The drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq doesn’t begin to tell the full story of what’s going to happen in the next three years. One of the biggest outstanding questions — until now — is what will happen to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, the joint security/development/diplomatic groups that help Iraqis build up governing capacity at the province and district level. So I did a piece for the Washington Independent in which the Washington-based director of the PRTs, Wade Weems, sketches all that out:

While the drawdown and eventual withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq will ultimately mean the end of the PRTs, “the PRT program is not going to disappear anytime soon,” said Wade Weems, the Department of State’s Director of Provincial Reconstruction, Transition and Stabilization for Iraq. “We’re not leaving more quickly than the military.”

But the PRT program will change between now and August 2010, when the U.S. combat mission ends. In addition to the 14 PRTs, there are also ten teams that work at the district level, known as Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams, or ePRTs, owing to their status as embedded units within the U.S. Army’s Brigade Combat Teams. Over the course of the next 15 months, the Brigade Combat Teams will leave Iraq or transition into Advisory and Assistance Brigades. Weems said the ePRTs’ personnel — a smaller team than the 15 to 25 members of an average PRT — will probably be absorbed into a regular PRT. Regular PRTs rely on partner relationships with the military to move around Iraq, which will continue to be the case.

“The provincial team will maintain the coverage of districts,” he said. “The configuration will change, but we intend to have a pretty robust… civilian presence well into 2010.” Weems declined to predict the future of the PRT structure beyond 2010, but said that by the end of 2011, when the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement mandates the full withdrawal of the U.S. forces that the PRTs rely upon to travel around the country, the functions of the PRTs will be taken over by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or its consular Regional Embassy Offices throughout the country — what Weems called “a traditional diplomatic presence.”

I embedded with a PRT in Mosul in 2007 — more on that in a subsequent post — and saw how arduous it is to draw up a budget for the Iraqis. The PRT literally taught the Ninewa Provincial Council how to draw up a budget, and explained the byzantine system of Iraqi budgeting to the council and the governor.

More broadly, the PRTs are an innovative experiment into non-traditional diplomacy. They’re the exact opposite of embassy-based talk.  PRTs in Iraq pride themselves on "muddy-boot" diplomacy, in which they drive long distances to speak to out-of-power politicians and other notables. As you’ll see in the piece, they’re a bit of a challenge to State Department culture as a result.

Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman