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Ten years later: Applying lessons learned from billions of waste in Iraq reconstruction

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 12, 2013 - “If you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.” – Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, 2003.

WASHINGTON – Ten years ago this month, the U.S. government embarked on a war to topple the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. That conflict and the ensuing occupation ended up costing American taxpayers, by some estimates, about $800 billion.

Some $60 billion of that was spent on rebuilding Iraq’s security forces and “reconstructing” its infrastructure – a strategy that some critics compared to a U.S. official’s 1968 remark about the need to bomb the Vietnamese city of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

A decade later – after those hundreds of billions in outlays, the deaths of 4,475 U.S. soldiers and injuries to more than 32,000 other American troops – the final report of the special inspector general for Iraq (SIGIR) suggests that this country wasted billions in Iraq for what some experts now view as questionable results.

“No one has shown me the metrics that prove that these large infrastructure projects have actually advanced our military mission,” said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

“It’s almost as if somebody just decided that doing what we used to call nation building in the middle of an armed conflict was somehow going to help us beat insurgents,” McCaskill said last week. “And someone just deemed that that was the case, and we started doing it to the tune of billions and billions of dollars.”

McCaskill, whose Senate subcommittee has questioned some of the more egregious contracts and the systems for auditing them, is among the lawmakers on Capitol Hill who are concerned that the Iraqi mistakes may have been repeated in Afghanistan, where this country has spent more than $90 billion on reconstruction over the last dozen years.

In his final report, issued last week, SIGIR chief Stuart W. Bowen Jr., who has estimated that at least $8 billion of Iraq reconstruction money had been wasted, suggested that this country “reform its approach to stabilization and reconstruction operations” in future conflicts that demand major outlays.

Among the lessons Bowen derived from SIGIR's 220 audits and 170 inspections are to: start reconstruction only after establishing security; focus at first only on small projects; and use a combined civilian and military office to plan and carry out rebuilding projects.

Bowen’s interviews with key officials in both Iraq and this country indicated that the U.S. embarked on far too many big, expensive projects and, in many cases, did not sufficiently consult with the Iraqis about which projects were most important and achievable. That led to situations where Iraq failed to sustain some major projects as U.S. forces and financial support was withdrawn.

The Iraqis “largely lament the lost potential that the massive amounts of U.S. aid promised,” the report found, while senior U.S. military and government leaders “firmly grasp the shortfalls faced in Iraq, absorbing them as lessons learned and recognizing the need for improving the U.S. approach to stabilization and reconstruction operations.”

Reviewing Bowen’s final report, McCaskill said, in response to a question from the Beacon, that there have been “a large number of major infrastructure projects that our taxpayers have footed the bill for – both in Iraq and Afghanistan – that were a giant waste of money.”

Applying Iraq lessons to Afghanistan

As the chair of the Senate Homeland Security subcommittee on financial and contracting oversight, McCaskill is calling for a long-term analysis of the efficacy of such "nation-building" projects abroad.

“It’s time for us to do a ‘time out’ and really examine what we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan as it relates to major infrastructure projects and decide whether or not they have been a good use of our money,” McCaskill said. “And whether or not we should be doing any of them in the future.”

As the U.S. withdraws its forces from Afghanistan over the next two years, the government is deciding whether in effect to pull the plug on U.S. support for some major infrastructure projects there that might not be possible for the Afghan government to sustain. And many experts worry that U.S. aid sent directly through the government in Kabul will be subject to graft.

“I fear many of our programs will be exposed to increased risk of theft and misuse,” said John F. Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, called SIGAR.

In a speech last month to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Sopko cited numerous problems with the Pentagon’s counter-insurgency (COIN) and the Afghanistan Infrastructure Program (AIP), which Congress created to coordinate the Pentagon's and State Department's funds for big infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

“We found that five of the seven [2011] AIP projects were behind schedule and that some of these projects may not achieve positive COIN effects for several years,” Sopko said.

“We also identified some instances of projects that may have resulted in adverse effects because they either created an expectations gap among the affected population or lacked citizen support.” When Afghans are asked whether they want or need some projects, he said, “You’d be surprised how often we find that the answer to this question is no.”

McCaskill, who had pressured the White House in 2010 to replace a former SIGAR chief for his lack of aggressiveness in auditing waste and fraud, said last week that “the same people who said we didn’t want to do nation-building [in the past] have now been doing nation-building. They’ve just been calling it part of the COIN strategy.”

One key question is whether it is possible to rebuild a nation’s infrastructure in the midst of an ongoing conflict. “If you think it is hard to do nation-building outside of an armed conflict, when you do it inside of an armed conflict then … not only do you waste money, not only do you end of building things that can’t be sustained and that the country can’t afford,” McCaskill said.

“You also end up funding the enemy because you end up paying people off for security that ends up getting the money into the hands of people that are, in fact, the bad guys.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the ranking GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described the Iraq inspector’s findings as “appalling.” He called for a review of U.S. aid programs to make sure funds are being spent wisely in Afghanistan.

“We owe this not only to the American taxpayers, but also to the men and women -- civilian and uniformed -- that we send into dangerous and challenging environments to secure the area and implement U.S. programs,” Corker said in a statement.

Of course, pulling the plug on some expensive reconstruction projects in Iraq can be painful, given the massive initial investments.

As the Washington Post reported this month, the U.S. Agency for International Development has opted not to finish the most critical part of the $266 million Kajaki Dam project – instead asking the Afghan government to take over the installation of a hydropower turbine there.

That hydroelectric project, once considered to be a key part of the counter insurgency strategy by providing needed electricity to Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Kandahar, is one of several U.S.-funded infrastructure projects that may be affected by cutbacks.

“I am not torn up about us abandoning major infrastructure projects in Afghanistan,” said McCaskill. “What I am torn up about is that we aren’t beginning any major infrastructure projects in the United States.”

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