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Iraq Rebuilding Short on Qualified Civilians

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.

They summoned experts in postwar rebuilding, among them James Dobbins, a Rand Corp. expert in post-conflict stabilization, and John J. Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense. Most participants embraced the civilian reserve corps idea.

Lugar did, too, and in February 2004 he introduced a bill with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to create the Response Readiness Corps, its mission to stand prepared "to be called upon at a moment's notice to respond to emerging international crises."

State didn't bother waiting for the legislation to pass. Four months later, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced the formation of the State Department Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization (SCRS).

The job of running the SCRS was given to Carlos Pascual, a former ambassador to Ukraine. Pascual wanted to create a 200-person active-duty response corps, half of whom would be drawn from State and the rest from other parts of the federal government. They would serve in the corps for two years and then become reservists. In just four years, Pascual noted, the government would have 200 active reconstruction personnel and 400 reservists.

In addition, Pascual sought to create a 3,000-person contingent of people drawn from state and local governments and the private sector. That group was to include police officers, civil engineers and economists. And there would be a fund to hire and deploy private contractors to help with reconstruction within weeks of a crisis instead of waiting months for a special budget request, which is what State is now being forced to do.

The problem was the price tag: $350 million for the first year, Pascual and his staff figured.

The White House budget office balked. Pascual's request was whittled down to $100 million.

Congressional appropriators were even more skeptical. Republicans questioned whether the initiative was a priority for the White House. Democrats expressed concern that the reserve corps might encourage the administration to invade another country.

The appropriators chopped so much that in the end the SCRS got just $7 million in 2005. The message from Congress was clear: If State wanted to fund the corps, it would have to find the money elsewhere in its budget.

"The bureaucratic antibodies were immediately activated," said Michèle Flournoy, president of the Center for a New American Security. "The rest of the State Department tried to kill SCRS because it was a competitor for funds. It never had a chance to succeed."

Broad Support but Little Traction

In 2006, Pascual tried again. This time, he first hit resistance in his own department.

"There was this perverse cycle that began," he recalled. "The legislative staff at State would say, 'The Hill doesn't like this, therefore we shouldn't ask for much because we're not going to get it.' Then you had the Hill saying, 'The administration hasn't made this a priority so we're not going to fund it.' "

The Pentagon was in favor of the idea. "If you don't fund this, put more money in the defense budget for ammunition -- because I'm going to need it," one Marine general warned at the time.

Eventually, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, persuaded Congress to allow the Pentagon to transfer up to $100 million to State for post-conflict civilian deployments. But Defense and State couldn't agree where to spend the money. Defense wanted much of it spent on stabilization operations in Haiti. State wanted to use it to help in the aftermath of last summer's war in Lebanon, officials on both sides recalled.

And then there was a round of fighting in State over which office should spend the money. Not everyone thought it belonged to the SCRS.

But the money had come with a condition: Spend it before the Pentagon could find other uses for it. By the time it was all sorted out some nine months later, the $100 million had dwindled to $10 million.

Some current and former SCRS staffers, as well as people familiar with the office, contend that Pascual should have focused his operation on helping with State's two biggest priorities: rebuilding Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, he and Powell decided in 2004 to use the SCRS to prepare for future crises and to help with smaller-scale stabilization missions.

Pascual said the SCRS would have been "overwhelmed" if it had assumed responsibility for rebuilding Iraq or Afghanistan. "It would not have been able to have done either well," he said. "The intent was to learn from both of those missions."

But some current and former SCRS personnel believe the office should have sought to work on part of the Iraqi reconstruction -- perhaps assuming responsibility for a few provinces -- as a way to make itself more relevant. "If we had been working on Iraq instead of Haiti and Sudan, we would have had a better chance at getting the money we wanted," a State Department official said.

Had that occurred, the official said, "SCRS could have been producing many of the civilians we need in Iraq today."

Little Eagerness to Work in Iraq

When Kiki Munshi started the Diyala reconstruction team last April, she expected she would have an agriculture specialist working for her. The Department of Agriculture had promised to send six farming experts to Iraq, including one to her team.

Since fruit and vegetable farming is the principal occupation in Diyala, Munshi figured she could generate support for the American presence in the restive province by helping growers increase their yields. "Knowledge is something the Iraqi farmers really need," she said.

Winning over the local population through small-scale projects was the logic behind the provincial reconstruction teams. While Washington was squabbling over whether to fund Pascual's proposed civilian reserve corps, the teams were established in Iraq last year by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who had pioneered the concept in Afghanistan. Before that, the U.S. government had essentially no civilian presence in Iraq beyond the Baghdad Green Zone and a handful of regional embassy outposts in four major cities. In theory, the teams would significantly increase the number of American civilians in places where they could actually help Iraqis on the ground.

But as Munshi found, that was often just a theory. Her agriculture specialist never even arrived.

The USDA had trouble finding six people who wanted to work in Iraq among its more than 100,000 employees. Although a USDA official said the department encouraged its workers to apply, officials at State believe USDA did not move with alacrity because the two agencies had not agreed on a mechanism to reimburse the USDA for the services it would provide in Iraq. Eventually, USDA and State agreed that USDA would provide just two of the six. The other four would be private contractors hired by State.

The first USDA specialist, Randy Frescoln, a rural credit specialist from Iowa, landed in Iraq in December and was sent to the reconstruction team in Tikrit. Although he was supposed to stay in Iraq for a year, he said he plans to leave next month because he received a promotion while he was away. The second specialist has not yet arrived.

Even if USDA and State were to get an agriculture expert to Diyala now, Munshi believes, it is too late. Security conditions have deteriorated so significantly in the province that reconstruction personnel are lucky to make one or two trips a week off the military base where they live and work.

"At this point, nobody can do much in Diyala because of the violence," said Munshi, who returned to her North Carolina home in January for medical reasons. "The window is closed. I wish it weren't. I hope it opens. But it is."

Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, who is in charge of the provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq, called Diyala a "very, very tough place to work." He added that many of the staffing problems Munshi identified are "Diyala specific."

Reconstruction teams in Iraq, he said, "are, in general, doing good things under tough circumstances."

Another Effort to Build a Corps

Today, the SCRS corps that Pascual envisioned as a rapid-response force with 200 federal employees ready to deploy has just 11 people on active duty.

Lugar and Biden reintroduced their bill this week. It mandates the formation of a 250-person active-duty response unit drawn from the federal government and the creation of a 2,000-strong civilian reserve corps. It also authorizes $145 million to fund the operation.

"Hopefully," Lugar said, "we've come to a point where we finally realize we need to do this."

Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.

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