Here I am, over in Anbar province with the Iraqis and the Marines. You'd think that it would be dangerous here but it's not. Things in Anbar are pretty safe -- but the irony of the situation wasn't lost on me when a friend e-mailed me an article yesterday about someone getting shot to death in the streets of Berkeley, CA, my hometown.
"OMG," I immediately e-mailed back. "I KNOW that guy! That guy was my NEIGHBOR!"
Here I am sitting around Al Asad airbase in western Iraq, listening to some US Marines, a State Department PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team) and a US-AID rep giving me the 411 on how they are helping to rebuild Anbar province, while back home my neighbor couldn't even safely walk down the street.
"The Marines are approaching their reconstruction missions here in the same manner that they approached a combat mission," said the officer. "We identify a target and then initiate a development process. We add to the target list, prioritize it, develop a plan, conduct reconnaissance, develop the project, execute it and assess." He gave me some examples of how they use this strategy to also identify, organize and tackle civil development projects such as sewage treatments or electrification.
"So instead of using these organizational techniques to design the best way to take out, say, a bomb factory, you use them to target and initiate civic development projects?"
Then I got sent off to interview the PRT leader for this area. "Basically," he said, "there weren't very many mid-level bureaucrats in Anbar when we arrived because Iraq under Saddam Hussein was a top-down operation." There used to be a lot of yes-men in Iraq. "So we are trying to help develop bureaucrats who can make decisions by themselves."
The PRT expert, a career diplomat for the State Department, talked about encouraging more bureaucratic executions. "Under Saddam, 'bureaucratic execution' had a whole different meaning and back then it was safer just to sit on your hands.
"One of the biggest challenges that we face here is money. There is plenty available -- but how do you transport it? Because the banking system still needs development, we have to make most of our payments in cash. We can't just issue ATM cards or checks. So all that cash has to be accounted for at all times."
Then I asked him about distributing oil revenue money to Iraqis. "This region has a lot of potential due to its resources and location but in order to get these projects off the the ground, the Iraqis need manpower and so just handing out oil revenue could make things worse by taking away incentives to roll up their sleeves. Plus its like when people win lottery money. First the money is here and then it's gone." So I guess that my assumption that handing out more oil revenues will be the solution to Iraq's problems is rather simplistic. Sigh.
Another big problem here is that Saddam didn't support the infrastructure so that most of it needs to be repaired or replaced. And they didn't build refineries for the oil. And transportation is still a challenge. If it is run right, Iraq has the potential to be a great country. But for the last 40 years, it hasn't been run right."
"Is the PRT making progress and, if so, how can you tell?"
"The way that I judge progress within my subject area is by observing little things -- like bananas. Can one ship bananas to the stores before they turn brown? When you see yellow bananas for sale, that indicates that a good distribution chain has been set up."
Next I talked with the PRT's language and liaison specialist, an Iraqi-American who was born in Mosul and studied at the American University in Cairo but now lives in San Diego. "It's not that Iraq lacks in trained and intelligent people," he said. "Iraq used to have more PhDs per capita than any other country in the world. But for the last two decades or so, there has been a brain drain as the intellectual and professional classes left because of Saddam and the wars and the embargoes -- so this is another reason why the bureaucracy is shattered today."