Japan Self-Defense Forces
and their Reconstruction
Support Operations in Iraq
By Keishi Ono
Photo by Keishi Ono
Japan dispatched Self-Defense Forces (SDF) units to post-conflict Iraq to support its reconstruction. They were composed of three services, and although air-lifting support by Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) transport squadrons continues to occur, reconstruction support operations were initially carried out by the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) until July 2006. During this period, SDF units maintained collaborative relationships with civil sectors, and not only with local authorities but also with Japanese diplomatic officials, development assistance agencies, international organizations, non-government organizations (NGOs) and above all, local Iraqi communities. This paper will review reconstruction support operations by the GSDF from January 2004 to July 2006 in Iraq, focusing on how it successfully won over the Iraqi people during this period.
I. General Background of SDF Activities in Iraq
1) Structure of dispatched SDF units
In December 2003, advance members of the ASDF were dispatched to Kuwait. In January 2004, an advance team of GSDF and a core unit of ASDF received a dispatch order. The dispatched SDF units were under the control of the Japanese government when the reconstruction support operation began. On June 28, 2004, they became a member of coalition forces as the ruling authority was transferred from the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA) to Iraq interim government. In the Iraqi province of Muthanna, the SDF was not engaged in activities to maintain security, but it was expected to supply reconstruction support. Security maintenance in Muthanna had been in the hands of Dutch troops until March 2005, when it was taken over by British forces. Australian troops joined the security maintenance there in May of the same year.
GSDF units operating in Iraq were composed of 600 personnel; 500 were for the Reconstruction Assistance Group (RAG: three-month shift), and the remaining 100 were for the Reconstruction Operations Support Unit (ROSU: six-month shift). The latter was in charge of reconstruction operations planning and coordination with local authorities, coalition forces’ units, and the Japanese government. Therefore, the term of dispatch for the ROSU was longer than the RAG’s in order to build and maintain a good relationship with its counterparts. The GSDF mission was completed in July 2006. Between 2004 and 2006 the total number of dispatched personnel was approximately 5,500.
Only less than ten percent of the GSDF personnel dispatched to Iraq had previous experience working abroad or participating in Peace Keeping Operations (PKO). Most enlisted personnel had never traveled abroad, and Iraq was their only destination of overseas travel. Commanding officers of the dispatched units composed of this type of personnel paid attention to the following: firstly, that they maintain rigid discipline; secondly, they establish good relations with the local people; thirdly, they respect and follow local traditions and customs. For example, when SDF personnel traveled in armored vehicles, they interacted with the local residents, smiling or saluting while maintaining eye contact. SDF personnel followed local customs by avoiding alcohol altogether, even for cooking. In addition, SDF
units were not allowed to use pork for cooking, and even pot noodles flavored with pork extract were removed from the list of rations.
2) Outline of SDF activities in Iraq
Humanitarian and reconstruction assistance in Muthanna was mainly carried out by the GSDF, and it had three pillars: medical services, water supply, and rehabilitation and maintenance of public utilities. The GSDF camp was established in Samawah, the capital city of the province. Medical services were conducted by SDF medical staff, which consisted of doctors, pharmacists and nurses. They provided advice and instructions to local doctors on diagnosing diseases and determining the treatment necessary for curing patients. Most of the water supply system in Muthanna was damaged, and tap water was not drinkable because it was saline or unhygienic. The SDF supplied purified drinking water by using its own water clarifying system brought from Japan. The water for the system was taken from the Euphrates River. Although the SDF could initially provide no more than 100 tons of purified water per day, the figure increased to 300 tons when the activities increased. In addition, the completion of a water filtration plant by an official development assistance (ODA) project of the Japanese government boosted the capacity nearly ten-fold.
There are many ethnic Shiite Muslim residents in Muthanna, and construction and repair of social infrastructure or public facilities had not been sufficient under the Hussein regime. The SDF carefully coordinated with related local authorities from the province of Muthanna for the rehabilitation and maintenance of public utilities like schools, roads, and historic sites. In the course of the activities, the SDF contracted with local businesses for repair and construction work, and SDF staff supervised them. In the previous PKOs by the SDF, such as the ones in Cambodia (September 1992 – September 1993) or the Golan Heights (February 1996 – present), engineering units of the SDF conducted repair and reconstruction by themselves, in addition to planning and coordination. However, this approach did not generate employment, and the number of works was subjected to the SDF capacity.
There are eleven autonomies in the province of Muthanna. It was probable that if the SDF could not conduct enough repair and reconstruction projects, local governments, which had no SDF projects to create jobs, would not have only opposed SDF activities, but local resentment would have also fueled the anti-coalition forces movement. The SDF’s decision to outsource reconstruction and maintenance to local businesses enabled Iraqi administrative authorities to experience reconstruction project planning, and all the eleven autonomies were able to have job-creating projects.
While SDF personnel worked together with locally employed Iraqis, SDF dared not to use an employer-employee relationship when working with the Iraqis. In other words, unlike other coalition forces units, SDF units treated their relationship not as principal-agent but as co-workers. When Iraqi employees carried out construction, SDF personnel, not only the noncommissioned officers and privates but also higer ranking officers, labored alongside. SDF staff even disposed excreta with the Iraqis who were employed for the job.
II. SDF Activities in the Civil Sectors
1) Linkage with ODA projects
Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) projects were implemented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). ODA projects and SDF’s assistance were not necessarily synchronized with each other; however, its necessity was well understood by the on-site working level in both the SDF and MOFA. The motto of the SDF’s operations in Iraq was “Reconstruction by Iraqis.” Although post-conflict reconstruction itself is a long-term project, foreign assistance like the SDF’s emergency relief and temporary operations are supposed to withdraw eventually. Therefore, SDF commanders paid attention in promoting the self-reliance of Iraqis. In other words: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” At the previous reconstruction projects in Cambodia or the Golan Heights, the SDF played a leading role. In Iraq it devoted itself to more of a stagehand role.
For example, SDF medical staff seldom carried out clinical examinations. However, they focused on improving the capabilities of Iraqi doctors, pharmacists and nurses through practical education. This decision was buttressed by the fact that there was only a limited number of patients or injuries in Muthanna at that time, whereas the province had a relatively high number of medical professionals. The improvement of their skills was necessary for long-term reconstruction. SDF medics attended case study meetings or gave instructions on how to use medicines and medical instruments brought by the SDF or ODA programs, at hospitals and the SDF camp. At the same time, ambulances were delivered through an ODA scheme, and Iraqi paramedics were trained by the SDF.
The SDF was expected to supply services while the MOFA supplied aid materials through ODA in Japan’s post-conflict reconstruction assistance to Iraq. The rehabilitation and main-tenance of hospitals by the SDF was completed faster than estimated; therefore, when SDF medics were ready for medical guidance for the next phase they realized that the ODA’s supply medicines and medical equipments were not there yet. In spiof the Samawah Office of the MOFA, which was handling ODA projects, the supply was delayed due to the cumbersome procedures of ODA. The SDF then filled the time gap by lending its medical materials and instruments until ODA assistance arrived.
After being deployed to Samawah, the Reconstruction Operations Support Units (ROSU) established the External Coordination Team to facilitate communication with local authorities to promote reconstruction support operations. The Samawah Office of the MOFA had five people to implement ODA programs. The Samawah Office was also expected to link between Iraqi officials and development assistance agencies or development consultants. In spite of the unstable security situation in Iraq, ODA projects, such as the delivery of medical appliances and water wagons, and the asphalt paving of roads, were made by the office. SDF units and the Samawah Office had close consultations over the local requests that could not be attained by them independently of each other. Not all of the requests were satisfied. Even so, some of them were responded to by ODA, or a joint program of ODA and SDF support operations. Examples of the joint program are as follows: construction of an access road and repair of a water purification facility by the SDF and filtration system supply by ODA; the maintenance of a soccer stadium by the SDF and the delivery of the spectators’ seats by ODA.
2) Relations with International Organizations, NGOs and the CPA
For the purpose of effective reconstruction support operations in Iraq, the SDF had to maintain close collaboration with civilian international organizations and NGOs, as well as the Coalition Provincial Authority (CPA). In the province of Muthanna, the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) carried out repair work for damaged schools with financial assistance from the Japanese government. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was also handling the cleanup of streets and hospitals, and the repair of water pipes.
Although the SDF and international organizations worked independently, it was often the case that the SDF staff received requests from the local population, although international organizations were more appropriate to assist them. This was mainly because the presence of the SDF was much stronger in the province than that of the international organizations. As a result, the SDF became a virtual agent to collect local needs for reconstruction. At the same time, SDF staff visited international organizations’ local offices and observed their reconstruction operations for a better understanding of the procedures. As the reconstruction support operations progressed, the liaison and coordination work with international organizations increased, and the SDF expanded the External Coordination Team with two-thirds of the team members being Iraqi.
Reconstruction assistance was supplied not only by the SDF but also by NGOs. For instance, Save the Children repaired schools and water works, while the Agency for Technical Development and Cooperation (ACTED) supplied drinking water for the local population. The SDF also paid attention to cooperation and information-sharing with NGOs.
Before the SDF began its reconstruction support operations in the area, the CPA and Dutch forces had already begun rehabilitation assistance. Therefore, building up effectual linkage with them was also necessary for success in the early stages of the reconstruction support. The Dutch forces’ reconstruction activities were financed by the CPA and Multinational National Division South East (MND-SE), which commanded the Dutch forces. To manage the coordination with them, the SDF stationed a liaison officer at the building in Samawah, where the CPA and the Dutch forces section in charge of civil-military cooperation resided. The nature of assistance activities by the Dutch had changed over time. When their operation started, Dutch forces were more focused on security maintenance or nurturing the local security authority, as well as small-size reconstruction projects that would bring about immediate results. However, in the following phases, their activities came to incorporate large-scale infrastructure rebuilding. The SDF was able to learn from the Dutch forces’ experience through collaboration with them. In the province of Muthanna, SDF, NGOs, CPA, Dutch forces and international organizations operated reconstruction assistance. There were meetings between these donors and SDF positively took part in them to exchange information and enhance coordination with other donors.
3) Public Relations
Security in Iraq was very unstable, and compared to the other areas where the SDF had previously carried out reconstruction support operations, SDF understood the necessity of public relations towards the local population in Muthanna. Its activities drew the attention of not only Japanese, but also Middle Eastern media. The objective of the SDF’s activities was to supply humanitarian reconstruction assistance to Muthanna. As long as the SDF was stationed and carried out reconstruction operations amid the local residents, and their operations were properly understood, the SDF personnel’s safety wasn’t in danger.
Some personnel of the Reconstruction Operations Support Unit (ROSU) were designated as public relations officers to organize the public activities of SDF units. The advance team of GSDF, which was dispatched in January 2004, and the first Reconstruction Assistance Group (RAG), which departed for Iraq the following month, were especially expected to prepare the foundation for assistance operations for the following RAG and ROSU personnel. They endeavored to introduce the objectives and process of SDF assistance activities to win over the local people. At the same time, SDF conducted intensive activities to inform the influential people of the area. These people included political and religious leaders as well as heads of tribes. Thanks to this effort, the SDF assistance operations came to be appreciated by the Shiite Muslim clergy. In turn, they introduced SDF activities to the government leaders in Baghdad.
The SDF recognized the importance of maintaining friendly relations with local residents for successful operations. For this purpose, volunteer personnel of the SDF units formed music bands and held music concerts at schools. Those who could not play instruments taught origami, the Japanese paper folding art, and performed kamishibai, Japanese storytelling using a set of illustrated paper boards. In return, sometimes the SDF staff enjoyed the children’s drama plays or they were presented with pictures drawn by the children. In addition, the first RAG of SDF raised more than one hundred Japanese traditional koinoboris, or carp-shaped windsocks, over the Euphrates river using cranes. Each koinobori was between twenty and forty feet (six to twelve meters) long, made of black, red or blue cloth, and donated by the citizens of Nayoro, Hokkaido, Japan, where the mother regiment of the first RAG is garrisoned. The sight of so many koinoboris flying over the wide historic river was splendid, and many local people gathered to view the scene. It was explained that it was a Japanese tradition to raise koinoboris to celebrate children’s growth and prosperous future, and that the SDF was doing this for the Iraqi children. These koinoboris were presented to the city of Samawah afterward. Follow-on RAGs also entertained the local people in the Japanese tradition of celebrating the happiness of children. This effort also contributed to the introduction of Japanese culture to the local Iraqi population. Another example of SDF’s soft-approach can be observed in sports exchange. In the summer of 2005, the seventh RAG co-organized a soccer competition of the “Muthanna Cup” for youth belonging to the local football association. It attracted the local media, as well as people in Muthanna, and was broadcasted on a local TV program.
III. Lessons and Issues to be Solved
The reconstruction support operations in Iraq by the GSDF lasted two and a half years and were successfully completed in July 2006. During that period, the SDF learned many invaluable lessons, and each of them has been reviewed by the GSDF and Ministry of Defense units. In this section, several lessons to be noted from the perspective of civil-military cooperation will be discussed.
What was not predicted before the implementation of the operation was the population’s high expectations of foreign assistance, and it was ironic that the continuous success of the SDF’s assistance augmented that expectation. The locals became so optimistic that they believed the SDF could distribute more assistance and jobs to Iraqis. It was obvious that while the SDF’s performance surpassed the local expectations, there were no problems. For example, in the case of rehabilitation and maintenance of public facilities, the SDF did not operate by itself as it did in Cambodia or Golan Heights. SDF officers found Iraqi builders and constructors with a certain level of skills, and the SDF focused on supervising and instructing locals to create jobs for them. Local authorities also requested the SDF to support them in designing and planning the reconstruction projects, an ability not yet acquired by Iraqi businesses.
When the Japanese government decided to send the SDF’s troops to Iraq, its support operation was regarded as no more than the beginning stage of overall reconstruction assistance. The large-scale assistance that the local population expected was the responsibility of the ODA projects, which would follow the SDF’s operations. However, as the SDF successfully satisfied local requirements, it raised local expectations for assistance. Sometimes it even surpassed the SDF’s size, budget and mandate authorized by the government.
Another problem the SDF will have to tackle in the future is further use of private companies for reconstruction operations. The SDF, and also the Japanese government, have not yet acquired the know-how to collaborate with commercial firms for the reconstruction support in the immediate post-conflict period. In general, armed forces are a self-contained organization; therefore, they can execute almost all the assistance operations required during their assigned period independently, such as medical assistance, water supply, and construction and repair of social infrastructure or public facilities with paying attention on insurgency attack, land mines and other explosive devices. On the other hand, the private sector is supposed to participate in the reconstruction when the Foreign Ministry’s ODA projects begin after security and order are restored. However, in order for the seamless transition from SDF-led humanitarian assistance to full-fledged reconstruction by ODA projects, it appears necessary to involve commercial firms in post-conflict reconstruction from the beginning stage, where gun smoke still remains.
For example, a part of logistics support and camp management, such as food and laundry services for the SDF troops, could have been carried out by private firms. In addition, even though SDF personnel transferred the know-how for planning refurbishing projects and using advanced medical equipments for locals, these activities could have also been conducted by staff of private companies. The sharing of responsibilities between the SDF and private firms has to be carefully decided, taking the regional security situation into account. However, the introduction of the private sector in the earlier stage of post-conflict reconstruction would have eased participation in the full-fledged reconstruction. After the end of the Cold War, the SDF was requested to downsize its personnel and equipment while it was required to contribute more toward international peace cooperation. In order to meet both of these incompatible requirements, outsourcing is necessary, and will bring about job creation for locals.
Should the reconstruction be provided in a relatively stable area like Samawah, Muthanna, the donor should take care of job creation for local people, which is necessary for sustainable development. Although the SDF left some reconstruction work to local businesseses in Iraq, the SDF could not satisfy the increasing demands for employment by the local people. This is because the Japanese government believed that job creation was not necessary for the immediate post-conflict phase but for the subsequent stage of reconstruction. In addition, there was concern on how to protect the staff of private firms in the unstable security environment of the immediate post-conflict phase. As the SDF is requested to contribute additional assistance to international peace cooperation, and downsizing is favored to minimize the financial burden, the further utilization of a private security company for post-conflict reconstruction in the course of Japan’s reconstruction activities might be discussed.
Keishi Ono is the Chief of Defense for the Economics and Post-conflict Reconstruction program, the National Institute for Defense Studies (NIDS), Ministry of Defense (MOD), Japan. He is currently working on the role of private security companies in the post-conflict reconstruction and demobilization of child soldiers and has issued several papers on the cost of the war in Iraq, oils-spot strategy for peace support operations and ODA as a tool for counterterrorism in addition to contribution to research works at the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), British Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), etc. Mr. Ono also serves as a lecturer in development economics for the defense college program of the NIDS and the Defense Intelligence Headquarters (DIH) of the MOD.
[Up to top]