Monday, January 12, 2009

Why Iraq Is Going To Take A Long Time

I've spent the past couple of days in a conference.  There are people participating from the State Department, from the Corps of Engineers (the organization that's building most of the construction projects in Iraq and Afghanistan), from some other American and international governmental organizations, some NGO's, and Iraqis from both the national Ministry and from a local facility.  The reason for the conference is that we've been building a brand-new modern facility for them.  It's a big, complicated project costing way over $160 million dollars.  Some of it's your tax dollars, some of it's not.  But construction is going to finish up sometime soon and we'll need to turn it over to the Iraqis to run.  This conference is part of a long series of meetings that we've been holding to plan that turnover.
While sitting in the room today, listening to some long, involved negotiations over very minor stuff, it finally all started coming together for me, exactly why it will take Iraq so long to become a functional country.  There are so many things that play into it.
One is the lack of education on the part of so many Iraqis.  Yes, there are a lot of smart and highly educated Iraqis out there.  But the education system started breaking down in the 80's and got worse over the next 20 years, to the point now where the average Iraqi has a 6th grade education.  Yes, I know, many Americans are at that level, too, but our country as a whole is a lot higher.  When the average schooling is so low, that affects everything.  Plumbers don't understand why or how plumbing systems work, or even how to properly make joints.  Machinists don't understand why they have to use special honing tools when rebuilding engines, they'll just use sandpaper.  Electricians don't understand why they need to spend money on cheap lightbulbs for warning lights.  (These are all true stories).  
A related issue is the "brain drain".  Many of the most educated people fled Iraq beginning under Saddam Hussein and accelerating after the 2003 war.  Most Iraqi doctors, lawyers, businessmen, bureaucrats, artists, and others are now in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, London, or anywhere they can find a home and live in peace.  We didn't help matters when we instituted the de-Ba'athification policy because we fired all the officials who had the skills and corporate knowledge to run the country.  They were replaced by mid-level or junior people who didn't know what to do and had been trained only to take orders.  "Initiative" was something that could get you killed.  
A third big issue is the degradation of the infrastructure.  Many people think that we've been rebuilding all the stuff we blew up during the war.  That's not the case.  We blew up military sites, Ba'ath party headquarters, and things like that, but we deliberately left alone all the key infrastructure: water treatment plants, electrical plants, sewage plants, hospitals, schools, that sort of thing.  And guess what: they weren't working or were a knife's edge away from collapsing, anyway.  They'd had almost no maintenance or service for over a decade due to the economic sanctions after Gulf War I.  
All of this was brought about by the repressive Hussein regime, the 8-year war with Iran in the 80's, two wars with the US, and years of international sanctions.  This country has had the crap beat out of it for 30 years and the people learned to cope their own, dysfunctional, way.
So here we are, having a conference so that we can turn over a brand new facility to the Iraqis.  But building it and having it be a success are two very different things.  I won't divulge what this particular project is, and to illustrate the problems we're facing, I'll create an example.  Let's use a hospital.  First, we build a building.  (Actually, that's a lot harder than it sounds ... remember, these people have an average 6th-grade education, and how comfortable are you with knowing that your house, wiring, plumbing, concrete, and everything else were built by crews whose supervisors hadn't even gone to the 7th grade?)  
Now we have to hook it up to the water system.  Only you can't drink the water in the public water supply.  Maybe you can sink a well, so now you need pumps.  Which need electricity.  Which might be on maybe 4 hours a day, if you're lucky.  So you put in generators.  Now you have to coordinate with at least two Ministries to get an allotment of fuel for the generators.  If you're lucky, and you have contacts in both Ministries, you might get enough for another 4 hours a day.  And you have to hire yourself a diesel mechanic and electrician to maintain the generators.  Remember, these are the guys who think you can hone an engine block with sandpaper and think that buying bulbs for warning lights is beneath them. 
Now we need to hook into the sewage system.  Oops, there isn't one.  Sewage runs in the streets.  Okay, we'll build a septic system.  Now we need a lot more land and a complicated bit of technology.  Which needs a technician ... who doesn't believe in warning lights, by the way.
Now that we've got the building up and some semblance of power and water, and the waste (hopefully) goes somewhere out of the building, we need somebody to run the organization.  Hospitals, universities, utilities, and other such organizations are really complicated things and need smart people to run them.  Iraq has smart people in abundance, but they just don't have the training and experience needed to run things, since all those who did are now gone.  So for a hospital, we'll get a doctor to run it.  Now this doctor has never run anything more complicated than an office, but now he's in charge of a big new facility with a couple hundred people and millions of dollars worth of equipment and more millions of dollars in needed services.  And his environment has beaten into him the idea that initiative is dangerous, so if he wants to keep his job, he has to bump decisions up to his boss.  In this case, a deputy minister in Baghdad.  How effective do you think you would be if you had to get approval from some Assistant Secretary of Whatever in Washington before you could, say, repair the generator that just broke down for the umpteenth time?  (There wasn't any warning light to indicate that there wasn't any oil in the diesel engine, so it blew up).
So this doctor is the Man In Charge of the hospital.  Most people in charge of something develop a budget that says, this much money for the electricity bill, this much for water, that much for salaries, here's a pot for maintaining the building, that sort of thing.  Well, Iraqis in general have no background in doing this.  None.  So we have to teach them.  Then, once the budget is submitted, the next problem is actually getting the money.  Ministries here are not good at approving budgets and getting the money out.  And, just for the record, the "hospital" we're building is going to transfer to Iraqi control next month, and there is still no budget approved by its Ministry.  Not for next year, not for this year, not even for next month.
One of the problems with getting money out is that corruption is huge here.  It's a way of life, and they don't necessarily even consider it "corruption", just standard business practices.  You want a driver's license?  Pay the guy some money.  You want to get electricity to your house?  Pay the guy some money.  And if you're an official, skimming money into private accounts seems to be a national pastime.  I've heard some horrendous amounts.  Remember the "Oil for Food" program that the UN ran when Hussein was in power?  I've heard that 70% of the money that the program generated went into private accounts.  And that's a pretty common figure.
Okay, assuming that our doctor actually gets his money to run the hospital.  Now he has to contract for services.  Except he has never written a contract in his life.  Neither has anybody on the staff.  None of them know how to draft a statement of work or solicit bids.  And even if they did, there aren't many people who know how to respond to bids.  The general support infrastructure is pretty lacking: it's hard even to find firms who can do the laundry, much less maintain the computers and provide the food preparation services or any of the other support services we normally subcontract.
Finally, there are security issues.  On this project, we Americans are rarely at the site, simply because it's dangerous for us to be there, and dangerous for the Iraqis to be seen with us.  There are still people around who might decide to assassinate anybody working with Americans, or plant a bomb, or set up some militia roadblock, or other mischief.

Well, this has turned into quite a tome, hasn't it?  But it's all part of the effort that's needed to get this country moving again.  It's going to be a long road, at least a generation, possibly two, before they get to the level of Kuwait or Jordan.

As for me, I'm glad I'm a part of this.  No way could I have understood the complexity or magnitude of the problem from my home in Asheville.  But I think I'm doing a small part in helping move them down the road toward a new country.


  1. Great post. That is very well written and describes Iraq perfectly,
    you have too much compassion for them, they will take advantage of you, .....
    Fuck Iraq.
    but that's just my own personal opinion

  2. The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 01/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  3. Excellent post. So what happens when, as expected, we pull out of Iraq?

  4. That's the trillion-dollar question, isn't it? Maybe I'll give it some thought in a new post ...