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Development Spending in Iraq – What is the Smartest Way to Move Forward?

As the U.S. moves forward with military withdrawal from Iraq, it is critical to take a look at the status of development spending. NETWORK has always advocated for peace in the Middle East through economic security, promoted through localized development. It is time to take a look at past development funding, learn from our mistakes, and progress with a better understanding of how to support civil stability. 

To their credit, the military has accomplished several important objectives. Most notably, our Armed Forces have improved security. Overall incidents of violence in Iraq have dropped from 5,789 a month in 2007 to 884 per month in 2010. As a result of a more secure atmosphere, civilians and contractors have been able to be more effective in their development and reconstruction efforts.  

Perhaps most importantly, the Department of Defense has looked to the future and realized that military presence alone cannot stabilize a country. Back in 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recognized the need for “a permanent, sizeable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills.” Reports from outside the Pentagon painted a similar picture. James Traub in Foreign Policy noted the “Army recognizes that the fundamentally political questions raised by state-building…require civilian authority and a civilian perspective.” It is certainly commendable that in the midst of securing the nation, the Department of Defense has recognized the limits of its own capacity and demonstrated a willingness to seek a greater role for civilians. 

However, past action of relying so heavily on the Department of Defense at the expense of the State Department has had its consequences. Our military is the strongest, most capable, and most effective armed force in the world. That being said, what we’re asking our troops to do is beyond the scope of military training, expertise and personnel.

Condoleeza Rice famously remarked that “we don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.” In doing so, Rice crystallized the issue we have today. We shouldn’t expect the military to be proficient at establishing education, freedom of religion, and the fundamentals for a strong local economy. Similarly, we shouldn’t expect civilians to be able to fly a F18 and confront an armed group of insurgents. 

Because the military has been asked to carry out development duties beyond their normal scope of expertise, problems have arisen with organization, accountability and corruption. 

Most glaring are the inadequacies plaguing the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP), the Department of Defense’s attempt at small-scale development. CERP was originally intended to quickly fund critically needed, localized projects, sharing NETWORK’s recognition that local economic development breeds security and stability. Yet as the latest quarterly report (4/30/2010) from the Special Inspector General of Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) discovered, CERP has suffered from “inadequate oversight,” evolving guidelines, unclear standards and mismanagement. The Pentagon is well aware of CERP’s shortcomings. In testimony before the Senate earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Gates reiterated the necessity of adequate oversight of the CERP program. 

As a result of rampant mismanagement, CERP has fallen far short of effective localized development. SIGIR recently released an audit on 46 CERP-funded projects, concluding that 24 were “generally unsuccessful.”

On July 28, 2010, news broke of the Pentagon’s inability to account for 95% of the Iraqi Development Fund it was entrusted to manage. An audit of the $9.1 billion fund showed that while the military was entrusted with spending the money on reconstruction projects, a scant proportion ever translated into any semblance of reconstruction.  

The Department of Defense and our Armed Forces have been tremendously effective when the objective is a standard military target. They’ve fallen short in localized development, an area outside their expertise.  

It is incumbent on Congress and the administration to recognize our development deficiencies and create a greater role for civilian involvement. Doing so would result in a number of concrete improvements over our current development strategy.

With a lower relative cost than military engagement, civilian involvement would save the United States a considerable sum in the future and markedly improve life for Iraqis. The military apparatus has evolved into a behemoth. The current redeployment of 50,000 troops from Iraq to Afghanistan is accompanied by the movement of 2.8 million pieces of equipment, constituting the largest redeployment of service members and equipment since World War II. 

In contrast, moving civilian minds doesn’t require anything close to what a military operation needs. Greater civilian involvement would increase American economic efficiency while administering funds to the local Iraqi level, the ideal combination of accountability and effectiveness.    

While development efforts under the Department of Defense have floundered as a result of “mission creep,” unreasonable objectives, mismanagement and lax oversight, the greatest impediment to civilian development in Iraq has been a lack of funding. Provincial Reconstruction Teams and CERP, perhaps the two most prominent attempts at American development in Iraq, have been financed through the Department of Defense. Appropriating development to civilians through the State Department would bring funding to hire needed personnel. By matching the objective to the agency best trained to accomplish it, American efforts would be properly managed, more efficient, more effective, and more transparent. 

To see a fundamental shift in America’s development strategy, constituents must make this perspective known to Congress and the administration. 

NETWORK is optimistic that Americans can demand change in development spending and make a difference in the lives of Iraqis. As legislators determine the future of our involvement in Iraq, we must make it known that civilians should be responsible for localized development. The U.S. has been blessed with tremendously capable service members and civilians. It is time for our leadership to put both groups in positions where they can succeed.