Sunday, December 13, 2009

Wasted U.S. Spending in Iraq: $53 billion and Counting

Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the U.S. taxpayer has been rebuilding Iraq and – for just as long – I have been complaining about this being unnecessary and even counterproductive. (See here, here, and here for sample critiques.)

Comes a report today by Timothy Williams in the New York Times, "U.S. Fears Iraqis Will Not Keep Up Rebuilt Projects" that tops off my unhappiness. Excerpts:

In its largest reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan, the United States government has spent $53 billion for relief and reconstruction in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, building tens of thousands of hospitals, water treatment plants, electricity substations, schools and bridges.

But there are growing concerns among American officials that Iraq will not be able to adequately maintain the facilities once the Americans have left, potentially wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and jeopardizing Iraq's ability to provide basic services to its people.

The projects run the gamut — from a cutting-edge, $270 million water treatment plant in Nasiriya that works at a fraction of its intended capacity because it is too sophisticated for Iraqi workers to operate, to a farmers' market that farmers cannot decide how to share, to a large American hospital closed immediately after it was handed over to Iraq because the government was unable to supply it with equipment, a medical staff or electricity. …

In hundreds of cases during the past two years, the Iraqi government has refused or delayed the transfer of American-built projects because it cannot staff or maintain them, Iraqi and American government officials say. Other facilities, including hospitals, schools and prisons built with American funds, have remained empty long after they were completed because there were not enough Iraqis trained to operate them.

"As large-scale construction projects — power plants, water-treatment systems and oil facilities — have been completed, there has been concern regarding the ability of Iraqis to maintain and fund their operations once they are handed over to the Iraqi authorities," said a recent analysis prepared for Congress by the Congressional Research Service. … Stuart W. Bowen Jr., inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said his watchdog agency had "regularly raised concerns about the potential waste of U.S. taxpayer money resulting from reconstruction projects that were poorly planned, badly transferred, or insufficiently sustained by the Iraqi government."

Things will only get worse as the American occupiers "continue to depart in large numbers, taking with them their money, equipment and expertise."

The article provides some specific instances:

  • In Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, a recently completed $4 million maternity hospital built by the Americans is open, but the staff members cannot operate much of its equipment. "The building is fairly good and the Americans have provided the hospital with a variety of high-tech medical devices, but they did not pay attention to the training of doctors in how to use them," said Jawad al-Jubouri, a district officer.

  • In Falluja, west of Baghdad, a $98 million wastewater treatment plant built by the United States serves only one-third of the homes it was intended to serve, because the Iraqi government has not supplied it with sufficient fuel, "raising the possibility that the U.S. effort has been wasted," according to a special inspector general's report.

  • At Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad, which had been the American military's largest medical center in the country, Iraqi security forces took up guard positions even before the conclusion of a ceremonial transfer to the Iraqi government last month. The hospital, however, has been closed because the Health Ministry lacks the staff and equipment to reopen it, though the American military said it left $7.9 million in equipment behind.

  • Iraq's most notorious reconstruction project might be the $165 million Basra Children's Hospital in the south, championed by Laura Bush when she was the first lady. Its completion has been delayed by more than four years, and the project is $115 million over budget. Once the hospital opens — perhaps next year — there will be too few doctors and other medical staff members to take advantage of much of its modern equipment. "It was supposed to open in March, but I don't think it will be ready," said Ahmed Qassim, the hospital's director. He added: "Maybe July, but we don't know. Maybe not July."

What gets my goat is that Iraqis don't even appreciate what they have been given. The Times article quotes Ali Ghalib Baban, Iraq's minister of planning, dismissing the $53 billion on the grounds that it has not had a discernible impact. "Maybe they spent it, but Iraq doesn't feel it."

Comment: One's tempted to blame Iraqis for this travesty but the real blame belongs with the George W. Bush administration which had a vision of "a free, … stable, democratic, and prosperous Iraq" and did not let realities get in the way of its fantasy.

As so often was the case with Bush, the motives were good but the implementation terrible.

Daniel Pipes

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