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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Jim Henley says:

    One would think a cadre of experts spread out into tiny teams as advisors with Iraqis doing the bulk of the work would be . . .

    . . . kidnapped and killed. These guys aren’t restricted to base for no reason.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Jim: Fair point. I’m thinking more along the lines of SF A-teams. It might be a bit much to ask of civilian tech advisers. But banding them together in gigantic clusters kinda makes them a target set, too, I’d think.

  3. If people wanted jobs at the dangerous, isolated and uncomfortable bases, they’d have joined the Army or Marine Corps, not the diplomatic corps.

    Actually, there are plenty of dangerous, isolated and uncomfortable assignments in the Foreign Service. Unfortunately, at the moment many of them are in Afghanistan and Iraq and all of them have to be filled all over again each and every year. As do the Liberias and the Pakistans and all the other dangerous and/or uncomfortable posts.

    There’s no warehouse chock-full-o’ Arabic linguists or reconstruction experts (who have been on ice since last practising their trades during the occupations of Germany and Japan) upon which we can draw.

    And there’s no diplomatic reserve component, no equivalent of the national guard, that can be called upon at need to make up any shortfalls.

    Secretary Rice recently announced that the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) would be increased from 10 to 18. Those people are going to have to come from somewhere. I don’t doubt that the Department will staff them and deploy them with the best qualified people it can; that’s been an announced and public priority for some time now and I believed them the first time. But Arabic linguists aren’t something you can just order up whenever you need a hundred or a dozen. And you still have to staff all those diplomatic missions in Arabic speaking countries at the same time, plus the whole rest of the world as well. It’s not going to be easy to accomplish and may require the implementation of directed assignments, something that will not be received well within the Foreign Service.

    A colleague of mine mentioned something the other day that had been obvious to me when it was first announced in late 2003 that we would be re-opening an embassy in Baghdad and in what numbers we would staff it. At the time I was temporarily back in uniform and serving in Iraq as a soldier. His thoughts now, in 2007, were that in any other country, at any other post with a security situation like Baghdad, like in Iraq, we would be drawing down the mission, evacuating non-essential personnel, and eventually closing it down entirely.

    For reasons of national mission, that hasn’t happened, but it was obvious to me way back in 2003 that staffing that sort of commitment by the Foreign Service on an annual basis was quickly going to become the tail that wagged the personnel system’s dog.

    I’ve linked to you, and commented as above, here.

  4. RonF says:

    $10,000 a head for office furniture might become more believeable if that classification included PC’s, fax machines, printers, etc.