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Down a Rat Hole?

The inspector general for Iraq reconstruction says graft and kick-backs are still commonplace. “It’s a highly corrupt society,” he says.


Stuart Bowen: “Don’t do 10-year stabilization programs.”(Chet Susslin)

Stuart Bowen, the longtime special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, spoke with National Journal as the U.S. winds down its involvement in that country. Edited excerpts of the interview follow.

NJ What’s the most important lesson from the long reconstruction operation in Iraq?


BOWEN The truth that still daunts us today, as we try to deal with Libya and everything else, is that we’re not well-structured to carry out stabilization and reconstruction operations. Who’s in charge? Unity of command, unity of efforts—that’s what [former Ambassador Ryan] Crocker and [then-top U.S. military commander David] Petraeus talked to me about all the time back in 2007 and 2008. And it’s what everyone is still talking about. The real lesson is: Don’t do 10-year stabilization operations. They’re expensive. They’re painful. They don’t accomplish much. Especially when our national-security interests are fairly narrow in Afghanistan and we’re sort of up in the air in Iraq.

NJ As the military mission winds down in Iraq, what’s one of the next big challenges for the Iraqis?

BOWEN It’s a highly corrupt society. There’s no doubt Iraq has suffered from significant problems regarding graft, kickbacks, and abuse over the last eight years. But Iraqis tell me that it’s as bad as it’s ever been. They have a huge amount of work to do on their rule-of-law system. It’s going to require a commitment to transparency and accountability that results in the conviction of senior officials that have committed corrupt acts. That hasn’t happened yet.


NJ Is there one project that, to you, symbolized the reconstruction challenges?

BOWEN Falluja in 2004 was the center of the Sunni insurgency, and it was also the site of the most serious bloodshed in battles in the entire Iraq war. In the midst of that conflict, the reconstruction managers decided to build a $30 million wastewater treatment plant. I understand that part of a counterinsurgency operation’s mission is to win hearts and minds through economic support. The lesson is: Don’t begin with the very biggest projects. We launched, virtually on the battlefield, the biggest project this province has ever seen. It ended up costing over $100 million and taking seven years to finish; it was supposed to be done in two and a half. It only serves one-third of the people it was supposed to serve.

It captures a lot of the challenges in Iraq: trying to do too much too quickly in an unstable setting and, as a result, paying the price both in waste and bloodshed. The Iraqis were supposed to carry out the last-mile piece. When it finally came time for that, they weren’t ready to do it. We had this nice system mostly complete but serving nobody because the Iraqis hadn’t connected it to a single house. So we had to come in with U.S. money and start connecting houses, and finally the Iraqis provided some support. That disconnect with the Iraqis happened over and over again, at every stage of the reconstruction program.

NJ Do you see parallels with the police-development program, in terms of figuring out if Iraq needs or wants the roughly $1 billion for that program next year?


BOWEN The failure to get sufficient Iraqi buy-in, literally and figuratively, for the police-development program … [is] occurring even this year. They have to say this is what they really want. The senior official in the Ministry of Interior told us that as the program was structured and being presented to him, it really wasn’t something that he needed.

NJ A recent audit accounted for $6.6 billion once thought to be missing or stolen from a pot of the $21 billion in Iraqi funds the U.S. managed in 2003 and 2004.

BOWEN There’s a prevailing view within the government of Iraq, and, frankly, across much of the country, that the United States mismanaged Iraqi money in the early days of the program. There’s some merit to that point. But the Iraqis have to recognize their own complicity in the breakdowns that occurred. What I think the Iraqis are especially looking forward to are the upcoming audits. They want to know, with regard to reconstruction projects, what we ostensibly built with that money.

NJ How do you feel now that your office expects to complete its mission at the end of next year?

BOWEN  This is my baby, so to speak. I was the first employee of the organization back in January of 2004. Even at this late stage in the Iraq reconstruction program, oversight is still important. We’re going to produce four more quarterly reports over the next year and another 24 audits. We expect to be at over 100 indictments before we’re done and maybe pushing 100 convictions. We’re certainly not done. 

This article appears in the December 3, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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