On the Ground in Iraq: What Works

Posted by John Smith
March 27, 2008
Iraq: PRTs - Restaurant Owner

John Smith serves as a Provincial Reconstruction Team Leader in Iraq.

March 14, 2008

Hello, all. I’m a ePRT team leader in southern Baghdad. An ePRT means that you’re embedded with a military unit and collectively you address issues of governance. In my particular area, people have just gained their freedoms. However, with cooperative effort, we’ve been able to make some very good inroads.

It began with -- of course, like anything that we do in life, relationships. And the Iraqi people believe in relationships. So the time spent with tribal leaders, people in the community, and governance officials is important. They want to get to know you just as you need to get to know them. And then the relationship builds and there’s a trust and that trust is based on your word and their word.

And that’s essentially how we started in our area and from that, we’ve made some deep relationships. We’ve been able to move forward in realms that have benefited the people in our area of operation who have not had it easy for quite some time. One of those areas is in the agriculture realm, where – working closely with the Ministry of Agriculture and his representatives - the Iraqis have been able to start establishing an agricultural sector. We (the PRTs) are just there to assist and I’ve actually got a tremendous USDA person on my staff. We’re all in sync with our mission and plan of action.

And so you find the farmers, they elect their committees, and then they submit the proper paperwork for recognition by the Ministry of Agriculture as NGOs, which gives them autonomy and allows them to build their farming industry and reap the rewards of their labor.

And we have gone from having only one farm that was recognized to the point where we’ll be establishing a sixth one. And that is something that will be sustainable because they know farming and they understand business, and it’s their organization and their farmers union, so they will continue to build on that. Of course, they will work with the local ag committees on the nahias and the qadas and that will also give them assistance by the government at a reduced cost.

Another area where the building block of relationships is proven is in the health sector. Because of the security situation in certain parts of the country, the health clinics were all closed. But over the last four months, many clinics have re-opened because of the relationships that we’ve built with the Ministry of Health and representatives in our area.

Once again, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to build that trusted relationship. We are a guest. They understand the needs of their people and by using the relationship-building approach, we gain their trust and therefore their cooperation. What we have found by working together is that the Iraqis have embraced these clinics as the security environment improves. They are staffing them and taking back overall responsibility for the clinics, which has aided in the healthcare for the women and children in those areas. To build a trusted relationship, it works both ways; not everybody works on our timetable. If we order them around, the relationship will dissolve. The lesson to be learned here is that you have to respect your fellow men and women. When you do, you will get results.

On the education realm, we’ve worked closely with the Ministry of Education and their representatives. As a result, the Iraqis have started getting more engaged with hiring teachers. They are assessing the qualifications of people that live by these schools and have engaged in a process to hire more local teachers. As a partnership with the unit with whom we’re embedded, we’ve had some projects to brother up with the Minister of Education to refurbish some of the schools to jumpstart their opening. We’ve painted, installed new windows, and purchased chalkboards and furniture; anything we can to get the kids back in school. We believe the kids are the future and these partnerships are making a major difference in ensuring a quality education for so many children.

In every place that we’ve been doing this, the schools fill up as soon as the doors open. One of the things that you start seeing is a lot of smiles. You start seeing the people are becoming comfortable with their way of life. They can see the hope and they can see the future.

Another area that our ePRT team has focused on is reaching out to the women in these communities. To start, it is proper to approach the local council, which is part of my duties, and invite the council's advice on how to reach out to the women of the community. What I've seen is that the men and the women on the councils have embraced this type of outreach. Typically, it means the young women on my team will get together with the Iraqi women to start forming women's councils or committees. And from that, what we have seen is -- and once again we take a back seat -- the ladies in the community identify where they want to take it, what they want to do. And we're just an assisting vessel to connect them with other organizations that can provide them with information or to assist them with where they want to go (if they want to form a co-op, for example).

We have one area where the women want to take ten small sewing entities and form a big co-op. Most of these women are widows from the war and have taken in many of the orphans from the war, in addition to having their own children. The whole focus on this women's co-op is to take a percentage of their profits and reach out and assist other widows and orphans throughout the community.

It's important to understand that the Iraqi people are tribal and family oriented and have a personal relationship with one another. You don't see homeless children roaming around or widows left to fend for themselves. The community embraces them and bears the burden. This phenomenon goes unseen to the naked eye, but it's there and it needs to be recognized. With this group of women stepping up to help, it opened our eyes in many ways to how important community is and what they will do for each other with just a little bit of help initially.

We just had another women’s committee host one of their first big events. There were over 200 Iraqi women and two of the guest speakers were prominent council members on the district council for that area. It was exciting to look out into the faces of these women. Some of them you could were a little apprehensive, but they wanted to be part of it and you could see their excitement and hope. Events and moments like this are exciting.

If I could say one thing to anybody reading this or to any of my colleagues, both civilian or in uniform, is that you have to see every situation itself and not be driven by a matrix and check the box. You've got to get the pulse of the people and you've got to see where they are. And from there, you can judge whether they are going to grab the ball and run with it. They're capable of it and they will.

The best thing that we can do is allow the Iraqis to do that, and because of our enthusiasm, there's 100 percent enthusiasm over here. It’s hard to let go and stand by them as a partner and allow them to grab the ball and run with it, but they know how to. They're a smart society. They're very astute on business and economics, and they're good farmers. They know to make things grow and they know how to get the water to flow in their canals. It's like with anything that you've taken and you've embraced. It's like your kids growing up. At some point in time, you've got to back off and let them take that step forward on their own.

This is my second tour here. Previously, I was engaged with another State Department mission, but it has changed a hundred percent from the first tour that I had over here. We all need to keep the faith and remain open-minded. The bottom line is that relationships are key. Their relationships with each other are like what I grew up with in the States: it's one on one, face to face, handshake to handshake, hug to hug. Relationships aren't built on metrics or emails or phone calls. It's very personal.

It's a pleasure to be serving over here and representing a country that I love. Thank you.



New Jersey, USA
March 28, 2008

Dave in New Jersey writes:

Are you military or civilian? If you're a DoS civilian, why do you wear the complete U.S. Army uniform (to include unit patch)? Doesn't it tend to confuse the local Iraqis you're interacting with if they "see" you as a U.S. Soldier, instead of a U.S. diplomat?

DipNote Bloggers write:

@ Dave in New Jersey -- Please note that the image for this entry shows members of a PRT team in Baghdad, but not the specific author. Sorry for any confusion.

March 30, 2008

John in Greece writes:

It may sound extreme, but I think that after all this vital action and collaboration in Iraq, we should also talk about "successes." Not only "image-failures."

Why so much anti-American criticism concerning Iraq from international media?

My opinion is that, unfortunately, many people suffer from a political illness called ANTI-Americanism. No matter what the U.S. policy would be, we -- let me use we for chat convenience -- would have to face this image "reverse," this anti-American propaganda due to the habit that some people have adopt this tactic as their favourite sport. They love to blame America for everything; even for the bad weather, but they do not blame anyone else for hundreds bad things happening globally.

Let me rephrase a movie motto and then I will have clearly underline my personal view:

...The States may be famous for one or two debatable actions ...I insist on "just debatable," not necessarily bad choices -- but nobody, nobody talks about the thousands U.S.A. good-willing, humanitarian actions worldwide. The failures are famous, the successes are not...

An example of this is the post here in DipNote under the title

"Does the U.S. spend Too much or Too little on Foreign Aid."

We easily wonder and discuss whether it's too much or too little, but nobody says that Russia, France, China et cetera offer no Foreign Aid at all. And that's because nobody talks about U.S. successes. That's why the U.S. have to face an injured image.

How seriously the Iraqi military actions ...antiterrorist action -- injure the U.S. image and how much stronger and better this image would be if there was no Iraq theme?

I will be cynical. It would be almost the same, on the ground that the ANTI-Americanism virus exists anyway. And this happens because politically sick persons love to talk EXCLUSIVELY against U.S.A. I think that this phenomenon will soon require a psychological approach rather than a political analysis. Let me use some examples:

1. This moment we talk, exactly this very moment, we have 50 different wars worldwide in which U.S.A. have no participation or involvement at all. Nobody knows it, nobody talks about it, nobody blames these 50 other nations and tribes, but everybody spend 99,99% of the magazinesã paper writing exclusively about Iraq and ãthe bad Americansã.
2. Russia is involved in a much much lesser ãadvertisedã war in Caucasus. Nobody talks about this war. Everybody loves to chat about Baghdad. Why? Is the climate hotter or the traffic worst?
3. Tibet, Sudan, Burma, everywhereã hot wars of an extremely importance that nobody wants to talk about, as long as they cannot run America down behind itãs back. No American blaming, no interest at all!

Concerning Iraq:

What would had happen to the region without the U.S. intervention. What the side effects would be?

Unquestioningly, I do not like wars. I am not a war fanatic. Nevertheless, I think that sometimes, when diplomacy reaches a dead-end, military actions unfortunately, become a necessity, in order to prevent an even bigger WAR in this instance; geography is strange, the political and religious platform is a mosaic, neighbouring Iran is ready to bite and the Russians, as always, have a two faced foreign policy in the region, while common people like us do not have the information, the elements and the intelligence to judge for sure what would had happened if the U.S. hadn't take action at all and what made the round table of the decision makers to select this choice.

You see, History is something that is "played" today but you can analyze it and grade it only after at least some decades ...in the future.

I will finish my point with a last example of the above, because I wouldn't like to monopolize the Blog's size.

When decades ago, senator Wilson and Gust Avrakotos and CIA and of course the U.S.A. by adopting their strategy and plan, begun the most secret, expensive and difficult operation in the Soviet occupied Afghanistan, many people used to characterize Wilson -- one of the most basic protagonists -- as a drunk playboy with no brain and Avrakotos as a crazy agent following no rules.

However, this operation finalized the END of what Joe from Tennessee, recently, with his post, described as "Mother Russia."

History proved -after the End of the Soviet Union- that both Wilson and Avrakotos were not only HEROES, but also extremely INTELLIGENT persons who adopted clever, non-conventional ways, but they did destroy Communism, or part of its biggest part. Common people could not understand this at that time.

Besides, common people, like most of us, could not understand the importance of the operation and of course the plan.

Moreover, they could not evaluate the importance of the moment: that Russians should have been STOPPED there and THEN, by any means.

History did understand!

I think that the majority of Iraqis have already begin to understand too!

New Mexico, USA
March 30, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

Hi John,

Thanks for serving on the cutting edge of nation building.

Seems to me that a society that's been under the boot of a dictator for decades may suffer a kind of "victim mentality", and we've certainly seen attempts made to convince Iraqis they are "victims" of occupation, by those creating victims of terrorism.

My question to you is:

a) What do asses the general level of confidence among Iraqis to be in their own government?

b) How does a PRT elevate Iraqi confidence in themselves to succeed in becoming nation builders at the local level?


March 31, 2008

John in Greece writes:

You are welcome!

All of us, the "DipNoters" like you simple civilians all over the world - serve on the cutting edge of Global equilibrium building. And I hope we that all of us in this great forum do it in a well-meaning way.

So, thank you too, for participating.

It's obvious that you like conspiracy theories ("we've certainly seen attempts made to convince Iraqis they are 'victims' of occupation, by those creating victims of terrorism").

Can you explain me what do you mean - who are the guys- creating victims of terrorism? What is 'victim mentality'?

Concerning your 2 questions, I have to say that they have nothing to do with my post.

I wrote about International media Anti-Americanism.

Thanks Eric and have a nice week.

Maryland, USA
April 1, 2008

Dan in Maryland writes:

John - thanks very much for your outstanding service to and sacrifice for the U.S., your fellow American citizens and the people of Iraq.

In regards to the situation in Iraq and the work of the PRTs, here are a few provocative observations from former Secretary of State Dean Acheson that may be of interest ...

"Force can overcome force, but a free society cannot long steel itself to dominate another people by force."

Regarding French efforts in Vietnam in 1951: "France was engaged in a task beyond her strenght, indeed, beyond the strength of any external power unless it was acting in support of the dominant local will and purpose.""My constant appeal to American liberals was to face the long, hard years and not to distract us with the offer of short cuts and easy solutions begotten by good will out of the angeles of man's better nature ... the road to peace and freedom ... is a hard one ... for us, that central point is the growing unity of free men the world over.""The simple truth is that perseverance in good policies is the only avenue to success, and that even perseverance in poor ones often gives the appearance of being so ... "

April 2, 2008

John in Greece writes:

@ Dan in Maryland -- You are welcome Dan, (too).

I hope you do the same ('outstanding service to and sacrifice for the U.S., your fellow American citizens and the people of Iraq') because I am not an American citizen.

So, you have more power and strength -hopefully than French, Russians and other 'tribes'- to help the NATION.

Besides, you live there! in the States!

So, love the country.

We "some non-Americans, but 'Americans in heart'- love the States from abroad" without being "officially" citizens.

I hope, you Dan, do it from "in house"!

I understand you have a problem with the "Iraq choice".


Please re-read my 17 last lines of my post 'it may sounds extreme'...

Best regards.

Maryland, USA
April 1, 2008

Dan in Maryland writes:

@ John in Greece -- I addressed my last post to John Smith, who is the US diplomat serving in Iraq whose posting launched this disucssion. I was not addressing my comments to you.

Nevertheless, all the best to you, and to the continued cooperation between the US and Greece to promote freedom and democracy around the world.

April 2, 2008

John in Greece writes:

@ Dan in Maryland -- I apologize!

Sometimes my English don't help me. It's because I am not a native speaker.

But, this is the GREATEST thing on this Blog. They give us the opportunity to communicate throughout the "universe."

Again, Sorry Dan.

Keep on posting your very interesting thoughts.

Maryland, USA
April 2, 2008

Dan in Maryland writes:

@ John in Greece -- Your English is great ...especially compared to my Greek, which unfortunately I don't speak at all.

I agree that this and other blogs are a great tool in terms of sharing ideas and information internationally. I trust and hope that such exchanges will help the international community work better together to address global challenges.

New Mexico, USA
April 16, 2008

Eric in New Mexico writes:

@ John in Greece -- Re: John in Greece March 30th posting

John in Greece, I was addressing my post to John Smith, the fellow that started the thread, sorry for the confusion.

But you asked a fair question, and it deserves a fair answer.

I had written:

"Seems to me that a society that's been under the boot of a dictator for decades may suffer a kind of "victim mentality", and we've certainly seen attempts made to convince Iraqis they are "victims" of occupation, by those creating victims of terrorism."

You wrote:

"It's obvious that you like conspiracy theories ("we've certainly seen attempts made to convince Iraqis they are 'victims' of occupation, by those creating victims of terrorism").

Can you explain me what do you mean - who are the guys- creating victims of terrorism? What is 'victim mentality'?"
Aye John, I leave conspiracy theory to the judgement of those without facts and more imagination than I have. You don't have a clue where I'm coming from, and it's not nice to belittle someone out of shear ignorance, but I'll let it go, and chalk it up to a temporary brain fart on your part....happens occasionally to the best of us...(chuckle).

What I descibe here has been supported in full by a body of evidence, and the testimony of combatant commanders, A US ambassador to Iraq, and videotaped confession of captured Iranian Quods force personel.

When the government of Iran uses all maner of influence to convince Iraqis their troubles are brought on by those that liberated them from Saddam's rule, and falsly call this "occupation" when a soverign government is in place having been duly elected by millions of Iraqi citizens. Deployed there still today under UN mandate, and at the request of that soverign Iraqi government; And that same Iranian government supplies the munitions, trains the terrorist, and directs the operation of "special groups" causing death and unrest among the Iraqi population, then you have the basis of fact in which to understand why "we've certainly seen attempts made to convince Iraqis they are "victims" of occupation, by those creating victims of terrorism."

So what is a "victim mentality"?

Basicly in general terms as I see manifest, a lack of confidence in being able to control one's destiny, or to fend off unwanted influence that stands in the way of one's freedoms.

As was the case for three decades of Saddam's rule, a decade of sanction and UN mismanagement, 2 wars, 3 if you include the Iran/Iraq war, and now, just now, there is the chance Iraqis can achieve their destiny as a nation, it is only their lack of confidence in themselves to achieve it that threatens to stand in their way. The terrorists can't win without sowing doubt.

But the confidence of the Iraqi has grown remarkably as security has been established via "the Surge", and the "awakening" is a concious choice by the people to no longer be victims of circumstance, but to sieze their rights to life, liberty , and the persuit of al quaida...(happiness had to wait for results).

We've seen in Basra, the Iraqi government take on Iranian backed militias, and refuse to be victim of Iranian intent.

But only after it gained confidence in political consensus to do so.

So, I hope that resolves your misunderstanding, and answers your question.

April 16, 2008

John in Greece

@ Eric in New Mexico -- Thanks you very much for the reply. You are absolutely clear.

I didn't meant to insult you. I was not quite certain what did you mean.

Now is obvious. Thanks again.

Best Regards!


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