In Memoriam

This site is also dedicated to Stan Sargent. Stan and I grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, and both of us left for college at about the same time. Stan served in Vietnam while I joined the Peace Corps. Stan won the Silver Star for heroism. Read Stan's story (1 MB download pdf).

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Lessons Learned from North Babil

Civil Affairs and the QDR: Opportunity and Challenge

by Mr. Howard Van Vranken

Reprint of article -- see

April 2010

As we consider how to sharpen our focus on peace keeping and stabilization efforts in Afghanistan, we naturally consider what lessons can be applied from a generally successful "surge" in Iraq. As a career State Department Foreign Service Officer who served as the Team Leader of an embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in North Babil January, 2008 - January, 2009, I have reflected on some of the lessons learned in Iraq and provide some observations about our organizations.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the various cultures of disparate agencies in stability operations in Iraq and identify areas of overlap and barriers to efficacy. Its intended audience is the senior level civil affairs practitioner.

Overview of the Mission and Environment

When I arrived in January, 2008, north Babil was the epitome of a conflict zone. The Iraqi Police and Army were still finding their feet and many of the local units lacked the confidence of the US Army, their civilian leadership, and the population. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and Sunni insurgents were present and active, but their activities had curtailed significantly thanks in large part to the Sons of Iraq (SOI) program, our 'surge' troops, and years of counterinsurgency efforts. Shia insurgents, primarily the Jaish al Mahdi (JAM), were increasingly active and had successfully infiltrated local government and security services. The province was still reeling from the murder a month earlier of the Provincial Police Chief, GEN Qais Al Mamori, an able patriot and friend of the US intent on implementing non-sectarian rule of law in the province.

Our area of Iraq was about the size of Rhode Island, and COIN was in full swing. The three battalions of 4BCT/3ID were deeply and intimately engaged in a broad array of projects all with the common aim of alleviating the considerable and evident consequences of the conflict while building the capacity of the Iraqi government. Clearly, the emphasis was on helping Iraqis; CERP was generously used to help farmers, small businesses, schools, and clinics restore operations. The SOI program was well under way, with more than 5,000 paid participants.

Taking advantage of the disruption of insurgent activities, Civil Affairs Teams were working closely with local officials on priority projects, largely focused on health, education and essential services. Everyone complained about the lack of electricity; north Babil was one of the few places in Iraq that suffered periodic cholera outbreaks thanks to critical shortages of potable water. Â International efforts to rebuild infrastructure were restarting as USAID-funded programs rebuilt several schools with more construction planned for the worst affected areas. Internally displaced people, often refugees who had abandoned villages to live in small towns or cities 20 miles away, were anxious to return and rebuild.

Militarily, the brigade had cleared a final AQI stronghold in the Khidr, an agricultural village hugging the Euphrates. Several dozen fighters were killed and about as many were dispersed in a fight that killed one soldier. The area had been cleared only days before I arrived and it was one of the first places I visited. Escorted by LTC Tim Newsome, Commander of the Cottonbalers (3/7 infantry battalion), we walked through a devastated village of bombed out shops, houses, and mosques before meeting the local leader, Sheikh Jaffer. Speaking with Jaffer, I learned that Khidr was a largely Shia village in a region primarily populated by Sunnis. However, until about 2006, sectarian problems were unknown and people of both sects mixed openly and without hostility. Khidr included a small Shia shrine commemorating a beloved religious leader. Sunni fighters, chased out of Baghdad thanks to coalition military operations in 2006, had taken over the village, terrorized the Shia population, destroyed the shrine, and used the area as a base to conduct attacks on Sunnis resident in nearby Iskandariya, Mahmoudiah, and Jurf al Sukr. They pillaged explosives from the nearby remains of the Qaqaa weapons complex.

Khidr was illustrative of the challenges confronting us in north Babil. The population was divided and sectarian wounds were deep and fresh. The Iraqi Army and Police did not exercise, consistent, effective control over the area. The humanitarian needs were staggering; housing, health care, potable water, and food were all in desperately short supply. The economy was in tatters and infrastructure had been destroyed or suffered from years of neglect. Importantly, several insurgent leaders had communicated their willingness to lay down their weapons in exchange for a position in the SOI.

The brigade was well-equipped to address the considerable challenge it confronted, both in terms of resources and leadership. While working in a tremendously dangerous atmosphere, the recently arrived soldiers of 4BCT enthusiastically sought opportunities to engage the population. I had expected Civil Affairs to be at near the bottom of a long list of operational priorities; in fact, it became evident in my first days with the brigade that Civil Affairs and EPRT work was a foremost concern of commanders, behind only the safety and wellbeing of troops. As the brigade commander, COL Tom James, introduced me to his senior leaders, I quickly understood the commitment to COIN exemplified by COL James and his deputy, LTC Roger Shuck.

What we lacked, however, was a clear master plan for moving forward. Stated simply, we had not thought about how we wanted the area to look in a year, two years, or how to get there. Our focus was almost exclusively on generating goodwill among civilians and disrupting those who would do us harm. We also lacked experience in Civil Affairs operations, beyond distributing humanitarian or relief supplies. Perhaps most importantly, we did not have well-established relationships with local leaders.

The Vanguard Brigade arrived about a month before me in Iraq. Their leaders—officers and NCOs—were focused professionals, most with experience in Iraq. They had learned hard lessons working with Iraqi counterparts during previous tours and were determined to apply those lessons in North Babil.

The mission was clear: we had to secure the population in order to give civilian rebuilding efforts an opportunity to gain momentum and return the population to normal activities. We had to build the capability of the local security forces and mentor their development in order for them to regain the confidence of the local population. Any former insurgents willing to forego armed activities and return to civilian life would be welcomed back to their homes and watched carefully. Once the areas were secure, we had to expedite the restoration of essential services and convince the Iraqi government to direct resources to an area still widely considered an insurgent stronghold. Without the balance of security and civilian activities, we would end the 'surge' having failed: if we created security without building civilian activities, security would collapse upon our departure. Civilian activities conducted in an insecure environment were bound to fail as insurgents and gangsters terrorized the people.

Mars and Venus: Building Effective US Civilian-Military Relations on the Battlefield

Much has been written about differences between the corporate cultures of the uniformed military and diplomatic agencies (State, USAID, etc) and much of it is accurate. The military and civilians approach the same problems with identical goals from diametrically opposed viewpoints. That proved the case in north Babil, and we constantly worked to overcome these institutional hindrances. Among the most striking differences in approach were:

Timeframe - We joked that while the military thought of changes that could be made before the next daily Battle Update Brief to the division leadership, USAID thought about how its activities would impact the next generation of Iraqis! While an exaggeration, it nonetheless illustrated the significant gulf in focus between the civilian agencies and our military colleagues.

Resources - The military brings to the battlefield tremendous resources—primarily money and people. During my time in north Babil, we rarely considered how to curtail spending and almost never sought to economize for the sake of economy. That was a stark departure from my nearly two decades with the Department of State which had been a constant exercise in the sensitivity of cost; economy was an ever-present priority. While ePRT operations were less constrained thanks in large part to the Department of State's Quick Response Fund, the instinctive reaction of State and USAID officers is to seek a cheaper, sustainable solution whenever possible. Whereas the military's bottom line was accomplishment of the immediate objective, civilian leadership focused on expense, sustainability and transition. Both sides came to incorporate more balanced thinking, but it was a constant effort to curb our respective institutional predispositions.

In terms of people, the military enjoys a significant advantage in the breadth of expertise in its ranks. In addition to recognized specialists, including such seeming anomalies as lawyers, veterinarians, and police officers, the reserves include a richly diverse group of professionals able to apply their civilian expertise. Though sometimes not deployed as intelligently as we might expect, compared with the Army, the civilian agencies lack that depth of diversity and expertise. Simply stated, we are diplomats and administrators, with occasional experience in another field.

Planning - Among the most striking aspects of the brigade was the investment it made in developing plans and considering how to achieve the commander's intent. When considering what to do and how to do it, the brigade's deliberative planning process was a phenomenally powerful asset for decision makers. The time, energy and creativity invested in the process meant that we were rarely surprised and never at a loss for tactical flexibility. Â Coming from an agency where plans are developed in a process sometimes neglected and frequently ridiculed, I quickly came to recognize the value of the brigade's planning.

Accommodating Diverse Institutional Cultures

Working together required accommodating each cultures' strengths and taking into consideration our institutional needs and imperatives. For example, the Army places an understandable emphasis on unity of effort. In the 3ID, that was highlighted by the singing, every morning with enthusiasm, of the division's song, "The Dog Face Soldier". Each morning, before the update, the entire brigade leadership stood at attention and sang, with vigor, the fight song. While it seemed a bit strange at the beginning, I soon understood the value of participating in terms of unit cohesion. When I become known as the Dog Face Diplomat, I knew the EPRT had been accepted.

There were other ways to accommodate the military that I found my counterparts at other ePRTs did not employ, to their detriment. I made absolutely sure that whenever we were asked to participate in a briefing, meeting, presentation, or discussion, our people participated with enthusiasm, were prepared, and took it seriously. The brigade leadership soon recognized that they did not need to ask the ePRT for something twice; when we had issues of substance or style, we made sure to raise them in advance in an appropriately discreet fashion. That helped make the brigade look good, and assuaged any concerns amount[?] our Army colleagues that we were somehow not team players.

Looking out for the interests of our counterparts was a key element in building cohesion and confidence. In working with our Iraqi counterparts, we developed a system to reinforce each others messages and priorities. That helped the Iraqis understand our goals and assured that they could not play us off against each other. Whenever I briefed General officers about the work of the brigade or the ePRT, I always found someone to praise. If we had problems with someone, we never raised those issues outside the brigade. That helped build credibility with the leadership and facilitated good working relations. Occasionally it required us to stifle our concerns when we honestly disagreed with a course of action, but the sacrifice merited the achievement of team cohesion.

The Army tends to attack problems directly and with overwhelming force and action. Civilians on the ePRT, I found, tended to take a more considered approach, preferring to discuss issues in depth, often repeatedly in different forums before deciding whether we should act. Once we determined that action was merited, we spoke at length about how best to proceed. That kind of deliberative decision-making, characterized by consensus decisions, drove the brigade crazy at times. Our approach meant we measured several times before cutting the fabric.

Our military counterparts, however, appreciated that once we had decided on a way forward, we could move quickly to apply intelligent solutions to difficult problems. One team member in particular, USAID's Michael Maxey, was a resource rainmaker able to expertly pull the levers of bureaucracy to deliver informed solutions to vexing problems. Several thousand refugees need to return to Khidr and rebuild their homes? Michael arranged for an Iraqi firm to distribute building supplies to the home sites. Need back-to-school supplies for schools? Ten thousand backpacks filled with paper, pencils and crayons were delivered to schools courtesy of Michael. Need specialist advice about resuscitating fish farms in the Euphrates valley, Michael arranged for an aquaculture expert to meet the farmers, prescribe a solution and distribute fingerlings to restore 600 family fish farms. Our civilians' ability to effect positive, intelligent results was a key to establishing credibility between agencies.

The Importance of Personnel and Training

While our confidence rarely waned, we learned several lessons concerning personnel and training. First, there is no substitute for experience, and very few people have experience with stabilization operations. We hired 'experts' with exhaustive resumes who proved incapable of operating without whatever support infrastructure they had enjoyed elsewhere. In some cases, our team members—civilian and military—could not exercise the flexibility necessary to pivot operations as dictated by developing circumstances. It is telling that about one quarter of our team did not complete their tour in Iraq. Those who succeeded shared a commitment to our mission. They also exhibited the ability to work effectively with a diverse and wide range of colleagues and interlocutors under tremendously stressful conditions. Interpersonal skills were among the most valuable assets of our team members and building a cohesive unit was a constant challenge.

Ideally, civilians would train closely with the military units with whom they work. In reality, that is rarely possible. As a result, close communication is necessary to overcome gaps in expectations and experience. Training for civilians should focus on operational issues. Our greatest asset was in knowing how to access civilian resources to address needs and issues we found locally. Those on our team who could pull the bureaucratic levers with our agencies in order to deliver tangible results were the most valuable members of the organization. It seemed that developing close relations with Iraqis and assessing their needs were somewhat less difficult, surprisingly, than getting our own civilian agencies to move quickly.

Lessons for the Future

So, what lessons did we learn and how can they be applied to current and future operations? While some of these are ideals, and others are difficult to implement, taken as a whole they constitute some lessons we should apply to future deployments.

Team Building counts—While it might benefit unit cohesion for PRTs and brigades to calibrate their tours, the most important goal is to build a unified approach. We did that in North Babil by sharing ideas, keeping communications up and down open, and focusing on professional and team development. When I was tasked by the Embassy with providing a quarterly assessment of progress in our area, I included the entire team and the brigade's leadership in the process, soliciting their views and incorporating their ideas. When we established work plans and priorities, the results reflected the consensus of good ideas generated by our team. Because about half our members were uniformed military, we were well integrated into the brigade.

Think Long-Term, but Act Today—This seems obvious, but despite the crushing, immediate demands, civilian leaders should always think about the intermediate and long-term impact of their actions. However, because the window for facilitating change is small and elusive, we must act today to begin change. When we have the opportunity to initiate a project that will improve a community, we must act quickly and intelligently.

Communication—Living on a FOB, there is no reason or way to avoid communicating constantly with our military counterparts. Likewise, talking to local officials and community leaders is the surest way to build relationships and trust. Making others look good—whether that means a battalion commander or a local school principal—is the best way to assure the mission will be a success.

Hire Local Employees—In Babil, we were hamstrung because the EPRT did not employ Iraqis knowledgeable about the local area. In retrospect, I should have hired local Iraqi engineers, bureaucrats or community organizers to help us plan and execute projects, but more importantly to provide deeper context about our civilian Iraqi partners.

Use USAID contractors—USAID typically hires contractors with tremendous expertise who enjoy a much greater ability to move on the battlefield. One tactic we used was to employ those USAID contractors extensively to provide assessments and execute projects. I was surprised to learn that my counterparts at PRTs elsewhere frequently did not even know the contractors existed. In most cases, USAID contractors have more experience on the ground than anyone in the brigade or PRT; that was certainly the case with RTI, the primary contractor for USAID's Local Government Program. Likewise, the Iraqi and third country nationals working under

USAID's Community Stabilization Program was able to quickly deploy resources to communities to rebuild schools, roads and clinics. They also engaged local leaders and populations to generate support for their programs. Coupled with the SOI program, the work of these contractors was the most important factor in our ability to restore normalcy to North Babil.

Engage Local Officials and Community Leaders—In north Babil, there were several unfortunate legacy projects that illustrated the importance of coordinating with local leaders and officials. In several instances, the USG had constructed beautiful facilities—a school and a clinic—without engaging sufficiently with the appropriate government officials. As a result, the ministry refused to assign staff or budget for operations and, more than a year after construction was completed, the facilities were used as storage or offices. In most cases, local officials know how to deal with their own bureaucracies to coordinate projects and avoid building the wrong facility in the wrong place.

Give Them All the Credit—Frequently, local leaders are very timid about building open relationships with US leaders largely for fear of alienating their populations. The best remedy is to provide tangible inducements demonstrating the value of working with the US. In many cases, US military and civilians can provide resources that solve long-standing problems. When we restore electricity or water to a neighborhood, for example, those local leaders who can claim credit for that improvement will instantly become our friends. Amazingly, those who seemed never to have time for us would eagerly seek our help after we demonstrated the ability to improve the lives of their constituents and enabled them to claim credit for the improvements.

Enjoy the Experience—Though difficult, for most civilians the experience of peacekeeping and stabilization operations are exhilarating, interesting and fun.

Howard Van Vranken is a career U.S. Department of State Foreign Service Officer who served as Team Leader of the embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team in North Babil, Iraq, January, 2008 - January, 2009. Currently the recipient of a Una Chapman Cox Fellowship, Mr. Van Vranken will shortly complete an academic year at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He will return to Iraq with the Department of State following a year of Farsi language training.

COL Rickey Rife, Defense is From Mars, State is from Venus - Improving Communications and Promoting National Security, US Army War College, 1998

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