"Stability operations is not a game for pick up teams," said Robert Perito, a security expert at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
The United States has dispatched various provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in Iraq and Afghanistan to teach, coach and mentor Iraqis in towns and provinces. Staffed mostly by civilian officials, with the military providing security, the teams show promise but with an effectiveness that is difficult to judge because the needs vary greatly from province to province.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction concluded in a new report Thursday that the teams are making "incremental progress" but require "years of steady engagement."
Stuart W. Bowen Jr., head of the IG reconstruction office, said lessons learned from the teams point to a bigger need to coordinate relief efforts among the federal agencies.
"If the story of Iraq reconstruction tells anything, teaches any lesson, it is that the U.S. government was not well structured and was not well poised in 2003 to engage in the kind of post-conflict relief and reconstruction operations we have faced," Bowen said.
Bowen and Perito testified before the House Armed Services' oversight and investigations subcommittee. Members of the panel said they convened the hearing to see if more can be done to gauge the effectiveness of the teams.
"Measuring the PRTs, it would seem to me, is an art, not a science," said Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, the top Republican on the panel. Knowing what the reconstruction teams have accomplished "is unclear as these countries will be in a perpetual state of improving governance and increasing economic development," he added.
There are more than two dozen of the teams operating in Iraq and the U.S. has provided $1.9 billion to support it as of August.
"In many locations, the PRT program in Iraq is making incremental progress in developing the nation's provincial and local government capacity to effectively govern and manage its own reconstruction, despite" continuing violence and strife, the report said. "However, Iraq's complex and overlapping sectarian, political and ethnic conflicts, as well as the difficult security situation continue to hinder progress in promoting economic development, the rule of law and political reconciliation," it said.
"Despite the best efforts of PRT civilian and military officials who are working under dangerous and austere conditions to accelerate the Iraqi transition to self-reliance, resolving these problems will likely be a slow process," Bowen said in the report.
"It will require years of steady engagement and will depend heavily on the security environment and political settlements at the national level."
The report also said that "numerous PRT officials identified rule of law as the most problematic" area. It noted that in many places there is little cooperation between police, courts, and correction facilities and that judicial orders are routinely ignored.
It also said there has been little progress toward political reconciliation.
The PRT program itself has been plagued by problems. Previous reports have found it was difficult to find people with the correct skills to do the work - particularly civilians. There also has been a shortage of Arabic speakers and understanding of Iraq's culture and history as well as a lack of organization within the U.S. government to carry out the program, according to those past reports.