The failed reconstruction of Iraq

Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Iraqi woman in her 20s using the name Riverbend started a web log called Baghdad Burning.  She described the life of an educated, middle-class family in Baghdad – a perspective on Iraq you didn’t get from the American press.

Here is her 2003 comment on the reconstruction effort: –

One of my cousins works in a prominent engineering company in Baghdad- we’ll call the company H. This company is well-known for designing and building bridges all over Iraq. My cousin, a structural engineer, is a bridge freak. He spends hours talking about pillars and trusses and steel structures to anyone who’ll listen. As May was drawing to a close, his manager told him that someone from the CPA wanted the company to estimate the building costs of replacing the New Diyala Bridge on the South East end of Baghdad. He got his team together, they went out and assessed the damage, decided it wasn’t too extensive, but it would be costly. They did the necessary tests and analyses mumblings about soil composition and water depth, expansion joints and girders and came up with a number they tentatively put forward- $300,000. This included new plans and designs, raw materials quite cheap in Iraq, labor, contractors, travel expenses, etc.

Let’s pretend my cousin is a dolt. Let’s pretend he hasn’t been working with bridges for over 17 years. Let’s pretend he didn’t work on replacing at least 20 of the 133 bridges damaged during the first Gulf War. Let’s pretend he’s wrong and the cost of rebuilding this bridge is four times the number they estimated- let’s pretend it will actually cost $1,200,000. Let’s just use our imagination. A week later, the New Diyala Bridge contract was given to an American company. This particular company estimated the cost of rebuilding the bridge would be around- brace yourselves- $50,000,000 !!

via Baghdad Burning.

How has that worked out?  Here is the report this month from the New York Times.

FALLUJA, Iraq — After two devastating battles between American forces and Sunni insurgents in 2004, this city needed almost everything — new roads, clean water, electricity and health care included.

The American reconstruction authorities decided, however, that the first big rebuilding project to win hearts and minds would be a citywide sewage treatment system.

Now, after more than six years of work, $104 million spent, and without having connected a single house, American reconstruction officials have decided to leave the system unfinished, though they portray it as a success. It is just one element in a strategy to complete or abandon rebuilding projects before American troops leave in large numbers over the next year.

The push to complete reconstruction work as quickly as possible has been met with scorn by Iraqi officials, who say some of the projects are being finished with such haste that engineering standards have deteriorated to the point where workers are in danger and some of the work is at risk of collapse.

The Falluja sewage system, in particular, mirrors the extensive problems that have marked much of the American rebuilding effort: a grand plan to provide a modern facility that diverged from Iraq’s most pressing needs, and was further troubled by millions of wasted dollars, poor planning, construction flaws, ongoing violence and little attention to sustainability.

via The New York Times

Let’s review.  U.S. forces through “shock and awe” warfare reduced Iraqi cities to rubble.  Even though 65 percent the adult population of Iraq was unemployed, the Iraqis were prohibited from participating in the reconstruction of their own country. Many of the unemployed were former members of the Iraqi army who’d been allowed to keep their own weapons, or who’d taken weapons from unguarded military depots.  Instead of putting these people to work, the Iraqi reconstruction money – which came not only from the American taxpayer but from Iraq’s own oil revenues – was given to American and other allied companies who couldn’t even do the work.

Riverbend in 2003 again: –

Some of the best engineers, scientists, architects and technicians are currently out of work because their companies have nothing to do and there are no funds to keep them functioning. The employees get together a couple of days a week and spend several hours brooding over ‘istikans’ of lukewarm tea and ‘finjans’ of Turkish coffee. Instead of spending the endless billions on multinational companies, why not spend only millions on importing spare parts and renovating factories and plants?

My father has a friend with a wife and 3 children who is currently working for an Italian internet company. He communicates online with his ‘boss’ who sits thousands of kilometers away, in Rome, safe and sure that there are people who need to feed their families doing the work in Baghdad. This friend, and a crew of male techies, work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week. They travel all over Baghdad, setting up networks. They travel in a beat-up SUV armed with cables, wires, pliers, network cards, installation CDs, and a Klashnikov for… you know… technical emergencies.

Each of the 20 guys who work with this company get $100/month. A hundred dollars for 260 hours a month comes to… $0.38/hour. My 16-year-old babysitter used to get more. The Italian company, like many other foreign companies, seems to think that $100 is appropriate for the present situation. One wonders the price of the original contract the Italian company got… how many countless millions are being spent so 20 guys can make $100/month to set up networks?

via Baghdad Burning.

During the runup to the invasion of Iraq, as the lies about weapons of mass destruction were being exposed, I still thought it might have a good result.  We Americans would liberate Iraq from the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein (and he was an evil tyrant) and, as a result, there would be a democratic oil-rich Arab nation whose people would have reason to have good feelings toward the United States.  But the only people who benefited from the invasion were well-connected contractors and al Qaeda recruiters.

I am ashamed at having been so naive.  I wish there was a way to make things up to the Iraqi people, but there is no gain to staying on until “we finish the job.”  The Iraqis are going to sort out the mess we made for themselves.

The London Review of Books had a fine series of articles on waste, fraud and abuse in the Iraqi reconstruction, based on the U.S. government’s own audits and reports.  It told of millions of dollars in cash in shrink-wrapped pallets, left essentially unguarded.  It told of billions of dollars unaccounted for.

Here are the links.

Where Has All the Money Gone? in July 2005

Cronyism and Kickbacks in January 2006

The Least Accountable Regime in the Middle East in November 2006

Burn Rate in September 2007

And what of Riverbend?  She and her family are among the more than one million Iraqi refugees living outside the country.  Her last post on her web log was in 2007, about their arrival in Syria and their uncertainty about what happens next.

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2 Responses to “The failed reconstruction of Iraq”

  1. Eight billion dollars gone missing « Phil Ebersole's Blog Says:

    […] on The failed reconstruction of Iraq for my earlier post on the same […]

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  2. Government misplaces $8.7 billion in Iraq | GCDSJ.COM Says:

    […] on The failed reconstruction of Iraq for my earlier post on the same […]

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