Thursday, March 28, 2013

How The Civilian Surge In Iraq Didn’t Quite Meet Its Mark

In January 2007, President George Bush announced the Surge. He called for two marine battalions and five army brigades to head towards Iraq along with an increased number of reconstruction workers to conduct a unified counterinsurgency campaign. The argument was that the increased troops would help bring down violence, and allow for reconciliation. On the civilian side, more Americans were to be sent out into the provinces to work with Iraqis to find out their needs, and help empower them to run their own country.  While the extra forces helped bring down violence in Iraq the civilian surge was far less successful due to a slow start, internal disputes, and bureaucratic delays.

The Surge started with new American leadership in Iraq. General David Petraeus was named the new commander of the multi-national forces, and officially took over from General George Casey at the beginning of February 2007. By the end of the month, 2,700 new troops had arrived in Baghdad, with 16,700 by June. New U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker tried to work closely with General Petraeus to make sure that the reconstruction effort helped with the military strategy. Crocker found that there were too many rebuilding programs all running independently of each other. He created the Joint Strategic Assessment Team to try to coordinate them all. He also wanted to emphasize Iraqi control and capacity. This was the first time that an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency plan was being implemented in Iraq. Back in 2005, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called for such a strategy, but in fighting back in Washington undermined it. Now there was a concerted effort to get everyone on the same page to combat violence, and get the Iraqi government running properly.

Two problems that quickly emerged were that the civilian Surge took much longer to come together than the military one, and that Iraqis were still reluctant to govern. Ambassador Crocker did not take office until the end of March. His team didn’t arrive until early summer. That caused problems coordinating with the military. Getting funds acquisitioned and contracts processed also caused delays in new projects. Finally, the Iraqi government was still refusing to take responsibility for much of the infrastructure it was being left with, something it had been doing since 2003. Crocker tried to streamline the contracting process, and cut down on the red tape. At the same time, the U.S. started working with Deputy Premier Barham Saleh, Planning Minister Ali Baban, Finance Minister Bayan Jabr, and National Security Adviser Mowfaq Rubaie to include Iraqis in the strategy. In turn, Baghdad promised to spend more of its capital and provincial budgets to shoulder more of the burden of rebuilding the country. This was especially important to the U.S., because one of the goals of the Surge was to make the Iraqis self-reliant, so that they would not always look towards the Americans to solve everything. The Iraqis eventually did start to outspend the Americans, and did take more responsibility. Some of the bureaucratic delays were also solved, but not all of them. By September 2008, only 50% of the money set aside for the PRTs was disbursed.

Members of an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team talking with tribal leaders about improving agriculture in Baghdad province, 2007 (American Forces Press Service)

The Surge emphasized Americans getting out of the Green Zone and their camps, and out into the local communities to work with Iraqis. Part of this involved creating more Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and the new Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams (ePRTs). PRTs were originally proposed by Ambassador Khalilzad in 2005, but disputes between the Defense and State Departments over who would run and fund them, held up their creation. The PRTs eventually worked on capacity building and planning with Iraqis, so what was built came from them, and would be sustained and funded by them as well. They also tried to get Iraqi businesses involved in the reconstruction contracts to get money flowing into the Iraqi economy and giving jobs to locals. One simple innovation was to get Iraqi firms to service the huge American military presence in Iraq. This actually started in the middle of 2006 with the Iraqi First program. From October 2006 to September 2007, it gave out $2.7 billion in contracts to Iraqi companies that employed 75,000 Iraqis. By early 2008, there were roughly 4,100 Iraqi businesses that had worked with the Americans. This helped create a new entrepreneurial class of Iraqis, which are now at the forefront of the emerging private sector. The Surge was also important in empowering the Iraqis, and including their views. For much of the time beforehand, the Americans had largely talked to themselves about what the country needed. Iraqis were now getting their voices heard.

A map of PRTs and ePRTs in Oct. 2007 (IraqSlogger)

There were some problems with implementing the PRTs however. Some Iraqi officials wanted to manipulate the reconstruction contracts the Americans offered to enrich themselves, family, and supporters. That along with the insecurity led to huge cost overruns. A market being rebuilt in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad for example cost $900,000 even though the work mostly consisted of laying down a concrete floor and putting a roof over it. That was a constant struggle, but probably unavoidable given the amount of money that was being pumped into the middle of a warzone at that time. Another issue was the lack of adequate staff. By the middle of 2007, there were only 29 Arabic speakers out of a total of 610. The ePRT in Baghdad’s East Rasheed served 800,000 people with a staff of only six. Finally, some members of both Petraeus and Crocker’s staff questioned whether reconstruction would affect the fighting and bring about changes in Iraqi governance. A few of Crocker’s advisers pointed out with the civil war in such high gear, building new infrastructure was not going to stop it. Likewise, some PRT members and economic aids told Petraeus that they weren’t sure that improving services would give legitimacy to the government when so many Iraqis were concerned about survival. Overall, the PRTs did important work out in the provinces, but it took them a long time to overcome these deficiencies. They would continue to lack adequate staff, but when security finally improved, they would do a much better job, because the emphasis became more about governance, which was what the PRTs were focused upon.

Despite the attempt to have a unified plan there were disagreements over what the U.S. reconstruction effort should focus upon. Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Paul Brinkley wanted to get Iraq’s factories up and running, after the Coalition Provisional Authority had closed some of them down. Brinkley believed that the state owned enterprises (SOEs) that ran much of Iraq’s industries could provide employment. He thought that $200 million could get 150,000 Iraqis working. State Department officials at the U.S. Embassy were skeptical, arguing that spending lots of money on factories that had been closed down for several years, because they were inefficient was not the best strategy. The arguments over Brinkley’s plan became so intense that he moved his staff out of the U.S. Embassy. In March, he picked 140 factories that he thought could be made operable, and by September 17 of them had re-opened. The attempt to reform the SOE’s continues to the present day, but with few positive results. The Brinkley affair highlighted the fact that different agencies had different ideas about what should be done to get Iraq up and running again. This divided energies and money, and led to many arguments like the one between Brinkley and State. The Surge was never able to resolve this issue.

Another disagreement was over the use of the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). CERP funds were distributed by U.S. commanders to try to help build up support for their efforts, and get communities working. A common program was to employ young men to pick up trash. USAID and PRT officials voiced several concerns about CERP. Some believed that local Iraqi councils should be doing this work instead of the U.S. military. It also distorted local labor markets by drawing away workers to the American funded jobs. The USAID’s Inspector General for example, found that the U.S. was paying more for trash pick up than the average wage for skilled workers. That would mean that local Iraqi officials would be under pressure to continue these types of jobs after the Americans left instead of spending their budgets on more important development projects. Some PRT members said that the military was only thinking short-term. Army units for instance, tended to emphasize how much money they spent, and not on the effects. This again highlighted the fact that different groups saw reconstruction in different terms.

Ambassador Crocker’s plans had some negative affects as well. He tried to centralize control over reconstruction in the U.S. Embassy to overcome the overlapping and inconsistent programs. The Embassy ended up taking over responsibility for the Oil, Agriculture, Trade, Transportation, Communication, Justice, Interior, Health, Finance, Education, and Culture Ministries. This caused a rough transition as not everyone at the Embassy was sure what their new jobs were, and in turn, Iraqis and Americans out in the field were confused about who they should report to. Many started complaining that they were dealing with the bureaucracy more than with projects. Crocker and Petraeus tried to work closer together to resolve this issue, but it did not always work. The idea was a good one, but the way it was implemented caused more trouble than it should have. This only added to the delay in spending and contracts that PRTs and others were running into.

The positives of the civilian Surge finally began to become apparent in 2008. That was when Iraqis really began moving into a leadership role. The Planning and Finance Ministries created a uniformed contracting and regulation regime that allowed director generals to better execute their budgets. The U.S. started helping Iraqis implement their plans, and placed more emphasis upon building capacity and sustainment programs so that Baghdad could run its infrastructure and govern better. Finally, Iraq got a huge boost from rising oil prices in 2008 that pumped in lots of extra money. One of the main goals of the Surge was to get Iraqis in the lead, and they were finally doing that by 2008. They were spending more of their own money on their own projects rather than always following the Americans.

Despite the improvement in security that the Surge brought about, it was not able to overcome all of the difficulties of rebuilding Iraq. The civilian side was slow in starting, which added to the red tape that already existed, led to delays in spending. There were also continued differences over what the U.S. should be working on, and between the civilian and military sides despite concerted efforts to overcome those divisions. Finally, the Americans wanted to put the Iraqis in the lead. That did eventually happen, but the problem was the public ended up not being happy with what they saw. Baghdad’s ability to govern proved inconsistent, and people began to complain about the lack of services after violence subsided, something that continues to this day. There were still huge hurdles facing Iraq showing that the civilian side of the Surge did not have the same kind of results as the military achieved.


Khalaf, Roula, “Fortune favours the brave in Iraq,” Financial Times, 3/14/13

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09
- “Quarterly Report and Semiannual Report to the United States Government,” 7/30/07

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