Monday, February 3, 2014

Life In The Coalition Provisional Authority, An Interview With Nick Horne Who Volunteered With The CPA And Ended Up A Senior Advisor To The Electricity Ministry and Baghdad Council


Nick Horne was a British national at a telecommunications company in Jordan who decided on a career change that led him to Iraq. He started working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan immediately after the 2003 invasion, but then hopped in a taxi, went to Baghdad, and caught on with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). His first job was on waste management in Baghdad, but then he quickly moved on to become an adviser to the Electricity Ministry, and then the Baghdad provincial council. Horne symbolized the idealistic staff of the CPA who worked hard to help Iraq despite having little experience in rebuilding countries.

1. Let’s start off with the beginning of your story. You were originally a volunteer with the Jordanian Red Crescent to help with refugees fleeing the 2003 invasion. You then decided to jump in a car and travelled across Anbar to Baghdad where you got a job with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA). What was that first job like, and how did you work that out just driving across country to Baghdad and getting hired?

I set my mind on a career change away from Telecommunications to management consultancy. I’d been working in Jordan as a consultant on a Telecoms project for the government when I met a group of British people setting up a refugee camp with the Jordanian Red Crescent along the Jordanian-Iraqi border. It was quite clear that there was going to be a war at that point. I had worked out that I wanted to change careers to something that was more interesting and probably more me. I ended up resigning from my company and working for the Red Crescent. That was an interesting experience, but it was relatively short lived, and I hoped that it would lead on to working in Iraq.

It didn’t immediately. It put me in this crowd of people who were NGO workers and those who worked for the U.N., but they already had their teams in place, because they had enough warning of the war in Iraq. So I was job hunting effectively in Amman, working contacts, going to meetings, and it wasn’t looking all that promising. I wasn’t giving up, but I thought I might have to go to the Congo or something for a job, but since I was in the area why don’t I try a couple weeks in Baghdad and see what happens.

At that time, there were people crossing the border quite regularly in SUVs. From the camp I got dropped off at the border and there was an old Iraqi taxi and I took that to Baghdad. I had no communications. No real contacts with anybody. And it was potentially risky. If I’d tried that journey 3-4 months later I think it would have been incredibly foolhardy. At the time it was a bit foolish, but it worked out. Obviously some of the areas I went to went badly wrong. In fact, we even broke down outside of Fallujah as night was falling due to a lack of fuel, and we carried on.

I arrived in Baghdad, and I had a few friends that I’d been working with in Jordan who were there working for OXFAM, so I could stay at the same hotel as them. I met them in the hotel for a beer one night when I ran into the head of OXFAM for Iraq, and he said he couldn’t offer me a job, but he needed somebody to help set up his operation. He said that if I could help with that he would help me network, and he could pay my hotel bill, so I said yes absolutely.

I spent a week shopping for OXFAM. It was a good introduction to the city [of Baghdad]. I went around to all the markets, meeting the expatriates and meeting Iraqis. I thought things might come from that.

I turned up at the coordination meeting of the CPA, and there was an announcement at the end that said, “We’re looking for help with solid waste management in Baghdad. Anyone interested come along and let us know.” So that was how I ended up using my Red Crescent badge to get into the Green Zone, and ended up knocking on the door of the palace, and that was how I got my first job.

Baghdad had some fairly wealthy districts and quite a lot of poorer districts. With the invasion and war the municipal services completely ended. So you had a backlog of trash. You had bomb damage. You had vehicle hulks. You had a lot of mess. By the time I started, which was June 2003 my colleagues in the CPA had already worked with the Iraqi authorities. People had gone back to work to an extent, there were municipal services even though their offices might have been looted, and the workers might have stolen the trucks. There were things happening, but it wasn’t happening at a fast enough rate.

The CPA was a kind of overlay on top of what existed and remained of the Iraqi government. So I was trying to work with few colleagues particularly some from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to build up capacity of the government, and also to do a bit of oversight. I had to develop a strategy fairly quickly because the military were pushing for cleaning up Baghdad. I wrote this plan that was fine in theory, but I suspected at the time was totally unrealistic.

I did manage to get out quite a bit because I wasn’t under the security restrictions at that time because I was a volunteer. At that time the city was quite benign. I was taking taxis, getting local drivers. I went to every one of the nine municipalities of Baghdad and toured them with ministry officials. So I got a good idea of what was going on in the city, and what the problems were.

One interesting thing was that you could see how the whole Iraqi system had been run by Saddam based upon fear. Without that in place, and all the looting that had happened immediately after the war there was a sense that there was no government, and no law. People who were used to a very authoritarian system with strict rules, but so long as you kept within those rules you were generally okay. Things sort of worked on that. After that there was basically a free for all. There was chaos in many ways, and people seemed to think that democracy means you can do what you want, and there are no rules. That was mostly true. That was very interesting to see that.

The officials at the local government level in Baghdad were saying that workers used to be frightened of us, and now we’re frightened of them. They couldn’t issue instructions, and hope to have them followed. That was a problem across the board.

2. After waste disposal you got a job with the British Department for International Development to work on the power system?

That’s right. The solid waste management coordination was unpaid. I could afford to work unpaid for a bit. I moved into the Al Rasheed Hotel, which was where most of the CPA officials in Baghdad resided in. The food was provided by KBR, so most of my expenses were pretty much covered. This was a career change, so I needed to get a bit beyond that, and that other thing wasn’t going to lead anywhere.

I met with a U.K. officer at the bar at Al Rasheed Hotel, and we chatted for quite a bit, and I was set up with an interview with the Department for International Development. Then I was offered a one month contract as a policy adviser to the Electricity Ministry. I was a bit surprised. I happened to be in electric engineering, but I’m not a specialist, and I’d not really worked in government before. I also assumed at that point since we were a couple months in, power was known to be a major problem, so I thought there would be a lot of capacity on the Coalition side. That there would be engineering firms, there would be some of the world’s leading experts working on it, and I found there really wasn’t. Bechtel had a contract from USAID, and they had a number of discreet projects. The Army Corps of Engineers were pretty good, but they didn’t have the contracts. So there was just very, very little going on. I think the reason why the British government hired me was first I was there so I was convenient, and there would be no delay, but also they wanted to find out why nothing was going on. What were the problems going on with power? So I was a bit of a man on the inside, a bit of a spy in that sense for them.

I started that job in July 2003.

3. One of the biggest complaints from Iraqis was the lack of power after the invasion. Paul Bremer had all these grand plans of 24 hours of electricity, to raise the capacity back up to pre-war levels, and then he said he was going to expand that afterward. What exactly happened to all those plans the CPA had?

There were no plans pre-invasion. When I came in there were bits of plans, but there was nothing coherent, nothing comprehensive. The pre-war levels of power were estimated to be about 4,400 megawatts. At the time I started we were at an unreliable 3,000 megawatts.

This was because the infrastructure was very, very old, and in incredibly poor condition. Up until the late-80s it had been world class, 24 hours of power in the whole country more or less. Than it was targeted in ‘91 quite extensively. And then with sanctions they weren’t ever able to rebuild the infrastructure. The Oil For Food Program allowed them to do a certain amount, but it was so tortuous and that was all they could do that it wasn’t particularly effective. We were dealing with a system at that point that was just being patched up here, breaking down there. I mean it was a real mess.

The other thing is, immediately following the war a lot of the pylons, the towers, were looted and demolished. I think it went beyond economic looting. It was a wholesale destruction of transmission networks.

So you had Baghdad as the capital, but power for the most part was generated in the north where the oil is or in the south where Rumaila oil field is, and Basra; it being easier to move electricity than the fuel. What happened was during the period of the 90s Saddam had directed all the power from those areas to Baghdad. So Baghdad had a reasonable amount of power, but the regions had very, very little. By destroying the transmission lines as they did Basra became an island of power. It had more than it needed. And there were other areas like that as well, and the power wasn’t getting to Baghdad.

Bremer’s policy was for equitable power across the country. That was criticized even by some of my colleagues. I don’t even think there was even a choice at that point anyway, because you couldn’t move the power because the transmission system wasn’t there. So think it was pragmatic as well. It was principled in that sense, but it was never properly implemented anyway. When you have more demand then you have supply that leads to load shedding, brown outs, rolling blackouts whatever you want to call it, whereby different lines in the distribution network are turned on for different periods of the day. Now people would either threaten the guy in the substation or bribe the guy or rely upon religious or tribal affiliations [to not turn off the lines], so that policy at the substation level was never properly implemented. From our perspective it was impossible to really monitor.

We were able to restore power to pre-war levels of power at 4,400 megawatts by the end of September. That was due to a number of factors, but mostly it was having people who were members of the military reserve with backgrounds in project management and with engineering skills. They were identified, and then assigned to work in power stations and with us. So we got better information and we were more mobilized. We got some spare parts, but not much in that time scale, and a few other things. We were able to get up to that level for a week or two before the scheduled maintenance.

The fact is the demand for power we estimated at 6,000-7,000 megawatts. It might have been going up because the amount of domestic appliances going into Iraq was incredible. Air conditioning units for example, fridges and TVs, the amount of stuff that was coming in to increase demand was extraordinary. So demand was shooting up and no one was paying their electricity bills, so we were chasing this moving target.

Typically it takes three years to build a big power station, and that’s when you don’t have an insurgency. All the cost estimates we initially made we had to practically double or triple because of the increased danger for contractors. Everything became incredibly hard. People were on lockdown all the time. Infrastructure was being attacked as it was being built.

We started with a relatively tiny team, but we changed that reasonably quickly by mid to late August. By September there really was a lot going on, and that really ramped up during the period of the CPA, but it was getting harder and harder. And perhaps during that short honeymoon period if we had been better organized and something had been planned before the invasion maybe that could have done something, but actually probably not.

I got a little bit frustrated when you would read in the press for example that the Americans hadn’t even been able to sort out the electricity yet as if electricity was very simple. It’s not. It’s very complicated and very expensive. It’s incredibly difficult, and I think with the level of effort made from late-2003 onward probably not much more could have been done, and it’s still nowhere near good enough.

4. You worked with two different Electricity Ministers. The first was appointed by the Americans, Dr. Karim Waheed al-Aboudi, and the second was put in place by the Iraqi Government Council, Ayham al-Samarraie. What were those two men like?  

It was entertaining. Dr. Karim was actually the Commissioner, because originally it was the Commission of Electricity, and then it got changed to the Electricity Ministry. He was an engineer. He was very well liked by our team. I felt like he wasn’t always straight with us. And I think I might be a little bit overly suspicious, because what I did find amongst Iraqi colleagues was a culture of fear. People were frightened of telling the truth upwards. People would not speak the truth onto power because it could cost them their jobs, their lives, their livelihoods, etc. And so we were not getting straight talk from people we were hoping to get straight talk from. Dr. Karim was certainly in that category, but I think his motivations were good.

The minister the Governing Council appointed Ayham al-Samarraie who is back in Chicago now was an entertaining character. We liked him, but he spent most of his time out of the country. We would follow his progress around the world through press releases saying that just did a deal with the Chinese or the Russians or the Indians or wherever he happened to be to buy capacity and services. We were just going what? He doesn’t have any budget for any of that. He was a character. One might question his motivations for cutting all these deals, but nothing was ever proven. He did have an engineering background. He would bark orders to his Iraqi staff and they would try to satisfy them.

With some amusement I read about his escape out of the Green Zone [in 2006], and his way back to Chicago, and the various interviews that he gave [afterward].

5. Moving on from electricity you then worked with the various councils within Baghdad. This was another part of the American’s plan. They wanted to decentralize power to try to stop another authoritarian government coming. So they set up local councils, district councils, and provincial councils. It seemed like a lot of this was done ad hoc. Some military unit would go into a neighborhood, and sometimes they would elect people, sometimes they would appoint people, and they were creating dozens and dozens of these councils, and it didn’t seem coordinated at all.

There was some good work done. I’ve been working with the military for the last two years, and they are enthusiastic, committed, and brave. They’re on the ground when a lot of other people aren’t or where they’re not. They would see a vacuum and want to fill it, but some of the stuff they did was probably unhelpful.

When I went to Iraq I was very new to the international developmental game. What I have seen since then is that the most urbane, best English speaking, suit wearing people are generally the biggest crooks. But we tend to fall for them. It’s not just the military, we all do because they talk the same language, they know what to say, and we tend to believe them. So I think some of the people the military appointed in those early days in Iraq were out and out crooks.

There was no consistent policy. You had people on the ground doing what they felt needed to be done, because there was a sense of urgency.

I felt that decentralization was a generally good thing, and that the experiment possibly could have worked if the CPA had lasted for a longer period of time. But anything that you do at the subnational level is going to challenge the national level Iraqi politicians who are very much against any type of decentralization.

They [the councils] weren’t properly resourced. And by the time that I came in which was about April 04 the CPA was preparing to go home and disband, and therefore didn’t want to make any challenging decisions. To a certain extent the Iraqi local councils, the district councils, the neighborhood councils were abandoned to their fate and that was incredibly frustrating because I felt that was probably the right way to go.

Within Baghdad setting up a city council, and a district council, and a provincial council was overly complicated. Wherein the States where it just about works, in Iraq it just doesn’t. So having three different councils with overlapping mandates was just a recipe for a problem. I think it was a year or so later that the Baghdad governor ejected the mayor with a whole lot of armed men. So that’s Iraqi governance. Again it was a very interesting experience, but quite frustrating. We were failing at that point and we had somewhat given up.

6. Was that the point where you realized that things were too much of a mess in Iraq, and things weren’t working out or did you come to that realization at an earlier time in your experience?

I think I only did that around April 04. I like everyone in that line of work starts off enthusiastic, idealistic, bright eye and bushy tailed. Also when you’re in an environment like the CPA, particularly with a lot of military around people are very much drinking the cool aid and you’re in a bit of a bubble. You very much want to believe in what you’re doing and its ultimate success. I think it was April during the uprisings and various other problems and the difficulty of the job that the penny started to drop and I realized that we really weren’t going to succeed. I think we were failing.

Now what was the prescription for that? What the solution was I didn’t know, and I still really don’t know. But things were really falling apart. Obviously it really went downhill until 2006-2007, back up again, and now back down again.

I was reading a lot more books. For example I was reading Pity The Nation about Lebanon by Robert Fisk. And it was quite interesting with the U.S. led multinational force in Beirut in 1982-83. There was this air of optimism that the Americans are here, and now things are going to sort their way out, and it actually didn’t. Understanding more, talking more, it opened my eyes a bit more and I realized we were not succeeding.

7. You talked about the Iraqi government, and I think this is important because probably a lot of those people, the lower level Iraqi bureaucrats, are still working for the government. You talked about the culture of fear that was from Saddam, people didn’t want to pass bad news upwards. You had all these different councils being formed throughout Iraq. What was your general impression about how the government worked and didn’t work? The average bureaucrat what kind of impression did they have of their job?

One of my first questions was why my Iraqi colleagues were not psyched about rebuilding their country. I was trying to build power stations for example. They weren’t particularly bothered. They weren’t their project. They were our project. No, I told them these are your projects. And they said no, they’re your projects and we’re just helping you with them. Well they weren’t because they weren’t getting a cut.

Official salaries were so incredibly low that the whole system became based upon corruption. The capital budget wasn’t a capital budget. It was all extra payments and bonuses. Likewise everything else was riddled with corruption and kickbacks. If people were not getting a cut on a project then it was just more work for them, and why would they want it to go ahead? So there was no motivation there. You had the fear, but you also had the incentivization through corruption right throughout the entire system.

But another factor that came into play as we were there that probably became more extreme since was the Sunni, Shiite, Kurds confessions being played out within the ministries, particularly ministries becoming fiefdoms of certain factions, and not working together. The Ministry of Finance lording it over the others, the Ministry of Oil not getting along with the Ministry of Electricity. There was nothing to bring these ministries together because of the way that jobs had been handed out within the new Iraqi government. Ministries became a fiefdoms of a particular confession, and they would pack them full of people. It was patronage based and totally inefficient and bloated when I was there, and it’s probably gotten worse since.

I did like the Iraqis a great deal. I thought their sense of humor was great, and they were all very brave. With increasing violence I think things have gotten worse within the Iraqi government.   

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