Inspector general's report outlines the Wild West of waste and fraud abounding in decade-long Iraq relief effort.
A report issued by a congressional watchdog last week concluded that much money has been misspent or wasted in efforts to rebuild infrastructure in Iraq — so much that it boggles the mind.
Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, issued his final report to Congress last Wednesday, and he was clear in his assessment: "Not enough was accomplished for the size of the funds expended."
The United States has spent a staggering $60 billion on the relief and reconstruction effort since the Iraq invasion 10 years ago this month — about $16 million a day — and as much as $8 billion of that was wasted through mismanagement and corruption, Bowen's report said. Another $1 billion was believed lost due to fraud, though Bowen has prosecuted scores of U.S. contractors and government personnel and has won about 80 convictions so far.
What is there to show for all the effort and expenditure of taxpayer funds? A broken, strife-torn country that seems constantly on the brink of civil war.
Of course, the reconstruction effort began with good intentions, and to be fair, Iraq was already a country severely damaged by war, sanctions and the brutal Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Shortly after the invasion in March 2003, Congress set up a $2.4 billion fund to help rebuild Iraq's water and electricity systems, provide food and health care, develop governance and house those displaced in the fighting. Within a few months, President Bush asked for $20 billion more with a goal of stabilizing the country and turning it into a reliable ally. The effort has since grown to $60 billion and has shown few good results.
There have been some modest successes. Because of the desperate security situation, about half the money was spent on training the Iraqi military and police forces, which tripled to more than 900,000 by the beginning of 2012. But Iraqi citizens might be hard-pressed to see improvement when some cities, including Baghdad, are still hit with bombings regularly. There also have been gains in the electricity supply, which still lags far behind demand, and in oil exports, which provide revenue to the government.
But unemployment is endemic, a quarter of the country's 31 million people live in poverty, and few have reliable electricity, clean water and other services.
Bowen's report cited many large projects that have gone awry through poor planning or fraud, including:
— A 3,600-bed prison begun in a restive province in 2004 but abandoned after a surge in violence and that is now a pile of rubble. It cost American taxpayers $40 million.
— A wastewater treatment plant in Fallujah in western Iraq, formerly an al-Qaida stronghold. Originally budgeted at $35 million when it was started, the price tag has grown to $108 million and it will have taken eight years longer to complete than estimated when it is finished in 2014 — and will service only 9,000 homes, or about a quarter of the city.
— A children's hospital in Basra, budgeted at $50 million and now 200 percent above budget and four years past the time it was supposed to open.
There are many other examples. As Bowen told the Associated Press, the reconstruction effort "grew to a size much larger than ever anticipated. Not enough was accomplished for the size of funds expended."
Bowen interviewed many Iraqi and American officials to try to figure out what went wrong, and what he found was lack of controls and poor planning. The Americans planned major projects and failed to consult with Iraqis. Officials were too eager to build in the middle of a civil war, and too often raced ahead without solid plans or back-up plans, the report concluded.
None of the Iraq findings bode well for the effort in Afghanistan, where U.S. taxpayers have spent $90 billion on reconstruction projects.
Although not in Bowen's report, perhaps there's a bigger lesson to be learned for the future: it's pure hubris to think we can engage nation building in such a strife-torn and unstable situation, one that we helped to create.