Why Being So Right Feels So Bad
Why did it take the State Department 10 years and billions of dollars to figure out that Iraq reconstruction was a massive failure?
I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.
I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.
When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, "You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong." I told her not to worry.
When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: "Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan," they said, or "It’s too early to tell." When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, "We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste." Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal ("The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level") to an excerpt from my book.
Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), "$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said "that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq," but the positive effects of those funds were too often "lost."
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not "achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general."
There "was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B," said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.
And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled "What Went Right." The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as "thriving" (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, "U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war" and concludes, "Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush."
Quite sadly, one only need change "Afghanistan" to "Iraq" in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the "Iraq Tourism Week" expo in Baghdad in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that "a significant portion" of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, "yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability." There are many, many more examples.
In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about "progress" and thus on-message.
Despite SIGAR finding that "delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste," the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.