Friday, November 26, 2010

In Iraq, Don't Abandon the Provincial Reconstruction Teams

Vice-President Joseph Biden's admonition in a recent New York Times Op-Ed column (November 21, 2010) that the US not abandon Iraq at this critical juncture in its efforts to establish political stability, prosperity and functioning democracy couldn't be more true. After all the blood that has been shed since 2003 to move Iraq forward, the Iraqi people do not deserve yet another tragedy given the suffering they have faced over the past several decades.

One of the most successful models in promoting positive social change in Iraq has been the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) program which was introduced into Iraq in 2005 and then expanded in 2008. PRTs have deployed American and other foreign personnel throughout Iraq to work on a wide variety of projects. The beauty of the PRT model is that it enshrines a "bottom up" approach to development. Iraqis, not foreigners, set the social reconstruction agenda and then the PRTs work to implement the goals of that agenda. Unfortunately, the PRT program is scheduled to be phased out in 2011. Given the program's success, it there a way it could be saved?

In his Op-Ed, Vice-President Biden pointed out that Iraq suffers from many problems but has also made much progress since 2003. One commendable form of progress has been the use of elections and negotiations rather than violence to solve its problems. Of course, Iraq's political process is not a pretty one. And some political leaders, such as Prime Minister al-Maliki and KRG President Masoud Barzani, have shown distinct authoritarian tendencies. Nevertheless, no one faction can dominate the political process and thus a form of democratic politics is bound to persist for the foreseeable future. However, whoever leads Iraq will have to deliver the necessary social services to the Iraqi people if they are win their loyalty and thereby insure the country's continued transition to democracy.

As complaints over government inaction in many areas have mounted - such as electricity shortages that led to riots in Basra last summer - social reconstruction looms ever larger among a disgruntled population, whether Arab or Kurdish. Complaints over the high salaries of parliamentarians, who have met only 4 times since last March's elections, have led to lawsuits against the government (see my forthcoming post on this issue). The rise of insurgent activity, while still relatively limited, also reflects a sense that the government is not serving the interests of the populace at large, particularly the minority Sunni Arab population, and poor Shiites in the south.

One of the best models for providing services has been the Provincial Reconstruction Teams that were formed after the US changed its policies in Iraq in 2005 and 2006. Having participated in the training of PRTs for the past 3 years, I have heard numerous success stories. One that is particularly inspiring comes from al-Falluja in al-Anbar Province. Many will remember the killing of 4 private security guards who worked for the Blackwater Corporation in al-Falluja in 2004. Subsequently their bodies were burned and hung from the town bridge that crosses the Euphrates River.

PRT members related to me how they helped farmers in the al-Falluja area reclaim 17000 acres of land. The farmers indicated that, during Saddam Husayn's regime, they had been told what to plant and then given a pittance for the harvest. As a result, there was little incentive for them to maintain the quality of their land. Based on the needs they expressed, the PRTs helped the farmers repair their irrigation canals and dams and showed them how to use new fertilizers. Soon they were producing fruits and vegetables for expanding urban markets and making a tidy sum in the process.

What pleased the farmers most was not that they were making a good income. Their greatest concern was that, if their farms could not provide enough income, their children would be forced to migrate to Baghdad or other urban areas where they might be forced to join criminal or insurgent organizations. Further, they lamented the fact that their family traditions would be lost as well. I was struck by the parallel between this story and an article I had read a few years ago about farmers in the Dakotas who indicated that a rise if soy bean prices allowed them to repay their debts and save the family farm for their children. Clearly, farmers throughout the world share the same concerns, not just to prosper but to keep an important tradition alive.

In a few short years al-Falluja has been transformed from a town whose residents were very hostile to the US to one where the residents no longer evidence such feelings. Indeed, an unlicensed Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant opened in the town a few years ago and had lines stretching far down the street when it first began business. The key here is that the residents are enjoying a modicum of prosperity. Give people hope in the future and their attention will be focused on taking advantage of that opportunity. The PRTS alone did not turn al-Falluja around but they did contribute to helping its farmers enjoy a better life.

American officials have indicated that the PRTs must be phased out now that US forces are greatly reduced in number in Iraq and thus are no longer able to provide for the safety of American and other foreign personnel. However, there is a way to save the PRT model and that is to have Iraqis provide the technical services formerly provided by Americans. Iraq is awash in technical personnel who could provide the services that the country needs to rebuild its education and health care systems and improve municipal services and its national infrastructure.

PRTs could be attached to the provincial councils that were elected in January 2009 throughout the Arab regions of Iraq. In both the Arab and Kurdish regions of Iraq, NGOs that are working to provide services, such as the Iraqi Peace Network and the Women for Women International chapter in Baghdad, could provide important assistance to the new Iraqi PRTs. Having the PRTs placed under the supervision of local provincial councils but also linked to the appropriate ministries in Baghdad and Arbil would both strengthen local governance and create stronger ties between center and periphery.

Iraq's PRTs could be divided according to the services they provided. Thus there could be PRTs that focused on education, health care, refugees and displaced families, single family households, women's issues, municipal infrastructure, conflict resolution, youth issues, agricultural development, small business and environmental issues.

These PRTs would provide employment for professionally trained Iraqis and would send a message that the Iraqi government is truly concerned with the needs of the populace at large. The new PRT network would undoubtedly include many young Iraqis. Recent research that I have conducted with youth throughout Iraq indicates that many are cynical about their political leadership, whether in Baghdad or Arbil. Were they able to participate in social reconstruction, many would find a new sense of purposes and develop greater faith in the political system. Constituting 65% of the population under the age of 25, it is critical to inculcate Iraqi youth with a sense of civic responsibility and pride.

The US could continue to provide assistance to the PRTs from its embassy and consulates in Iraq, via visits from technical teams to Iraq and visits by Iraqi professionals to the US, and via videoconferencing. The European Union, Turkey, India and other Arab countries such as Egypt could provide assistance as well. UN agencies such as the FAO in Rome, which is served by the very capable Iraqi representative, Dr. Hasan al-Janabi, would have a national service network in Iraq with which to more effectively interact.

The cost of the new PRT network would be not be prohibitively expensive. If social reconstruction does not proceed and Iraq slides back into a serious insurgency, the cost of the PRTs would be nothing compared to what it would take to militarily suppress a new uprising in Iraq. Already, there is restiveness in the areas of the so-called Sunni Arab triangle and new Shiite militias have emerged in the south now that US and British forces have largely withdrawn from that area.

Surely the US could find a way to finance a new PRT system in Iraq. It could seek funds from its allies in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf who do not want an unstable Iraq to their north, especially one that provides greater opportunity for Iranian meddling in its internal affairs. Turkey, Malaysia and the European Union could also be asked to contribute funds. Further, countries that help Iraq now will no doubt be given favorable treatment as its oil and natural gas industries - both of which have huge reserves - begin to expand over the next 5 years. The time to act is now, so as to keep Iraq on track to becoming a truly stable, prosperous and democratic nation-state. Dos the US have the will to help Iraq achieve these ends?

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Afghanistan: Counterinsurgency or Social Reconstruction?

US and Western efforts in Afghanistan are based on a number of dubious assumptions. First, the Obama administration continues to think in terms of a military victory. The original idea of a draw down of US troops by the summer od 2011 has now changed as President Obama recently indicated that substantial numbers of American troops may remain in Afghanistan until as late as 2014. Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai recently indicated that the US troop presence should be reduced as he seeks to find an accommodation with the Taliban. Unfortunately, the focus remains on the military, rather than on a larger societal perspective.

Second, the US and its NATO allies continue to think that the Hamid Karzai regime will be able to rule Afghanistan once the draw down of Western forces occurs. However, all Afghans know that the Karzai regime is highly corrupt and that it offers them little in the way of security and social services. Countless journalists have reported that consistent American efforts to pressure President Karzai to change his ways have been ineffective. Although Karzai invariably agrees to crack down on corruption, there has been no significant change in his behavior at all. To expect that the Afghan leader will develop a greater civic consciousness and seriously try to help his people is naive in the extreme.

Third, the US and its Western allies, but especially the US, continue to conceptualize Afghanistan's problems in term of political elites. Essentially, there are three sets of elites, those who are part of President Karzai's circle, the Taliban leadership, and local warlords who are not linked to either. None of these elites offer much hope for the future for the Afghan people and thus cannot be viewed as the basis for a long term solution to Afghanistan's problems.

President Karzai views the country as his own privy purse, the Taliban seek to impose once again an incredibly repressive regime on the country (which Afghans reject), and most local warlords combine the worst aspects of the central government and the Taliban. Indeed, one reason the Taliban was so successful in taking power in the mid-1990s was the popularity it gained by suppressing the warlords who had ruled after expulsion of Soviet forces in 1990. The warlords' arbitrary and repressive behavior, including stealing from the people, seizing their daughters, and imposing tariffs throughout the country that hampered commerce made them highly unpopular.

Fourth, the US and NATO view Afghanistan as a unitary state. Given the country's ethnic diversity and regional traditions, it makes much more sense to think of it in federal terms. Here Iraq has something to tell us about Afghanistan. Local provinces should have greater powers, especially in light of the limited services they receive from Kabul. This consideration also suggests why defeating the Taliban will not occur through Kabul but rather through the provinces.

Finally and most problematic, the US and the West continue to think of Afghanistan in short term policy goals. The time frame here spans 2-5 years at most. As I argue below, the problems of Afghanistan suggest the need for a much longer time frame. Developing policies according to the above mentioned assumptions suggests that the the US and NATO will lose in Afghanistan. But is there another approach?

The approach suggested here is built on two counter assumptions - assumptions related to a social reconstruction approach. First, defeating the Taliban must take place at the local level and largely bypass the Karzai regime. What I am suggesting here is the development of "regional security-development clusters." This entails finding local leadership that is willing to work with the international community, not just to provide security for the inhabitants but to help develop local agriculture and small scale artisan production and industry.

One step that has already been taken in that direction is the development of agricultural cooperatives in many areas of Afghanistan. One example is the successful triangulation between the Parwan Raisin Producer Association, which is located about an hour north of Kabul, Mercy Corps, a NGO located in Portland Oregon, and Fullwell Mill, a producer of organic and fair-trade foods located in Sunderland, UK. The US Agency for International Development has provided important funding to help the project succeed.

In return for participating in Mercy Corps.' training on how to grow organic raisins, local farmers now have a foreign outlet in Fullwell Mill which pays them excellent prices for their high quality Afghan raisins. While 35 farmers signed up to participate in the program when it began, 200 are now participating once the community saw that Fullwell Mill has kept its promises to purchase the cooperative's raisins at the attractive price they originally offered.

While the example of the raisin producer cooperative is a small one, it is indicative of the way in which the Taliban can be defeated in Afghanistan. Development here is based on a "bottom up" model. Rather than trying to create large costly projects designed in the West that do not fit with existing economic activity and customs, small scale projects such as the export model for Afghan raisins point to the manner in which Afghans can become economic stake holders and develop incentives to prevent the Taliban from winning adherents in their communities.

Once these communities prosper, and, more importantly, see a sustainable development model that will serve them well into the future, there will also be less problems with security. Afghans recruited to the police forces and army will now have an incentive to protect their communities because their families are enjoying ongoing economic benefits. Here we need to realize that the number of Afghans drawn to the Taliban because of its radical Islamist ideology is very small. Further, we need remember that few Afghans want to see the reimposition of the type of brutal Taliban rule that existed prior to the fall of 2001. Thus the Afghan populace is not inclined to support the Taliban if the correct mix of economic and security conditions are in place.

The Western counterinsurgency model does not adequately theorize the type of approach to thwarting Taliban efforts to seize control of Afghanistan because it still thinks too much in terms of military strategy and narrowly and short-term policy goals. The idea that foreign troops can wear the Taliban down and force them to the bargaining table does not address the long-term development problems faced by Afghanistan. Unless Afghans have the resources to provide for their families, there is no reason why the Taliban, and its highly lucrative opium production, will not reassert itself after a Western withdrawal from the country if Afghans have no other economic alternatives. Such an outcome would simply mean a return to the status quo ante with much Afghan, American and NATO blood having been spilled and huge amounts of monies spent to no benefit for Afghans or the West.

The second counter assumption challenges the idea that the US and NATO alone can prevent a Taliban victory in Afghanistan. When we see the large budget deficits being run by almost all Western countries, we need to realize that problems like the Taliban in Afghanistan have been to be addressed by a large international coalition. This means spreading the economic costs among a greater number of players. Saudia Arabia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil are all countries that could contribute funds and/or technical resources to help with the type of massive development effort required in Afghanistan (but one that need not be excessively costly if the focus remains developing already extant local production and resources).

What is needed in Afghanistan is a larger vision. This vision could be addressed by a series of international conferences in which democratic countries - all of whom face threats from radical extremists such as the Taliban and al-Qa'ida - work to develop an international response to the problems of failed states or quasi-failed states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many others.

"Winning" in Afghanistan does not mean the temporary defeat of the Taliban only to see it reemerge yet again to repress the Afghan people and provide a safe haven for organizations like al-Qa'ida. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be terribly destabilizing to Pakistan, which is experiencing separatist movements and its own Taliban threat. While military action is obviously important in preventing a Taliban victory, the Obama administration's should move beyond its focus on force levels to addressing the underlying causes of radical extremism in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Defeating radical extremism is a long term project. The West needs to get used to that idea. Local populaces must be given hope in the future. Developing an international alliance of states with mutually shared goals and values, and, equally importantly, creating stakeholders among the local populations caught in the violent crossfire, is the only way to win this struggle.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Local Control and Democratization in Iraq

Iraq has experienced very difficult times recently. It is still without a government over 8 months since last March's parliamentary elections. Violence, while still contained, has increased throughout the country over the past several months. Especially disturbing is the random nature of many of the bombings in urban areas that are designed to disrupt efforts to return life to some form of normality. The purposeful killings of Christians on November 1, who were attending mass at Our Lady of Salvation (Sayyidat al-Najat) Syriac Catholic Church in Baghdad's Karrada district, is part of a systematic and brutal effort to prevent Iraq from creating a pluralistic and tolerant society.

While the nation's political elite continues to demonstrate its inability to address Iraq's pressing problems, Iraqis at the local level are using their new found power in the form of provincial legislatures to promote issues they consider important. In this posting, I want to discuss three initiatives taken by provincial councils and other legislative bodies. One calls for allowing provinces to establish offices in Iraqi diplomatic missions abroad. The second involves an attempt to fight an increase in electricity rates mandated by the Ministry of Electricity. And the third entails protests against federal oil and natural gas policy in two of Iraq's provinces.

One of these issues, which I mentioned in a previous posting, concerns the effort of the al-Najaf Provincial Council to force the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to allow the province to open offices representing its commercial, educational and tourist interests in Iraqi embassies abroad. After the al-Najaf Council voted to support this effort, claiming that provinces had the constitutional right to open offices in Iraq's diplomatic missions, the Babil Provincial Council followed suit with a vote of its own.

While Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have both objected to these efforts in arguing that they are not in fact allowed by the Iraqi Constitution, they point to an example of al-Najaf and Babil provinces using their new found legislative power to assert a local agenda, namely promoting their commercial and tourist interests. This is an important development since, in the Arab world, power flows from the center to the periphery, rarely the reverse.

Another example of the provincial councils using their power to try and offset that of the central government is the vote by the Karbala' Provincial Council to not accept proposed increases in electricity rates. Indeed, the local government has called upon Karbala's resident and those in administrative districts that make up the greater Karbala' region not to pay the increases.

Residents of Karbala' and the surrounding region argue that current electric supplies are sporadic and that they as consumers should not have to pay more for a service that is already in short supply. Further, local economists and businessmen argue that the increases would place an onerous burden on local industry and agriculture which are already having a difficult time competing in local and regional markets. As for the legitimate need for the Ministry of Electricity to invest in upgrading Iraq's outdated national electric grid, residents reply that the government could find ample funds if it would seriously confront the extensive administrative corruption that permeates the ranks of the state bureaucracy. Clearly, local residents are much more able to protest what they consider to be unjust actions of the central government when they are organized and have the support of local governmental institutions.

But perhaps the most impressive evidence that Iraqis in the provinces are taking their local power seriously is the vote by both the al-Anbar and the Basra provincial councils demanding that the central government consult them in the development of oil and natural gas resources in their respective provinces. Basra is the most energy rich province in Iraq while large amounts of natural gas have recently begun to be developed in al-Anbar Province. Both provinces have rejected Baghdad's unilateral actions in concluding contracts with foreign energy companies without including them in the bidding process and in the plans to develop the local oil and natural gas fields.

It is noteworthy that both Basra and al-Anbar provinces have invoked Article 112 of the Iraqi Constitution that requires that the federal government cooperate with local provinces in the development of any hydrocarbon resources. In Falluja, once the site of extensive violence and attacks against US forces (such as the killing and burning of 4 Blackwater private security guards in 2004), protests have been peaceful with demonstrators carrying placards in parades down the city's streets demanding that Iraq not sell the rights to its oil and natural gas to foreign energy consortia.

Whatever one thinks of the issues in these three cases, the use of local legislative institutions to challenge the central government's prerogatives is extremely limited in the Arab world. In Iraq, citizens elected local legislative councils throughout its Arab provinces in January 2009 and those councils are beginning to represent their constituents interests.

In the case of protests against the central government's oil and natural gas policy, we see how economic interests can cross-cut ethnoconfessional differences. al-Anbar Province is the quintessential Sunni Arab Province while Basra is predominantly Shi'ite. That these two provinces have come together around an issue that affects them both - namely the disposition of their respective hydrocarbon resources - demonstrates possible future areas of cooperation among Iraq's different ethnic groups and regions.

While Iraq continues to face enormous political, social and economic problems, not all the news is bad.