The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) Stuart Bowen recently testified to the House Armed Services Committee on March 25. Much of what he said was based upon SIGIR’s “Hard Lessons” report, which has been partially covered here. The gist of Bowen’s and the paper’s findings are that the U.S. went into Iraq not ready for the task of rebuilding the country. When security quickly deteriorated, so did the reconstruction project. The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) set out to reform the entire country whether it wanted to or not, yet never had the money, personnel, oversight, or coordination to do it. Much of the work was done on an ad hoc basis, did not pay attention to the security situation, or the needs of Iraqis. The CPA also never adapted to the situation in the country. It wasn’t until 2007 and the Surge that violence was down enough that some effective reconstruction work was possible. Overall, Bowen believes that the U.S. failed to meet its goals of rebuilding the country due to poor planning and unrealistic goals.
The SIGIR was created in January 2004. Immediately after it started its work it began to find problems with the reconstruction effort. The “Hard Lessons” report detailed much of what they found. In the fall of 2001 post-war planning for Iraq began in the U.S. It was based upon a best-case scenario where the Americans would be greeted as liberators, the U.S. would take care of any humanitarian crises and deal with war damage, and then leave. Washington was warned by several different groups several times of the consequences of invading, but their advice was ignored. The U.S. thus set about the largest nation-building project in history completely unaware of what they were getting themselves into. This led to massive waste and many failures.
The U.S. expected Iraq to largely be functioning after the invasion, but instead it fell into immediate chaos. The U.S. was thus stuck running and rebuilding the country, something it had not planned for. It has been paying for these missteps ever since. When the CPA took over Paul Bremer wanted to change every part of the society whether Iraqis were interested or not. This was beyond its capabilities. The CPA effort was largely ad hoc, with programs and goals constantly changing. The Americans were left responding to or ignoring the security situation rather than creating the conditions necessary for successful rebuilding work. In 2004 for example, it started large projects in Fallujah and in Basra in 2005 when they were being run by insurgents and militias that doomed them from the beginning. This didn’t change until 2007 when the Surge finally created enough safe areas to effectively carry out reconstruction.
The result of this lack of planning has been massive cost overruns that Americans are still paying for today. In 2003 the CPA came up with a $20 billion reconstruction plan, ten times larger than the pre-war plans. Today the U.S. has spent $50 billion, 25 times more than the original plan. The insurgency was largely responsible for these huge increases. The U.S. also did not have the personnel, contracts, resources, or doctrine to achieve its goals. That led Bowen to claim that the U.S. has failed at rebuilding Iraq, although it has put the Iraqi security forces back together.
Bowen warned that many of these problems could be repeated in Afghanistan. In 2008 a Special Inspector General was created for that country, and it found many of the same mistakes that happened in Iraq occurring in Afghanistan. The SIGIR emphasized that a well-planned reconstruction program goes hand-in-hand with a successful counterinsurgency campaign.
The SIGIR finished with his suggestions for how the U.S. should proceed in Iraq, and any other efforts in the future. For Iraq Bowen said that the U.S. needs to maintain its personnel there so there is not such a large turnover, the government needs to increase its trained staff for reconstruction, contracts should be re-thought, the capacity of the Iraqis needs to be increased so that they can do their own rebuilding, and the military’s mini-grant program needs to be institutionalized. For nation-building in general the SIGIR said that the U.S. needs to come up with a general strategy for the concept. There also needs to be a high level official in the White House tasked with dealing with the problem. Security needs to be the top priority before effective rebuilding can begin, locals have to have the institutions and bureaucracy to eventually take over the effort themselves, and their needs should lead the rebuilding. The U.S. also needs better contracts, more oversight, and staff to create background knowledge of wherever the U.S. may need to go. The title of the SIGIR’s review of Iraq is called “Hard Lessons.” Bowen and his fellow inspectors have been detailing the problems there for five years now. The question is if any of these lessons will be integrated into the Washington bureaucracy so that they can be avoided in the future. As Bowen pointed out, many of the same mistakes are already happening in Afghanistan. Will the U.S. be able to recover there in time to not repeat the waste of billions of dollars and failures experienced in Iraq?
Bowen, Stuart, “Effective Counterinsurgency: How the Use and Misuse of Reconstruction Funding Affects the War Effort in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Committee on Armed Services, United States House of Representatives, 3/25/09
Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09