Official history excoriates US rebuilding process in Iraq

Data falsified, errors covered up, report says

Iraqi Army bulldozers roared into this squatters' camp in Baghdad on Nov. 13, uprooting some 675 families. A federal report is highly critical of the US-led reconstruction effort in Iraq. Iraqi Army bulldozers roared into this squatters' camp in Baghdad on Nov. 13, uprooting some 675 families. A federal report is highly critical of the US-led reconstruction effort in Iraq. (Sabah Arar/AFP/Getty Images)
By James Glanz and T. Christian Miller
New York Times / December 14, 2008
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BAGHDAD - An unpublished, 513-page federal history of the US-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the idea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 molded into a $100 billion failure by bureaucratic turf wars, spiraling violence, and gaps in knowledge about Iraqi society and infrastructure.

"Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience," the first official account of its kind, is circulating in draft form here and in Washington among technical reviewers, policy analysts, 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.' "

Powell's assertion that the Pentagon inflated the number of Iraqi security forces is backed up by Lieutenant General Ricardo S. Sanchez, 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 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 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 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 shows the chaotic and often poisonous atmosphere in the reconstruction effort.

  • When the Office of Management and Budget balked at the US occupation authority's abrupt request for about $20 billion in new reconstruction money in 2003, a 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. 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 underway 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 - 'You will use my contractor or the work will not get done,' " said a US Embassy official working in a dangerous Baghdad neighborhood.

    "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 were provided to 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 but said the history would be presented Feb. 2 at the first hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which was created this year.

    One of the history's main contentions is that the reconstruction effort has failed because no single US government agency 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."

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