Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, and experts including USIP’s Manal Omar examine lessons learned from Iraq – ranging from the continuing diffusion of responsibility across U.S. government agencies to the need to ensure the local population and its leaders have a realistic understanding of the time that rebuilding takes.

Iraq Lessons: Will They Be Heeded?

Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction who has calculated that the U.S. “wasted” at least $8 billion of the $60 billion spent in the years after the invasion, recalls talking to American officials there in 2004. He asked what lessons were being applied from the reconstruction experience after the Balkan wars.

“The answer was, `This isn’t the Balkans,’ “ Bowen recalled this week during a panel discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C.  The response presaged the mistakes made in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein, in part because previous experiences that were relevant weren’t heeded, he said.

Bowen and experts including USIP’s Manal Omar examined lessons learned from Iraq – ranging from the continuing diffusion of responsibility across U.S. government agencies to the need to ensure the local population and its leaders have a realistic understanding of the time that rebuilding takes.

Omar, USIP’s director of Iraq, Iran and North Africa Programs, cautioned against letting the failures in Iraq overshadow lessons from the successes.

“The successes and failures are going to come in parallel,” said Omar, who lived in Baghdad from 2003 to 2005 and set up operations there for the nonprofit Women for Women International. She also has worked for the World Bank, Oxfam and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). U.S. assistance providers need to communicate with local leaders so that neither side gets “continuously stuck between the extremes.”

“One of the first steps is to manage expectations,” she said.

Despite predictions that the U.S. will resist getting involved in “nation-building” or even major counter-insurgency efforts in the future, panelists readily ticked off a list of possible candidates.

The U.S. already has supported rebels in Libya, Egypt and Syria, said John Nagl, the Minerva Research Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He was an Army battalion operations officer in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province in 2003 and 2004. “We’re currently conducting counter-insurgency fighting against insurgencies in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines and Yemen.”

“The lesson the nation took from Vietnam was we are never going to do that again,” Nagl said. “That attitude is a big part of the reason why we were so woefully unprepared for Iraq and Afghanistan on both the civilian and the military side.”

The April 9 discussion at USIP coincided with the 10th anniversary of the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square, a symbol of the optimism among Iraqis at the time, before sectarian tensions morphed into an extended insurgency and U.S. officials struggled to cope with the consequences.

“It is important that we learn those lessons and don’t repeat the mistakes we made in Iraq,” USIP President Jim Marshall, a onetime Army Ranger and former member of Congress, told the audience.

Bowen, whose inspectors scoured locations throughout Iraq and beyond to conduct 220 audits and 170 inspections and will continue investigating crimes through September, said the lessons described in his office’s final report, “Learning From Iraq,” call for the U.S. government to:

  • Unify responsibility for stabilization and reconstruction in one office with purview over all U.S. government agencies involved.
  • Ensure security before rebuilding.
  • Consult more completely with the host country.
  • Develop uniform systems for functions such as contracting and personnel.
  • Require “robust” oversight.
  • Preserve effective programs and approaches and replicating them as needed.
  • Plan comprehensively, including devising backup options.

“It’s crucial that we not lose these lessons, the lessons from Iraq, the lessons from Afghanistan, like we frankly lost lessons from the Balkans,” Bowen said.

Bowen cited projects in the northern Iraqi semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan as “virtually all very good.” The Erbil water-treatment system was the “single best large project that we accomplished and one that the Kurds have added to” and is now serving most of the regional capital. It helped that there was none of the sectarian violence that ripped so much of the rest of Iraq at the time.

Two other programs that generally were effective were the provincial reconstruction teams that unified representatives from various government agencies who worked with local Iraqi leaders to focus on their priorities, and the commanders emergency response program (CERP) that provided military officers ready funds for quick-impact projects to win the support of the local population.

Ambassador William Taylor Jr., the State Department’s first special coordinator for Middle East transitions since September 2011, said a stabilization and reconstruction operation “at the magnitude of what we saw in Afghanistan and Iraq is unlikely.”

“The likelihood of American soldiers being on the ground in a Middle East country or another country and being responsible for rebuilding and reconstruction, I think, is pretty low at this point,” said Taylor, who was the first director of the U.S.’s Iraq Reconstruction Management Office from 2004 to 2005 and also has coordinated assistance to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and later in Afghanistan. Even well-informed Americans are “not convinced that we have a great stake in, let’s just say, Syria, as an example,” he said.

In the case of Syria’s current civil war and its potential aftermath, the U.S. is working with opposition groups in an effort to ensure the country’s key institutions such as finance, security and essential services remain intact after the fighting stops, Taylor said.

Bowen’s “security first” lesson resonated with Taylor. The ambassador recalled sitting in the BUA, the typical U.S. military Battle Update Assessment meeting, in Iraq as a briefer recounted morning after morning the destruction of another electricity transmission tower.

In an environment where security is still fragile, smaller projects might be possible, he said. That’s the tact the U.S. Agency for International Development is taking in Syria, giving opposition leaders in areas they control authority to identify needs such as restoring electricity or providing services to bakeries that would help stabilize a community, Taylor said.

One of the first responsibilities in post-conflict situations is to help local people and their leaders understand the long-term nature of such transitions, Omar said. At the same time, local leaders and the international community must seize the brief windows of opportunity for change before disillusion sets in.

“That window of opportunity is very small, and if they don’t see tangible results or tangible partnerships, they can quickly dissolve and, in worst-case scenarios, actually flip to the opposite,” Omar said.

U.S. leaders also have to be aware that just because a country such as Iraq or Libya has vast quantities of oil and the potential revenue that generates, they may still need vigorous assistance, such as ways to ensure minority groups are represented in decisions related to the proceeds.

“Although they have the potential, they don’t necessarily have the finance or the procurement structures” or systems for effectively distributing the revenues across the country for maximum benefit, she said. “So there is still a need, at least at the upfront, for investment to be able to strengthen and build the institutions.”

The U.S. should be a model of inclusivity and transparency in areas such as contracting, rather than relying on favorite recipients or procedures that might encourage destructive behavior by those affected, she said.

“That means getting outside of the capital,” Omar said. “That means not only having online submissions for grants. It means not only doing it in English.”

One of the biggest obstacles to the kind of contingency planning that should be done is the already-dwindling budget of the State Department and USAID with the exit from Iraq and the drawdown from Afghanistan. Bowen said the budget for USAID in Iraq will drop to zero in 2014.

“We could all name five countries” where a stabilization and reconstruction operation might be needed, “starting with Syria and Somalia probably right behind that, maybe Yemen,” Bowen said.

“It’s not hard to anticipate what’s coming,” Bowen said. “Is there anybody planning for those operations? The answer is, outside of DoD and the kinetic component, no.”

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