View Full Version : Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience

Rex Brynen
12-14-2008, 02:33 PM
Official History Spotlights Iraq Rebuilding Blunders

New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/14/world/middleeast/14reconstruct.html?_r=2&hp)
Published: December 13, 2008

BAGHDAD — An unpublished 513-page federal history of the American-led reconstruction of Iraq depicts an effort crippled before the invasion by Pentagon planners who were hostile to the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.

The NYT has published the entire draft 508 page report by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction online at http://projects.nytimes.com/reconstruction (http://projects.nytimes.com/reconstruction#p=1).

Rex Brynen
04-28-2010, 04:06 PM
Some of you will remember Biker Chicks #1 and #2, who attended a SWJ non-virtual get-together in Arlington in 2007.

Biker Chick #1 later moved on from researching jihadist IED techniques to working on Middle East civil society and elections issues, and is now deployed to Iraq doing something else. She recently passed on these insights into reconstruction efforts there:

We were asked to do a study on the economic and social effects of a recent Army development project where, for $140k, the Army had paved a 2 mile stretch of road to enable transportation of goods, services, etc. We had designed a research plan, a number of survey questions about how the paving of the road had affected the lives of local residents and business owners, and selected several sites along and just outside the route to conduct interviews....

The road had never been paved. The contractor had laid gravel, and then had stopped construction. Not only was it not paved, the Iraqi Federal Police had closed it indefinitely. Residents told us that the excuse that had been given was that it was an escape route for insurgents, and the loose gravel made an easy place to plant IEDs. We had been provided with a few blurry pictures of a ribbon cutting ceremony with the Iraqi Army as evidence that it was open, at least for a few hours, sometime in March. The brigade staff had no idea that it was unpaved or un-open; they were hoping for assessment of how their project had helped the local economy.

One of our team suspected the contractor was in Syria by now. He wasn't, however--he was still in the area, and managing several other construction projects for the US Army.

I'm getting the opportunity to look at how US reconstruction aid has affected the areas I work in. The stories get frighteningly repetitive, but it's nothing that you haven't read in the news before. We go out to four dairy production factories; the two that were privately funded and still functioning and half-staffed by Bangladeshis, the two funded by PRT or USAID are nonoperational. Massive poultry processing plants have been deserted, because no one did adequate studies on the availability of a market for local chicken in an area where the frozen Brazilian variety is the norm. Small projects are desperate for funding, and no one has reliable electricity or water, which makes it impossible to achieve basic standards of sanitation or refrigerate food or medicine. They often speak about a complete lack of connection and countless unanswered calls between their organization and local government or organizing bodies. There are proposals, statements assuring funding sources that x number of jobs will be created, and the US throws $120k at a project. Something doesn't work correctly, the owners cut their losses and split for Dubai, the factories empty, and squatters move in. We met families of squatters at our last project inspection, most of whom are former or 'current' members of the Sons of Iraq, and who are being run around the bureaucratic annals of the Iraqi government while waiting for jobs to open up for them. But then, that's a different story altogether.

Rex Brynen
06-05-2010, 03:39 PM
Another update from Iraq, courtesy of Biker Chick #1:

One of the things that I consistently notice when I'm out on mission is how little soldiers interact with, well, anyone. I'm not talking about detailed conversations, just a simple word of acknowledgement. A 'salam', perhaps even a 'asalamu alaykum' if they were feeling ambitious. God knows the Army has spent enough money on Arabic language Smart Cards for soldiers to carry around in their pockets. Our PSD (Personal Security Detail) will walk straight past groups of people who are obviously perturbed or upset by their presence without a word. Several of us sat around talking about this tonight.

I told a few other team members about a mission I recently went on, where the first stop happened to be quick checkup on a Civil Affairs project where they had attempted to lay a 400 square foot patch of sod and grow grass at the local court building. We were in a series of four MRAPs (absolutely giant, but very very safe to ride in, vehicles) and parked in the middle of a main street, blocking three lanes of Iraqi traffic. It took about 30 seconds before horns started honking. As I was in the same MRAP as the CA folk, I tagged along. We walked straight past Iraqi Police guard checkpoints into the building without a word, as the IP stared at us in awe. I offered a friendly greeting, and they yelled down to me:

"Hey! Are you a translator?"

"No, um... I'm... I'm an analyst, but I speak some Arabic."

"What the hell is going on with the traffic! What are you guys doing here? Who is supposed to be controlling the security in this area; us, or you?!"

I am pretty sure that my response was, "I'm sorry. It will be five minutes, five minutes only. We are here... (I paused, unsure what to say...) to look at... some grass."

They took it well. I thanked them for their patience and they asked if I was married. But I couldn't help thinking, if I hadn't been there, would anyone have said anything? Would they just have walked in, walked past, blocked traffic, and left without a word?

My colleagues laughed sadly when I told them this story. One explained. "It's all about the way that you see the people around you. It's perfectly normal for a person to say a simple hello when they see another person. It's substantially less normal to say hello to a lawn chair. To most soldiers, Iraqis are simply the local fauna."

Another colleague says, "It goes both ways though. You know, I used to watch these Hizbullah anti-Israeli occupation cartoons on al-Manar (Hizbullah's satellite tv channel). And you'd notice, every Palestinian in the cartoon looked different - some were fat, some skinny, some had mustaches, some didn't, different hair colors... you get the picture. And for the Israeli soldiers, it looked like they just drew one, and used him to represent every soldier. We look equally 'the same' to most Iraqis."

I laugh. "Hell, I can't tell the guys on our PSD apart half the time. Everyone's tall, built, low body fat, buzzed hair, dressed the same, lots of body armor, and has eye-pro covering half their face. Our green-suiter research manager sometimes gets mad at me when I don't see him and sit with him in the DFAC. Honestly, I just can't pick him out from everyone else."

It's yet to be seen how the majority of Iraqis will remember our presence here. The experience I've seen the most is that people have had one or two positive interactions with individuals that they remember and respect, amid a wash of identical shapes, most of whom either ignored them or shouted at them in a language they did not understand.


The thing that shocks me the most here is just how much money is being injected into the system, and how little return USF and aid vehicles see in their projects. The assumption that aid is inherently good is alive and well here, with little understanding of how putting this much money into a limited number of hands and seeing how it spreads can affect the economic system of a district, or a country. There is an awful lot of 'doing', and pitifully little 'thinking', or attempting to understand potential effects of actions. Reports are a long list of accomplishments; $500k spent here, $150k spent there, this clinic built, this program funded, but very little analysis on why, or any measure of effectiveness. At times it delves into the absurd, such as the Beekeeping for Widows program that seems to be floating around here these days, or PRT's current plan to establish 4H Clubs throughout southern Baghdad.

It's not all humorous. The vicious cycle of aid unintentionally fueling conflict appears in all kinds of ways. The head of the Civil Affairs team told me that during his last deployment, he was literally given a large bag with stacks of $100 bills in it to pay Iraqi contractors with. Halfway through the bag, he started recording the serial numbers of the bills he was giving out. He asked our S2 (the brigade intelligence shop) to please send him serial numbers of money they found on detained insurgents, and found that the wide majority of money being used by AQI and smaller groups came directly from Civil Affairs.

"It was about a one week turnaround, and by that I mean one week in between me giving the contractor the money and it appearing in an insurgent's wallet. Of course, we'd call up the contractor and say, 'What the hell?' and he'd say, 'Well, if I don't pay 10% to AQI (or whoever) then they will attack my project and threaten my family.' " So what do you do? You can't just stop doing reconstruction projects. If it was a case of protecting myself and my family, hell, I'd probably do the same thing."

Steve the Planner
06-05-2010, 04:06 PM

Biker Chick has it down.

I thought she was writing about my usual provincial excursions.

In 2008, it was giving out refrigerated bongo trucks, and opening banks in Sammara.

Better to use a C-130 to push pallets of cash out the back door to save folks from having to sell the second hand bongo trucks at a discount to get cash.

On SME's salary for a day in a cash box left on the street was as best you could do in Samarra until fighting stopped. Once it did, they had their own baking going ASAP. What did we contribute?

Best lessons still came from lawrence---better they do it themselves. Facilitate that and you have re-built capacity.

John T. Fishel
06-05-2010, 05:58 PM
Community Development 101!:eek:

We know how to do this. We have decades of experience in wartime and peacetime. The first step is always to find out what the local people say they need and then make it possible for them to get it.

My first experience with this was in rural Mexico in 1962; then in a poor Mexico City neighborhood in 64; then in Peru's mountains from 66 thru 68; finally in Honduras in 86. It ain't hard and always needs to begin by asking questions not by telling people what you think they need. You have to listen or you will fail.

As my Mexican friends would say, "Hijole!!!!";)


Ken White
06-05-2010, 06:36 PM
18 and 19 year olds to be 'tough soldats,' place them in an area where the "local fauna" can be problematic if not outright hostile -- and then rather foolishly IMO expect them to be gregarious social networkers with said fauna -- who speak in another tongue and obviously won't say in English what they are saying in the local dialect. A few US Troopies can and will do that -- most will not...

Not likely to change. Not with the kids nor their NCOs. The NCOs live by these rules among others:
16. Don't drop your guard.
18. Watch their hands. Hands kill. (In God we trust. Everyone else, keep your hands where I can see them).
21. Be polite. Be professional. But, have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
22. Be courteous to everyone, friendly to no one.and the kids who stay alive tend to develop in their image. As they should... :cool:

Most officers will bend to do the necessary socialization it but even many of them will not and most that do won't really like it. There's a reason for the existence of MI and CA folks. There's an even greater reason we organized, developed and trained Special Forces the way we do -- or did. The relative maturity and cultural / language training is only a part of it. :cool:

The GPF is good at the job for which it is recruited, equipped, organized and trained. It can and will accept cross training to perform marginally in the FID or other role but it will never excel at that role. Nor should it.

Moral of that is do not use the wrong tool for the job and then complain about the unsuitability of the tool... :wry:

John T. Fishel
06-05-2010, 09:50 PM
was talking specifically about CA folk. I would include anyone assigned to a PRT regardless of branch. But at a minimum, the officers need to see the people in the "local fauna."

I would note that my experience in Honduras was military while the other sitautions were civilian. My experience in El Salvador was also military and perhaps more relevant to what you were pointing out - nevertheless, asking the local people, engaging them is a great source of intel whether you are MI, CA, or merely a grunt...



Ken White
06-05-2010, 10:43 PM
was talking specifically about CA folk. I would include anyone assigned to a PRT regardless of branch. But at a minimum, the officers need to see the people in the "local fauna." Those are grunts (or they're Joe / MP or MOS Immaterial; little difference in this case)...
...nevertheless, asking the local people, engaging them is a great source of intel whether you are MI, CA, or merely a grunt...I agree but it's been my observation that Grunts in general do not do that well; that in units, detachments or elements and 'on the job' they generally do not do it at all and that, lacking the language most will actually go out of their way to avoid it. Most Troops that age do not like to think they're being talked about or laughed at by strangers with no option for a macho response.

Good Grunts (or bad Grunts who are competent at their job) are also very much guided by rules 21 and 22:

21. Be polite. Be professional. But, have a plan to kill everyone you meet.
22. Be courteous to everyone, friendly to no one.

Most of us tend to not get friendly with people we may have to shoot. 'Courteous' to a working (as opposed to an off duty) Grunt means a nod, not chit chat. The NCOs also will have one way or another told the Troops that they are in no circumstances to embarrass that NCO. :D

All the foregoing is not an argument or discussion stimulant and in no way disputes anything you've written. I read BC#1's comment and it resonated, I smiled and wrote merely a response to her comment and not to yours. I did it solely for informatory purposes based on my observations of a lot of young Grunts a lot of places for those who wish to contemplate methodologies and strategeries for the future... ;)

I will also note that if you tell them (and get the agreement of their Squad Leader, PSG or NCOIC) to be sociable, they will do so in spades. However, if you do that, do not upbraid them for neglecting their security 'job' because they will go into their shells and will never socialize in front of you again. IOW, remember they're 19 and be careful what you want and tell them you want. :eek:

NOTE: As is true of all generalities pertaining to people, there are occasional or frequent at times exceptions in all directions to the norms I cited. Equally true is that many here know all that. However, many do not... :wry:

John T. Fishel
06-06-2010, 01:58 AM
Ken, it is not entirely clear to me whether she was referring to the security detail or the CA folk or both. I think, when all is said and done, we agree. My inclination would be to make it SOP to greet the locals with Salaam - a greeting is not being sociable, just courteous. But with all the caveats implicit and explicit in your post...

Reminds me, however, of an incident in Panama on Easter Sunday 1987. I was walking in the Balboa section of Panama City that morning and the streets were deserted except for 2 PDF cops. As I approached them I greeted them and wished them a Happy Easter - their jaws dropped. It was like nobody ever said anything at all to them in a courteous way, let alone some gringo speaking their language.;)



Ken White
06-06-2010, 03:58 AM
language as I could; thus I can ask for beer and cigarettes and count to ten in eight languages (Apparently not including English according to my over educated wife... :D).

Rex Brynen
10-02-2010, 08:06 PM
Yet another update from Iraq, courtesy of Biker Chick #1:

The Iraqi joke goes something like this:

A young Iraqi boy runs into his family's Baghdad home yelling "Mother, Mother! Father was in the garden watering plants and he got electrocuted!" and the mother says, "Praise be to God... We have electricity!"

__________________________________________________ ____________

FOB Falcon, the base that I've called home for the past six months, is being closed down.

As most of you are probably aware, September 1st was the deadline for the last "combat troops" to leave Iraq. As of 1 September we have officially ended Operation Iraqi Freedom (the American joke goes something like this: They were going to call it Operation Iraqi Liberation until they thought about the acronym...) and are surging forward into Operation New Dawn, which does not form a catchy acronym of any kind. New Dawn is meant to be characterized by the end of combat operations, the presence of "Advisory and Assistance Brigades", and transfer of full responsibility to the Iraqi government, as the US takes a supporting role. Reconstruction is now meant to be civilian-led, though judging from the number of State Department-hired Xe (Blackwater's new monkier) goons who shared the C-130 ride into Baghdad with me, it looks security will be buttressed in other ways. It's also characterized by the closing of bases, and their transferral to the Iraqi Security Forces. Which is exactly what we were doing with Falcon, as I started writing this email.

As we were packing up the office, I walked outside to see two thick-biceped soldiers from Civil Affairs at the small gazebo outside our office. They were taking sandbags, piled two- or three-high around the outside of the structure, and emptying their contents onto the ground. I grinned.

"Have we determined that there is no longer a credible threat to the gazebo?" (Full disclosure: I'd never really understood why we hand sandbags there in the first place.)

The soldiers paused and looked at me, the sand still draining out of the sacks in their hands. " Well, since the Iraqi Army is moving into this base eventually, command asked us to knock this down. It's leaning."

I cock my head and squint at the gazebo. It is leaning. But just slightly, maybe 4 or 5 degrees, depending on how you looked at it. We'd spent long nights sitting in that gazebo smoking shisha, hammering out ideas, bantering about the day. I'd hidden lighters in it's rafters and clambered on it to retreive them.

"It's not going to fall over, and it's a waste to destroy it, isn't it? Anyway, are you convinced that the IA is going to build something more structurally sound?"

The soldiers continued their work. This what they were told to do, they said. And so, unquestioning, they were doing it.

__________________________________________________ ____________

It takes an enormous amount of work to close a base. Up-armored convoys were going out every day, lugging giant metal boxes filled to their tops with equipment of all sorts. Much of what is there, the US cannot take home. There are fields of trailers being sold off by the US Army to Iraqi dealers at junkyard prices, who then in turn sell them to local Iraqi civilians. The same goes for bunkbeds, conference room furniture, rolls of wire, generators, air conditioners... anything the Army doesn't deem worth sending home. Even when we've packed up everything worth keeping, and sold everything worth selling, the detritus of the occupation will end up remaining in the rooms we abandoned. The shelves of our storeroom were vacant apart from a few empty shell casings, a busted neon yellow Nike running shoe, several Christmas-themed tins, and a year-old US Weekly magazine mouring the death of Brittany Murphy on the cover. I can't imagine what other artifacts will be found on base when it is re-occupied.

Our Iraqi partners are doing their absolute best to capitalize on our flight from the base. The good folks from Beekeeping for Widows (the almost Python-esquely named Provincial Reconstruction Team project) took most of our office furniture, loading up pickup trucks so high that they had to be tied down with string, and even then they looked precarious. A major from our local Iraqi Army division raided the Information Operations closet, taking stacks upon stacks of leaflets, handbills, tip cards, posters, as well as boxes of children's backpacks and soccer balls. The US Army major in charge of the room just looked blankly at the young IA minions carrying off the supplies. "You know," he said, "we've given out so many soccer balls in this country that every kid should have ten. They should be littering the streets and blocking drains. I have no idea where it all went."

The groups we work with, be it the Iraqi security forces or NGOs, are all accutely aware of our imminent withdrawal. When asked what he would do with the 20,000 posters he requested, the Iraqi major said, quite honestly, "We are stockpiling. We know that when you leave, we won't have these resources anymore. So we have to get as much as we can, and we have to get it now."

__________________________________________________ ____________

There's frustration, there's disillusionment, and there's malaise.

It's spread thick across our brigade, and I'd imagine the other brigades in country. The frustration: The Iraqi Army is now in charge of security operations, and while that's the goal, there's no way of insuring that they'll do anything with the information, support, or equipment that the US provides them. Over 1,000 warrent support packages have been sent to the IA this year so far, but there's no record anywhere of how many of these packets have been used, or how many of these individuals have been convicted. Missions can be arranged, coordinated, locations scouted and planned, men mustered, and the IA can simply not show up. The disillusionment: The standard line you hear from soldiers and staff is "Well, we haven't accomplished it in the past seven years, I doubt we're going to accomplish it before we leave Iraq." You can apply this to the water/electricity crisis (see above joke, apologies for the black humor) or almost any other larger scale reconstruction project here. The malaise: The brigade leaves at the very beginning of December. Part of my job is assessing brigade needs and trying to assist them with their questions or the tasks they want to accomplish in Baghdad before they redeploy. The standard answer there? Just get through the next 62 days. Not that anyone's counting. They say that this is one war that has been fought seven times. In November a new brigade will arrive who have never worked in the Baghdad area before, and we will start the war all over again.

I spent the afternoon with a prominent Iraqi sheikh in the area I'm currently working in. He hosted us for an enormous meal of grilled lamb, chicken, spiced rice, okra, vegetables, soups, and fresh bread, all laid out on giant platters. As we sat down, stuffed, to drink tea and get to the meat of the meeting, the commander asked the sheikh about the increase in assassinations of leaders in the area - government officers, sheikhs, Sons of Iraq, soldiers and policemen have all been targeted throughout Iraq. The sheikh shook his head and said, "You know, with the government not formed yet, it's not just the terrorists trying to get ahead; the political parties are out there too. At times it's impossible to tell the difference. We don't know who is behind the killing anymore." He told us that he awaits the day that he's kidnapped or detained by the government on faulty intelligence. At a certain point it becomes clear that this hospitality is one part traditional Middle Eastern hospitality, one part insurance that if he does disappear, the US Army will come looking after him. With the drawdown and the US stepping back to leave the Iraqi Security Forces in control, there was no guarentee that we could even do that.

Ken White
10-02-2010, 09:01 PM
Iraq during this unpleasantness, that is. How some ever I've been there and thus could have predicted this end result -- except I hoped we'd be smater this time 'round. The effects, though, I've sure seen before. Korea, Dominican Republic, Viet Nam. What a waste. Of time, effort, money and troops. Especially troops...

You'd think we'd learn. We apparently cannot because each new iteration of 'leaders,' political and military, must do things their way -- 'and this time it'll be done right...' :rolleyes:

Then it turns out you can only do so much with a given concept and set of troop hiring, training and employment guidelines and ideas (or a lack of them...). :mad:

Interesting comment on the front page by one Ali:
"The best things for USA is to understand that ground and its realities can temporarliy be altered but never changed completely.They have tried it in Veitnam, then in Afghanistan and now trying to manipulate the same in Pakistan.The common denominator is all this is only the partial success which must be weighed sensibly against the cost and resources being diverted for such misadventures."Too true; if he and I can figure that out -- as can many others -- why can't those so called 'leaders' see it?

Global Scout
10-02-2010, 11:19 PM
John posted,
We know how to do this. We have decades of experience in wartime and peacetime. The first step is always to find out what the local people say they need and then make it possible for them to get it.

I think Biker Chick 1's observations paint another picture entirely. Of course part of it was the corrupt process we established initially due to political loyality (U.S.) over hiring folks who "may" have been effective, but to be honest I question if we have ever been good at this (under Republican or Democractic adminstrations). We love to spend millions of dollars, and call that spending a success metric. Ask any Civil Affairs staff officer and USAID member "how do you know you have been successful?", and they'll tell you how much money they spent. You better check your wallet and make sure they didn't take it, because it was your tax dollars they just spent.

Again have we ever been good at this? I believe the Ugly American was written in the early 60s? It addressed the same issues. What did we accomplish in Somalia or Haiti? Did reconstruction after our Civil War work?

I remain aghast that we still have so many people who are true believers in wasting our tax dollars on these projects. I guess if you don't let the truth get in the way our your assessment, then we're doing a great job. We spent millions, so we must be doing good. I find the pro COINdista arguments particularly funny, since the CNAS propagandists continue to promote more of this as key to our national security? There are none so blind as those who will not see.

I wish Biker Chick would write an expose on this activity, it is simply criminal, and yes it is our tax dollars being wasted, so we have every reason to be concerned. This isn't national security, it is a sad comedy. Rough starts are understandable, repeating the same mistakes year after year and cover them with whitewash is criminal.

Rex Brynen
01-03-2011, 02:23 PM
Demise of Iraqi water park illustrates limitations, abuse of U.S. funding program (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/02/AR2011010202491.html?hpid=topnews)

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 3, 2011; 12:59 AM

BAGHDAD - In the spring of 2008, Gen. David H. Petraeus decided he had spent enough time gazing from his helicopter at an empty and desolate lake on the banks of the Tigris River. He ordered the lake refilled and turned into a water park for all of Baghdad to enjoy.

The military doctrine behind the project holds that cash can be as effective as bullets. Under Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq at the time, that principle gained unprecedented emphasis, and it has become a cornerstone of the war effort in Afghanistan, now under Petraeus's command.

But today the Baghdad park is nearly waterless, more than two years after a U.S. military inauguration ceremony that included a marching band and water-scooter rides. Much of the compound is in ruins, swing sets have become piles of twisted steel, and the personal watercraft's engines have been gutted for spare parts.

The troubled history of the venture speaks to the limitations and mishandling of a program that has provided U.S. military commanders with $5 billion for projects in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past six years....