I was surprised to see Foreign Policy providing so high a soapbox
Van Buren, a U.S. State Department Foreign Service officer who, by his own
well" during his brief and unproductive jaunt as a Provincial
Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader in Iraq in 2009, but, according to him, caused
more damage there than most any other individual I have ever heard of or
and a blog
spotlight in just a few days!
Van Buren never got the drift of PRTs, a decisive and controversial 2007 effort
by the State Department's Office of Provincial Affairs' director, Henry Clarke,
to break through the failed bureaucracy of top-down U.S. colonial
administration programs by forcing decision-making out to committed civilian
reconstruction staff on the ground. Clarke always knew that the Achilles' heel of
PRTs was poor assignments of unqualified individuals and that the only defense
against the Peter Van Burens was to have many PRTs so that the failures did not
pull down the whole mission.
real Iraq PRT story is not pretty, is fraught with bureaucratic snafus, and
involved much waste, fraud, abuse, and war wreckage. The best laid plans of
mice and men seldom survive a powerful IED, regardless of bravery or the best
of intentions! But it is not the story that Van Buren tells, which inaccurately
paints a very bad light on the entire Foreign Service, with which he seems very
military, as Clarke often explained, had a "do it now" attitude that
compelled each new brigade to launch one "quick hit" program after
another to have Iraqis pick up the trash. The PRTs had to break that mold by
focusing on the real problem: The Iraqis had no system, post-2003, to pick up
their own trash. PRTs had to work across the rotational boundary with Iraqi
counterparties, down to the local and provincial levels, to create permanent
solutions for Iraqis' technical, resource, and administrative problems, or we
would be locked in Iraq forever. The real conflict was the damaging one between
U.S. bureaucracy (the embassy and agencies) and the field, where localized
Iraqi solutions had to be found and nourished.
effort echoed the philosophy of former Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) colleague
Ronald Neumann, who later served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, that
endless weekly metrics reporting -- the underpinning of Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld's managerial philosophy -- always showed the same problems and never
solved anything, and that absent a new approach, the only way to improve the
metrics was to manipulate them or fudge the reports.
course, none of that was PC for Rumsfeld, who, according to Pentagon
documents released after a Freedom of Information Act request from the New York Times, opined:
The guy who replaced him is
just terrible Neuman [sic]. I mean he's
a career foreign service officer. He ought to be running a museum somewhere.
That's also off the record. No, he ought to be assistant to the guy.... I wouldn't
hire the guy to push a wheelbarrow.
added that the Pentagon working with other agencies "was like an elephant talking to a monkey," acknowledging who really controlled the power, staffing, and
budgets in Iraq, and the interagency conflicts that defined much of the Iraq
and Afghan debacles.
within the State Department, the PRT concept in 2007 directly confronted policy-planning
director Stephen D. Krasner, a leading advocate for nation-building who deeply
believed in the concept of almost permanent American neocolonialism as the
answer to failed states -- the implicit CPA strategy outlined in a March 2008 Harvard International Review article "Fixing Failed
States: A Cure Worse Than the Disease?"
in actual senior civilian advisors -- the opposite of the tried-and-true "whole
of government" strategy in which any federal employee (from the Internal
Revenue Service? Department of Homeland Security?) could do a better job
running a water-treatment-plant reconstruction than any experienced public-works
engineer -- threatened to open even more institutional Pandora's boxes,
especially if many of those civilians saw local power grabs and influence
pressures as something routine to their field (the regular problem to be
overcome) rather than as unique proof of the corruption and incompetence of the
colonials in need of intense and enduring U.S. oversight.
of decision-making and civilian engagement, the big "new ideas," were
the essential keys to Provincial Reconstruction Teams -- getting civilians (not
military or federal assignees) out on the ground to figure out what was wrong
and what was needed, to deliver it with the mantra of empowering Iraqis to do
things for themselves, and to rapidly work the U.S. (military) out of the job
of micromanaging Iraq from Washington through short-term assignees.
risks of decentralization, especially with civilians at the tip of the spear in
dangerous, unstable, and corrupt environments, were many, as Clarke knew from
Bosnia, but were the only way to escape the devil we already knew.
risk that Clarke was abundantly aware of in 2007 was that a provincial team
leader, always a Foreign Service officer, might be inept, whether at the larger
provincial-level teams, with as many as 100 experts and security and support
staff, or in the smaller embedded teams of a dozen or fewer members attached to
military units. That risk, of course, could only be offset by the number of
PRTs (one in each province), their independence of action, and the rolling
assignment process (if one failed, it would not affect the others and could be
corrected by reassignment). More important for Clarke and his team, now back
from Baghdad to oversee recruitment, was the selection process. Getting the
right team leaders and advisors on the ground in 2008 was the key, while
recognizing that some might not actually pan out and that some civilians,
arriving in the chaos, might just go home (as some did).
not nearly as entertaining as Van Buren's work, another book, Career
Diplomacy: Life and Work in the US Foreign Service, by Harry W. Kopp and Charles A. Gillespie, seriously explains
the challenges faced by Clarke and the State Department in responding to the
Iraq mission, not the least of which was the sheer lack of numbers in the State
Department (trained or untrained) to fill the postings needed without harm to the
State Department's overall operating environment.
December 2007, prior to my deployment as senior civilian urban-planning advisor,
I sat in the coffee shop at Foggy Bottom with the ambassador and a group of
former staff from the Office of Provincial Affairs and the Iraq Reconstruction
Management Office. They made no bones about the mess I would find on the ground
there or the need to steel myself from the "this is the way we do it"
bunch. If our small handful of senior civilian advisors was not fired up every
day with serious problem-solving (much of the problems being U.S. ones), then
it was time to move to the next batch of problems.
was the same message Clarke had given earlier to my whole Foreign Service
Institute class in Alexandria, Virginia, but with details for my particular
assignment to join Steven Buckler's PRT operating out of Tikrit. The class was
a dozen Foreign Service officers (all volunteers and no "weenies"
among them) and a dozen senior civilians, all past military age but fit and
ready to do what was necessary. None in our civilian cohort was a federal employee,
except one from the Federal Highway Administration, the only woman in our
50-something group, and a very brave and particularly competent one bound for
the Transportation Department's advisory mission to Iraq's Transportation Ministry.
The rest of us were all headed for northern Iraq, giving up the safety of
civilian jobs as city managers, transportation engineers, utility managers, and
planners in Miami Beach, Anaheim, Kansas City, and Crofton, Maryland, for the
dangerous sojourn to Mosul, Diyala province, Kirkuk, and Tikrit without any
knowledge about hardship pay premiums or vacation schedules.
of us had called the State Department in May 2007, as the war raged, after a Washington Post article indicating that
Ambassador Ryan Crocker (and Clarke as we learned later) needed experienced
senior civilians; the job descriptions and pay scales were created afterward.
Surprisingly, from this national pool, many of us knew or knew of each other,
having worked as senior staff on related projects or for the same employers. My
transportation-engineering partner and I knew each other's portfolio, and
Diyala's senior economic advisor (our provincial next-door neighbor for this
assignment) and I had shared the same Gulf Coast employer at different periods
explained by Clarke, the plan was simple: Each of us had been picked because of
our backgrounds and skills as problem-solvers in our respective fields; they
would teach us what we needed to deploy and then deliver us to the problems.
From there, we were on our own, so learn as much as you can beforehand.
Foreign Service Institute course we attended in the fall of 2007 brought the
likes of Phebe Marr, author of The
Modern History of Iraq, who provided us with detailed briefings on the
past and present of what we needed to know (and the obvious reading assignment
of her book), and a military colonel to teach us (mostly veterans) the basics
of current military structure, protocol, and procedures. The two Arabic
speakers in our group supplemented our digital and classroom language course (though
mostly with just the idioms and cuss words that make a language real).
the classroom, we learned the basics of war-zone first aid and how to use a
tourniquet and all the other parts of the field kits we would later carry on
our military movements. The infamous "crash and bang" tactical
driving course taught us the fine points of very rough and dangerous driving,
which, in hindsight, made the death-spiral landing into Baghdad's airport seem
rather tame afterward. We also refamiliarized ourselves on weapons and had
demonstrations on improvised explosive devices.
our group set off for Iraq, all of us felt as very well-briefed and trained as
we could be under the chaotic and fast-track circumstances, though the
parallels to disaster movies like Meteor,
in which a group of drillers is rapidly assembled and shot into space to
emplace a nuclear device on a meteor threatening Earth, was not lost on any of
biggest challenge, as was predicted, was to get out of Embassy Baghdad and up
to our duty stations. Transportation out of Baghdad for the uninitiated was not
easy. Embassy staff held one mandatory "briefing" after another, as
different departments could tell us little but implored us to report what we
found to them (not the guy in the stove-piped office next door).
we finally arrived at the sprawling Contingency Operating Base (COB) Speicher
in the first week of January 2008, the lack of resources, planning, and
preparedness was obvious, offset only by the warmth and competence of Buckler,
the Salah ad-Din PRT team leader who, like Clarke, was one of the best examples
of the Foreign Service -- a dedicated diplomat with a strength in people skills
and vast experience in many diverse (and sometime very challenging) places. The
huge Salah ad-Din PRT, comprising more than 100 members, was hobbled by the
lack of secure movement opportunities (just a few brief movements a week to
nearby Tikrit), which Buckler had offset by establishing satellite PRT offices
in Baiji, Balad, Samarra, and Tuz Khurmatu in order to get out as far as the
security bubble would let him. Thus, the motto of the PRT: "Outside the
My and my transportation-planning advisor partner's assignment was to rapidly
survey public and private infrastructure and come up with big fixes as fast as
possible that would synchronize U.S. and Iraqi efforts in and around Salah ad-Din
(northern Iraq) -- a nebulous assignment to do whatever it is we could to make
a difference. Within a week, we had hooked up with the division headquarters staff
(Multi-National Division-North), co-located with us at COB Speicher. They had
their own helicopter and military ground movement resources, so we could travel
the length and breadth of the north without PRT constraints. Steve also got us
in to meet the senior provincial officials, and out to the satellites to get as
far as we could as fast as we could get there.
Division (MND)-North, under then-Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, made two engineering
battalions available -- if something needed fixing, they could do some heavy
lifting -- essential in provinces where every desk, pencil, and bulldozer had
been looted or destroyed. The entire military team joined in our effort of
mapping and assessing the north -- every road, bridge, poultry house, oil-refining
facility, concrete plant, and electrical facility -- and followed that up with
lots of unexpected expertise from electrical engineers to physicists (yes,
really important when you are reconstructing power grids and oil refineries).
April 2008, Hertling, using "helicopter diplomacy" (flying Iraqi
ministers to broken bridges on the Tigris to meet with local officials at the
problem site), had cajoled Iraq's Transportation Ministry to prioritize
reopening the bridges across the Tigris -- first with temporary bridges, then
with permanent ones at Mosul, Baiji, and Diyala, and all with Iraqi military
security bases and checkpoints. Agricultural tracking had identified each
component of the "value chain" assets and stages, from grain supplies
to poultry hatcheries, with priorities on reopening local production (chickens
and tomatoes) instead of big processing plants (the old U.S. way). Iraqis
needed very little training to simply start doing what they used to do once
bridges and roads reopened access to markets.
us through the PRT was a wealth of expertise. The second in command of the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was our health team lead (there to
study cholera responses firsthand); his military civil affairs equivalent was a
skilled senior hospital administrator from Minneapolis (essential to reopening
Salah ad-Din's hospital system); the U.S. Agriculture Department sent one of
its best dry-land farming experts to help restart small animal and rangeland
activities; and most prominent from our group was a bold and tireless rule-of-law
team, led by a senior federal prosecutor who worked closely with threatened
Iraqi judges to, with great danger to all involved, establish a fledgling
system of courts and prisons.
June 2008, all hands at the PRT and many at MND-North were involved in drought
relief and cholera prevention with the Iraqi ministers, provincial staff, and
medical professionals. Our friend from the Federal Highway Administration
(based in Baghdad) worked closely with the Iraqi Transportation Ministry and
MND-North's military and mapping resources to develop a complete national
transportation map with every bridge mapped, assessed, and identified (by code
number) using the Iraqi highway coding systems.
embassy provided no centralized meeting or information-sharing processes
between the civilian advisors -- every communication was one way -- but the
MNDs took up the slack through regional conferences. Additionally, because we
had all trained together, we had our own informal networks.
greatest assets in many respects were our "clients," the Iraqi
ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and
engaged at every level. The minister of planning needed maps and air photos to
create regional assessments to plan and allocate Iraqi funds. His critical
agency had access to mountains of planning, budgeting, and project resources
desperately needed in the north, so we had much to share. Plus, he sent nice
thank-you letters to Ambassador Crocker for the assets we were able to make
available to him. These kinds of ministerial relationships helped bridge Iraqi
funding gaps for essential projects for the provinces, from hospitals in
Samarra to housing projects in Tikrit.
all our activities, the biggest stumbling block to Iraqi self-governance was
the lack of basic maps, studies, and information to allow effective management.
No two governors had the same maps of the same provinces, and many in key
positions were constrained from traveling. Getting basic resources like geographic
information systems (GIS, or integrated digital mapping and resource information)
was a critical next step that, in real life, needed to be done on a national
level and through the ministries. It was also part of our immediate assigned
July 2008, our Salah ad-Din planning pair shifted to Baghdad (with support from
our PRT and the embassy) to coordinate the GIS effort with the U.S. Agency for
International Development (USAID), U.S. military terrain specialists (Multi-National
Corps-Iraq at Camp Victory), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (in Baghdad
and Bethesda, Maryland), the Iraqi Ministry of Planning, and the Iraqi Mapping
Directorate. A basic Iraq-wide GIS framework was widely distributed to
ministries and provinces in October 2008 following a large GIS conference at Al
Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad.
September 2008, much of our provincial reconstruction efforts were coming to their
conclusion (as was our short-term assignment), but Hertling, of MND-North,
brought us down to talk to the ambassador about the next big U.S. problem, the
Kurdish disputed boundaries for which our mapping and wide travel throughout
the north was important. At that point, our tour was extended and we were
specially assigned to the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq's disputed-boundary
team to help where we could in that effort.
my planning partner and I accomplished a lot during our temporary assignment,
but it was no different from the accomplishments of many of our senior civilian
advisor cohort working throughout the north. Several were in embedded PRTs in
Diyala and Mosul. They came with the tools and put them to use. Some followed
the military into Sadr City in June 2008 (not for the fainthearted).
our cohort, there were truly remarkable bands of civilians in other PRTs and
EPRTs, rebuilding industry, government, and agriculture in Kirkuk and Anbar,
and folks out on the very dangerous streets of small towns across Iraq, side by
side with soldiers, doing important work, wherever and whenever they could.
if all, we had one mission: to turn over control to the Iraqis so that we and
our military colleagues could go home leaving a functional, but far from
perfect, Iraq behind.
much did we waste in stupid project funding? I don't know that I ever wasted a
penny, particularly because much of our efforts were Iraqi-funded or funded through
sharing of already existing resources (mapping, assessments). Knowing the role
and resources of the Iraqi ministries assured us that money was really not an
effective weapon. Behind us was Hertling, notorious for not wasting Commander's
Emergency Response Program funds unless there was a genuine emergency, and with
whom we forced through conditions that no U.S. funds would be used without
Iraqi concurrence to accept and sustain the projects (that one condition killed
off a lot of stupid U.S. projects).
How much waste, fraud, and abuse did we see that was not "in our lane?"
One of the biggest prosecutions by the Office of the Special Inspector General
for Iraq Reconstruction was against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' contract
manager for northern Iraq. Like some poorly managed contract-management
departments in U.S. counties and school systems, he never saw a contract he
didn't like, and most -- for schools and clinics that were never completed and
not accepted by the Iraqis -- were a Gordian knot of "pass along" contracts,
shoddy construction, and bloated budgets. Our main focus was on larger Iraqi-funded
projects (roads, bridges, treatment plants, etc.), so we were not completely
dependent on our Corps of Engineers staff as many PRTs were.
fact, we routinely saw waste, fraud, and abuse; we fought it daily or just
avoided it (through Iraqi-funded projects). One big battle, for example, was
between the State Department and the Corps of Engineers over their competing
$25 million-dollar, multiyear GIS projects; the only way to stop it was to
create your own (as we all did) and give it to the Iraqis.
One battle we couldn't avoid was a State Department-funded program for 23 schools
in Salah ad-Din that the provincial government did not want. These were the
bureaucratic vampires that seemingly could never be killed -- until a very good
new Corps of Engineers officer rotated in and killed it dead in late 2008 after
a U.S. contractor showed up to knock down a crowded 12-room schoolhouse in Samarra
to replace it with a six-classroom one. Nobody in Samarra wanted to lose
classrooms just to accommodate a silly State Department program with no rhyme,
reason, or purpose on the ground (the kind Clarke was working to stop).
Like so many things in Iraq, the Corps of Engineers was disastrous in one year and
excellent in another. Every rotation is a new year in this game.
As explained by provincial officials, if we ask for a water tank, the United
States gives us a firetruck that we can't maintain (yes, in Tikrit), and if we
want a school, we will build a good one for $300,000 where we want it and how
we want it. If you build it, it will cost $3 million, be of such poor quality
that we cannot maintain it, and be in the wrong place. They had watched us in
every year and knew what to expect.
I forgot. The stereotype is that the Iraqis, not the Americans, are corrupt and
inept. Well, no more so than the U.S. parties who trained and appointed them.
many times did all of us see the U.S. military and PRTs alike working on
projects that were little more than "make-work" projects to help
create much-needed income for the many destitute families (and especially the
widows) in need of any humanitarian resources within the appropriate U.S. role
for post-conflict humanitarian relief?
and though some of the efforts may look silly on paper in a very slanted
presentation, they made perfect sense if you were there and understood what was
really happening: women's groups, small-business efforts, trash pickup, canal
clearing, etc. That was not waste, fraud, or abuse to anyone confronted with
those circumstances. None of us, civilian and military alike, were unaffected
by the destitute war widows and once proud engineers begging for jobs -- any
battles for pure waste, fraud, and abuse projects were nasty, routine, and
mostly between U.S. agencies. Management of reconstruction leaves little to be
proud of by any U.S. agency (USAID, the State Department, or the Defense
Department). All the civilians and military personnel who actually accomplished
things did so by the serious efforts that Clarke had explained from the outset.
was not a norm, but it was around, as was corruption, but so too was bravery
and sacrifice. There were some truly remarkable and competent Foreign Service
officers in the mold of Clarke and Buckler (10 percent), regular folks doing
the best they could (80 percent), and, as in any organization or profession, a
small group of very questionable ones not appropriate for these kinds of
assignments (10 percent).
is ridiculous to compare what a dozen carefully selected civilian
troubleshooter experts were involved with or accomplished to the reconstruction
capabilities of a Foreign Service officer with no particular training or
exposure to our professional fields. Our role was to either support them or
target through them.
the PRTs, nothing "we" accomplished could have happened without
countless Foreign Service officers, military personnel, and embassy staff
handling the immense bureaucratic tasks and battles needed to keep us active.
There were few big projects "we" succeeded on without Vinnie
Azzarelli, chief of staff of the Iraq Transition Assistance Office; Hertling; or
Maj. Gen. Mark Zamzow (Gen. David Petraeus's adjutant) fighting it through or,
as with our ministry and U.N. work, without Ambassador Crocker's approval.
aside, Embassy Baghdad, given the U.S. role in Iraq, was a huge endeavor with
many Foreign Service officers in Baghdad doing their actual professional tasks
-- analysis, administration, reporting, diplomacy.
all of this hard for everybody? You bet.
it a chaotic mess? You bet.
security make all of this much more dangerous and problematic? Absolutely.
of our senior advisors, Terry Barnich of Chicago, died in May 2009 in a car
bombing, to the great regret of many of us who worked closely with him.
of us, too, owe our lives to the young soldiers who died or were severely
injured making things safe for us and our projects.
Warren Lotter, 20 years old, from Chester Heights, Pennsylvania, died on Dec. 31,
2008, after being shot while on patrol to inspect one of our water-treatment-plant
projects in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Tikrit. I went to
Arlington National Cemetery for his service in January 2009, but didn't want to
intrude on his family. I didn't know what to say, so I watched from the
hillside. He's the soldier I carry in my memory as the symbol for so many more.
But how do you explain all of this to his parents if they asked deeper
too, many of our Iraqi provincial colleagues were killed in the March 2011
attack on Tikrit's provincial headquarters. Political infighting aside, the
friendliness, courtesy, and professionalism of these folks to their U.S.
colleagues left many in the PRT with lasting fond memories and sadness at their
much bittersweet. So many mixed emotions. So many tears and smiles. And then
you read the reports of Peter Van Buren.
is just incredible.
U.S Army via Flickr