In the beginning of June 2011, the Commission on Wartime Contacting in Iraq and Afghanistan issued its latest report. It warned that the U.S. could be wasting millions in reconstruction funds in the two countries. The Commission said that hundreds of projects could be left sitting idle because American agencies had not planned for how the host countries were supposed to maintain them.
The Commission said that as the U.S. draws down from Iraq and Afghanistan, it has to plan for maintaining the projects and programs it has created. In Iraq, the Americans have built hundreds of schools, clinics, roads, power plants, barracks, hospitals, irrigation projects, prisons, etc. All of those require maintenance, staff, payrolls, equipment, spare parts, and security to continue to operate after the United States has left. The Commission found no evidence that any government agency was making plans for these continued costs. If these things are not considered many of these projects could eventually fail, wasting billions of dollars.
There are plenty of examples of these problems in Iraq. First, the Commission noted that the Americans built 133 health-care centers for $345 million in the country. It paid a contactor to operate and repair the facilities for one year, but didn’t build up the capacity within the Health Ministry to continue with the task afterward. The Ministry could very well sign a new contract in a year, but it can’t keep up all the centers on its own. The U.S. also constructed a $270 million water-treatment plant in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar with no nearby power source. It is often out of commission, produces murky water that locals won’t use, and the facility’s equipment is too sophisticated for its Iraqi staff to operate. In Hillah, Babil, there’s a $4 million maternity hospital that lacks enough staff and supplies, and the Iraqis were never trained on the equipment that the U.S. installed. In Baghdad, the Ibn Sina Hospital was the largest American military medical facility in Iraq, but when it was turned over to the Iraqis, the Health Ministry couldn’t maintain it, and it was shut down. All of these showed some of the shortcomings in the American reconstruction effort in Iraq. The U.S. came in with grand plans, but suffered from a lack of analysis of the situation within Iraq, poor planning, weak coordination, and a lack of follow through. One of the Commission’s chairmen, former Republican congressman Christopher Shays told the Washington Post, that the Iraqi government is not going to or can’t maintain most of the projects that the U.S. is leaving behind. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction made similar observations in the past.
The Commission’s overall recommendation was that the United States needed to think about the countries they hoped to rebuild, and not just their own priorities. Each nation has at its own technical and financial capabilities. Those factors need to be considered when building projects overseas, so that they can be successfully operated and maintained. If those aren’t included in planning they can lead to waste, undermine the host government’s credibility, and hurt stability. Some of that has already been seen in Iraq where the Commission has found several billion dollars gone for naught in idle facilities. Unfortunately for the United States, it seems like the lessons have not been learned as the report found no government agency planning for these contingencies going into the future, and that many of the same mistakes are currently being made in Afghanistan as well. Despite being in the Afghanistan for ten years and Iraq for eight there seems to be little institutional memory being created that can stop these problems from happening again the next time an administration decides to partake in nation building.
Chandrasekaran, Rajiv, “U.S. projects in war zones are unsustainable, study finds,” Washington Post, 6/2/11
Commission on Wartime Contracting In Iraq And Afghanistan, “Sustainability: hidden costs risk new waste,” 6/3/11
Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09