US Army creates non-lethal platoon to handle reconstruction as violence subsides
DIYALA, IRAQ: When the U.S. Army creates a "non-lethal platoon" in a conflict zone, it can mean one of two things: either the battle is going well enough that soldiers can focus on reconstruction over security - or the Army has secretly reestablished its early 19th-Century policy of alcohol rations for the troops.
With violence down in Iraq, and a complete ban on alcohol use among Coalition troops to boot, the former thesis holds the most weight. US troop deaths reached a five-year low in July, giving Army units opportunities to embrace a reconstruction effort that just over a year ago seemed all but lost.
The 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Stryker Calvary Regiment, located in the Diyala province north of Baghdad, has created a "non-lethal" platoon whose sole job is to help the local governments and tribal councils register voters, administer micro grants to businesses, and take pictures and biometric data for new members of the neighborhood watch programs.
"At first I thought that it was silly, but it seems to be working," said US Army Captain Eric Owens, commander of the Squadron's non-lethal platoon. "I like the flexibility to handle a mission the way I want. The biggest thing for us now is to help these people realize that they are the chief authority and they can ask for things that they need."
The platoon functions as a hybrid, melding civil affairs and psychological operations troops with crew members of a Stryker armored vehicle that replaces a second gun-mount with a speaker system to make Arabic announcements while traveling down the road. The team is augmented by an Arabic-speaking State Department employee with a background in construction management.
The culture of dependency Owens is up against was bred after nearly 30 years of tyranny under Saddam Hussein, who used Stalin's Soviet Union as a model for centralized authority, destroying initiative for many local governments. Unfortunately, the political vacuum created by the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003 was filled by corruption and exploited by Sunni and Shia extremists who made Diyala one of Iraq's most violent provinces during the past two years.
The success of battles earlier this year between the Coalition and the Iraqi Army against extremists has pushed the terror cells into the hinterland, allowing the platoon to engage in what experts call the second stage of counter-insurgency, when areas are secure for the reconstruction of infrastructure "capacity" can begin.
A typical day during the week has the platoon investigating corruption at a local woman's and children's clinic and later administering micro-grants or enrolling new members of the province's Daughters of Iraq, a new component of the successful Sons of Iraq program that has helped cut down violence in the past year.
"Previously, the security situation was very bad and this area was under the control of the insurgency groups," said Raghb Zedan Khalaf, chairman of the city council at Dali Abbas, a community of around 10,000 people near Lake Hamrin in northern Diyala. "Now it is much better. Our challenge now is comprehensive reform - to go to the second phase of improving water, electricity, sanitation, education and health."
The challenges are easy to find. A woman's and children's clinic down the road in As Sadiyah, originally built to handle childbirth, has not had a live birth in more than two years, its modern delivery room locked and covered with dust.
"Some of the doctors are trying to close the clinic by having women deliver at home and getting the cash," said Issam Attari, a senior business development advisor with the State Department who shut down his successful construction company in northern Virginia to work in Iraq. "There is no trust between the local government and the provincial government because there are no rules and regulation regarding the budget."
It's believed medical doctors in charge of the clinic are demanding woman give birth at home, allowing them to pocket about 1,200 Iraqi dinars ($60) for each birth, causing the clinic to be chronically short of funds. And it shows. The main lab is without running water, forcing the clinic to handle only typhoid and urinary tract infections. Fluctuating voltages from the local power company complicate the operation of a Hungarian-built X-Ray machine, built in 1970, while its auxiliary generators are currently either broken or without fuel forcing the staff to buy the fuel out of their own pocket. There is no ambulance.
The arrival of two additional State Department employees later this summer, one with experience in city administration, will add more capabilities to the platoon, Attari said. Other parts of local governments are in better shape, Attari said, pointing to a plan to drill more than 150 irrigation wells throughout the province that is more than one-third complete.
"The work is extremely satisfying," said Attari, who immigrated to the US from Jordan in 1972. "We can win the military battle any time, but to win the support of the Iraqis, we need to encourage their economic development."
Signs of improved Iraqi policing may allow for the current cycle of reconstruction to continue in parts of the province. In June, 25 percent of the arrests in upper Diyala were being done by the Iraqi Police. In July, as members of the local Sons of Iraq began to be more integrated with the local police forces, the number shot up to 75 percent, the US Army said.