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As General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker struggle through a marathon round of appearances before various Congressional committees, the questions they face focus on security and the effects of the U.S.'s "surge" strategy. This is as it should be, given conditions in Iraq, but there is another "surge" that in many respects may be more important in answering the "when can we leave" question: efforts under way to get Iraq on a more conventional development path.

I have just returned from a remarkable three-week visit to Iraq, remarkable because I was privileged to see more of Iraq than all but a handful of visitors have been able to see. I was part of a team brought together by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker to take a fresh look at Iraq's development efforts, most especially to see what more could be done that would support recent security gains by creating jobs and improving services.

With General Petraeus's and Ambassador Crocker's backing, we were able to travel extensively in Iraq and meet widely with Coalition and Government of Iraq officials. It is no secret that security is still a major issue in many parts of Iraq, so getting around the country and meeting with Iraqis is no mean feat. I now know more about body armor, Blackhawk helicopters, armored Humvees, Stryker and MRAP armored vehicles, C-17 and C-130 transports than I ever thought possible...or wanted to!

Based on my reading of recent post-conflict efforts and the good work of colleagues such as Paul Collier and Scott Guggenheim, I went to Iraq convinced that the path to short term gains in jobs and services would likely be through the provinces rather than from Baghdad. With this idea in mind, I was most interested in understanding the role of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) in Iraq. These teams, 26 in all, were set up around Iraq to provide immediate post-conflict reconstruction support.

The extraordinary support we received meant that we were able to visit teams not only in the more secure parts of Iraq – Kirkuk and Kut for example – but as well in the more fragile – Basra, Ba'Qubah in Diyala Province, Mosul in Ninawa Province. In fact, we were able to speak with members of all but one or two of the 26 PRTs. These visits were not ordinary field visits. In Iraq you travel from one military forward operations base (FOB) to another, and then helicopter or convoy in armored vehicles from there to secure zones in cities and provinces to meet with Iraqis. I never did get comfortable walking into a government office in a flak jacket, but our Iraqi counterparts were kind enough to act as if this was nothing out of the ordinary.

I have much to absorb and digest from this trip, but even now I am struck by a couple of key take-aways:

  • Security gains will not stick without visible gains in what people care about, jobs and services.
  • While Iraqi capacity is weak and will remain so for the foreseeable future, Iraqis must see their government, not the Coalition Forces as delivering for them. This is what state building is really all about.
  • The great challenge to the world, not just the U.S., is to bring a sense of future to the Iraqi people. Provinces are the right place to push Iraqi development at least in the immediate term and the PRTs are the right vehicle for external technical assistance.
  • But, to play this new role, PRTs must change from Coalition Provincial Reconstruction Teams to international Iraq Development Assistance Teams. They should transition from "doing development because local governments could not" to supporting local governments in their efforts to do development. This is already happening but needs support.
  • All this notwithstanding, we have to start getting real about the pace of institutional reform and development in Iraq. Almost since day one, expectations about how quickly the Iraqi government could move from iron-fisted, top-down control to a decentralized, quasi-democratic system have been absurdly optimistic.

I left Iraq with two overriding impressions. The first was that our military is quite an organization. From the top to the bottom, I was impressed with the professionalism, intelligence, commitment and general decency of the military personnel with whom I worked and interacted. Second, a unique and likely never to be replicated set of state building and development experiments are taking place in Iraq on a scale that is hard to imagine for most development types. If we are not careful, we are going to lose a priceless opportunity to learn from these very out-of-the-box approaches to doing development.

Disclaimer

CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.