WASHINGTON AT WAR : Help Wanted in the Provinces

Iraq Rebuilding Short on Qualified Civilians

"Nobody can do much in Diyala because of the violence," Kiki Munshi said. She fears that the "window is closed." (Courtesy Of Kiki Skagen Munshi)
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007

In Diyala, the vast province northeast of Baghdad where Sunnis and Shiites are battling for primacy with mortars and nighttime abductions, the U.S. government has contracted the job of promoting democracy to a Pakistani citizen who has never lived or worked in a democracy.

The management of reconstruction projects in the province has been assigned to a Border Patrol commander with no reconstruction experience. The task of communicating with the embassy in Baghdad has been handed off to a man with no background in drafting diplomatic cables. The post of agriculture adviser has gone unfilled because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided just one of the six farming experts the State Department asked for a year ago.

"The people our government has sent to Iraq are all dedicated, well-meaning people, but are they really the right people -- the best people -- for the job?" asked Kiki Skagen Munshi, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer who, until last month, headed the team in Diyala that included the Pakistani democracy educator and the Border Patrol commander. "If you can't get experts, it's really hard to do an expert job."

Almost four years after the United States set about trying to rebuild Iraq, the job remains overwhelmingly unfinished. The provincial reconstruction teams like those in Diyala are often understaffed and underqualified -- and almost unable to work outside the military outposts where they are hunkered down for security reasons. Today, there are just 10 of the 30-person teams operating in all of Iraq.

President Bush proposed last month to double the number of teams, saying such civilians are central to American efforts to "pursue reconciliation, strengthen the moderates and speed the transition to Iraqi self-reliance." But the new plan is running into what Munshi and several officials familiar with their work described as the problems that have plagued the U.S. government effort from the start: Turf wars between federal agencies. Outright refusal to fill certain vital posts by some departments. A State Department in charge of the teams that just doesn't have any agronomists, engineers, police officers or technicians of its own to send to Iraq. "No foreign service in the world has those people," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice complained.

After Bush's new plan was announced, Rice asked the Pentagon for help filling 140 slots on the teams until State is able to hire private contractors to do the work, which could take up to a year. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said he was "troubled" by State's request, then grudgingly agreed. The teams are supposed to be up and running by next month.

It's time to "step up," a frustrated Bush lectured his Cabinet.

As State and the Pentagon were sparring over who would staff the reconstruction teams, Bush used his State of the Union address to call for the formation of a civilian reserve corps -- three years after the State Department first proposed it and several influential senators backed it. "It would give people across America who do not wear the uniform a chance to serve in the defining struggle of our time," the president said.

But the corps won't be built anytime soon: The administration's 2008 budget, which was sent to Congress earlier this month, includes no money for it. A senior administration official said the White House plans to wait another year before asking Congress for funding.

Ambitious Plans Meet a Tight Purse

"There has been real inertia and myopia," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.). "We have not really approached this in the right way."

By the fall of 2003, Lugar had grown worried about the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq. L. Paul Bremer, who was running the occupation government in Baghdad, had been pleading for more staffers with skills in post-conflict rebuilding -- people who could repair the electricity infrastructure, rehabilitate hospitals, retrain the police. Bremer urged Cabinet secretaries to send experts in their departments to Iraq. Some did; others blew him off. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, were recruiting young Republican Party loyalists for tours in Iraq. Many of them lacked reconstruction experience, but they were willing to work in Baghdad.

At the time, Lugar was thinking beyond Iraq. "We need to be ready for the next crisis," he told his aides.

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