Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike’s Notes: PRT Service

When I decided to seek an assignment in Iraq, the next decision I had to make was whether to serve at the Embassy or at a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).  From what I had heard, living conditions for people at the Embassy were easier, but the State Department provided additional incentives for service at a PRT.  For me, though, since I was seeking an assignment to a policy position, I considered that the U.S. Government valued the Embassy’s interaction with the central government ministries more than the localized efforts and accomplishments of the PRTs.  Because my primary motivation was to “make a difference,” I opted to seek an Embassy assignment.  My friend, who just started an assignment as a deputy PRT leader, felt that he wanted to be away from the flagpole and someplace with “boots on the ground,” able to make a direct impact on his corner of Iraq.  For anyone seeking a PRT assignment, however, I have the impression that it is extremely difficult to get information about the conditions at each PRT.  I am not in a position to speak authoritatively, but I share my impressions in an effort to overcome this deficiency.

Christian and Peter’s description of service on a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), elsewhere on this website, is still generally valid.  By now, I’ve visited PRT Diyala, Regional Embassy Office (REO) Basrah, and Regional Reconstruction Team (RRT) Erbil, which means that I have a direct experience of PRTs or PRT-like organizations in the center, south, and north of Iraq.  Christian and Peter focused their description on Contingency Operating Base (COB) Speicher, and this is generally appropriate for most PRTs.  The majority of PRTs, and even embedded PRTs (ePRTs), are located on a military COB or else a military Forward Operating Base (FOB).  Living conditions will be defined by the amenities available on the base.  Christian and Peter’s description of COB Speicher, for example, fits FOB Warhorse, where PRT Diyala is located, to a “T.”  There won’t be swimming pools or golf courses, but there will generally be PXs, dining facilities (DFACs) with generally good food in generous quantities, U.S. television in the form of Armed Forces Network, religious services in English, access to the U.S. military fitness center, APO postal service and laundry services, and the ubiquitous MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) karaoke night.

I had initially concluded, therefore, that differences for a certain group of PRTs would be minor.  Certain questions could help to define the exact living conditions and available amenities.  How dangerous or unstable is the province, and how readily will I be able to meet local contacts?  Can I get internet access in my room?  Will I have a television?  Will I be getting a “wet” or “dry” CHU (containerized housing unit)?  (At one time, the usual term was “trailer” or “hooch,” since the living quarters are indeed trailers that resemble modified shipping containers, but the common term now seems to have moved to CHU.  A wet CHU includes a toilet and shower, whereas a dry CHU requires the occupant to walk to adjacent bathroom facilities for a shower or access to a toilet.  People assigned to Embassy Baghdad are familiar with this arrangement, since the living quarters at the Sully Compound, where we stay on the way out of Baghdad, are dry.)

The real delta seemed to be between the PRTs and an Embassy Baghdad assignment.  The difference has become especially stark now that the people at Embassy Baghdad live in apartments, which provide hardened overhead cover and the Baghdad security situation has substantially improved, even as people in PRTs commonly continue to live in dry CHUs.  There are other amenities, such as a PX that stocks liquor, an in-door swimming pool and basketball court, outdoor tennis and volley ball courts, and reasonable internet connections and flat-panel TVs with 70 satellite channels in all, including Armed Forces Network (AFN).  In addition, however, service at PRTs is a step more isolated.  We are part of a large, cohesive organization in the form of the Embassy, so we can socialize outside the office with people who are friends from previous assignment or with whom we have common interests.  The PRTs strike me as more limited with regard to socialization, since they are smaller and have the status somewhat of “guests” on the military base so that they might not easily fit in with the majority military tenants of the base.

A friend at an ePRT says that the difference is so marked that now the reasons that colleagues at her ePRT advance to make trips to the Embassy are scrutinized closely.  The suspicion is that the trips might have been arranged simply to get a break for a few days from the relative deprivation at the ePRT.

Along with the general isolation, an additional hardship is the difficulty of getting in and out of Iraq, with the big exception of RRT Erbil described below.  The State Department has arranged with the Department of Defense for dedicated military air (milair) flights from the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) to either Jordan or Kuwait.  While we must arrange to get to BIAP (which is usually a Regional Security Office, RSO, flight to BIAP), our counterparts at many PRTs must first get to Baghdad, which is not always a simple matter.  While we have to add an extra travel day to get out of Baghdad, PRT personnel have to add at least one additional day on either side of travel to get to Baghdad and finally out of BIAP.  People at the PRTs located in southern Iraq, however, have the option of flying directly to Kuwait and onward.  In addition, my colleagues at PRT Diyala noted that the “milk run” helicopter circuit that they usually rely on to get to Baghdad flies on Thursdays.  Since the regular milair flight to Amman leaves on Thursdays and Sundays, PRT Diyala team members arrive in Baghdad on Thursdays and must wait until Sunday to actually leave Iraq.

My recent travel to RRT Erbil is an example of the difficulty that this can pose.

My colleagues and I had to cancel our originally scheduled trip because a severe dust storm grounded all helicopters.  We faced adverse weather conditions again, which appeared likely to ground us a second time, but the helicopter took off.  We landed at COB Speicher to off-load a passenger, and then we headed out, but were then forced to turn around when we encountered low cloud cover.  The pilot first told us that we would have to return to Baghdad, but, en route south, he stopped at Balad Air Base to refuel and informed us that he would head north again in an attempt to reach Erbil.  He landed at Mosul to drop off other passengers, refueled again, and then we finally reached Erbil.  The flight had taken five hours (note that the return flight took almost exactly two hours).  I commented that the flight had taken as much time as the commercial flight between Amman and Frankfurt, without the benefit of an on-board toilet, in-flight entertainment, meals, or reclining seats.  We were freezing as well, with no heating on the combat helicopter.  Anyone leaving or returning from a PRT has to deal with similar uncertainties when going on an R&R or RRB.

While I had focused on the relatively minor differences in amenities offered by each of the supporting military bases, my colleague at PRT Dhi Qar pointed out that the differences were actually major, even among the PRTs that operate off of U.S. military or coalition bases.  His PRT, PRT Muthanna, and PRT Maysan are all housed in Tallil Air Base, for example.  Since PRT Dhi Qar is physically located in the province, his PRT can get out fairly readily to meet with government officials and local contacts to carry out its work.  PRT Muthanna and PRT Maysan, however, must travel an hour or two to get to their operating locations, and team members must “deploy” to field locations with minimal amenities for several days at a time before swapping out with colleagues to return to the PRT main location to decompress and take care of tasks like getting laundry done.  My friend also mentioned that the security situation at the field location is poorer for one of the PRTs.

I’m sorry that I can’t shed much light on what the actual work is like at a PRT.  With our State Department perspective, my colleagues and I tended to suppose that PRTs are like consulates, the constituent posts in other countries.  Consulates have a representational function, but also have a primary reporting function, providing a regional perspective on conditions in a country outside of the capital.  PRTs do have IPAOs, Iraq Provincial Action Officers, whose primary responsibility is reporting, but I think that the PRTs’ primary role is the “R” in the title -- reconstruction.  How this is done is still mysterious to me, but PRTs have various subject matter experts on subjects such as rule of law, local governance, and specific governmental responsibilities such as agriculture or business development.

The word “reconstruction,” however, does appear to be a term of art.  While I consider reconstruction to be a general label that covers any effort to assist Iraq to recover and stabilize, I should point out that the PRTs are moving away from construction in the sense of using funds to build structures and infrastructure, such as by using Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) funds to build schoolhouses, and are now moving more toward “capacity development.”

I would recommend a review of my previous posting on “Pre-deployment Musings,” which I have found to be a quite accurate listing of the challenges that I have subsequently encountered in Baghdad.  I think the challenges are true in spades for service in PRTs.  Because the PRTs depend so heavily on a counterpart military brigade or battalion for support, such as security and transportation, the PRT’s viability will depend on the PRT leader’s relationship with the brigade or battalion commander and the latter’s understanding of the PRT’s role and mission.  A poor relationship will have a serious impact on the PRT’s ability to fulfill its role.  The PRT is also a heterogeneous mix of State Department (DOS) Foreign Service Officers and short-term “3161” employees, whose qualifications, previous overseas experience, and ability vary widely.  Finally, PRT personnel also work closely with “BBAs,” bicultural, bilingual assistants; DOS linguists; and locally hired subject matter experts.

Of the PRT or similar organizations that I have visited, conditions at both RRT Erbil and REO Basrah are quite different, since both have not had a relationship with a U.S. military unit or base.  RRT Erbil exists independently of any military unit, since it was formerly in an area under the control of the South Koreans and REO Basrah was located in the British military’s area of operations.  (PRT Dhi Qar is also under the leadership of the Italians.)  REO Basrah seems relatively fortunate, since some members of the team are scheduled to move into hardened concrete rooms that are permanent structures, although others will have to remain in CHUs.  REO Basrah is also located at an airport in a base that will transition to U.S. military control with the departure of the British military.  RRT Erbil, on the other hand, seems to be somewhat disadvantaged, since team members do not have individual CHUs, but have bedrooms in a common “house.”  My friend, for example, has a bedroom along with three other colleagues in a building that has six bedrooms in total.  The four share two bathrooms, but the common tenancy might also promote a sense of camaraderie and “family” feeling.  RRT Erbil also does not have some of the amenities associated with military bases, such as a DFAC or gymnasium.  A very, very big advantage, however, is that RRT Erbil personnel can leave and return quite simply on Austrian Air, which flies four times a week from Erbil Airport.  In short, every PRT is very different and worth researching.

Finally, the PRT “footprint” is likely to change gradually and shrink with the U.S. and Coalition military’s departure.  President Obama has outlined a way forward and a thorough review is underway and basic decisions must still be made.