Thursday, October 9, 2014

Iraq - A Failed Nation Building Experiment

Now that it looks like war of one sort or another has reappeared on the Iraqi stage, I wanted to take a look back at a publication by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) entitled "Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience".  This report covers the funds that were appropriated (perhaps a better word is "expropriated") by Congress to fund relief and reconstruction in Iraq from mid-2002 to the fall of 2008.  In total, American taxpayers spent $50 billion to train Iraq's Army, rebuilding the nation's infrastructure and supporting democracy-building efforts among a myriad of other things.  This was the largest relief effort made by the United States for a single country in history.

As you may or may not recall, when President George W. Bush ordered the Pentagon to plan for the deposing of Saddam Hussein, it was widely accepted within the Pentagon that the United States would rapidly transfer power to an interim Iraqi authority.  The American forces would function as liberators and would leave Iraq within months of toppling the regime, meaning that the United States would not have to act as the nation's administrator once hostilities were over.  The Department of State felt differently; Colin Powell, then Secretary of State, pointed out that the power vacuum resulting from replacing the regime would end up requiring a commitment of many years and that the cost of nation-building in Iraq would be enormous.  It was proposed that the high costs of reconstruction would be offset by Iraq's massive oil reserves, limiting the risks to American taxpayers.  Unfortunately, the nation's oil infrastructure was in such poor shape that Iraq could not come close to meeting its production capacity thanks to years of sanctions and the outbreak of hostilities in 2003.

Prior to the 2003 invasion, Iraq had 1.3 million soldiers and police in its security forces.  After the invasion, there were only 7000 to 9000 remaining.  The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) under David Bremer issued Order Number 2 on May 23, 2003 that abolished the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of State for Military Affairs, the Ministry of Information, the Iraqi Intelligence Service and three more government ministries, putting every member of Iraq's army, airforce, navy, air defense as well as the Republican Guard out of work.  This meant that 500,000 men were immediately unemployed, many without compensation; no soldier with a rank of colonel or above was eligible for a termination payment or a pension.  To replace Iraq's army, the Coalition would train 40,000 carefully vetted volunteer soldiers in a New Iraqi Army into three light infantry divisions with the first division ready for deployment in the fall of 2004, another in the fall of 2005 and the last in early 2006.  Major General David Petraeus later stated that the order to disband the Iraqi military created "tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of additional enemies of the Coalition.", a comment that now looks prophetic.  The only remaining "security forces" were the Iraqi police, under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior, a group of people that were both corrupt and not efficient.

The New Iraqi Army was to fall under the leadership of Major General Paul Eaton and had a budget of $173 million and a staff of only five to start with.  Seventy-five percent of the new force had prior military experience.  When 45 former Iraqi lieutenant colonels refused to serve as the new officer corps unless they were restored to their previous rank and pay, the Coalition Military Assistance Training Team (CMATT) lowered the rank requirement to major.  When uprisings/insurgencies caused greater security concerns during mid-2003, Major General Eaton requested the assistance of Jordan who agreed to retrain former Iraqi military officers at a base near Amman, a situation that was resented by Iraqi officers.  As the insecurity grew through the fall of 2003, an additional  $2 billion of funding was granted to the New Iraqi Army.  On top of training troops, a new Iraqi Ministry of Defense was required.  The CPA focussed on ethnic balance, trying to ensure that military promotions would be based on merit not on sect.  However, experience requirements for high level jobs meant that former Sunni military officers filled most of the top military positions.  Training for the new leadership took place over a three week training session in Washington, D.C.  An assessment in July and August 2004 concluded that Iraqi forces were incapable of combating the insurgency.  Three initiatives were suggested to beef up the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); increasing the Iraqi police forces from 90,000 to 135,000, the Iraqi National Guard to 65 battalions from 45 and the number of border patrol officers would double to 32,000.  All of the 271,000 forces would receive counterinsurgency training.  While the forces may have been reasonably well-trained, the Iraqi Air Force and Navy were ill-equipped; the Iraqi Air Force had no fixed-wing fighters or bombers because they were considered "unnecessary and incapable of influencing the counterinsurgency fight".

All of this military rebuilding was very costly; in total, by the end of 2008, various appropriations for training Iraqi forces to be responsible for their nation's security cost American taxpayers $17.9 billion plus an additional $5 billion from the Iraqi Relief and Reconstruction Fund.

Here is a chart showing the total expenses on reconstruction and relief in Iraq by major category to the end of fiscal 2012:

Here is a graph showing the average daily expenditures on the Iraqi nation-building experiment:

If we want to get a sense of what a circus the Iraqi reconstruction efforts were, here is a quote from the SIGIR report showing the logistical challenges faced when trying to send billions of dollars to Iraq:

"The CPA relied on the DFI to fund the operations of Iraq’s ministries and to pay for reconstruction projects. Held in a Federal Reserve Bank account in New York, DFI cash was flown to Baghdad in very large sums whenever the CPA requested. These shipments—the largest airborne transfer of currency in history—proved an enormous logistical challenge. A typical pallet of DFI cash had 640 bundles, with a thousand bills in each bundle. Each loaded pallet weighed about 1,500 pounds. The pallets were flown into Baghdad’s airport at night and were then driven to the Central Bank of Iraq for deposit.

The first emergency air-lift of money to Iraq was for $20 million, but the shipments rapidly grew in size. In December 2003, the CPA requested a $1.5 billion shipment, at the time the largest single payout of U.S. currency in Federal Reserve Bank history.  But that record was soon broken when, in June 2004, more than $4 billion was flown to Iraq, just before the CPA’s transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi Interim Government." 

It is interesting to note that the question asked at the beginning of the report "Did the program meet the goals it set for itself?" is answered "Generally no on the infrastructure front, but generally yes regarding the development of Iraq's security forces" and that "Iraq's security forces have achieved substantial operational capabilities...".  Given that Iraq's military has essentially capitulated in the face of ISIS military operations, it would appear that the funds used to train the Iraqi Armed Forces (IAF) were essentially wasted.

In closing, here is a quote from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in a conversation with Jay Garner, head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance:

Rumsfeld: "What do you think it will cost (to redo the whole country of Iraq")?"

Garner: I think it's going to cost billions

Rumsfeld: My friend, if you think we're going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.".

The failure of the Iraqi nation-building experiment seems to have gone hand-in-hand with a failure in leadership, a mistake that we could well be revisiting.


  1. I think only a true moron would still belive the US did the right thing in toppling Saddam. Although Saddam wasn't a nice guy he kept things stable. Lets move from that and look at Libya, Gaddafi not a nice guy but again kept things stable. Well look at the on going mess there. Now the last non-Western friendly Strongman left is Assad, why in the hell after seeing removing these guys only creates a large mess is this still a US Goal. Lesser of multiple evils comes to mind. But again all of this started with the removal of Saddam.

  2. "This was the largest relief effort made by the United States for a single country in history."

    True, but not by much. In 2014 dollars, the US spent $29 billion on the UK, $20B on France, $13B on Western Germany; $113 billion total on Western Europe plus another $53 billion on Asian countries with the most going to Japan. Was that $163 billion worth it? Most people would probably say yes but I'm not sure. Certainly we protected our investment in those countries in that we still have troops in them whereas we cut and ran from Iraq. I guess old, senile, stupid John McCain is vindicated with his statement that we should stay in Iraq for 100 years. We've been in Germany and Japan almost 70 and they sure as heck turned out better than Iraq.