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  1. Opinion

Sad to say, I told you so on Iraq

The head of a toppled statue of Saddam Hussein was dragged through the streets of Baghdad in 2003 before things started to go horribly wrong.
Published Mar. 15, 2013

I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I'm going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.

I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.

When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, "You know the book itself won't come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong."

I told her not to worry.

When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: "Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan," they said, or "It's too early to tell." When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, "We'd like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste."

Well, now it's official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, "$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost."

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said "that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq," but the positive effects of those funds were too often "lost."

Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country's top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not "achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general."

There "was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B," said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money.

According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.

I hate to say I told you so. But I told you so. SIGIR, if you're out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money.

SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.

We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.

In asking why such mistakes are being repeated in Afghansitan, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them.

The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State.

On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about "progress" and thus on-message.

Despite SIGAR finding that "delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects ... resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste," the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.

There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there's something grim about this.

So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.

Peter Van Buren, a retired 24-year veteran of the U.S. State Department, writes about Iraq, the Middle East and U.S. diplomacy at his blog: wemeantwell.com. He is the author of "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" and is currently working on a new book, "The People on the Bus: A Story of the #99 Percent."

© 2013 Foreign Policy

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