Inexperienced Hands Guide Iraq Rebuilding


US Military Lacks Skills for Task, Some Officials Say

By Rajiv Chandrasekaran

Washington Post
June 25, 2003

Two months after the fall of Baghdad, the critical task of postwar rebuilding and governance of most Iraqi cities remains in the hands of U.S. military personnel, almost all of whom lack expertise in government administration and familiarity with the Arab world.

Some current and former U.S. officials involved in the reconstruction effort contend that the failure to more quickly include civilian reconstruction specialists in the postwar occupation has delayed resumption of local government operations and led to resentment among the nearly 20 million Iraqis who live outside the capital.

"The reliance on the military has been a mistake," a senior U.S. official here said. "You need civilians in an operation like this. This is both a political and a military operation. We need to emphasize the political dimension more."

Although there are about 1,000 people working for the U.S.-led civil occupation authority in Baghdad, almost all of them are based in a vast presidential palace complex on the banks of the Tigris River. Outside the capital and a few other large cities, the job of local administration and reconstruction remains the responsibility of the military's civil affairs teams, which are staffed largely with reservists.

The teams were established and trained to provide emergency humanitarian aid, deal with refugees and perform basic infrastructure repair -- not to rebuild town governments, set up courts, disburse salaries, sort out agricultural problems or take on many of the other chores they have been forced to perform in postwar Iraq.

"We've been given a job that we haven't prepared for, we haven't trained for, that we weren't ready for," said a senior civil affairs officer in central Iraq. "For a lot of the stuff we're doing, we're making it up as we go along."

Although their mandate is to work with the civilian population, civil affairs personnel are soldiers first. They wear fatigues, carry weapons, drive around in Humvees and report up the military's chain of command. They have little communication, if any, with civilian reconstruction officials in Baghdad.

Their continued involvement in reconstruction -- and the absence of civilian personnel -- has perplexed and annoyed many Iraqis. "We would rather deal with civilians," said Rasul Said, 51, a local tribal leader in Bani Sad, a dusty farming town about 30 miles north of Baghdad. "The military men are there to wield power. It is the civilians who do humanitarian jobs."

In Bani Sad, the jobs of mayor, utility manager, public security chief, school superintendent, agricultural problem-solver and general complaint-taker have fallen to Capt. Ian Cromarty, an easygoing Army reservist who normally works as a respiratory therapist in New Hampshire. Although he has no experience in civil administration, Cromarty is saddled with a variety of complex reconstruction duties, from getting electricity running again to screening candidates who hope to run for a new town council.

"What we're doing now is never something we expected to do," he said. "We figured we'd provide some emergency assistance and then we'd be out of here."

Cromarty's boss, Lt. Col. Randy Grant, a hospital training administrator from Colorado Springs, said he had assumed that if his unit were asked to perform tasks other than humanitarian assistance, it would be given specific instructions. But, he said, none were issued.

"I had an expectation that when all the fighting was said and done, somebody would hand you a book and say, 'Here's the game plan,' " said Grant, who is responsible for the province of Diyala, which sprawls from Baghdad's northeast fringe to the border with Iran, about 60 miles away.

U.S. officials involved in the reconstruction said the decision to rely on military civil affairs units outside Baghdad was driven by a personnel shortage in the civil occupation authority. "We didn't have the people to head out to each province," the senior official said. "Before the war, nobody stopped and said, 'Aren't we going to need a bunch of people in the provinces?' "

"The military guys said they had the people to do the job, and since this operation was run by the Pentagon, they went along with it," the official said.

Some people in the occupation authority believe the U.S. government needs to create a modern version of the old British colonial service, dispatching legions of young diplomats and others with specific technical experience to small towns and provincial capitals. "But that would have required a degree of planning in which the United States government did not engage," the official said. "Using the military for postwar governance should have been the last option, not the first."

In central Iraq, where resistance to U.S. forces has been escalating, some residents said they have been reluctant to cooperate with military civil affairs personnel out of fear they would be branded as traitors by their neighbors. Others regard ongoing security operations as a drain on resources that might otherwise be used to rebuild the country.

Civil affairs officers say their problems have been compounded by a shortage of staff. Grant has only 35 soldiers -- just 16 of them civil affairs personnel -- for the entire province, which has 1.4 million people. Cromarty is the only officer assigned to Bani Sad and the surrounding areas, which are home to about 186,000 people. As a consequence, he is able to visit the town only twice a week for meetings in the former mayor's office, where he hears complaints, makes promises and delivers apologies for his inability to fulfill earlier commitments.

"We need full-time staff here working on their issues," said Cromarty, 43. "There's going to come a point when they say, 'These little meetings are ridiculous. You don't support us.' "

But Cromarty, a former paratrooper who is more willing to listen than talk, is still trying to get Bani Sad back on its feet. His meetings with a score of sheiks, technical experts and self-proclaimed community leaders have the feeling of town council meetings -- with Cromarty playing the role of mayor.

Sitting behind an imposing wooden desk that belonged to the previous mayor -- a member of ousted president Saddam Hussein's Baath Party -- Cromarty listened to a series of progress reports at a meeting last week. Electricity remains the biggest problem, he was told. The town has an average of two hours of power per day. "Bani Sad is a disaster," he muttered to his interpreter.

He proposed setting up two or three portable generators in the city, but others in the sweltering room -- there was no power to operate the fans -- rejected the idea.

"This is impractical," insisted Mohsen Ali, the electricity director. "We have about 50 neighborhoods. If I give electricity to just two or three neighborhoods, we will have even more problems."

The solution, Ali said, would be to fix a French-made generator at a nearby grain silo that would be large enough to power the entire town. Cromarty took the suggestion under advisement.

For the next two hours, Cromarty was inundated with requests, which he recorded in a notebook. Farmers were upset that the silo had rejected their wheat. The hospital director said he needed help replacing outdated medicines. A police captain wanted to know when training would begin for a new force. Teachers needed transportation to school. Irrigation water was running low.

Finally, after he had filled a half-dozen notebook pages and a sheen of perspiration covered his forehead, Cromarty beseeched his interpreter to end the meeting. "Tell them I'm doing the best I can," he said. "There's just one of me and so much to do."

When the war began, the 2nd Brigade of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, which is responsible for Diyala province, was assigned just six civil affairs soldiers, Grant said. It was not until the scope of the reconstruction task became clear that 10 more were sent his way. But when he asked for more, he said, he was told none were available. Finally, faced with the need to reopen local courts and restart phone service -- two areas in which his teams had no expertise -- he managed to get the 2nd Brigade's legal officer and a unit of field communications specialists to help.

Grant said he expected his work would be augmented, if not superseded, not just by civilians working for the U.S. government but also by humanitarian aid groups. But Diyala still is considered too dangerous by many aid organizations because of the presence of resistance fighters near the border and the belief that many militiamen loyal to Hussein are still hiding in the province.

"We could use the help," he said. "This is too big a job for 35 soldiers."

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