Perito: PRTs In Iraq Improved Over Time

Melissa Block speaks with Robert Perito, the director of the Security Sector Governance Center at the U.S. Institute of Peace, about the effectiveness of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or PRTs, in Iraq over the years. Perito says the teams had a lot of problems from the beginning, but they got better with time.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

For the last six years, the U.S. presence in Iraq has included provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs. These units were spread around the country and led through the State Department, a kind of civilian surge. Some were embedded with combat brigades from the U.S. military. Joining me to talk about the goals of those reconstruction teams, and what they accomplished, is Robert Perito with the U.S. Institute of Peace, which has reported extensively on this. Welcome to the program.

ROBERT PERITO: Thank you very much. Very good to be with you.

BLOCK: There were, at the peak in 2008, 25 of these PRTs. What were they designed to do?

PERITO: Well, the original PRTs in Iraq - and there were 10 or 11 of these things - were designed to do a number of things. They were designed to promote good governance. They were designed to help improve the economy. They were designed to promote security in the region, and they were designed to be an American presence. And then in 2007, as part of the surge, a new kind of PRT was introduced. They were called embedded PRTs.

They were small, made up of four to eight civilians. They were designed to do counterinsurgency things, along with the brigades that were deployed into Baghdad and into Anbar, where the fighting was most intense. And they were doing - kind of hearts and minds projects. They were designed to do short, high-impact projects to convince the local people to, you know, not to shoot at us.

BLOCK: As the U.S. Institute of Peace interviewed a number of the people who had served on these teams, what was the sense that you got from those interviews about whether they accomplished anywhere near what they had intended to?

PERITO: I think it was - the vast majority of the people that we interviewed - and we interviewed almost 400 people over the last six years - told us that they thought that they had made a contribution, and that they felt good about their experiences. There were people who had terrible experiences. I remember one person telling the interviewer and - when - real anguish in his voice - that the convoy that was taking him to meet with an Iraqi official was ambushed, and it cost the lives of several American soldiers.

He asked the question, you know, did my having a cup of tea with this Iraqi, was that really worth the lives of these soldiers? So, you know, we have to remember there was a war on, and this was sort of very serious business. But, yeah, I think so.

BLOCK: How much money was spent on the provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq?

PERITO: That is almost impossible to ascertain. I tried, at several points along the way in my own research, to try to figure out how much money we had spent on - the budgets were very diffuse, split among government agencies. And I don't think I ever saw a figure about what it cost.

BLOCK: Even a ballpark figure?

PERITO: Even a ballpark figure 'cause, you know, the trouble - well, the thing was that there were so many agencies involved, sometimes the money was project money; sometimes it was salary money; sometimes it was travel money; sometimes - and how do you evaluate the money that was spent on providing protection since a lot - most of the time, this was done by U.S. military forces who were funded out of a separate pool. And then, occasionally, you would have a situation where we would have to hire a contractor to provide security. And then those rates were astronomical.

I remember one time, I think that the charge for supporting a handful of State Department officers, who had something like $9 million budget, was a $93 million price tag for the security people that were required to protect them.

BLOCK: When you look at the history of these reconstruction teams in Iraq, do you think there are lessons for the teams that are operating in Afghanistan right now?

PERITO: Yeah, I think there are a few lessons. One lesson is that there needs to be a larger civilian component. Trying to operate with one foreign service officer, one person from the Department of Agriculture and one USAID contractor, doesn't really work very well. In Iraq, the fact that you had Department of Justice people in there doing rule-of-law work; you had people from Commerce; you had Army Corp of Engineers; you had people who were very expert in doing capacity building - I mean, that gave the PRTs in Iraq a tremendous amount of capacity and expertise that's missing in Afghanistan.

And then another lesson was turnover. In Iraq, you know, people served nine-month tours, sometimes one-year tours, with leave and whatnot. People rotated so often there was very little overlap. And continuity in a development-assistance program is critical.

BLOCK: Robert Perito directs the security sector governance center at the U.S. Institute of Peace here in Washington. Thanks for coming in.

PERITO: Thank you so much.

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