By David Mays
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 22, 2007 - The recent surge of troops and embedded provincial reconstruction teams to Iraq is providing unprecedented opportunity for Iraqi citizens, a coalition commander said today. "It really wasn't until the EPRT, the 'civilian surge' ... and the surge forces arrived that we began to make what I will call measurable progress along our lines of operations," Army Col. Mike Garret told online journalists and "bloggers" during a conference call from Forward Operating Base Kalsu, south of Baghdad, shortly after he provided a televised operational update via satellite.
Garrett commands the "Spartan" 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, deployed from Fort Richardson, Alaska. Created just two years ago, the Spartans are America's newest airborne unit and the only one located west of the Mississippi River. Garrett and his soldiers are assigned to Multinational Division Center, where for the past 13 months they have patrolled the Iraqi provinces of Babil, Karbala and Najaf and recently have begun working with their civilian counterparts to help rebuild Iraq.
Garrett said he originally had doubts about the effectiveness of the embedded provisional reconstruction team in his area because of the group's small size. "But I tell you, what I found almost immediately as I was introduced to the team leader who was a senior foreign service officer who had served in Vietnam, ... he was focused on the right level," Garrett said. "He was focused at the local levels of government here, and he brought with him and his very small team expertise, that we quite honestly, didn't have."
Garrett said he was impressed at the speed with which the EPRT assigned to his unit acted. "They didn't come into the brigade and talk about projects that would show progress a year or six years from now," he said. "They talked about impact that we would be able to see in 30 days."
One such program carried out by the EPRT working with Spartan Brigade had immediate impact on Iraqi farmers in the mostly rural provinces where Garrett and his soldiers patrol.
"We were providing seed, farm equipment and other things to help our farmers maintain their farms," Garrett explained. "What the EPRT has done for us is to take these agricultural unions, push them more towards a business-like approach. Now they are buying their own seed, they are setting prices for their produce, they are buying farm equipment that they can maintain and rent out to other farmers."
By enabling small groups of Iraqi citizens to become self-sufficient, Garret said, embedded provincial reconstruction team members form a crucial link in a chain that reaches from tiny agricultural communities all the way up to the capital of Baghdad.
"One of the purposes of the EPRT was to increase capacity at the local level and then try to link the local to the provincial levels of government," Garrett explained. "And then the provincial reconstruction teams, which are located throughout Iraq, had the mission of linking the provincial levels of government with the local level and national levels of government."
While Garrett and his team had facilitated economic development programs like a small business training class taught by an Iraqi professional, he said EPRT members have kicked off many other imperative initiatives such as micro-grants for Iraqi entrepreneurs.
"What they've done is taken it to the next level," Garrett said. "The EPRT has been very, very important to us, and they've made a very big difference in terms of our ability to make progress in the governance and economic lines of operations."
While Garrett and his soldiers have seen their share of danger and death during a year of deployment, including the loss of 53 Spartan paratroopers, it is gratifying to know that his unit is truly making a difference in the lives of Iraqi citizens, the colonel said.
"I always felt we were making progress, but there were many days where it was only a feeling," Garrett said. "Today I can tell you that we are making measured progress, and we can see that through the (decreased) numbers of attacks, the increase in employment, the increase in economic development, the programs, the entrepreneurship we're seeing at the local levels, which really does give me cause for optimism."
(David Mays works for the New Media branch of American Forces Information Service.)