$40 Million spent on the abandoned Khan Bani Sa’ad Prison in Diyala, Iraq. Photo courtesy of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction @Wired.com
As the American economy begins to feel the bite of sequester cuts, with debate on “what to do” ranging from repealing birth control to prohibiting the President from playing golf, an audit of the rebuilding efforts in post-war Iraq has just been tallied and not only will the price tag take your breath away, but the staggering amount wasted on fraud and mismanagement should feel a bit like a sucker punch. Are you sitting down?
That’s right, $60 billion on buildings that never got built, crony contracts that lined pockets without anything getting done; bribes, kickbacks, luxury items, aborted projects and just general mismanagement, fraud and an obscene waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars. This at a time when some Americans aren’t getting their paychecks, services are being cut, and workers are losing precious hours, amongst many other belt-tightening measures currently being implemented.
How does any of this make sense?
It doesn’t. Because there’s no logic to be found in a post-war effort that, however well intended at the start, has been one colossal, and very expensive, blunder. When added to the $800 billion spent on military operations, this war, built on a lie, has cost the country dearly.
Stuart Bowen is the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and his audit came out this week, just as we’re nearing the 10th anniversary of the Iraq invasion. And what he found was disturbing at the very least. From Danger Room|Wired:
…$8 billion of that money wasted outright. And that’s a “conservative” estimate, Bowen tells Danger Room.
“We couldn’t look at every project — that’s impossible — but our audits show a lack of accountability,” Bowen says. “We are not well structured to carry out stability and reconstruction operations.”
That isn’t nearly the whole story of the Iraq War’s expense. Bowen is only looking at reconstruction money, not the cost of military operations in Iraq, which totaled over $800 billion. But on Wednesday, Bowen’s office released a mammoth, final report into the botched reconstruction, which cost the U.S. taxpayers, on average, $15 million every day from 2003 to 2012 — all for dubious gain.
It turns out there wasn’t just one way to waste all that money. Some projects got started and never finished, like a prison in Diyala province, shown above, that languishes unbuilt nearly nine years after the government spent $40 million to build it. Other contracts went to cronies: the top contracting officer in Hilla awarded $8.6 million to a contractor, Philip Bloom, in exchange for “bribes and kickbacks, expensive vehicles, business-class airline tickets, computers, jewelry, and other items.” Still others got needless cash infusions: one unspecified school requested $10,000 for refurbishments and got $70,000. Government contracting databases didn’t even have “an information management system that keeps track of everything built,” Bowen recounts.
Interestingly, not only was the money lost, wasted, misspent, however you want to characterize it, but there seems to be a disconnect even in how the situation is being parsed. Iraq’s acting interior minister told Bowen:
“You can fly in a helicopter around Baghdad or other cities but you cannot point a finger at a single project that was built and completed by the United States.” [Source]
Given $60 billion, that’s a horrifying fact to consider. The U.S. response? The general who led the troop surge in Iraq in 2007, David Petraeus, stated the reconstruction efforts brought “colossal benefits to Iraq.” Who’s right?
Depends on perspective. Some projects did get done; the $1.9 billion spent on reconstruction projects related to energy infrastructure, for example. But despite fruition in terms of the actual buildings, Bowen found that even those “successes” under-delivered: new Iraq needs around 14,000 megawatts of power; how much is provided by the completed projects? Only 8000. Just over half.
The consensus seems to be that while the U.S. commenced the rebuilding effort with enthusiasm, nowhere near enough vetting of personnel or due diligence of companies was done. This research deficit resulted in those in charge having little clarity about who among the Iraqi contractors, builders, project managers, etc., was properly qualified, experienced, or capable of getting the various jobs accomplished, which ultimately led to large, expensive projects either being abandoned, or grossly over-budgeted due to corruption and mismanagement.
The legacy of the Iraq War, and the reconstruction effort, will be debated endlessly. One argument holds the U.S. should not attempt to destroy and then rebuild a foreign country it doesn’t understand. Bowen doesn’t go that far — “unrealistic,” he says. Agnostic on the wisdom of open-ended nation-building missions, Bowen contends that the U.S. can’t afford to do them in ad hoc ways, as experience teaches they require much greater structural oversight over the dumptrucks full of cash that they require. [Source]
The realization of just how much was spent on both the war and the rebuild is a bitter pill to swallow at a time in America when every penny is being pinched, in some cases to the detriment of the health and welfare of many Americans. There is something deeply disturbing about the continuing travesty of a war built on a lie, costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars, now concluding with yet more fraud, corruption and waste. Perhaps Congress can start looking less at its neediest citizens to shoulder the burden of budget cuts and, instead, turn their attention to the greed, ineptitude, and sheer corruption of those who were entrusted with $60 billion of our money – the American taxpayer – and blew it.