Iraq Rebuilding Teams to Quintuple in Size
NYT reports this morning that the United States will increase by a factor of five the number of reconstruction specialists working in Iraq.
As part of its latest plan to stabilize Iraq, the United States intends to more than double the number of regional reconstruction teams and to add nearly 400 specialists for existing and new teams, in fields from politics and the rule of law to agribusiness and veterinary care, according to an official outline of the plan. The document calls for the measures to be taken swiftly, in three phases, with waves of new teams and personnel expected to be put in place in March, June and September. The teams are to carry out rebuilding and governance projects from small offices all over Iraq.
Aside from the obvious “Why not four years ago?” question, this sounds like a welcome move. The details, however, sound less promising.
The document, provided to The New York Times by a critic of the plan, lays out what an American official familiar with its contents calls simply “the playbook,” giving detailed estimates of the costs to be incurred by various teams as a result of the changes. About $250,000, for example, is set aside for new office furnishings for a team in the southern city of Basra, which is supposed to receive 25 additional specialists.
Granting that the leaker is a critic–an acknowledgment we usually don’t see, let alone so prominently in a hit piece–$10,000 apiece for office furniture strikes me as extravagant by a factor of at least ten. Not only is it wasteful to spend that kind of money but it sends a rather odd signal; there’s a reason Peace Corps volunteers live like one of the villagers.
While the plan does call for the creation of about a dozen new reconstruction teams around Iraq, most of the new personnel will be added to existing teams, the plan indicates. While 400 may sound like a small number compared with the plan to increase the number of troops by more than 20,000, the existing 10 reconstruction teams have, at most, a total of about 100 civilian specialists, and recruiting that many has been difficult, officials say. Whether it is wise to increase the staffing of the teams by a factor of five is likely to be questioned by existing team members, the American official said.
That is because extremely restrictive security regulations have made it difficult for the specialists already on the provincial reconstruction teams, often called P.R.T.’s, to leave their bases and work with Iraqis, the official said, adding that the cumbersome rules must be followed even in relatively safe areas in the northern and central parts of Iraq. “Across the board they have to follow the same security rules,” the official said. “So the P.R.T.’s that could be successful still can’t get out in the field.”
In addition, because oversight agencies have previously reported that the existing teams have had trouble equipping themselves with items as essential as pencils and other office supplies, a fresh wave of officials could find it more difficult than expected to begin their work for reasons other than security.
One would think a cadre of experts spread out into tiny teams as advisors with Iraqis doing the bulk of the work would be more beneficial. The other criticisms here, though, strike me as bureaucratic nonsense rather than poor planning from Washington. If we’re having trouble equipping 100 people with pencils and therefore can’t scale that to 500 people, we might as well go home now. Indeed, if the Iraqi economy is in such bad shape after four years that they can’t supply themselves with pencils, things are much more dire than we’ve been led to believe.
The teams also have been criticized for relying heavily on uniformed personnel whose skills are poorly matched with specialized needs in the field. That concern has repeatedly come up because the State Department has had great difficulty persuading civilian officials to accept jobs at the dangerous, isolated and uncomfortable bases in the Iraqi provinces.
No shocker there. If people wanted jobs at the dangerous, isolated and uncomfortable bases, they’d have joined the Army or Marine Corps, not the diplomatic corps.