U.S. losing nonmilitary struggle to rebuild Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON --For all this week's fevered rhetoric, endless squabbling over benchmarks and charts and debating of troop numbers, a critical piece of the Iraq puzzle has gone largely unmentioned: jobs.

President Bush often boasts of past American successes in rebuilding war-ravaged Europe and South Korea.

But Iraq, after four years of U.S. occupation and a $44 billion investment by American taxpayers, still is an economic basket case, a country with a stagnant economy, dozens of idle factories, dysfunctional government ministries that cannot provide sufficient electricity, clean water or basic health care, and millions of unemployed workers.

And that, according to war critics and Pentagon officials, is a recipe for continued conflict in Iraq, no matter how many troops are deployed or withdrawn or how much "reconciliation" is achieved among Baghdad's politicians.

"If your government is delivering services for you, you're going to feel a lot better about your government," Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told The Sun. He added with a grin: "It also works in Baltimore, I'm told."

For ordinary Iraqis, living in a war zone is frightening enough. Having no way to provide for your family is perhaps worse, a predicament that breeds resentment and anger and, U.S. military officers say, creates a vast pool of Iraqis who support the insurgents, either passively or actively.

Many of the attacks on U.S. troops, officers say, involve ordinary Iraqis who are paid $50 or so to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at American soldiers and run, or to dig a roadside hole for a homemade bomb.

Unemployment is rampant among Iraq's 7.7 million working-age males, said Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Paul Brinkley, director of the Pentagon's task force on improving Iraqi industry. He said at least half of Iraq's workers are unemployed.

"There is no human population in the world that can withstand that level of economic distress and not experience attendant violence, unrest [and] sympathy with violent actors," Brinkley told reporters last week.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, said recently that victory in Iraq "requires an economy that provides jobs to those citizens, so they can do something besides build bombs for a hundred dollars."

As Bush acknowledged last night, "For most Iraqis, the quality of life is far from where it should be."

Yet a large part of the problem, according to Gen. David Petraeus and others, is that the Bush administration has been sluggish about mobilizing the government's nonmilitary resources for Iraq, to provide job training and significant start-up help for state-owned factories, assistance in setting up a banking system, in streamlining trade agreements and tax collection, or aid in organizing, equipping and operating key ministries, and other critical nonmilitary functions.

Although the U.S. military has vastly expanded its ability to do short-term "nation-building" and civil projects, senior officers have said they cannot take on long-term economic, social and commercial responsibilities.

In the Army manual on counterinsurgency war, written under his direction, Petraeus established the principle that the solution to conflicts such as Iraq is 20 percent military and 80 percent nonmilitary.

Though Petraeus is held in high regard by Bush, the U.S. commander in Iraq has been unable to get the White House to pour more resources into the nonmilitary fight.

Twice this week, Petraeus indulged in mild criticism of the White House, observing that much of the administration is not yet "on the same kind of war footing" as the military and the State Department.

In his speech last night and in a report to be delivered to Congress today, Bush noted the role of provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq, which combine civilian American experts in operating regional governments and schools, sewer and water systems, courts and other functions with a U.S. military unit. They are empowered to make quick loans and grants, but the intent is to help Iraqis figure out how to jump-start and sustain economic, commercial and governmental activity.

There are 25 such teams now at work across Iraq, up from 10 in January.

"We are surging diplomatic and civilian resources to ensure that military progress is quickly followed up with real improvements in daily life," Bush asserted last night.

But independent reports say they are badly undermanned and underfunded.

Asked this week about the apparent inability or unwillingness of the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury, Justice and other federal agencies to mobilize for the war, Petraeus said: "I think we need to take a look at that."

When he asked for help, he said, the response from other federal agencies has been, "'Well, we would love to help, but we can't because the security situation isn't adequate.'"

Petraeus declined to say whether he had asked for and received assurances from Bush that the White House would mobilize other government agencies on Iraq.

But his remarks echoed concerns long expressed by others, including Pace, who retired this month, and the incoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates also has campaigned for more help from the Bush administration and has occasionally sounded notes of frustration that the military is carrying so much of the burden.

"There are a lot of folks in the Department of Defense who wonder where the rest of the government is in this war," Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee this spring.

In congressional testimony this week, Crocker asserted that after four years of such investment, the Iraq economy "is starting to make some gains."

Iraq's economy is pegged to grow at 6 percent this year, according to an International Monetary Fund estimate, and oil revenues will enable Iraq to invest $10 billion this year in capital investment, Crocker said.

But overall, he acknowledged, "the Iraqi economy is performing significantly under potential."

Many Baghdad neighborhoods get less than two hours of electricity per day, and the Iraqi ministry in charge said last week that it will need $25 billion over the next nine years to meet demand.

Across the country, power generation was meeting 50 percent of Iraq's needs, compared with 58 percent a year ago, according to State Department data from last week.

"We have figured out the 20 percent that is military. We don't have a good basis for judging our understanding of the political, industrial, economic" operations needed to win the war, Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, a key member of Petraeus' counterinsurgency doctrine team, said in an interview this week.

"Have we committed all the powers we have as a nation to the Iraq war? There's more we can do," said Nagl, who fought in Iraq and later published an acclaimed book about counterinsurgency, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife.

Against this dismal backdrop, the White House is pinning hopes that the provincial reconstruction teams can achieve solid gains -- and quickly.

But Ginger Cruz, the deputy special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, testified before a congressional committee last week that the reconstruction teams are seriously lacking in qualified personnel. Only 29 of 610 team advisers in Iraq are fluent in Arabic and familiar with Iraqi culture, she said, making it difficult for the teams to work effectively.

A larger problem is funding. According to Cruz, the budget allows for a staff of only 800 people in a country of 26 million, about one-tenth of what is needed.

Most teams lack their own armored transportation and security, limiting some to one trip a week. In Karbala and Najaf, she said, there is no U.S. military presence and teams do not go there.

That "raises the question: How can they accomplish the mission?" she said.


Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad