That is a long way from where we are now.

Jerry Mark Silverman monitored and evaluated USAID's democracy and local governance programs in Iraq from July 2003 to August 2004. Earlier during 1967 and 1968, he was a USAID officer in Vietnam. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Political Science at Savannah State University, Savannah, Georgia ([email protected]).