Published on
The New York Times

Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders

James Glanz and T. Christian Miller

Students used water from a faucet at the Khulafa al-Rashideen school in Baghdad in October. Access to potable water plummeted after the 2003 invasion. (Max Becherer/Polaris, for The New York Times)

BAGHDAD - An unpublished 513-page federal history
of the American-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 molded into a $100 billion
failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence and ignorance of
the basic elements of Iraqi society and infrastructure.

The history, 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
Defense 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.' "

Mr. Powell's assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of competent Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lt. Gen. 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 United States
government has in place neither the policies and technical capacity nor
the organizational structure that would be needed to undertake such a
program on anything approaching this scale.

The bitterest message of all for the reconstruction program 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 United States
taxpayer money.

The history contains a catalog of revelations that show the chaotic
and often poisonous atmosphere prevailing in the reconstruction effort.

¶When the Office of Management and Budget
balked at the American 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 O.M.B. 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 United States 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
American effort.

¶Money for many of the local construction projects still under way
is divided up by a spoils system controlled by neighborhood politicians
and tribal chiefs. "Our district council chairman has become the Tony
Soprano of Rasheed, in terms of controlling resources," said an
American Embassy official working in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood.
" ‘You will use my contractor or the work will not get done.' "

A Cautionary Tale

The United States could soon have reason to consult this cautionary
tale of deception, waste and poor planning, as 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 programs do not address one of the history's main
contentions: that the reconstruction effort has failed because no
single agency in the United States 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

Titled "Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience," the new
history 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.

Mr. Bowen's deputy, Ginger Cruz, declined to comment for
publication on the substance of the history. But she said it would be
presented on Feb. 2 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
Mr. Bowen's office has reported over the years. Laid out for the first
time in a connected history, the material forms the basis for broad
judgments on the rebuilding program.

In the preface, Mr. 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 program from a modest
initiative to improve Iraqi services to a multibillion-dollar

Mr. Bowen also swipes at the endless revisions and reversals of the
program, 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 Mr.
Bowen concedes that deteriorating security had a hand in spoiling the
program's hopes, he suggests, as he has in the past, that the program
did not need much outside help to do itself in.

Despite years of studying the program, Mr. Bowen writes that he
still has not found a good answer to the question of why the program
was even pursued as soaring violence made it untenable. "Others will
have to provide that answer," Mr. Bowen writes.

"But beyond the security issue stands another compelling and
unavoidable answer: the U.S. government was not adequately prepared to
carry out the reconstruction mission it took on in mid-2003," he

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 Defense to
create local rebuilding teams.

But the portrait that emerges over all is one of a program'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 American 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 program that seemed to grow
exponentially as even those involved from the inception of the effort
watched in surprise.

Early Miscalculations

On the eve of the invasion, as it began to dawn on a few officials
that the price for rebuilding Iraq would be vastly greater than they
had been told, the degree of miscalculation was illustrated in an
encounter between Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, and Jay Garner,
a retired lieutenant general who had hastily been named the chief of
what would be a short-lived civilian authority called the Office of
Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

The history records how Mr. Garner presented Mr. Rumsfeld with
several rebuilding plans, including one that would include projects
across Iraq.

"What do you think that'll cost?" Mr. Rumsfeld asked of the more expansive plan.

"I think it's going to cost billions of dollars," Mr. Garner said.

"My friend," Mr. Rumsfeld replied, "if you think we're going to
spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly

In a way he never anticipated, Mr. Rumsfeld turned out to be
correct: before that year was out, the United States had appropriated
more than $20 billion for the reconstruction, which would indeed
involve projects across the entire country.

Mr. Rumsfeld declined to comment on the history, but a spokesman,
Keith Urbahn, said that quotes attributed to Mr. Rumsfeld in the
document "appear to be accurate." Mr. Powell also declined to comment.

The secondary effects of the invasion and its aftermath were among
the most important factors that radically changed the outlook. Tables
in the history show that measures of things like the national
production of electricity and oil, public access to potable water,
mobile and landline telephone service and the presence of Iraqi
security forces all plummeted by at least 70 percent, and in some cases
all the way to zero, in the weeks after the invasion.

Subsequent tables in the history give a fast-forward view of what
happened as the avalanche of money tumbled into Iraq over the next five

Dashed Expectations

By the time a sovereign Iraqi government took over from the
Americans in June 2004, none of those services - with a single
exception, mobile phones - had returned to prewar levels.

And by the time of the security improvements in 2007 and 2008,
electricity output had, at best, a precarious 10 percent lead on its
levels under Saddam Hussein;
oil production was still below prewar levels; and access to potable
water had increased by about 30 percent, although with Iraq's ruined
piping system it was unclear how much reached people's homes

Whether the rebuilding effort could have succeeded in a less
violent setting will never be known. In April 2004, thousands of the
Iraqi security forces that had been oversold by the Pentagon were
overrun, abruptly mutinied or simply abandoned their posts as the
insurgency broke out, sending Iraq down a violent path from which it
has never completely recovered.

At the end of his narrative, Mr. Bowen chooses a line from "Great
Expectations" by Dickens as the epitaph of the American-led attempt to
rebuild Iraq: "We spent as much money as we could, and got as little
for it as people could make up their minds to give us."


This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Share This Article

More in: