Small Wars Journal

Our Role in Iraq's Year of Decision

Our Role in Iraq's Year of Decision

By Gary Anderson

2009 is being called a Year of Decision in Iraq. The counterinsurgency campaign will be largely turned over to Iraqi control. We have not successfully turned over a counterinsurgency effort from the American military to a host nation since the middle of the last century in the Philippines. The turnover of the Vietnamese counterinsurgency effort was interrupted by the North Vietnamese conventional invasion in 1975; consequently, we will never know how successful that effort might have been. We are in unfamiliar, but not unknown, territory. In many ways, we will have to use common sense and lessons learned from what has gone right or wrong to date.

Perhaps the first thing we need to realize that the days of brick and mortar projects are largely over in the COIN fight. Future building projects should be largely left to long term development agencies such as USAID and the NGOs. If we do find the need to build new facilities, we need to ensure that we have hard Memorandums of Agreement with the Iraqi agency that will be taking over to include salaries for employees and operations and maintenance. We have a depressing history of building facilities and training staff only to see the Iraqis bring in their own people, often untrained, when they take over. Even though it may well involve some graft and nepotism, it is much more cost effective to have them identify the long term operators up front and train them whether or not we think they are the best people to do the job.

Likewise, we need to try to ensure that the Iraqis have identified the long term operations and maintenance (O&M) funding. It does us no good to build a clinic that will not have a staff or supplies. Otherwise it becomes an instant relic.

If counterinsurgency is a block by block, village by village affair; the battle at the local level is critical. In 2003, we created District and Neighborhood Advisory Councils - DACs and NACs to foster grass roots American style democracy in Iraq. Perhaps if we had thought through it more thoroughly and reviewed the lessons of Somalia, we might have tried to use existing methods such as tribal councils; however that is water under the bridge. If we expect them to survive the transition, we need to encourage the DAC and NACs to become more relevant to their populations and to the national and provincial governments that will provide their eventual funding. The national government has already postponed local elections claiming a lack of funding; this is not a hopeful sign for the long term survival of those institutions.

This will frankly be an uphill fight, but it is not impossible to craft new local organizations in Arab cultures. Hezbollah and Hamas are less than thirty years old. They have survived much less on their ability as terrorists and more on their ability to provide social services at the grass roots level. If the DACs and NACs are to survive, we should be strongly encouraging them to get in the forefront of employment programs, detainee releases, Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) returns, and neighborhood improvement campaigns. To date, we have spent too much time advising them on Roberts Rules of Order and not enough time on teaching them to be useful. Frankly too many of them are talking to themselves.

Whether or not the DACs and NACs survive, the Beladiyas (public works administrations) will still be around. They are the traditional measures of the National governments ability to provide goods and services to the people at the local level. The extent to which we can help teach them how to maintain their equipment and motivate their employees to be as efficient as they can will be very important in establishing the grass roots credibility of the Government of Iraq to supply social services to their population as well as security.

The most important work will be unglamorous capacity building not spectacular construction. The ability of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams and Civil Affairs Community to slip further into a mentoring and cheerleading role rather that one of leadership will be critical.

Gary Anderson is serving as the Senior City Management Advisor with a PRT in Iraq. His views are his own and do not reflect those of the Department of State.