By Howard LaFranchi, Staff writer of The Christian Science MonitorTue Jun 12, 4:00 AM ET
When a new courthouse was recently dedicated in the mostly Kurdish town of Dibbis in northern Iraq, the fanfare focused on the judges and other public servants who will use the building, as well as on the US military, which paid for the project.
"Judges had no independence under the rule of [Saddam Hussein]," said Chief Judge Ahmed Thaker. "This building will be a symbol of the rule of law – the first step in rebuilding Iraq."
Less heralded were the US civilian experts who offered guidance on human rights and rule of law – even as they kept tabs on the budget and construction.
Those experts are part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) trying to develop a governance here that is guided by law and operates with efficiency, fairness, and a sense of service.
It's a tall order, especially as the national government is criticized for inertia and corruption. Yet the US is putting considerable money and faith in the idea that governance experts working with local officials can move Iraq forward.
As President Bush announced in January, the number of PRTs in Iraq is doubling this year from 10 to 20. David Satterfield, the State Department's lead man on Iraq, calls this a "civilian surge." It is accompanying a military surge that is just about to reach its peak.
"Something like learning to write and account for a budget doesn't sound all that glamorous, but it's just one example of the kinds of things these teams are doing that will serve Iraqis for a long time to come," says Jared Kennish, the senior military adviser to the Office of Provincial Affairs in the US Embassy in Baghdad.
The numbers involved in this civilian "surge" pale next to the extra 28,000 soldiers focused in Baghdad and Al Anbar Province. Something like 250 extra experts are either already on the ground or expected over the course of the year.
But with specialities like economics, agronomy, communications, and rule of law, they are what many people, including military leaders, point to when they say the Iraq effort requires more than military boots on the ground.
Underscoring how the civilian surge is intertwined with the military buildup is the fact that the 10 new teams will be "embedded" PRTs – initially teams of four experts, gradually expanded to a dozen or so, who are setting up operations with new military outposts, primarily in Baghdad.
A further illustration is the initial reliance on Army reservists to take the bulk of the new PRT positions. The State Department, at first, had trouble coaxing civilians to take the posts. That led to frictions with the Pentagon, which felt it could ill afford the assignment of reservists.
But officials insist that a full complement of civilians is now on board. Mr. Satterfield says both he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are anxious to debunk the "myth" that State Department employees have shunned the jobs.
Nonetheless, fresh criticism is building from foreign-service experts, who say that the expansion of Iraq and Afghanistan assignments is burdening US civilian foreign operations in much the same way the wars are stretching military operations thin. The Foreign Affairs Council concluded in a report last week that the State Department's Iraq focus has left it in a "crisis," with hundreds of unfilled positions elsewhere in the world.
The concept behind the PRTs, especially the new embedded variety, is to get civilians as well as soldiers out among the Iraqi people – and to support progress in local governance. "The less military a face the teams have, the more it starts to seem like normal government, which is civilian," says Col. Chris Brady, the Kirkuk PRT's military-civilian liaison.
A key objective of a civilian reconstruction team is to develop modern local governance while breaking local leaders of a dependence on US forces. The goal has become a critical part of the PRT mission – particularly as a growing chorus of experts faults the American presence in Iraq for perpetuating dependence on the US on the part of the Iraq's national leaders.
Some critics say the Iraqi government uses the US presence as a crutch for avoiding necessary action rather than as a support for making its own difficult decisions possible.
"What we have uppermost in our mind, no matter what the issue or project may be, is to empower the Iraqis to where they don't look to me or a colonel or any of the experts as the provider or the source of the answer," says Howard Keegan, who heads up the Kirkuk PRT. "We want to break them from reliance on an occupying force that goes away."
Don't impose US solutions Indeed, the packet for a PRT-assisted waste-management project in Kirkuk contains this quote from the Arab Bulletin articles of T.E. Lawrence: "Do not try to do too much with your own hands…. It may take them longer and it may not be as good as you think, but if it is theirs, it will be better."
That means the PRTs should avoid imposing solutions even when experts may think they have the answer.
In Kirkuk, for example, the provincial council has labored under a boycott by the council's Arab and Turkmen members since last fall, when they decided that the council's Kurdish members were conducting business to their exclusion. PRT advisers have nudged the council toward resolution of the standoff and have succeeded in convincing some members to return to council meetings, but they have not imposed a solution.
The Kirkuk PRT is expecting to add new experts, notably in agronomy and oil infrastructure, to help with the area's principal economic engines.
The PRTs are generally not involved in large infrastructure projects, so they have avoided being implicated in the cases of deterioration and breakdown of many infrastructure projects the US built and then turned over to the Iraqis.
But that does not mean they have been exempt from criticism. A recent report by the congressionally funded US Institute for Peace in Washington found that some of the reservists brought in to PRTs until their civilian replacements could be assigned have found themselves in over their heads. The report noted the case, for example, of one reservist, a high school teacher in civilian life, assigned to develop an entire local school board.
Kirkuk PRT team leader Mr. Keegan says the cases of deteriorating US-built infrastructure in Iraq only underscore the primary need for skills development if the reconstruction effort is going to develop roots. "All we're doing is building buildings if we don't develop the people to support the operations, he says. "And we all know that left unattended, buildings and other physical structures tend to fall apart."
Learning how to sustain developmentThe Kirkuk area has had some of those problems, he says. For example, water projects in the initial phase of reconstruction were simply turned over to village leaders without instruction on how to maintain them.
"In some cases, it wasn't long before they stopped functioning," he says. "We're getting better at providing the know-how to keep this stuff running."
The fine line the Kirkuk PRT is walking now is providing the training and guidance the Iraqis need in fields ranging from oil to agriculture, without increasing their dependence.
"Part of what we are doing is breaking local groups of their tendency to turn to the US for a solution or as a presence to hide behind," says Andrew Veprak, a political expert with the Kirkuk PRT. "When we get them to the point of writing their own budgets and running their services, and all working together without a thought for us, then we've done our job."