By SUE PLEMING
Kiki Munshi was showcased by the media in September as a seasoned U.S. diplomat who came out of retirement to lead a rebuilding group in Iraq.
Now she is back home, angry, and convinced that President George W. Bush’s new strategy of doubling the number of such groups to 20 along with a troop surge of 21,500 will not help stabilize Iraq.
A diplomat for 22 years, she quit her job last month as leader of a Provincial Reconstruction Team — groups made up of about 50 civilian and military experts that try to help Iraqi communities build their own government while strengthening moderates.
“In spite of the magnificent and often heroic work being done out there by a lot of truly wonderful people, the PRTs themselves aren’t succeeding. The obstacles are too great,” Munshi said this week in Washington, where she was pressing her view at the State Department and to Congress.
“Once again we are proceeding to lay people’s lives on a line drawn with faulty information. Once again the fantasies of the ‘policy-makers’ drive decisions without much link to the realities on the ground,” said Munshi, who retired from the foreign service in 2002 .
Her postings included Romania, India and Sierra Leone before Iraq, where Munshi said he had felt a “moral obligation to sort out the mess we have made there.”
An audit by the special inspector general for Iraq last October found similar problems with the PRTs to those listed by Munshi, including an “ever-changing security situation, the difficulty of integrating civilian and military personnel, the lack of a finalized agreement on PRT operational requirements and responsibilities.”
Members of Congress have also been critical of the program, which suffered early on from not being able to attract enough civilian staff and a dispute between the State and Defense departments over who would provide security for the teams.
The Bush administration rejects Munshi’s views and the State Department said the expanded PRT plan was more focused, requiring team members to do pre-deployment training and with a clear goal of bolstering moderates and sidelining militants.
“We have been very mindful of the problems our PRT leaders have reported to us. We have worked very hard to streamline it,” said Barbara Stephenson, the deputy coordinator for Iraq at the State Department, which oversees the PRT plan.
Munshi said the PRT plan was ill-conceived, under-funded and poorly staffed.
She said security was so bad that the council in the town in Diyala province where she was based had not had a quorum since last October and that death squads were rife.
PRT members found it hard to meet with Iraqis because of intimidation, she said, giving the example of training sessions that had been canceled because of poor security.
The PRTs are embedded with the military, a tactic Munshi says has varying results depending on the ability of the unit.
“All the PRTs embedded with the military are subject to the vicissitudes of military fortune, for good or ill,” she said.
But the State Department countered that Munshi’s experiences were not repeated in all the provinces and set up interviews with two PRT leaders who said while there were difficulties, they believed their work was making an impact.
Stephanie Miley, a PRT leader in the Iraqi town of Tikrit, said her teams managed to get out to see Iraqi officials five or six times a week but security issues meant they could not stay for long.
“I just hope that people will recognize that this is not something we will achieve overnight,” she said.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 Reuters Limited