At Large

Big Disappointments in Iraq

Time is running out, and we've not found a way to rebuild the country and in so doing give Iraqis a stake in their own security.

By 8.10.05

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BAGHDAD -- Quite literally two seconds after I typed the second "d" in Baghdad above, a mortar shell (caliber unknown) hit about 50 meters from where I am typing. The sound was reminiscent of the "hissing" or "tearing" sound a bolt of lightning makes when it hits very close by. It was immediately followed by a gigantic explosion.

I ran to the window and the neighborhood was full of Kurdish guards running in the direction of the explosion with their weapons at the ready. The six private security guards housed across the street came running out with all their armor and fancy looking machine guns ready for battle.

I was not far behind with my body armor on and my M-5. When I arrived at the scene of the explosion I learned the mortar shell had hit the front of the house about 50 meters away and then exploded in the street. Thankfully, no one was hurt. This is the third or fourth mortar shell we have had in the neighborhood over the past ten days or so. This was the closest hit and there are several theories as to what is going on here. The primary one is that they are getting the range on a neighboring company.

NOT LONG AGO I LEFT BAGHDAD on a scheduled R & R trip back to the States.

Readers will recall that while my outward bound car trip to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) was, as usual, scary as hell, the scene at the airport spoke volumes about how things were improving in Iraq. The place was mobbed with travelers and Red Caps. A newly built mosque by the front door was doing land office business. The men's room was doing so well they had hired an attendant. The air-conditioning was working for only the first time, although at only about 60%. Captain Ayad and his Flying Carpet Airline had more passengers than they could handle. The terrorism business was so slow that the normally very alert Ghurka security guards had a bit of a sleepy look about them.

In spite of Capt. Ayad's barely being able to get the lumbering Rug from the runway to cruising altitude, I left Baghdad cheered by the tangible signs of progress and the very real prospects of lots more.

Upon my return three weeks later, it appeared nothing had changed. The immigration process was brisk and professional. The crowds were smaller than at my departure, but their size was still encouraging. Only the Customs procedure brought a jarring note to the proceedings. The Inspector watched me wrestle my suitcase full of surveying textbooks atop his inspection table. When I had it up there I said: "Nothing to declare." He smiled at me and said: "Open it." Once it was open, I held the top for him to look inside. He walked over and, without even a glance, he pushed it shut. He smiled and then made an obscene gesture with one of his fingers.

For a moment I wondered if the finger was an omen of things to come. But, except for this disconcerting note, everything about my arrival back in Baghdad had about it a feeling of Humphrey Bogart returning to Casablanca for a curtain call to be spent with the "usual suspects."

When I got out into the blistering heat (133 F) on the sidewalk of the terminal, my heart was lifted once again. Sitting there in the bright sunshine as far as my eye could see, were 15 or 20 enormous packages neatly wrapped in heavy duty plastic. From their shape I could tell the packages contained the frames for automatic escalators to be installed where escalators had never existed. The two levels of the airport are about to be connected as they should have been when the airport was built. The huge packages seemed a metaphor for all the progress being made in Iraq.

When BIAP was built some 20 years or so ago, Saddam unaccountably failed to install escalators between the two levels. Passengers having to move from one level to another have had to walk up and down the stairs; with or without their luggage. Everyone knows that nations with aspirations to greatness must staff their airport men's rooms and have escalators from one level of their airports to another.

There is something vaguely troubling, however, about the sense of priorities that lays out what is undoubtedly a large amount of money for airport escalators, when as far as I knew upon my arrival, so much else still remains to be done.

During the drive back to Baghdad my spirits started floating back to earth. Osama, my driver, pointed out a couple of big holes in the road and said simply: "Car bombs." The number of Humvee convoys on the road looking for terrorists had not only increased in number, but also increased in size. Most convoys used to consist of three Humvees. The going rate now seems to be five.

As we got to the neighborhood of our house, I heard the detonation of a car bomb about a half kilometer away. I urged Osama to speed up so we could avoid the huge traffic jams that are invariably caused by dozens of police SUV's speeding to the scene of a car bomb explosion.

THE COMPANY I WORK FOR IS involved in the reconstruction of the Iraq infrastructure. We, and our competitors, are deeply involved in the business of building new electrical substations, new electrical distribution and transmission lines, water mains, water purification installations and compact water units for use in towns of about 5,000 or 10,000. We have also carried out many projects involving repairs of roadways and the installation of airport radar and landing systems. Altogether, we have completed 39 projects, but in the past five months practically no new work has been assigned to anyone for reasons no one understands. All of us involved in these projects are clearly ready to do whatever it takes to bring Iraq back to where water flows, lights shine and people and cars can move around. For now, nothing is happening.

In order to be assigned one of these projects, and thus have work get underway, a company responds to a government-issued Request For Proposal (RFP). They are very elaborate documents that run 40-60 pages each. Our proposals are equally as long. For big projects they can run 200 pages or more. While a great deal of what is in an RFP is pure bureaucratic boilerplate, a lot of what is required is clearly germane and important.

Since my arrival here in mid-March, we have responded to more than 50 RFP's. Prior to my R&R trip we had not had a single response to any of them. No awards, but no rejections either. Some of these things date all the way back to March and April. This is incomprehensible in view of the parlous state of the Iraqi electric system and the country's water facilities. The lead stories on a number of recent evening news broadcasts have been the calamitous state of water and power facilities in Iraq.

As of yesterday the number of our unanswered proposals stood at 59. The total dollars involved are well over $200 million. And, because of the quirky way the government spends your tax dollars, a lot of this money may just be canceled and disappear if it is not committed before September 30! It doesn't matter that Congress appropriated the money for what were judged to be urgent projects.

I have been absolutely baffled by the apparent paralysis that afflicts the bureaucracy dealing with the RFP's. The men and women who work there (both civilian and military) seem to be intelligent, dedicated, loyal, and hard-working. Nevertheless, government entities charged with responding to RFP's such as the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) and the Project Contracting Office (PCO), appear unable to overcome the mysterious blockage that prevents them from making the critical decision to award a project. Awarding a project is the first step on the road to getting it executed.

The PCO, for example, recently acknowledged there was something wrong with the process when they asked us if we would permit them to hire an outside company to help with the proposal evaluation process. I wrote back: "Do whatever the hell it takes to get things moving. The Iraqis have little power and water. Time is being wasted. How long do you think they will be willing to wait?"

The PCO decided to bring in the outside help and issued an RFP to solicit bids to do the work. And in a tribute to bureaucratic insanity, that contract is itself in limbo and held up by the system! So...the idea for fixing the system can't be implemented because they can't get it through the system!

Bureaucracies everywhere usually drown in their own regulations and body fluids. Government bureaucracies (often abetted by Congress) always drown far more rapidly than others, because no provision is ever made for flexibility in the rigid requirements of rules and laws. Rarely can rules be circumvented or abridged, even when it is the collective wisdom of everyone involved that a dire emergency exists. For most members of a bureaucracy it is inconceivable that some day a single individual will be told: "To hell with the rules! Fix the problem!"

There are other problems with the existing system that can do nothing but lead to trouble. For example, the tours of duty of contracting officers are far too short. Many of them come here for only six or nine months and then head back to the States -- pockets bulging with all the extra money they were able to earn by coming to this dangerous place.

There is nothing wrong with people being paid more for coming to a corner of the world where they are apt to get killed simply because they go out for a walk. But, along with all the extra dough, there should be an intelligent plan for not allowing them to go home a day after they have finally located the men's room. Three years should be a minimum duration for a tour of duty for contracting officers. They should get four weeks off out-of-country each year.

Continuity and "institutional knowledge and memory" are the most valuable assets a contracting officer possesses. And, every time we send one home after 6 or 9 months all that continuity and institutional memory gets flushed down the drain.

The worst example of "wasted assets" I have seen involves Air Force contracting officers. Many of them are actually very senior NCO's with years of training and experience as contracting officers. Nice guys. Smart guys. Yet, Air Force regulations limit their tours of duty in Iraq to 120 days. Think of the wasted transportation and housing money! In four months those guys have not only not found the men's room; they don't even know what building it's in.

I have been told the explanation for the paralysis in awarding contracts lies in understaffing. I have no idea if this is true or not. I don't know how many CO's are here nor how many are required for the workload because I have no idea of the total workload, although I am sure it's considerable.

One thing I do know is that even understaffed organizations occasionally turn out some product. Their problem is that they make five candy bars and receive orders for seven more. They fall further and further behind each day, but at least they are turning out some candy bars. In Iraq there are no candy bars being made.

AS SOON AS I GOT BACK from the airport and in the house, I checked the "contracts awarded" site. Nothing! Absolutely nothing in the three weeks I had been gone! Absolutely nothing since March! I can't believe Americans are in charge of this disaster area. I can't believe we are showing such an unimaginable level of incompetence or indifference. I can't believe we are letting the Iraqis down this way. And, they can't either!

All the Iraqis have told me more times than I care to remember how sure they were that the Americans would fix everything. The Iraqis measure the progress in their lives with easy-to-use yardsticks. "Last summer we had lights 10 hours a day. We had air-conditioning all night. This summer my family and I are getting by on two hours of electricity a day," says Erbel. When daytime temperatures are over 130 degrees and over 100 at night, it's easy to remember when the air-conditioning last worked.

The complaints are becoming more vociferous. "You told us you would fix everything," says Aliaa. Then, Abdullah adds: "You told us there was $18 billion to fix it and nothing is happening...It's not that you are erecting transmission lines that don't work. If you did that, I would say you are at least trying. You people are simply not doing a damn thing!" (All these people asked that I alter their names and not further identify them.)

On August 1, CNN International carried a report that concluded progress on water and electricity projects is woefully inadequate because security costs eat up 33% of each contract. I don't doubt security costs are steep, but that estimate is too high. Having prepared many proposals, I know the figure is probably half of that. But that is still too high.

One of the ironies of all our self-imposed delays is that the commencement and completion of projects will themselves help cut down the violence and the killing. These delays, therefore, cost more lives...both American and Iraqi. The reason for this is that people don't visit death and destruction on work being done to rebuild their own communities. Early completion of Iraq reconstruction will markedly reduce the violence and help silence the insurgency.

On every proposal we submit, the standard reply to the question of how we will provide security is that it will be done by means of "community policing." All security guards are hired from the community itself because none of the insurgents, many of whom are also local, will attack their friends and neighbors. We have had only one security issue on all the projects we have completed and, in that case, we shut down the job for a month and then went back and finished it.

To get proper security, you go to the local Sheik (a tribal leader) and tell him you are going to be working on the water and power networks to get everything working again. You say you need two things: workers and security people. After much negotiating and horse-trading, you agree on a price to pay the Sheik. He then provides all the security. He also provides all the skilled and unskilled workers. But the major intangible he provides is a guarantee that you will be allowed to work uninterrupted by work stoppages or vandalism. Once the work is complete, the community polices itself and keeps everything in working order. This system has worked very well in Iraq since time immemorial.

Many Iraqis I have spoken to say that during the first Gulf War, the U.S. inflicted far more damage on the infrastructure than we did this time. That was by design since we knew we would be occupying Iraq after this episode. And yet, the last time Saddam was able to get everything back to prewar levels or better less than two years after the end of hostilities. These same Iraqis are incredulous about this and ask: "Why can't the Americans even get started within two years? Saddam had it all fixed in just over 18 months; and for all your $18 billion you are nowhere more than two years later!" And, as a parting remark he adds: "Saddam accomplished all this in spite of the U.N. embargo which, no matter how corruptly managed, certainly did not make it easier for Saddam to rebuild!"

Iraqis are increasingly angry over the water and electricity crises. It is obvious in their day-to-day outbursts of temper that they are a people at their wits end. And the sad truth is that if all the contracts were awarded tomorrow morning, it would be at least 18 months before even minor localized progress would be noted. It will be at least three years before there is significant wider-scale progress. And, since all the contracts are not going to be awarded tomorrow, it will be at least five years before things get back to some semblance of normalcy. And that assumes no extraordinary event interferes. In a region of the world where extraordinary events are the norm, this is a lot to expect.

THERE IS ANOTHER, AND VERY important factor at play here. Because the U.S. is such a technologically advanced country, more and more Iraqis are starting to express the view that the lack of progress is not an accident but a deliberate policy act. Incredible as this may sound, it is a view expressed by many Iraqis who are not willing to believe that the U.S. is unable to quell the insurgency, or to stop the infiltration of terrorists from Syria and Iran. Too many Iraqis to ignore are expressing the view that failure to rebuild and failure to quell the insurgency are intentional and deliberate!

Ask them for a rationale for this astounding assertion and the explanation is a very simple one. President Bush has said countless times to the American people: "The reason we are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is so that we don't have to fight the war on terror here at home."

The Iraqis find it inconceivable that the Army and Marines and the U.S. Air Force can't close the boundary between Syria and Iraq to prevent the torrent of armed insurgents from pouring over the border -- perhaps by the thousands! They argue that the Air Force, which so quickly made mince-meat of Saddam's forces, has hardly been seen at all in two years, and is used now only sporadically in the west of Iraq. And, they add very pointedly: "If you could easily and persuasively argue that it was important that Iraq be subdued, why not take similar steps with Syria. An air campaign of well coordinated attacks by B-1's, F-15E's, cruise missiles and other air assets on Syria, would hurt them badly enough that they would police the border themselves. There is no need to invade them."

Then their argument goes on: "To effectively discourage the insurgents from coming across the border is to encourage them to go fight elsewhere; and that's what you don't want to do. You want them to fight in Iraq!"

Omar, a highly intelligent middle class businessman I know, says flat out: "It is your policy to keep the war in Iraq, so that you don't have to fight it in Detroit or Chicago or Boston. And, in due course, when you tell us the Iraqi Army has been trained you will leave us, and the war will still be in Iraq. The only difference is that then we will only be killing each other."

Omar goes on to say: "I don't blame Bush for doing this. His job is to protect the Americans. That is what he was elected for. But what is so repulsive to us is that he is implementing this policy of deliberately keeping the war in Iraq so openly, and at such an appalling cost in Iraqi lives!"

Are these a bunch of conspiracy theorists run amok? Perhaps. But the fact of the matter is that it is not just Omar. Many Iraqis are starting to think this and talk about it. Adding to the consternation, is the fact the Constitution writers may turn out a document that gives the Islamic clerics and the Muslim religion a very powerful role in the country's future. That would be a disaster; for us, the Iraqis, and for the rest of the world. The militant Islamists will then be able to take over the Middle East on their own time schedule. And, after the Middle East, who knows where they go next? The way is being paved for them by the millions of politically correct people in the West who fervently keep repeating that "Islam is a religion of peace." Let's be nice to them!

I THINK THE U.S. IS STARTING to run out of time to make things happen here. And, I am getting a very distinct feeling that the President is going "wobbly" on what was his most persuasive (even if unpalatable) issue. To wit: the war on terror is going to be a very long and very bitter fight.

Most of the talk from Washington is now about force reduction because it's politically more acceptable. My opinion is that the Iraqi Army will be nowhere close to being ready to take over the defense of Iraq by 2006. We not only have to be ready to stay longer, but to increase our troop commitment. That may well have to entail some very tough decisions about the overall size of our military.

At the rate things are going here now, I suspect we have less than a year in which to perform. To be of any use, that year must be used to go on a crash program of actually rebuilding the infrastructure rather than talking about it. We need results! We have prattled away for over two years. We have produced enough proposals for fixing Iraq to fill a warehouse! If the Iraqis start to actually see progress, it is possible the insurgency will be defeated. If the Iraqis see nothing but more of the same, I'm afraid they are all too ready to go back into their Saddam-era cocoons and live there for another 25 years. We must remember that the Iraqis have not yet seen many of the purported benefits of democracy. They are still waiting! For them to revert to living as they used to would be easy. All they would have to be prepared to give up are life without electric power, without water, and car bombs on every street corner.

Water and electricity. Something better start to happen soon or it's quite probable that all hell will break loose. And, God help us if the escalators at BIAP start carrying passengers before the average Iraqi has any power or water.

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