The Failed Reconstruction of Iraq

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It was supposed to become a thriving, Western-style economy. What happened?

Iraq protest 4.png
Staff from the South Oil Company (SOC) demonstrate to demand higher salaries and better benefits, in Basra, 260 miles southeast of Baghdad, on February 19, 2013. (Atef Hassan/Reuters)

After U.S. and allied warplanes destroyed a key bridge carrying 15 oil and gas pipelines in northern Iraq during the 2003 conflict there, officials in Washington and Baghdad made its postwar reconstruction a top priority. But instead of spending two months to rebuild the span over the Tigris River at an estimated cost of $5 million, they decided for security reasons to bury the pipelines beneath it, at an estimated cost more than five times greater.

What ultimately happened there tells the story -- in a microcosm -- of a substantial chunk of the massive nine-year U.S. effort to reconstruct Iraq, the second-largest such endeavor in history (only the U.S. investment in Afghanistan has been larger).

Virtually every senior Iraqi said the decade-long U.S. occupation was beset by huge misspending and waste, and had accomplished little.

Studies conducted before the digging of the new pipelines started showed that the soil was too sandy, but neither the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the effort nor the main contractor at the site, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), heeded the warning. As a result, "tens of millions of dollars [were] wasted on churning sand" without making any headway, as Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart W. Bowen Jr., described it in his recently published final report on the U.S. occupation.

By the time the digging effort was halted, and the old bridge and piping repaired -- more than three years later -- the bill had reached more than $100 million. "Because of the nature of the original contract, the government was unable to recover any of the money wasted on this project," Bowen said. More than $1.5 billion in oil revenues may have been lost as a result of the delays. KBR did not respond to a request for comment.

The episode is, in short, emblematic of the contracting abuses and mismanagement that wasted at least $8 billion of the $60 billion spent by Washington on Iraq's post-war recovery, under the guidance of what Bowen describes in his report as "adhocracy" largely controlled by the U.S. military -- a structure that never "coalesced into a coherent whole" and often failed to achieve its aims.

With the U.S. military now gone from Iraq and the 10th anniversary of the invasion only days away, Bowen's retrospective summary of his audits offers useful insights into how well the U.S. government managed its occupation and the legacy it left behind. The mostly downbeat tone is set early, when the report summarizes final interviews Bowen conducted with 44 top U.S. and Iraq officials, who addressed the simple question of whether the decade-long project left Iraq in better shape.

Most of the Americans he spoke to were rueful, noting multiple miscalculations, poor planning, disorganization in Washington, and inadequate consultation with Iraqis. James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told Bowen that "the U.S. reconstruction money used to build up Iraq was not effective ... We didn't get much in return."

Only retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq before shifting to Afghanistan and then briefly directing the CIA, was ebullient, claiming the effort had brought "colossal benefits to Iraq."

Virtually every senior Iraqi, in sharp contrast, said the decade-long U.S. occupation was beset by huge misspending and waste and had accomplished little. The biggest footprint Americans left behind, most of these Iraqi officials said, was more corruption and widespread money-laundering. Such a huge investment "could have brought great change in Iraq," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said, but the gains were often "lost."

***

The bill for Iraq is hard to divide into neat categories, but in rough terms: Washington spent more than $15 billion to try and improve Iraq's power and water supply, revive its schools, and repair its roads and housing; it spent another $9 billion on health care, law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance; it spent $20 billion training and re-equipping Iraqi security forces; it spent roughly $8 billion to enhance the rule of law and battle narcotics; and it spent $5 billion helping to prop up the economy.

Bowen's interviews with influential Iraqis reveal, however, that they don't seem to have noticed all this investment or don't seem grateful. One reason might be that households -- as recently as 2011 -- still got an average of only 7.6 hours of electricity a day, and a sixth of Iraq's citizens lacked access to potable drinking water for more than two hours a day.

Both U.S. and Iraqi officials complained to Bowen that not enough was done during the occupation to stem corruption. An Iraqi government watchdog agency, the Board of Supreme Audit, noted last year that $800 million in profits from illicit activities was being transferred out of Iraq each week, effectively stripping $40 billion annually from the economy, according to Bowen's report.

There are exceptions to the tales of fraud and waste. A State Department-funded childhood vaccination program helped cut the national infant-mortality rate by nearly three-quarters. The Baghdad rail station was repaired on time and under budget. And telecommunications repairs have enabled mobile phone use to climb from 80,000 to 23 million subscribers.

But U.S. dreams of fostering a thriving, Western-style economy in the Middle East have not been realized. Almost all of Iraq's gains have come from oil production, which is now roughly a third greater than it was in 2003. The oil industry is not a big employer, however, and "Iraq is still far from having a vibrant, market-based private sector," Bowen reports.

Moreover, its military still "lacks critical capabilities in logistics, intelligence," and repair, Bowen's report states. It cannot defend its airspace or its coastline, and is weak in counterterrorism.

***

Bowen's report indirectly assigns blame for mismanaging the endeavor to the Bush White House, which had the authority to force U.S. government agencies to coordinate their work but failed to exercise it. Instead, he points out, no single office was assigned to lead the effort, making stovepiping -- a myriad of narrowly focused efforts -- "the apt descriptor," the report said.

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R. Jeffrey Smith is managing editor for national security at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative newsroom.

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