CAMP STRYKER, Iraq (American Forces Press Service, July 30, 2007) - Embedded provincial reconstruction teams, known as EPRTs, are helping teach Iraqi businessmen and local officials how to better function as part of a democratic government.
These teams are embedded in U.S. brigades. They include about 10 people who work closely with a brigade's civil affairs team, engineers, and other staff sections to help improve Iraqi governance and economic development.
"We have civilians, active-reserve and active-duty servicemembers with us," said Lou Lantner, a U.S. State Department public affairs officer who heads up the EPRT working with 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team. "Together, we try to identify the moderates in Iraq, people who are supportive of the United States, and help them stand up their local governments. We also help the local government work with the national government."
The team headed by Mr. Lantner is helping with projects in Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah and other villages southwest of Baghdad.
The idea has been used in Afghanistan but is relatively new to Iraq. The first wave of EPRT personnel arrived in Iraq in April. The strategy seems to be bearing fruit already.
Local input is a new concept here. Saddam Hussein only funded those things in which he took a personal interest, and most villages in the country had no say, Mr. Lantner said.
"National government is new for them," he said. "People are getting used to this new way of doing things. They're not used to dealing with planning projects, doing budgets, submitting them to government, getting them funded; it's our job to help that happen."
The EPRT members have sent local officials to classes on budget formation and other skills they need. "All of this is normal, to Americans," Mr. Lantner said. "But it's very new and different to our Iraqi friends."
One of the primary responsibilities of these teams is refining plans the brigades already have, Mr. Lantner said. For example, the 2nd Brigade Combat Team already had planned a micro-loan clinic in Mahmudiyah. The reconstruction team helped make it functional. They also assist Iraqi businesspeople who take advantage of the micro-loans.
Another project has been veterinary care, a major concern in the agricultural area south of Baghdad. While one reconstruction team member is a veterinarian and has been able to offer his expertise, the object is to get local veterinarians back in business.
"Some of the local doctors show a real interest in resuming their practice," Mr. Lantner said. "We're not to that point yet, but we're getting there."
Jeff Kaufman works with the U.S. Agency for International Development and is a member of the reconstruction team. He helps local business owners with marketing and networking to increase sales and looks for ways that they can increase their efficiency and marketability.
"It's not just about making things; it's marketing, too," Mr. Kaufman said. "The caveat is that it's difficult to operate in a different country. Adapting U.S. marketing culture to Iraqi modes of doing business is different. I have to adapt myself to how their culture does business."
Ultimately, what starts as a simple micro-loan has a huge ripple effect.
"They improve their business, which makes more jobs," Mr. Kaufman said. "Jobs are critical; many people who plant improvised explosive devices do it not because of a terrorist ideology, but simply because they were offered money to do it and needed to feed their families."
A second benefit is even more subtle, Mr. Kaufman said. "If we have a micro-finance clinic, then the banks ask, 'Why can't we do that too?' Maybe they start offering loans and have a more competitive interest rate, and that makes credit more available for more people," he said.
The EPRT is trying to guide and teach without providing concrete assets, Mr. Kaufman explained. "If we insert ourselves into the process, then when we leave, it falls apart," he said.
He cited the example of a canal being shut off during a May search for two brigade combat team Soldiers who were missing. The shutoff was necessary, but it affected the town of Mahmudiyah, which depends on the canal for much of its water.
The incident, while unfortunate, had a benefit.
"The government became really energized," Mr. Kaufman said. "The EPRT, the 2nd Battalion, 15th Field Artillery Regiment, 2nd BCT, and the mayor of Mahmudiyah got together and worked out ways to react next time. The local government was engaged and really realized that they were responsible for helping the people."
The incident helped illustrate the need for emergency plans and other urban-development ideas.
In the countryside, the EPRT has been helping farmers form cooperatives and associations, which will help them survive when the Iraqi government phases out subsidies.
"The farmers will be speaking with one voice," Mr. Kaufman said. "That will help them with enhancing their production and buying input items like seed and fertilizer. Over time, they will reap the benefits."
The fact that the reconstruction team's successes are not as visible as kinetic military operations — they don't result in captured terrorists, for example — makes it difficult, even for the team, to determine what success is, but they can feel it.
"We're trending in the right direction," Mr. Kaufman said. "I think we'll know in the next three or four months if we're successful. We've seen a lot of gains, but it's too early to tell if it will continue. I like to think it will."