For nearly a year, a team of U.S. civilian and military officials has worked from small, sparsely furnished offices here trying to help Iraqi officials with their most urgent needs: building a local government and providing basic public services.
“Provincial reconstruction teams” like this one are expected to be central to the economic component of the new Iraq policy that President Bush plans to unveil today. But in emphasizing such steps, Bush and his aides are courting widespread skepticism. Many U.S. officials and outside Iraq experts view the economic and political portion of Bush’s package, like his expected proposal to increase the number of U.S. troops in the country, to be a big gamble with a limited chance of success.
“There’s reason to try all of these ideas, and that’s why we have tried them before,” said one U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush had not yet detailed his new strategy. “We’re reliving all of the issues that have been discussed since 2003. It’s like ‘Groundhog Day.’ ”
The 35-member team in this northern Iraqi city has funneled money to aid and reconstruction projects, helped set up temporary job and job-training programs, and assisted local officials with budgets and other issues. Yet it has been hampered by shortages of skilled staff and money and a lack of security, problems that have undermined previous multibillion-dollar U.S. reconstruction efforts across the country since the American-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The current Kirkuk effort is being conducted by an eclectic group, including a former member of the British Parliament, a high school chemistry teacher, a commercial pilot, a marketing manager, a retired state trooper and a career diplomat. One member, a lawyer who helps set up local courts, refers to the group as “the Peace Corps with guns.”
Some team members caution that the tough problems they face can’t be solved through a quick infusion of money or personnel.
“There’s no cheap surge,” said Kirkuk team leader Jim Bigus, a career diplomat who came to Iraq from Afghanistan, where he was deputy director of the U.S. Bureau for International Narcotics Law Enforcement Affairs. “You’ve got to get more attractive salaries to people here, and you’ve got to get more security, and more locations. And that’s hard to do quickly.”
Bush is expected to announce plans to double the number of provincial reconstruction teams and call for big new job and loan programs and a renewed reconstruction effort. Administration officials consider the economic and political aspects of Bush’s plan more important than the expected troop increase.
The plan has two stages, officials say. Once troops have pacified key areas of Baghdad and Al Anbar province, officials will offer economic and political benefits, including jobs that they hope will win the loyalty of young men who are now fighting U.S. and Iraqi government security forces.
Shortage of civilian help
U.S. military officials have long complained about the shortage of civilian American officials available to work with local governments. Senior U.S. officials are calling for an increase in civilian workers to accompany the expected addition of up to 20,000 troops.
The provincial reconstruction teams at work in Iraq were modeled on organizations used in Vietnam and Afghanistan and are expected to be a principal channel for new aid.
Members of the Kirkuk team say senior U.S. officials have hinted at the possibility of added resources and have urged State Department officials on the team not to close a regional embassy office that might be needed in the future.
“We’ve been asked a lot in the last month how many more people we could use, or money,” said team leader Bigus.
The team’s routine, four days a week, is to strap on armor and helmets and pile into a convoy of armored Humvees for trips into the field to confer with Iraqi officials and others. None of its members, however, speaks Arabic or Kurdish, though there are five interpreters on staff.
The usual destination is the faded gray and yellow Kirkuk Government Building, which is safe enough to allow them to shed their weapons and armored vests while they sip tea with officials.
Since arriving last spring, the Kirkuk team has helped arrange $744 million in spending from Iraqi, Pentagon and USAID sources for 599 development projects. U.S. officials view the Kirkuk team as a showcase.
Yet it has faced major obstacles. It has not been able to recruit all the civilian specialists it would like, and has had to turn to military personnel to pick up the slack. Only about one-third of its members are civilians. The original plan called for a 50-50 split.
Still, the work is considered vital. Bigus said that better public services could turn Iraqis away from the insurgency, but worried that more troops could lead to more casualties, hurting the team effort.
“Dead officers don’t do reports, and the more deaths we have, the more problems we have recruiting,” he said.
Similar teams in other parts of Iraq face more severe problems. Teams in the more dangerous Al Anbar and Basra provinces are so understaffed and hamstrung by security concerns that the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction urged in an October audit that they be closed. Of the 13 main and satellite offices studied, only four were “generally able” to carry out their missions, the audit said.
One U.S. official said plans for an increase in civilians were causing anxiety in the State Department, which, like other civilian agencies, has struggled to find enough people willing to accept the dangerous assignments. Senior U.S. officials have considered involuntary assignments, but have so far rejected that step.
Other components of the economic effort also have raised questions, including proposals for new job programs, which one official said would cost up to $1 billion.
A calming effect
U.S. military commanders are enthusiastic backers of temporary job programs, citing their effect in calming cities such as Tall Afar after bitter fighting. Commanders contend that many young Iraqis would rather take such jobs than work for the insurgency.
“The vast majority of the terrorists we fight are not ideologically bound. They’re doing this mostly for economics,” said Army Col. Patrick Stackpole, commander of the 3rd Brigade Combat Team of the 25th Infantry Division in Kirkuk, which works with the provincial reconstruction team.
To help provide jobs, the administration’s plan calls for a sharp expansion of the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which gives field commanders cash that they can use at their discretion to put civilians to work.
However, many civilian officials and former government administrators believe the economic benefits of the job programs have proved fleeting. In the currently volatile atmosphere, job offers are unlikely to lure away men who are deeply committed to the fight, they say.
Frederick D. Barton, a former U.S. Agency for International Development official and specialist on postwar reconstruction, said temporary job programs employed about 50,000 Iraqis at their peak more than two years ago, but would be less attractive now.
“Cleaning up garbage and digging ditches for a few bucks a day for six weeks doesn’t give you much of a time horizon and might put your life at risk,” said Barton, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Maj. Chris Mitchiner, an intelligence officer with the 3rd Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, in Kirkuk, said most Sunni insurgents “can’t see past tomorrow” and are unlikely to be swayed by job programs.
James Dobbins, a former senior U.S. diplomat and advisor to the Iraq Study Group, said the job programs had not had lasting economic effects.
Pentagon officials have begun reopening some of the 200 state-owned factories that were closed after the U.S. invasion. Military leaders hope that the factories can produce basic goods to be sold to the U.S. military and to commercial customers. Pentagon officials said they had opened one such factory, and hoped to open nine more by the end of the month, eventually providing 11,000 permanent jobs.
But critics said that it would be difficult to make the rundown factories function profitably and argued that many of the former employees would be unwilling or unavailable to go back to work.
“Most of them were unprofitable and for the most part irredeemable four years ago, and they’re mostly in worse shape today,” said Dobbins, who now directs Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy program.
The administration could face resistance from the Democratic-controlled Congress in funding the effort. Democrats, unhappy with the $20 billion already spent on reconstruction, have signaled that they may pare back new requests.
Richter reported from Washington and Hennessy-Fiske from Kirkuk.