News: Winning the hearts and minds: Behind the scenes of the OPA and PRT teams responsible
Story by Spc. Timothy Koster
BAGHDAD – Shortly after the fall of the Hussein regime and before the new democratic government could be established, an insurgency consisting of opposing Iraqi forces, foreign fighters, and mixed militias quickly grew in support of the anti-coalition movement in Iraq.
After the initial push into Baghdad to take down Saddam Hussein in 2003, through the troop surge of 2007, and in to its current support role of the Iraqi security forces, the mission of the Office of Provincial Affairs and the provincial reconstruction teams has transitioned from building, rebuilding, and refurbishing provincial amenities such as schools, town halls, water lines, and electrical grids to providing educational and training opportunities for the Iraqi people. All this was part of the United States’ unprecedented hearts and minds mission aimed to combat this nontraditional, yet not unfamiliar, enemy.
Although it is still uncertain whether or not the Iraqi government will ask for U.S. forces to remain in country beyond Dec. 31, the work of the OPA and the PRTs over the last several years has ensured that the Iraqi provincial governments will be able to sustain themselves no matter what the long-term outcome for U.S. forces in Iraq may be.
At the core of this counter-insurgency mission in Iraq, the OPA, located at the New Embassy Compound, Baghdad, has managed the PRTs responsible for a large contribution to the hearts and minds mission.
“The Office of Provincial Affairs is responsible for managing and guiding the provincial reconstruction teams that we have all across Iraq,” said Mike Morrow, acting director of the OPA. “We are the link between the PRTs in the field and the ambassador and his front office team here.”
PRTs were originally established to use in Afghanistan in 2003. However, after the success of these teams, the concept was quickly adapted to the contingency operations in Iraq and has been active ever since.
The Iraq PRTs consist of civil affairs soldiers and civilian subject matter experts. Their mission is to help reconstruct and build the provincial governments’ capacity so that they can better serve the needs of their people and build popular support for the new government, said Morrow, a Saline, Mich., native.
With the transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, the PRTs are transitioning from providing construction projects to providing more training and education projects to help the provincial governments become self-sufficient.
“The legacy of the PRTs is one we are proud of,” said George Sibley, PRT team leader, Ninewa, during a recent Iftar dinner. “Working in conjunction with our Iraqi partners, this legacy encompasses farmers growing vegetables in hoop hoses we have provided, children studying in schools we have built, judges issuing sentences in courthouses we have refurbished, and patients being treated in hospitals we have supplied.”
According to recent reports, the PRTs have provided some substantial and tangible evidence of their overall success. Since their integration into the counter-insurgency strategy, more than 800 projects have been completed to increase power grid capabilities, more than 600 projects have been completed to increase the country’s communication networks, more than 4,000 schools have been build, 8.6 million textbooks have been supplied, more than 33,000 teachers have been trained, the adult literacy rate has improved from 41 percent to 74 percent, 3.2 million children have been vaccinated and more than 48,000 jobs in agriculture have been created - and that just scratches the surface.
In the last two years, more than 23,000 new businesses were registered and the country’s unemployment rate dropped from 28 percent to 15 percent. Also, the number of police officers has increased from 60,000 to 410,000, resulting in a 90 percent drop in violence since 2007, and more than 192,000 military personnel have been fielded to help protect the country’s borders.
The PRTs have also worked to empower the Iraqi citizens to take charge of their country’s future by establishing free and fair provincial elections in 2005, 2009 and 2010.
We have an important role at the provincial level, said Morrow. Under Iraq’s new constitution, it is much more of a federalist system than it was before. So, the role of the provincial governments is much more prominent. By empowering the local governments it helps the populace feel more empowered and feel like they have more say in their well-being.
The mission is reaching a critical point because 10 out of the 13 PRTs have already closed as part of the U.S. forces’ reposturing efforts. The OPA is scheduled to close at the end of August, and the proposed withdrawal date of Dec. 31 looms in the near future.
“What we’ve been focusing on in recent months is setting up a mechanism where the embassy can continue to engage with the provinces even after the PRTs and OPA have gone away,” said Morrow.
One part of this mechanism uses what Morrow calls virtual provincial officers, or embassy employees, who will continue to provide support to Iraqi provincial leaders without maintaining a physical presence in the provinces.
On the other hand, another part of the mechanism involves a more traditional diplomatic approach. In three provinces, PRTs have been converted into consulates to provide that physical diplomatic presence where it may still be needed.
While many U.S. service members and contractors anxiously await the decision of whether or not the Iraqi government will ask them to stay to teach and train their people, the efforts these men and women have put forth over the years to create a self-sustaining country are clearly evident, regardless of the final decision.
This work, Winning the hearts and minds: Behind the scenes of the OPA and PRT teams responsible, by SSG Timothy Koster, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.