Official history spotlights Iraq rebuilding blunders by the US

Official history spotlights Iraq rebuilding blunders by the US
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First Published: Sun, Dec 14 2008. 11 13 PM IST

 Piecemeal approach: Workers at a new generator in Baghdad, Iraq, in an October 2007 photo. Electricity output is now only slightly higher than it was before the US invaded the country. Michael Kamber
Piecemeal approach: Workers at a new generator in Baghdad, Iraq, in an October 2007 photo. Electricity output is now only slightly higher than it was before the US invaded the country. Michael Kamber
Updated: Sun, Dec 14 2008. 11 13 PM IST
Baghdad: An unpublished, 513-page federal history of the US-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea of rebuilding a foreign country, and then moulded into a $100 billion (Rs4.87 trillion now) failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiralling violence and ignorance of the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.
Piecemeal approach: Workers at a new generator in Baghdad, Iraq, in an October 2007 photo. Electricity output is now only slightly higher than it was before the US invaded the country. Michael Kamber / NYT
“Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience,” the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among a tight circle of technical reviewers, policy experts and senior officials. It also concludes that when the reconstruction began to lag—particularly in the critical area of rebuilding the Iraqi police and army—the Pentagon simply put out inflated measures of progress to cover up the failures.
In one passage, for example, former secretary of state Colin L. Powell is quoted as saying that in the months after the 2003 invasion, the defence department “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces—the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000”’.
Powell’s assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Ricardo S. Sanchez, the former commander of ground troops in Iraq, and L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator until an Iraqi government took over in June 2004.
Among the overarching conclusions of the history is that five years after embarking on its largest foreign reconstruction project since the Marshall Plan in Europe after World War II, the US government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a programme on anything approaching this scale.
The bitterest message of all for the reconstruction programme may be the way the history ends. The hard figures on basic services and industrial production compiled for the report reveal that for all the money spent and promises made, the rebuilding effort never did much more than restore what was destroyed during the invasion and the convulsive looting that followed.
By mid-2008, the history says, $117 billion had been spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, including some $50 billion in US taxpayer money.
The history contains a catalogue of new revelations that show the chaotic and often poisonous atmosphere prevailing in the reconstruction effort.
When the office of management and budget baulked at the US occupation authority’s abrupt request for about $20 billion in new reconstruction money in August 2003, a veteran Republican lobbyist working for the authority made a bluntly partisan appeal to Joshua B. Bolten, then the office of management and budget director and now the White House chief of staff. “To delay getting our funds would be a political disaster for the President,” wrote the lobbyist, Tom C. Korologos. “His election will hang for a large part on show of progress in Iraq and without the funding this year, progress will grind to a halt.” With administration backing, Congress allocated the money later that year.
In an illustration of the hasty and haphazard planning, a civilian official at the US Agency for International Development was at one point given four hours to determine how many miles of Iraqi roads would need to be reopened and repaired. The official searched through the agency’s reference library, and his estimate went directly into a master plan. Whatever the quality of the agency’s plan, it eventually began running what amounted to a parallel reconstruction effort in the provinces that had little relation with the rest of the US effort.
Money for many of the local construction projects still under way is divided up by a spoils system controlled by neighbourhood politicians and tribal chiefs. “Our district council chairman has become the Tony Soprano of Rasheed, in terms of controlling resources,” said a US embassy official working in a dangerous Baghdad neighbourhood. “You will use my contractor or the work will not get done.”
The US could soon have reason to consult this cautionary tale of deception, waste and poor planning, as both troop levels and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan are likely to be stepped up under the new administration.
The incoming Obama administration’s rebuilding experts are expected to focus on smaller-scale projects and emphasize political and economic reform. Still, such programmes do not address one of the history’s main contentions: that the reconstruction effort has failed because no single agency in the US government has responsibility for the job.
Five years after the invasion of Iraq, the history concludes, “the government as a whole has never developed a legislatively sanctioned doctrine or framework for planning, preparing and executing contingency operations in which diplomacy, development and military action all figure.”
“Hard Lessons” was compiled by the office of the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, led by Stuart W. Bowen Jr, a Republican lawyer who regularly travels to Iraq and has a staff of engineers and auditors based here. Copies of several drafts of the history were provided to reporters at The New York Times and ProPublica by two people outside the inspector general’s office who have read the draft but are not authorized to comment publicly.
Bowen’s deputy, Ginger Cruz, declined to comment for publication on the substance of the history. But she said it would be presented on 2 February at the first hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which was created this year as a result of legislation sponsored by senators Jim Webb of Virginia and Claire McCaskill of Missouri, both Democrats.
The manuscript is based on approximately 500 new interviews, as well as more than 600 audits, inspections and investigations on which Bowen’s office has reported individually over the years. Laid out for the first time in a connected history, the material forms the basis for broad judgements on the entire rebuilding programme.
In the preface, Bowen gives a searing critique of what he calls the “blinkered and disjointed prewar planning for Iraq’s reconstruction” and the botched expansion of the programme from a modest initiative to improve Iraqi services to a multibillion-dollar enterprise.
Bowen also swipes at the endless revisions and reversals of the programme, which at various times gyrated from a focus on giant construction projects led by large Western contractors to modest community-based initiatives carried out by local Iraqis. While Bowen concedes that deteriorating security had a hand in spoiling the programme’s hopes, he suggests, as he has in the past, that the programme did not need much outside help to do itself in.
Despite years of studying the programme, Bowen writes that he still has not found a good answer to the question of why the programme was even pursued as soaring violence made it untenable. “Others will have to provide that answer,” Bowen writes. “But beyond the security issue stands another compelling and unavoidable answer: The US government was not adequately prepared to carry out the reconstruction mission it took on in mid-2003,” he concludes.
The history cites some projects as successes. The review praises community outreach efforts by the Agency for International Development, the treasury department’s plan to stabilize the Iraqi dinar after the invasion and a joint effort by the departments of state and defence to create local rebuilding teams.
But the portrait that emerges overall is one of a programme’s officials operating by the seat of their pants in the middle of a critical enterprise abroad, where the reconstruction was supposed to convince the Iraqi citizenry of US good will and support the new democracy with lights that turned on and taps that flowed with clean water.
Mostly, it is a portrait of a programme that seemed to grow exponentially as even those involved from the inception of the effort watched in surprise.
©The New York Times 2008
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First Published: Sun, Dec 14 2008. 11 13 PM IST