Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How The U.S. Reconstruction Effort Came Apart During Iraq’s Sectarian Civil War

The United States project to rebuild Iraq had been beset by problems the day it started in 2003. When the civil war started in 2005 it complicated matters more as security steadily declined. Things got worse after the bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra in February 2006. In the next four days approximately 1,300 people were killed. 25,000 were eventually displaced. The sectarian cleansing of Baghdad began as the Shiite militias went on the offensive. The Iraqi government and the United States were overwhelmed by the situation. Reconstruction of the country was thrown into disarray as a result just as American officials were trying to change directions.

The violence that was unleashed after the bombing at Samarra greatly impeded the U.S. rebuilding effort. First, the program was run out of Baghdad. Movement throughout the city and entering and leaving it became very difficult as militias, insurgents, and local neighborhoods created informal checkpoints to protect their areas from attack. Parts of the capital were declared no go zones for the U.S. Iraqi professionals and public workers also begin fleeing the capital in a massive brain drain. That further impaired the capacity of the government, which was already poor. The Iraqi authorities were now even less able to run the infrastructure that they were being left with. The ability of the Americans to monitor and manage projects became greatly impaired as well.

The outbreak of civil conflict came as the United States was attempting to change the emphasis of its rebuilding program. 2006 was the year that the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund 2 (IRRF2) was coming to an end, which emphasized large infrastructure projects using major American corporations such as Bechtel. These were long-term efforts that would take years to impact the country. The U.S. was now trying to move towards small and medium sized projects that would have immediate effects, and include more Iraqi companies and local communities out in the provinces. The two tools that would be used to achieve these goals would be the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP), which was distributed by local military units, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). This was part of the new Clear, Hold and Build counterinsurgency strategy put together by Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and the White House. There were many problems in this transition. First, some U.S. officials didn’t see the necessity of the medium term projects, and refused to approve them. Second, there wasn’t enough funding, and there were delays in budgeting and acquisition. That meant that the nine cities that were supposed to be targeted by the new campaign in the summer of 2006 was reduced to four. The PRTs were not adequately staffed, lacked money, and there were disputes between agencies over who would have responsibility over them. Finally, there were disagreements within the administration over whether the new strategy should be initiated to begin with. These all undermined the effectiveness of the new counterinsurgency plan. Without a unified stance, there was no way the Americans were going to be able to carry out the new strategy. That on top of the increased violence meant restoring and securing the country suffered.

Still, the U.S. pressed ahead with a new focus upon agriculture. Farming was the second largest industry after oil in Iraq, and employed 25-30% of the workforce, so it had great potential to effect a large part of the population. It faced major problems. It was behind in techniques and technology, because it had been cut off from innovations due to sanctions imposed in 1990. Production had largely collapsed as a result, and there were problems with irrigation, water supply, and salinity. This started a large exodus of people from the countryside to the cities in search of jobs. Farming had been largely overlooked in the first three years of the reconstruction program. IRRF2 didn’t fund any agriculture projects for example, but the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) did get the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to work with the Agriculture Ministry. The new U.S. effort focused upon reforming the Agriculture Ministry into becoming more of a regulatory body rather than a manager, and helping to modernize the industry. While the Americans repaired a large amount of farm equipment, and started long-term planning for land and water use, it wasn’t able to change the overall situation. Iraqis were still using mostly 1980s techniques, output was below pre-war levels, there were few market-based mechanisms, and the lack of services like a steady supply of electricity hurt production. The Agriculture Ministry was still controlling important inputs like fertilizer and seeds, as it does to this day. All the U.S. was able to accomplish was put a bandage upon a declining industry.

Another major focus of the Americans was the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). In June 2005, President Bush announced that the United States wanted the Iraqis to take responsibility for security. This was stated in a number of speeches by the president where he said, “As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down.” What was left unstated was that this was just the latest version of the withdrawal plan, because as more Iraqi units were stood up that would eventually allow the American forces to pull out. The ISF had already become the largest expenditure in U.S. reconstruction funds. The problem was the Americans were pushing for immediate results in a process that would take years to come to fruition. First, too many Iraqi units were put out into the field before they were ready, and performed poorly or disintegrated as a result. That caused continuous changes in the training program. Second, Iraqi institutions were not ready to manage the forces. Budgeting, acquisition, and maintenance were all weak within the Defense Ministry. Corruption also siphoned off huge amounts of money. The U.S. tried to help with this process by skipping the Iraqi procurement system, and used the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program instead. The amount of equipment the Iraqis needed however, overwhelmed the FMS, leading to huge delays. Of the $1.7 billion in orders placed in 2006, only $300 million had arrived by 2007. The U.S. also setup a modern financial and accounting system within the Defense Ministry, but this was based upon American norms, which were completely foreign to the Iraqis, and proved to be a failure. By the end of 2006, more and more Iraqi units were finally considered ready to take the lead in operations, and two provinces were transferred to local control. There was still a lot of work ahead, and any hopes of withdrawing would have to be put on hold as a result.

A far more difficult task was handling the Iraqi police. Training for the force had always been haphazard and uncoordinated. 2006 was coined the “Year of the Police” as the program was reformed with more trainers being sent. The major problem was the divided control of the police. The Interior Ministry was split between rival political factions, while the local police came under the influence of tribes, religious groups, families, and parties as well. In April 2005 for instance, Bayan Jabr of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq became Interior Minister. He immediately began recruiting members of his Badr Brigade militia into the force, especially the National Police. They were accused of running death squads, and kidnapping and torturing Sunnis. Jawad Bolani replaced Jabr in 2006, and attempted to reform the National Police. He replaced seven out of nine brigade commanders, 17 out of 26 battalion chiefs, and made all of the units go for retraining. That didn’t stop abuses by the unit. A U.S. review later recommended that the National Police be completely disbanded, because they were too corruption and sectarian. That never happened as the U.S. military still felt that the force could be reformed, and was needed to counter the insurgency. Another issue was the location of the Interior Ministry headquarters in Baghdad by Sadr City. For several years it was too dangerous for many employees to go to work with dozens of workers being killed. Like the Defense Ministry, corruption was also widespread. Attempts at vetting the police proved ineffective, because it only worked when commanders were willing and able to overcome all the local and national pressures they faced from those who wanted control over the security forces. Last, American civilian officials were worried about the militarization of the police. The U.S. military took control of all training of the ISF, and many times regular units, not the Military Police were responsible for much of this. That meant routine police work like investigating cases and arrest procedures were ignored for paramilitary training on weapons use and raids to be used against militants. That was a job no police force was built for, but the Americans wanted to employ them in the counterinsurgency strategy nonetheless. The problem as ever was the lack of civilian trainers, which had been a recurring issue since the 2003 invasion. The effects of all these would be that the Iraqi police would lag far behind the armed forces in terms of readiness and professionalism. In fact, to this day many of these problems still afflict the force.

A final area the Americans attempted to focus upon was the Iraqi court system. There were a large number of U.S. agencies working on rule of law. That caused problems with coordination and a unified effort. In 2005, Ambassador Khalilzad created the Rule of Law Task Force. It didn’t have a manager until 2006, and wasn’t given real authority until 2007. The U.S. also tried to bring together the various Iraqi ministries and officials involved in the matter. One success story was the support given to the Central Criminal Court, which mostly dealt with terrorism cases. It was given protection within the Green Zone and new facilities. The rest of the system was suffering. The number of detainees was overwhelming the bureaucracy. There weren’t enough judges, workers to handle the files, and prisons and jails. The attempt to deal with those issues proved unsuccessful, and the regular Iraqi courts were neglected. One U.S. legal adviser said that the Americans only cared about the Central Criminal Court, because it suited their goals of fighting the insurgency, and did little for the rest of the justice system. Regular courts also came under attack by militants with lawyers and judges being killed. Corruption and political influence played a huge role with the judiciary as well, making an impartial ruling a rarity. Iraq had so many problems with the various parts of the government that the Americans could never deal with all of them at the same time. The pressing need for security meant that the ISF would get the most attention, while other parts of the government were going to be overlooked even though they were important parts in dealing with militants. The justice system was an example of the latter.  

2006 was a year of transition for both the Americans and Iraqis. The civil war went into overdrive after the Samarra bombing, and the number of deaths skyrocketed. Large parts of the country were torn apart by the fighting with Baghdad at the center of it all. That made governing the country even more difficult than it already was as public workers were killed or couldn’t go to work, because it was too dangerous. At the same time, the U.S. was attempting to move towards a more targeted reconstruction effort that would support its new counterinsurgency program. Work with the Iraqi military proved the most effective, while the other parts were mixed like with the police to complete failures like the attempt to reform agriculture. In the end, the new Clear, Hold, and Build strategy proved incapable of stemming the violence or improving services and the economy. The events of 2006 simply proved too much for the U.S. to handle. That led to outside reviews like the Iraq Study Group, internal studies within the administration, and the firing of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The result would be another change in direction in 2007 with the Surge.


CNN, “Death Squads,” 3/25/07

Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, “Hard Lessons,” 1/22/09

Tijara Provincial Economic Growth Program, “Assessment of Current and Anticipated Economic Priority In Iraq,” United States Agency for International Development, 10/4/12

Wing, Joel, “From Bad To Worse, How Militias Moved Into the Iraqi Police Force, And The United States Failed At Nation Building. Part Two Of An Interview With Jerry Burke, Former Advisor To The Baghdad Police And Interior Ministry,” Musings On Iraq, 2/13/12

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