Friday, November 26, 2010

In Iraq, Don't Abandon the Provincial Reconstruction Teams

Vice-President Joseph Biden's admonition in a recent New York Times Op-Ed column (November 21, 2010) that the US not abandon Iraq at this critical juncture in its efforts to establish political stability, prosperity and functioning democracy couldn't be more true. After all the blood that has been shed since 2003 to move Iraq forward, the Iraqi people do not deserve yet another tragedy given the suffering they have faced over the past several decades.

One of the most successful models in promoting positive social change in Iraq has been the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program which was introduced into Iraq in 2005 and then expanded in 2008. PRTs have deployed American and other foreign personnel throughout Iraq to work on a wide variety of projects. The beauty of the PRT model is that it enshrines a "bottom up" approach to development. Iraqis, not foreigners, set the social reconstruction agenda and then the PRTs work to implement the goals of that agenda. Unfortunately, the PRT program is scheduled to be phased out in 2011. Given the program's success, it there a way it could be saved?

In his Op-Ed, Vice-President Biden pointed out that Iraq suffers from many problems but has also made much progress since 2003. One commendable form of progress has been the use of elections and negotiations rather than violence to solve its problems. Of course, Iraq's political process is not a pretty one. And some political leaders, such as Prime Minister al-Maliki and KRG President Masoud Barzani, have shown distinct authoritarian tendencies. Nevertheless, no one faction can dominate the political process and thus a form of democratic politics is bound to persist for the foreseeable future. However, whoever leads Iraq will have to deliver the necessary social services to the Iraqi people if they are win their loyalty and thereby insure the country's continued transition to democracy.

As complaints over government inaction in many areas have mounted - such as electricity shortages that led to riots in Basra last summer - social reconstruction looms ever larger among a disgruntled population, whether Arab or Kurdish. Complaints over the high salaries of parliamentarians, who have met only 4 times since last March's elections, have led to lawsuits against the government (see my forthcoming post on this issue). The rise of insurgent activity, while still relatively limited, also reflects a sense that the government is not serving the interests of the populace at large, particularly the minority Sunni Arab population, and poor Shiites in the south.

One of the best models for providing services has been the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that were formed after the US changed its policies in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Having participated in the training of PRTs for the past 3 years, I have heard numerous success stories. One that is particularly inspiring comes from al-Falluja in al-Anbar Province. Many will remember the killing of 4 private security guards who worked for the Blackwater Corporation in al-Falluja in 2004. Subsequently their bodies were burned and hung from the town bridge that crosses the Euphrates River.

PRT members related to me how they helped farmers in the al-Falluja area reclaim 17000 acres of land. The farmers indicated that, during Saddam Husayn's regime, they had been told what to plant and then given a pittance for the harvest. As a result, there was little incentive for them to maintain the quality of their land. Based on the needs they expressed, the PRTs helped the farmers repair their irrigation canals and dams and showed them how to use new fertilizers. Soon they were producing fruits and vegetables for expanding urban markets and making a tidy sum in the process.

What pleased the farmers most was not that they were making a good income. Their greatest concern was that, if their farms could not provide enough income, their children would be forced to migrate to Baghdad or other urban areas where they might be forced to join criminal or insurgent organizations. Further, they lamented the fact that their family traditions would be lost as well. I was struck by the parallel between this story and an article I had read a few years ago about farmers in the Dakotas who indicated that a rise if soy bean prices allowed them to repay their debts and save the family farm for their children. Clearly, farmers throughout the world share the same concerns, not just to prosper but to keep an important tradition alive.

In a few short years al-Falluja has been transformed from a town whose residents were very hostile to the US to one where the residents no longer evidence such feelings. Indeed, an unlicensed Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened in the town a few years ago and had lines stretching far down the street when it first began business. The key here is that the residents are enjoying a modicum of prosperity. Give people hope in the future and their attention will be focused on taking advantage of that opportunity. The PRTS alone did not turn al-Falluja around but they did contribute to helping its farmers enjoy a better life.

American officials have indicated that the PRTs must be phased out now that US forces are greatly reduced in number in Iraq and thus are no longer able to provide for the safety of American and other foreign personnel. However, there is a way to save the PRT model and that is to have Iraqis provide the technical services formerly provided by Americans. Iraq is awash in technical personnel who could provide the services that the country needs to rebuild its education and health care systems and improve municipal services and its national infrastructure.

PRTs could be attached to the provincial councils that were elected in January 2009 throughout the Arab regions of Iraq. In both the Arab and Kurdish regions of Iraq, NGOs that are working to provide services, such as the Iraqi Peace Network and the Women for Women International chapter in Baghdad, could provide important assistance to the new Iraqi PRTs. Having the PRTs placed under the supervision of local provincial councils but also linked to the appropriate ministries in Baghdad and Arbil would both strengthen local governance and create stronger ties between center and periphery.

Iraq's PRTs could be divided according to the services they provided. Thus there could be PRTs that focused on education, health care, refugees and displaced families, single family households, women's issues, municipal infrastructure, conflict resolution, youth issues, agricultural development, small business and environmental issues.

These PRTs would provide employment for professionally trained Iraqis and would send a message that the Iraqi government is truly concerned with the needs of the populace at large. The new PRT network would undoubtedly include many young Iraqis. Recent research that I have conducted with youth throughout Iraq indicates that many are cynical about their political leadership, whether in Baghdad or Arbil. Were they able to participate in social reconstruction, many would find a new sense of purposes and develop greater faith in the political system. Constituting 65% of the population under the age of 25, it is critical to inculcate Iraqi youth with a sense of civic responsibility and pride.

The US could continue to provide assistance to the PRTs from its embassy and consulates in Iraq, via visits from technical teams to Iraq and visits by Iraqi professionals to the US, and via videoconferencing. The European Union, Turkey, India and other Arab countries such as Egypt could provide assistance as well. UN agencies such as the FAO in Rome, which is served by the very capable Iraqi representative, Dr. Hasan al-Janabi, would have a national service network in Iraq with which to more effectively interact.

The cost of the new PRT network would be not be prohibitively expensive. If social reconstruction does not proceed and Iraq slides back into a serious insurgency, the cost of the PRTs would be nothing compared to what it would take to militarily suppress a new uprising in Iraq. Already, there is restiveness in the areas of the so-called Sunni Arab triangle and new Shiite militias have emerged in the south now that US and British forces have largely withdrawn from that area.

Surely the US could find a way to finance a new PRT system in Iraq. It could seek funds from its allies in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf who do not want an unstable Iraq to their north, especially one that provides greater opportunity for Iranian meddling in its internal affairs. Turkey, Malaysia and the European Union could also be asked to contribute funds. Further, countries that help Iraq now will no doubt be given favorable treatment as its oil and natural gas industries - both of which have huge reserves - begin to expand over the next 5 years. The time to act is now, so as to keep Iraq on track to becoming a truly stable, prosperous and democratic nation-state. Dos the US have the will to help Iraq achieve these ends?

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