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The View from Here: Iraq’s future will not be funded by the U.S.

Mike Gangwer Published on 19 November 2009

The work of reconstruction and development in failing states, like Iraq and Afghanistan, is difficult. The U.S. Government (USG) implements a policy of counterinsurgency; the U.S. military assumes the lead for defense, and in general the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, develop the policy for implementing diplomacy and development, respectfully.

The significant reduction of the military and civilian presence here in Iraq is not news. You are reading about these every day, especially on the military side as our fine men and women redeploy to their home stations in the U.S., Europe, or even Afghanistan.



I was recently working in a province south of Baghdad and the company there, part of an armor brigade, was redeploying to Germany. Most, however, are coming home to U.S. soil. Our Provincial Reconstruction Team effort here will soon be smaller. The downsizing is significant. Again, this statement is true for Iraq; not Afghanistan.

We have nearly three dozen USDA employees here in Iraq, and that number will be lower in one year and much lower in two. One important change is the U.S. monetary investment in Iraq. I do not know all the history here for the past six or seven years, but I have witnessed a huge shift in how the USG administers funding for the government of Iraq (GOI) during my eight months in country.

Early on during my deployment, we could, in the civilian sector, write grants for monetary assistance without a lot of buy-in from our Iraqi colleagues. That is no longer the case today. In fact we have shifted to at least a 50 percent match on nearly everything we do. This sweat equity by the GOI helps assure that they have something in the game, so to speak, and therefore are more likely to use their investment wisely. This makes good sense. We help those who help themselves. But know that these days too are rapidly coming to a close.

The financial assistance for the GOI is not endless; the timeframe for its end is measured in months, not years. I have one project here that includes a request for funding from the U.S. military. I have written about the Al Raaid Experiment Station before in this column.

The station is located west of Baghdad in Abu Ghraib. We are refurbishing the facility and renovating two of the laboratories there. I visited the site again recently and our discussion included the role of the GOI, in this case the Ministry of Water Resources. That role includes financial investment. These are difficult discussions but generally we are moving forward. We hope to have the renovation begun before I depart Iraq in February 2010.


Recently, I delivered training to GOI officials with the Ministry of Agriculture and a handful of farmers. Our topic was irrigation water management. The landowners were particularly interested in having the equipment I talked about, including soil moisture sensors and an Atmometer. Yet the answer was “no” when they asked if the USG could buy this equipment for them. And herein is transition.

Many Iraqis have been and still are accustomed to asking our government for something. For example, equipment, training, facilities, or trips abroad, and that these requests are fulfilled. We are not doing these anymore, so while they are disappointed and at times unhappy, the reality is clear. At some point we have to begin working ourselves out of a job. Not only is this transition financial, but it includes the staffing here in Iraq with professional civil service and foreign service officers.

One challenging question we are all wrestling with is do we have something to show for our effort here? Certainly the U.S. taxpayers are asking this question. We think about this often, because our mission is development, and that of course means we have left this country a better place for having been here. This statement may appear altruistic but in fact we must answer this question. If we cannot do so positively, then we have squandered resources, both blood and treasure.

Yes, the metric is subjective; what may appear successful to one person may be less successful for another. We are challenged here to do well, and make a difference. We all carry our own individual ethos, and I often think about this mission at the end of the day. Have I or have we collectively moved the people in this country towards a more peaceful and fulfilling life? To wit, the Iraqis themselves are making huge strides in the realm of self-governance now that the security is somewhat stable.

Somewhat stable might be open for debate, I admit, but at least as I travel about the country the villages, towns and cities are full of people out and about enjoying the commerce and the social engagement. In the not-too-distant past this was not the case. Whenever we travel through a large city, we always endure traffic jams, and this is a good sign.

Finally, I attended and spoke at the Iraq Date Palm Conference on the topic of irrigation water management and soil fertility. We had nearly 250 people in the Najif Chamber of Commerce attending. The buzz in the room was not my topic at all…instead a foreign investment firm was strongly considering investing in the construction and operation of a date palm processing center. The overall effort was restoring Iraq to its No. 1 worldwide position as a producer of date palms.


The sheiks were asking this question: What is necessary for their trees to once again produce the kind of fruit and at enough yield to support the processing center? This question is very real: the foreign investment firm is asking the Iraqi date palm owners for a supply of high-quality dates…and so a growers’ association is being formed. They will hire a manager, a market specialist, a quality control person, and so on. We Americans had just a peripheral role at the conference. We watched, and generally just listened. For you see this group of Arab farmers, dressed in their robes and speaking in loud Arabic, have already begun the transition to a market- based economy.

How do I know this? They did not ask any of us for a dollar of American money. I cannot predict the outcome of the date palm processing plant or even if it will be built. But I do know this: a group of Iraqi farmers are taking action and designing a cooperative effort. Time for us to get out of the road and let them move on their own. PD

Mike Gangwer
Foreign Ag Service
Soil and Water Ministerial Adviser in Iraq