US Leaving Iraq in Worse Shape Than Saddam

I spent 14 months as the Real Estate Advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Defense in Baghdad. My job was to assist the ministry in its efforts to rebuild the infrastructure for its army, air force, and navy: the land and facilities they would need in the future. The need for my services, and those of the other Coalition staff there, was primarily to reverse what Paul Bremer did when he dissolved the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior. This work was being done exclusively by the US military, which was part of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, or MNSTC-I (pronounced "min-sticky").

MNSTC-I was commanded by a US Army 3-star general named Martin Dempsey when I arrived there in July 2006. Under his command was a US Navy captain in the civil engineers. By his own admission, the captain had never run a construction project larger than $12 million dollars in total value. Compared to what he was responsible for in Iraq, this is like a one-car garage next to the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas. His deputy was a reserve US Army lieutenant colonel whose full time job in the States was teaching high school in Mississippi. The entire operation was run by rank amateurs. Whenever I tried to get the attention of these men, and their replacements after they departed, I was up against a stone wall.  You see, they wore uniforms, and I didn’t.

An Associated Press article by Kim Gamel on August 30, 2010, posted by Salon, describes the current state of affairs of the physical reconstruction of Iraq: of its infrastructure, the very thing I was involved in for 14 months.  

"As the U.S. draws down in Iraq, it is leaving behind hundreds of abandoned or incomplete projects. More than $5 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds has been wasted on these projects — more than 10 percent of the $53.7 billion the US has spent on reconstruction in Iraq, according to audits from a U.S. watchdog agency.

"That amount is likely an underestimate, based on an analysis of more than 300 reports by auditors with the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction. And it does not take into account security costs, which have run almost 17 percent for some projects."

My book, America’s Failure In Iraq, goes into much detail about the very issues in this article. As the United States pulls out of Iraq over the next 16 months, more will be printed in the media about what we’re leaving behind. Not only have hundreds of thousands been killed as a result of our invasion in 2003, but we destroyed the country’s critical infrastructure. The US and the UN destroyed Iraq’s economy with the sanctions imposed after the Gulf War, and then we destroyed everything the Iraqi people need to live their daily lives.

"There are success stories. Hundreds of police stations, border forts, and government buildings have been built, Iraqi security forces have improved after years of training, and a deepwater port at the southern oil hub of Umm Qasr has been restored.

"But even completed projects for the most part fell far short of original goals, according to an Associated Press review of hundreds of audits and investigations and visits to several sites. And the verdict is still out on whether the program reached its goal of generating Iraqi good will toward the United States instead of the insurgents."

This is interesting. The article points to police stations, border stations, and government buildings as "success stories." The police and border stations fall under the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. This ministry, and the Ministry of Defense, are the two security ministries that Paul Bremer dissolved with the stroke of a pen when he headed the Coalition Provisional Authority, the CPA.  MNSTC-I was created to reverse what Paul Bremer did and get these two ministries back on their feet, from scratch. I was on the Ministry of Defense Transition Team, or MODTT, which advised the civilian side to the ministry. We had a military counterpart that advised the Iraqi Joint Headquarters Staff, the military side of the ministry.

Within MNSTC-I there was a Construction Branch called J-7, which was led by the US Navy captain and his deputy mentioned above. These two men and their staff were responsible for the construction of everything needed by the Ministries of Defense and Interior. The article says the Ministry of Interior projects, the police and border stations, are a success. That’s good news. But it doesn’t mention all the Iraqi Army military installations, probably for good reason. When I was in Iraq I saw the worst construction I’ve seen in my life of camps and installations built by J-7 for the Iraqi army, at costs that blew my mind. If they did a good job for the Ministry of Interior, they weren’t pulling it off for the Ministry of Defense.

While I was there, LTG Dempsey ordered J-7 to "cease work" on all Ministry of Interior projects because of the claims for land that had been illegally taken away from Iraqi owners. There were over 125,000 claims at one point while I was in Iraq, mostly due to the illegal taking of land by the Coalition. I found out that J-7 was taking privately owned land from Iraqis without compensation or securing clear title to the property. Yet, when I brought this to the attention of the Navy captain in charge of J-7, and later his successor, I was basically kicked out of his office. It stands to reason the cause of those 125,000 land claims was probably J-7.  The current chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers in Iraq is COL Jon Christenson.

"[COL] Christensen acknowledged that mistakes have been made. But he said steps have been taken to fix them, and the success of the program will depend ultimately on the Iraqis — who have complained that they were not consulted on projects to start with.

"’There’s only so much we could do,’ Christensen said. ‘A lot of it comes down to them taking ownership of it.’

"But sometimes civilian and military reconstruction efforts were poorly coordinated and overlapped."

"Poorly coordinated and overlapped" is an understatement. I describe in my book how there was no coordination with the Iraqis at the Ministry of Defense. They had no say in what was done for them by MNSTC-I, they had no say what Iraqi army units went where, they had no input into the design and construction of their facilities, and yet J-7 wanted them to accept everything sight-unseen. The Iraqis I advised refused to do this because they insisted on seeing the facilities before signing for and accepting them. I told this to J-7, but its reply was the Iraqis could get in their cars and drive to these sites on their own. That meant getting killed, but what did J-7 care?

"Another problem was coordination with the Iraqis, who have been left with health facilities that would cost at least as much as the Americans spent to complete. One clinic was handed over to local authorities without a staircase, said Shaymaa Mohammed Amin, the head of the Diyala provincial reconstruction and development committee.

"’We were almost forced to take them,’ she said during an interview at the heavily fortified local government building in the provincial capital of Baqouba. ‘Generally speaking, they were below our expectations. Huge funds were wasted and they would not have been wasted if plans had been clear from the beginning.’ "

Imagine, facilities built by American construction companies, under the guidance and with the funding of the US government and the Coalition, that fall below the standards of the Iraqis? No offense to Iraqis, but it doesn’t get much worse than that. There was absolutely no oversight of the US construction companies hired by the US, military or otherwise, which didn’t know what it was doing itself. I was sent there to assist, but that meant "suggesting" to the Coalition (i.e., the US military) better ways to do things using standard industry construction practices. But they don’t listen to "suggestions" coming from a guy in civilian clothes.

"In some cases, Iraqi ministries have refused to take on the responsibility for U.S.-funded programs, forcing the Americans to leave abandoned buildings littering the landscape.

"’Initially when we came in … we didn’t collaborate as much as we should have with the correct people and figure out what their needs were,’ Christensen said. He stressed that Iraqis are now closely involved in all projects.

"The U.S. military pinned great hopes on a $5.7 million convention center inside the tightly secured Baghdad International Airport compound, as part of a commercial hub aimed at attracting foreign investors…….But the contracts awarded for the halls did not include requirements to connect them to the main power supply."

COL Christensen is understating the obvious. The US and the Coalition made absolutely no effort to collaborate with the Iraqis, whom we could have worked with while they learned to reconstruct their country, that we destroyed, on their own. MNSTC-I, under the command of LTG Dempsey, did nothing in this regard for the Ministries of Defense and Interior. It built facilities for the Iraqis using American firms, the facilities were poorly constructed, and the costs were through the roof. If there wasn’t corruption on the part of the US firms that did this work, I would be surprised. But I haven’t heard a thing about this in the media since my return three years ago. It isn’t just the US construction companies who need to be looked into, it’s the US military they did all the work for, especially LTG Dempsey and the two US Navy captains who ran J-7.

"The construction of a ‘state of the art’ pediatric specialist hospital with a cancer unit was projected to be completed by December 2005 for about $50 million. By last year, the cost had soared above $165 million, including more than $100 million in U.S. funds, and the equipment was dated, according to an auditors’ report.

"In an acknowledgment that they weren’t getting exactly what they hoped for, Iraqi officials insisted the label ‘state of the art’ be removed from a memorandum of understanding giving them the facility. It was described as a ‘modern pediatric hospital.’

"The hospital’s director, Kadhim Fahad, said construction has been completed and the electricity issue resolved. ‘The opening will take place soon, God willing,’ he said.

"Residents are pleased with the outcome. One, Ghassan Kadhim, said: ‘It is the duty of the Americans to do such projects because they were the ones who inflicted harm on people.’"

The excerpt above refers to projects done outside the oversight of MNSTC-I, but the problem with all the infrastructure in Iraq is the same, whether it’s for the two security ministries, or anything else built by the US there. As I say in my book: we broke it, so therefore we own it. We came in and bombed the place back to the stone age, then we hired US construction firms who hauled in money by the truck load and were then sent packing, and then had inexperienced US military officers or other bureaucrats running the whole thing who wouldn’t give a guy who wasn’t wearing a uniform the time of day.  But that guy had been doing this type of work for over 20 years. And my position was originally thought of by two officers on the J-7 staff. But they were long gone by the time I got there.

The whole time I was in Iraq, and long before I arrived, J-7 was taking land from its rightful Iraqi owners without due process or just compensation. So much for showing the Iraqis we were following the "rule of law" in their new democracy. If J-7 did nothing else right, it should have made an effort to show the Iraqis it cared about this. When I asked the Navy captain who ran J-7 if he would build a house in the US without clear title to the land it was on, he just grunted at me. What did he care? Hell, it’s Iraq.

Author: Michael O'Brien

Michael O'Brien is the author of America's Failure in Iraq. He was a Department of Defense contractor in Iraq from 2006-2007. He was on the national headquarters staff of the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign in Austin, Texas, and served in the administration of George W. Bush at the State Department and the Office of Homeland Security. Michael O'Brien is a graduate of West Point and was an infantry officer, an Army Ranger, and a paratrooper. He lives in Arlington, Va.