"Ultimately," the final report from Stuart Bowen, the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction, suggests, "we estimate that the Iraq program wasted at least $8 billion." Of the more than $60 billion that went into rebuilding the country after the U.S. invasion, 13 percent was wasted. Over ten years, that's about $1,500 a minute. Or, to put it another way: an average family's annual federal tax payment every ten minutes.
The report — released yesterday and viewable in full below — is an excoriation of the government's investment in post-war Iraq. It's the 220th report from SIGIR, as the office is abbreviated, tallying its own success if nothing else: 637 investigations of criminal activity yielding 104 indictments.
Beyond that success, the news is grim. Much of the money investment in reconstruction went to building projects, mostly rebuilding energy and water systems in the country. The Associated Press outlines several of the more egregious debacles: a large, $40 million prison that was never completed, Virginia-based subcontractors overbilling the government on minor supplies, a $108 million wastewater plant that ran over by eight years and requires an additional $87 million to actually connect to the rest of the city. Wired's Spencer Ackerman highlights a head-slapping quote:
“You can fly in a helicopter around Baghdad or other cities,” Iraq’s acting interior minister told Bowen, “but you cannot point a finger at a single project that was built and completed by the United States.”
One thing that didn't work, Ackerman notes: the $4 billion military commanders were given to use as they saw fit.
Some U.S. reconstruction cash ended up being wasted during attempts to mitigate waste. A case in point was an effort the military loved, called the Commanders Emergency Response Program. As the name indicates, the program was basically walking-around-money, distributed at the discretion of military commanders, to hire Iraqis to work on short-term, high-value projects, thereby bringing economic dynamism — and an alternative to insurgency — to impoverished Iraqis.
To this day, Bowen finds, it’s impossible to say what the $4 billion program actually bought.
In addition to its indictments and convictions, SIGIR did recover some costs through its work, albeit only a fraction of what was lost.
It's worth noting, as the AP does, that SIGIR's report looks only at the $60 billion used for reconstruction. Including military spending, the cost tops $767 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Foreign Policy's Christian Caryl offers at least one success story.
[T]he Special Inspector General does note that the Iraqis managed to carry off an impressive series of peaceable elections during the period in question, an achievement duly described as a "reconstruction success story." But that's pretty much where the good news ends. The SIGIR report notes, for example, that the State Department wasn't able to measure the impact of the grants it awarded for "democracy-building activities," which included things like offering advice to women's groups and teaching political parties how to garner votes.
Perhaps not worth $1,500 a minute in waste.
Caryl also spoke with Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment in D.C., who identified some reasons for the waste: focusing on minutiae instead of institution-building, picking favorite local leaders and sticking with them despite results, and assuming that the goodwill of removing Saddam would last longer than it did. His critique in five words: "We were in a hurry."
The AP report offers one last reason for pessimism on the government's intervention efforts.
The abysmal Iraq results forecast what could happen in Afghanistan, where U.S. taxpayers have so far spent $90 billion in reconstruction projects during a 12-year military campaign that, for the most part, ends in 2014.
Anything less than $8 billion wasted, and Afghanistan can be counted as a relative success.