Report: Iraq reconstruction failed to result in lasting, positive changes

The inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction has written a swan-song report about the shortcomings of America’s $60 billion rebuilding effort, which began a decade ago this month amid high hopes but ended mired in fraud and mismanagement.

Perhaps most striking in what amounts to a postmortem of the endeavor are the reflections of senior Iraqi officials, whose meager gratitude for U.S. aid doled out during the war is vastly eclipsed by their stinging criticism of missed opportunities. Senior U.S. officials acknowledged some of the complaints in the report, which is scheduled for release Wednesday. Some said the United States is viewed as accomplishing little because it set out to do too much.

“With all the money the U.S. spent, you can go into any city in Iraq and you cannot find one building or project” that stands as a testament to America’s investment, Iraq’s acting minister of the interior, Adnan al-Asadi, told the inspector general. “You can fly in a helicopter around Baghdad and other cities, but you cannot point a finger to a single project that was built and completed by the United States.”

That may be an overstatement. Tangible signs of the effort endure, even if many are dilapidated. But the viewpoint identified a key criticism of the American legacy, which has come into sharper focus since the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at the end of 2011.

Even before the report’s findings, the conventional view was that U.S. officials took on too much, sought insufficient Iraqi input and planned for a long-lasting U.S. military presence that never materialized. The lessons are pertinent to the Afghan war, the only American reconstruction effort with a higher price tag; U.S. officials there have begun to scale down unsustainable reconstruction projects.

In an interview with Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said that he was grateful for America’s investment in Iraq. But Maliki lamented that the billions in aid “could have brought great change to Iraq” if it had been managed better. The Americans, the prime minister said, were at times overly eager to spend their budget. In one case, he said, the U.S. government insisted on spending $70,000 on a school project even though the principal wanted only $10,000.

Rafi al-Issawi, a respected Sunni politician who worked closely with U.S. officials and served as finance minister until recently, said the United States failed to build landmark reconstruction projects. In his home town of Fallujah, the bridge over the Euphrates River remains an emblem of British rule in the early 1900s. After nearly destroying the city in pitched battles with insurgents, the Americans left behind a wastewater treatment plant that cost far more than budgeted and serves a fraction of the residents.

Justice Minister Hassan al-Shimari said the Americans built goodwill by bankrolling small projects near their bases, but few were self-sustaining.

“If I were a government minister in 2004, I would have given the Americans a vision,” Shimari said. “That’s what was missing. Because there was no mission, there were no priorities.”

Americans interviewed for the report acknowledged the lack of coordination. Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a critic of Iraq war policy, said that interagency cooperation was an “utter, abject failure” and that government divisions worked at cross-purposes, forming a “circular firing squad.”

Leon E. Panetta, the recently retired secretary of defense, said the military was thrust into a reconstruction role for which it wasn’t prepared. “The U.S. military was in Iraq to fight a war,” he said.

U.S. officials said planners failed to consider that Iraq might not allow U.S. forces to stay beyond the end of their mandate. The Iraqi government refused to give U.S. troops legal immunity after 2010, forcing hasty adjustments.

Former ambassador Christopher R. Hill, who was in Baghdad in 2009 and 2010, said U.S. officials became too fixated on “spend rates” as a measure of achievements as troops were leaving.

His predecessor, Ryan Crocker, said a key mistake was failing to ensure that Iraqis supported costly projects. Sometimes Iraqis appeared to express their support by “head nod” during meetings when they were actually uninterested in projects, he said. A similar pattern has dogged U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, where Crocker later served as ambassador.

Bowen said the United States failed to invest enough in capacity-building programs that could have bolstered Iraq’s fledgling governance institutions. Iraq is now amassing substantial oil wealth, but its political and institutional architecture is far from sturdy.

“It’s not close to becoming a failed state,” Bowen said. “But it’s a country fraught with significant challenges at this moment, which requires reconciliation, consensus and inclusion of a broad array of groups that have over the past two years tended to be excluded.”