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As Troops Withdraw, Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Teams to Change

qImage has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/03/prt-iraq.jpgU.S. Soldiers provide security for a Provincial Reconstruction Team visiting the ancient city of Ashur, Iraq. (army.mil)

A key State Department program that seeks to bolster the capability of Iraqi provincial and local authorities to govern will remain in place over the next year with some modifications, its Washington-based director said. But concerns remain about whether the program will be sufficient to address the continuing political and economic challenges in Iraq as U.S. troops withdraw.

Since 2005, small groups made of U.S. diplomats, military officers, development experts and legal advisers called Provincial Reconstruction Teams have worked with Iraqi leaders at the province and district levels around the country to bolster their capacity to govern. In an application of untraditional diplomatic work that some in and outside the State Department see as vital in weak or failed states, the teams help Iraqis write and execute budgets and aid in the development of their judicial systems. While the drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq will ultimately mean the end of the PRTs, “the PRT program is not going to disappear anytime soon,” said Wade Weems, the Department of State’s Director of Provincial Reconstruction, Transition and Stabilization for Iraq. “We’re not leaving more quickly than the military.”

But the PRT program will change between now and August 2010, when the U.S. combat mission ends. In addition to the 14 PRTs, there are also ten teams that work at the district level, known as Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or ePRTs, owing to their status as embedded units within the U.S. Army’s Brigade Combat Teams. Over the course of the next 15 months, the Brigade Combat Teams will leave Iraq or transition into Advisory and Assistance Brigades. Weems said the ePRTs’ personnel — a smaller team than the 15 to 25 members of an average PRT — will probably be absorbed into a regular PRT. Regular PRTs rely on partner relationships with the military to move around Iraq, which will continue to be the case.

“The provincial team will maintain the coverage of districts,” he said. “The configuration will change, but we intend to have a pretty robust… civilian presence well into 2010.” Weems declined to predict the future of the PRT structure beyond 2010, but said that by the end of 2011, when the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement mandates the full withdrawal of the U.S. forces that the PRTs rely upon to travel around the country, the functions of the PRTs will be taken over by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or its consular Regional Embassy Offices throughout the country — what Weems called “a traditional diplomatic presence.” No decisions have yet been reached about the pace of consolidating the PRTs into consulates or embassies before 2010.

Already the ePRT drawdown has commenced. Some of the combat brigades that arrived in Iraq in 2007 as part of the troop surge contained ePRTs. With their departure last year, four ePRTs have either been disbanded or absorbed into regular PRTs, Weems explained.

The PRTs’ budget request for the next fiscal year will be the same as for the current one, according to State Department spokesman John Fleming, approximately $650 million. That decision may alarm some Iraq specialists in and outside the administration who fear that the department may not be prepared to shoulder a sufficient amount of the burden in Iraq as the U.S. withdraws its troops. The PRTs took years to develop capacity and competence among the Iraqi provincial leadership. But much of that leadership has been voted out of office in January’s provincial elections, and the incoming leadership will not be familiar with Iraq’s arcane budgetary and governing process. On top of Iraq’s continued sectarian strife, a shift to new leadership that’s unskilled in the unglamorous decision making that delivers services to Iraq’s population risks a discontinuity in governance that could invite new violence.

Stephen Biddle, an security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations who has advised Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus, noted that dropping oil prices have created severe pressures on the Iraqi budget, which is dependent on oil. Helping provincial governments prepare their budgets is a core PRT function. “Economic development has become more salient,” Biddle said. “The implication, therefore, would be to increase funding for the PRTs.” Biddle doubted that a PRT budget of $650 million was sufficient.

Weems said the PRTs didn’t require more money or more personnel to be effective as the troop drawdown proceeds. “I don’t think necessarily having more people is [the] right answer,” he said. “The right answer is better coordination between the people we do have out there, with our military counterparts, and other agencies doing [governmental] capacity-building in the provinces, like USAID.” He pointed to January’s provincial elections, in which politicians who argued the need for a more responsive government largely prevailed, as heralding the arrival of a “more receptive group” to the PRTs’ message of improved technocratic governance. There are about 460 U.S. officials from the departments of State, Defense, Justice, Agriculture and USAID working for the PRTs currently, as well approximately 250 Iraqis employed by them, a figure Weems “expects to grow” as “our numbers draw down.”

Nor does Weems think the program budget for the PRTs needs to rise in order to meet the challenges of the next year in Iraq. “Some of best projects I’ve seen in Iraq have been done for 25 grand,” he said, “and some of the worst have cost millions of dollars. Money is not a good gauge or measure of effectiveness.”

Some observers think it’s only natural that as that governmental capacity increases, the PRTs should work themselves out of a job, to use a term favored by U.S. military and civilian advisers in Iraq. “As the Iraqi government solidifies, stabilizes, and begins to operate [on] its own, this kind of function is less and less neccessary,” said Robert Perito, a nation-building expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace. “The point of the PRTs was they were always supposed to phase out. They were the bridge between combat and peace. As we get to peace, they should disappear.”

Still, top administration officials envision a continued role for the PRTs over the next three years. In a conference call the day that President Obama unveiled his plan to withdraw U.S. troops, Defense Secretary Bob Gates cited PRT support as a core function for the remaining military presence. “Our folks would provide protection for the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and other civilians working in Iraq,” Gates told reporters on Feb. 27, referring to the 30,000 to 55,000 troops expected to remain in Iraq between August 2010 and December 2011.

Similarly, in a conference call with reporters last week, Maj. Gen. David Perkins, director of strategic effects for the U.S. military command in Iraq, called the PRTs “a major portion” of the residual U.S. mission in Iraq and said that they recently received “additional funding.” Weems said he was unsure of the basis for that statement, since the budget request for the PRTs — which has yet to be formally made — will be in the same “ballpark” as last year.

There have been some disagreements between the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and diplomats out in the field with the PRTs about how rapidly PRT consolidation should occur. Some administration and State Department officials have noted that the PRTs implicitly challenge the notion of traditional diplomacy, in which two governments deal with each other in national capitals, rather than take a more expeditionary approach and work with local or even opposition officials on bolstering aspects of governance. Such a challenge can lead to discomfort with the idea of the PRTs.

But some see the department as adapting to a more expeditionary mindset, however slowly. “There’s a recognition that going down and talking to the foreign ministry doesn’t do the job,” said a senior State Department official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “Most every one of us [feels] cooped up in an embassy. If [diplomats] want sit in an embassy and look at a computer screen, they could have saved the money on a plane ticket” and remained at home instead.

As well, some PRT veterans are going on to bigger things at the department, a minor but notable indication that Foggy Bottom values PRT service. A former director of provincial reconstruction and local governance in Kabul, Bruce Rogers, now runs the U.S. embassy in Latvia.

To some degree, Weems is an example of that changing culture: he’s not a foreign service officer at all. A lawyer and Marine veteran of Iraq, he noticed the “utter lack of civilian presence” during a tour in western Iraq in 2004. “We didn’t have much in the way of civilian assistance in our work with the farmers union or the city council,” he recalled. “When they stood up the PRT program shortly after I got back from my Marine tour, I just wanted be part of that.” Weems volunteered to be a deputy team leader the PRT in the southern province of Muthanna in 2006. By 2007, he requested another yearlong PRT stint, this time leading the PRT in the southeastern province of Wasit. Unexpectedly, he became the department’s director for Iraq PRTs last July.

While he “applaud[ed] the many State Department personnel” who’ve joined the PRTs, Weems noted that the program was changing the way the department thinks of itself. “It’s attracting a different type of recruit into the State Department, people who want to go out and get their boots muddy, and who want to do the more dynamic, slightly adventurous, muddy-boot diplomacy that we at the PRTs do,” he said. “It’s inevitable that would have some effect on the State Department.”

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