Sunday, July 04, 2010

Projects in Iraq

I'm normally a fan of the New York Times, particularly when it comes to reporting in Iraq. They are one of only a couple of major international news organizations that maintain a full-time presence in the country. (The only other one I know of is Al Jazeera). Usually, Times reporting is very accurate and insightful.

Not this time. Yesterday, they ran an article entitled "U.S. Fails to Complete, or Cuts Back, Iraqi Projects". The gist of it is that, through incompetence and inefficiency, American reconstruction managers are failing to do their jobs, wasting taxpayer money and leaving Iraqis in the lurch. As a former reconstruction project manager in Iraq, I am familiar with the projects that they cite in the article. I can state unequivocally that this article is highly slanted and is based on extremely selective use of facts. It is certainly not up to the Times' normally high standards.

The article focuses on the sewage treatment plant being built in Falluja. This is a city that saw two major battles and some of the worst fighting of the war. It is still dangerous, although much improved. According to the Times' article, in 2004 American authorities decided, on their own and with no input from the Iraqis, to build a massive sewage treatment plant. After spending six years and over $100M, we're now walking away from an unfinished plant, leaving Falluja residents in the lurch. Additionally, Americans are leaving many of the rest of our projects unfinished, or finished to such low standards that they are unusable. Essentially, we are wasting American taxpayer money and leaving Iraqis with nothing useful.

The facts that the Times cites are fairly true, as far as they go. But they ignore many important facts, and their conclusions are certainly far from the real situation. Now for the rest of the story.

In 2004, as the article states, raw sewage ran in the streets of Falluja, a result of overflowing septic systems. The reason the septic systems were overflowing is that the trucks that normally would have pumped out all the septic tanks could not function in a city that was being torn apart by warfare. The operators could hardly have said "Umm, excuse me, but could you Americans stop shooting for an hour so I can pump out the septic tanks on this street? And you guys over there, would you remove those bombs, please? I'll only be there a little while and then you can go back to killing each other. Thank you very much."

In 2004, we were just starting to use money as a weapon. The goal was to start the repair and rebuilding process in Iraq and to provide essential services (clean water, electricity, sewage, roads, education, and so on). We would hire Iraqis to do the work: if they were employed and earning a living, they would be less inclined to pick up an AK-47. So even though the real cause of the sewage in the streets of Falluja was the inability of the septic trucks to operate, American and Iraqi authorities decided to put a lot of Falluja residents to work on a city-wide sewer system.

The Americans proposed a system that would collect sewage from the city and route it to a lagoon processing system. This is a very simple system that is cheap to build, requires very little maintenance, and can be operated by people with little training. It's a common system throughout the world and the United States. Iraqi officials, however, would have none of that. They believed that lagoon systems were for "third-world" countries (their words, not mine). They wanted a state-of-the-art, high-tech system. After a long period of going round and round, American military and civilian leaders capitulated and agreed to build the high-tech version, even though it would cost many times more than a lagoon system, would require a small army of highly-educated and highly-trained operators as well as additional fuel, chemicals, and maintenance, and wouldn't accomplish anything that the lagoon system couldn't. Virtually all of us who were involved in any way with the Falluja sewer project during my time in-country (Aug 2008 - Apr 2010) realized that this was a major mistake, but had to live with it.

So for the past six years, we've been trying to build this monstrosity. A project like this is difficult to do in the best of times; in a place like Iraq, it's amazing we've gotten as far as we have. Violence has been only part of the problem. There have been constant issues with contractors: incompetence, inefficiency, and fraud, to name some. We've had to terminate many contractors for poor performance, then re-award the contracts, only to terminate the next one as well. City officials have played their own roles in obstructing progress by delaying or refusing permits. Most importantly, Iraq is a very tribal country, and if you do not have the right tribal connections, you cannot work in a particular area. So even the most highly-qualified construction company in the world could not build this system in Falluja if it didn't have Falluja people on the payroll.

(The best analogy I can think of is that Iraq is a country of Tony Sopranos. National government officials, provincial government officials, city government officials, heads of corporations, local bigwigs - almost all are a "Tony Soprano" to varying extents. If you want to build a project in any city, town or province, you pay off the right people, you hire their buddies (regardless of whether they work or not; usually they don't), you pay through the nose for permits and approvals, you grease palms, you buy supplies and materials from certain "approved" companies, and so on. While I worked at the Embassy, the Anti-Corruption Coordinator estimated that 70 cents on every American dollar was skimmed off in such fashion, and I believe it.)

After all these years, though, the project in Falluja is winding down. The Times article didn't mention it, but the high-tech sewage treatment plant is being successfully completed. It's a showcase. The problem is the collection system: the pipes that run through the city, all the way to each house and business. This is what has caused roads to be ripped up for years and caused major inconveniences for Falluja residents. The major problems with the collection area construction projects were with the contractors. I am not saying that the Corps of Engineers didn't make mistakes, but it certainly wasn't the one-sided "Americans are incompetent" pitch that the Times is making. At the end of April, when I left Iraq, the plan for Falluja was to connect just enough houses to the system to allow operation of the plant. This was about all that could be done with American funding within the remaining time available. Don't forget: we have a deadline coming up, and our military forces (including the Corps of Engineers) have to be out of the country. However, most of the major construction for the sewage collection system will have been completed. It will be up to the Iraqis to make the final connections. And it will be up to the Iraqis to maintain and operate their brand-new, state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant. As the Times article noted, they have not yet stepped up to the plate.

I was personally offended by one paragraph. It stated that four Iraqis have died during construction of the sewage plant. This is true. One of them was a young boy whose father sent him down in a hole to pull the plug that prevented him from dumping his septic waste into the collection system. I believe that this boy was the one mentioned in the article who was overcome by fumes. What the article did not state was that three Americans have died as well. Two of them, Terry Barnich and Dr. Maged Hussein, were co-workers and friends of mine at the Embassy; the third was CDR Duane Wolfe, who was in charge of the sewage system construction. The three were killed by a roadside bomb on May 25, 2009, while on a visit to the Falluja sewage project. These men - smart, dedicated beyond belief, and committed to success - were killed by the very people they were trying to help.

I had to laugh at some parts of the Times article, particularly at the idea that Iraqis are complaining about American engineering and safety standards. I've seen the results of Iraqi standards. I also had to laugh at the idea that the Iraqis are complaining about poor quality of construction and that the Americans are ignoring them. Somebody's blowing smoke ... or not doing all their research.

As for the claims that we're walking away from partly completed police stations, schools, etc with no explanation, that is just not the case. We probably are walking away from some, but we're working closely (through the Embassy and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams) with the affected Iraqis. The ones we're leaving would be the problem projects, the ones in which the contractors are dragging their feet, or who are screwing up construction, or whatever, and the projects are in such a state that they simply cannot be completed with the time and money remaining. Unlike the past, in which we could terminate one contractor and try again with a different one, we no longer have that option. We're leaving the country. We will not be able to finish them. We're eliminating the projects that can't be completed and putting the remaining (limited) resources into those that can. Sounds like responsible management to me, not incompetence.

That does not mean that these projects can't be completed at all. Iraq is now in a very different condition than it was even two years ago. On virtually all the construction projects that were ongoing when I left, Iraqis could have executed them if they wanted to. That's a key shift from the past, when they did not have the organization, abilities, or resources to handle these projects on their own. Now they do. So if we can't complete a school or courthouse or sewer connections in the year remaining, Iraqis can. It's their country, so they should step up to the plate.

The Times article is accurate in that there are, indeed, problems with some (not all, not even the majority) of our remaining projects in Iraq. It is not, however, just an issue of American competence or judgement. It's much more complicated than that. The Times should present a more complete and nuanced view in future reports if it is to maintain its position as a respected news source. Hatchet jobs like this are unprofessional.


Kanani said...

Thanks Skip! I've sent this on to others to read!

laverett242 said...

Enjoyed getting the real story from the folks who work the trenches.