Spec. Chris McCann
2nd Brigade Combat Team Journalist
CAMP STRIKER, Iraq — After four years of operations in Iraq, with shifting ideas for how to deal with the insurgency, coalition and Iraqi forces seem to be making headway.
While it’s too early – and too difficult – to tell what is driving the change, it may be partially because of a change of strategy that has brought embedded provincial reconstruction teams to 10 brigades in Iraq.
EPRTs are teams of about 10 people who work closely with a brigade’s civil affairs teams, engineers and other staff sections to help Iraqi governance and economic development. The idea, while used in Afghanistan, is relatively new to Iraq. The first wave of EPRT personnel arrived in Iraq beginning around April, and it seems to be bearing fruit already.
Lou Lantner was on his second “tour” in Vietnam as a public affairs officer with the U.S. State Department when he attended a conference and heard Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speak. She mentioned opportunities for State Department employees in Iraq, and Lantner pursued the chance.
The pursuit didn’t take long, he said; a month later he left Vietnam for four weeks of training in the United States and another week in Kuwait and Iraq.
Now he heads the EPRT that works with 2nd Brigade Combat Team, helping with projects in Mahmudiyah, Yusufiyah and other villages southwest of Baghdad.
“We have civilians, active Reserve and active-duty service members with us,” Lantner explained. “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 local government work with the national government.”
Local input is a new concept here. Saddam Hussein funded what he took a personal interest in, and most villages in the country had no say.
“National government is new for them,” Lantner 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.”
EPRT members have sent local officials to classes on budget formation and other skills they need.
“All of this is normal to (Americans),” he said. “But it’s very new and different to our Iraqi friends.”
One primary responsibility of the EPRT is refining plans that the brigades already have, Lantner said. For example, 2nd BCT already had planned a micro-loan clinic in Mahmudiyah. The EPRT helped make it functional. They also assist Iraqi businesspeople who avail themselves of micro-loans.
Another project has been veterinary care – a major concern in the agricultural area south of Baghdad that is 2nd BCT’s area of operations. While one EPRT member is a veterinarian, the object is to get local veterinarians back in business.
“Some of the local doctors show a real interest in resuming their practice,” Lantner said. “We’re not to that point yet, but we’re getting there.”
Jeff Kaufman, who works with the U.S. Agency for International Development, serves on the EPRT. 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,” Kaufman said.
“The caveat is that it’s difficult to operate in a different country,” he added. “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,” said Kaufman.
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 they needed to feed their families.
A second benefit is even more subtle, 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.”
The EPRT is trying to guide and teach without providing concrete assets, 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 missing 2nd BCT Soldiers. 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,” 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 when the Iraqi government phases out subsidies.
“The farmers will be speaking with one voice,” 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 EPRT’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,” Kaufman said.
“I think we’ll know in the next three or four months if we’re successful,” Lantner offered. “We’ve seen a lot of gains, but it’s too early to tell if it will continue. I like to think it will.”