Iraq: The Elections Are Over, But Our Job Is Not Finished

The elections in Iraq this week were without question critical in efforts to maintain progress there. But elections alone will not be enough to sustain the country's fledgling democracy. If progress is to continue, governance and civic management gains to support stability must be made as well, and America still has an important part to play in that process.

Though our military presence is increasingly relegated to the outskirts of urban areas, there are still many American civilians, diplomats and aid workers toiling daily in the desert to win the peace. Despite the violence, American civilians have been working in support of the new Iraqi government all along. While their work has gone largely unnoticed, it may only now begin to show results.

I arrived in Iraq in the summer of 2008 and joined the Baghdad Provincial Reconstruction Team, a group of military and civilian experts, urban planners, engineers, lawyers and public administrators who advised the City of Baghdad on how best to provide essential services. Immediately after the 2003 invasion, Coalition donors began rebuilding the crumbling infrastructure of many Iraqi municipalities: installing water and sewage systems, rebuilding roads, schools and hospitals. With the best intentions they outfitted Baghdad with some of the most sophisticated engineering equipment in the world.

Despite this, we repeatedly learned two disheartening lessons: (1) There were few qualified technicians and engineers in Iraq that could operate this new infrastructure (30 years of war and sanctions had robbed Iraqi engineers of exposure to advancements in their field or forced them to flee Iraq for better opportunities); (2) Chronic electricity shortages made it nearly impossible for the City to operate these new systems. While insurgents targeted municipal works in efforts to cripple the City, it was this lack of skilled laborers and power that presented some of the most debilitating challenges in providing essentials like fresh water, proper sewage, and even street lights.

To address this acute labor shortage, we began to meet regularly with Baghdad officials to develop training programs. Iraqi colleagues helped us identify skill gaps and tailor our programs to address problems they faced. The process was needlessly slowed by internal politics at City Hall surrounding who was allowed to talk to the Americans. Moreover, the City's Municipality Mangers would not or could not articulate what they needed. Some simply did not know, others were unwilling to admit they faced problems for fear of being dismissed.

In the meantime, public patience in the U.S. reached its limit for spending in Iraq. As oil prices continued to climb, Congress' financing for reconstruction work began to be hotly contested. So, despite the billions of dollars already spent on rebuilding Iraq, the few million we would need to train Iraqi engineers to operate the equipment, and therefore make our previous investment worthwhile, was in jeopardy.

Despite these challenges, our team pushed forward, developing a scope of work for a training institute for municipal workers to attend technical training courses on everything from street paving to sewage management. Once a proposal was adopted by our Iraqi counterparts, we began working to identify funding. We explained that the institute would help ensure that our investments in infrastructure would actually be utilized by the Iraqi government only if we trained their technicians to use and maintain it. Otherwise it risked sitting idle and decaying.

While searching for funding, we had to explain to our Iraqi colleagues why we were not delivering on our promises to begin the training program. Crying poverty to these officials, who had seen the Americans flood the streets with cash from the moment we arrived, seemed ludicrous. Negotiations continued for six months and became increasingly frustrating as new faces rotated in and colleagues who understood the program went home after completing their tours of duty. Myself included.

Although I left Iraq in July 2009 without the satisfaction of seeing this project completed, I receive updates that the training program is finally moving forward. It is encouraging that in the remaining months of robust American presence in Iraq we are taking training and capacity building seriously. We need to do more of this. Successful rebuilding requires time, sustained attention and resources. There is no quick fix.

As the world turns its attention back to Afghanistan, we must look at new and innovative ways of ensuring that our departure from Iraq is conducted responsibly and we are best positioning the country for success. Our mentorship, and not our dollars, is the most appropriate asset we can provide to the new Iraqi government as they begin to assume absolute accountability for running their country.

We still have an important role to play in facilitating communication between different political groups and within the Iraqi government itself, where an acceptance of "managing up" is yet to take root. We must also keep Iraq open to visitors, business opportunities and ideas from outside. For too long Saddam's insular regime kept the country closed to these imports, more recently violence has continued to keep Iraqis isolated. Our presence is a conduit to the outside world and we should encourage the global community to engage with Iraq.

Many of the gains in nation building that we have seen in Iraq are the result of programs that were started years ago by aid workers, diplomats and soldiers who took the time to build relationships and understand what their Iraqi colleagues were asking for, not force on them solutions we thought were best or were born out of strictly American experiences.

As our time in Iraq grows short, and hopefully the elections were a further indication that this will be the case, we have a responsibility to make every effort to leave Iraq in a better condition that when we entered it. Strengthening its government with the management tools to govern, even down to the mundane details of street paving and sewage line replacement, is our last best shot at accomplishing this.