Reading Time: 7 minutes
This bridge over the Tigris River was supposed to be repaired in two months for $5 million, but it wound up taking more than three years and costing more than $100 million, according to the SIGIR.

After U.S. and allied warplanes destroyed a key bridge carrying 15 oil and gas pipelines in northern Iraq during the 2003 conflict there, officials in Washington and Baghdad made its postwar reconstruction a top priority. But instead of spending two months to rebuild the span over the Tigris River at an estimated cost of $5 million, they decided for security reasons to bury the pipelines beneath it, at an estimated cost more than five times greater.

What ultimately happened there tells the story — in a microcosm — of a substantial chunk of the massive nine-year U.S. effort to reconstruct Iraq, the second-largest such endeavor in history (only the U.S. investment in Afghanistan has been larger).

Studies conducted before the digging of the new pipelines started showed that the soil was too sandy, but neither the Army Corps of Engineers overseeing the effort nor the main contractor at the site, Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), heeded the warning. As a result, “tens of millions of dollars [were] wasted on churning sand” without making any headway, as Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction Stuart W. Bowen Jr., described it in his recently published final report on the U.S. occupation.

By the time the digging effort was halted, and the old bridge and piping repaired — more than three years later — the bill had reached more than $100 million. “Because of the nature of the original contract, the government was unable to recover any of the money wasted on this project,” Bowen said. More than $1.5 billion in oil revenues may have been lost as a result of the delays. KBR did not respond to a request for comment.

The episode is, in short, emblematic of the contracting abuses and mismanagement that wasted at least $8 billion of the $60 billion spent by Washington on Iraq’s post-war recovery, under the guidance of what Bowen describes in his report as “adhocracy” largely controlled by the U.S. military — a structure that never “coalesced into a coherent whole” and often failed to achieve its aims.

With the U.S. military now gone from Iraq and the 10th anniversary of the invasion only days away, Bowen’s retrospective summary of his audits offers useful insights into how well the U.S. government managed its occupation and the legacy it left behind. The mostly downbeat tone is set early, when the report summarizes final interviews Bowen conducted with 44 top U.S. and Iraq officials, who addressed the simple question of whether the decade-long project left Iraq in better shape.

Most of the Americans he spoke to were rueful, noting multiple miscalculations, poor planning, disorganization in Washington, and inadequate consultation with Iraqis. James Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told Bowen that “the U.S. reconstruction money used to build up Iraq was not effective … We didn’t get much in return.”

Only retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in Iraq before shifting to Afghanistan and then briefly directing the CIA, was ebullient, claiming the effort had brought “colossal benefits to Iraq.”

Virtually every senior Iraqi, in sharp contrast, said the decade-long U.S. occupation was beset by huge misspending and waste, and had accomplished little. The biggest footprint Americans left behind, most of these Iraqi officials said, was more corruption and widespread money-laundering. Such a huge investment “could have brought great change in Iraq,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said, but the gains were often “lost.”

Billions here, billions there

The bill for Iraq is hard to divide into neat categories, but in rough terms: Washington spent more than $15 billion to try and improve Iraq’s power and water supply, revive its schools, and repair its roads and housing; it spent another $9 billion on health care, law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance; it spent $20 billion training and re-equipping Iraqi security forces; it spent roughly $8 billion to enhance the rule of law and battle narcotics; and it spent $5 billion helping to prop up the economy.

Bowen’s interviews with influential Iraqis reveal, however, that they don’t seem to have noticed all this investment or don’t seem grateful. One reason might be that households — as recently as 2011 — still got an average of only 7.6 hours of electricity a day, and a sixth of Iraq’s citizens lacked access to potable drinking water for more than two hours a day.

Both U.S. and Iraqi officials complained to Bowen that not enough was done during the occupation to stem corruption. An Iraqi government watchdog agency, the Board of Supreme Audit, noted last year that $800 million in profits from illicit activities was being transferred out of Iraq each week, effectively stripping $40 billion annually from the economy, according to Bowen’s report.

There are exceptions to the tales of fraud and waste. A State Department-funded childhood vaccination program helped cut the national infant-mortality rate by nearly three-quarters. The Baghdad rail station was repaired on time and under budget. And telecommunications repairs have enabled mobile phone use to climb from 80,000 to 23 million subscribers.

But U.S. dreams of fostering a thriving, Western-style economy in the Middle East have not been realized. Almost all of Iraq’s gains have come from oil production, which is now roughly a third greater than it was in 2003. The oil industry is not a big employer, however, and “Iraq is still far from having a vibrant, market-based private sector,” Bowen reports.

Moreover, its military still “lacks critical capabilities in logistics, intelligence,” and repair, Bowen’s report states. It cannot defend its airspace or its coastline, and is weak in counterterrorism.

Parceling blame

Bowen’s report indirectly assigns blame for mismanaging the endeavor to the Bush White House, which had the authority to force U.S. government agencies to coordinate their work but failed to exercise it. Instead, he points out, no single office was assigned to lead the effort, making stovepiping — a myriad of narrowly focused efforts — “the apt descriptor,” the report said.

But the largest responsibility for the screw-up lies generally at the Pentagon and particularly in the Army, according to the report. The Defense Department “held decisive sway over $45 billion (87 percent) of the roughly $52 billion allocated to the major rebuilding funds that supported Iraq’s reconstruction.”

The agencies formally charged with dispensing foreign aid — the State Department and the Agency for International Development — played only a minor role in these accounting shortfalls, because they spent less than a fifth of the reconstruction funds. “State’s role in managing the reconstruction … ebbed and flowed in cycles driven by the personalities involved, with State frequently on the losing end of arguments,” Bowen reports.

It was the Pentagon that failed to plan “for a lengthy occupation or a large relief and reconstruction program,” Bowen noted, under the tutelage of a Defense Secretary — Donald Rumsfeld — who famously said, “If you think we’re going to spend a billion dollars of our money over there, you are sadly mistaken.”

Defense officials have acknowledged that a substantial chunk of the Pentagon’s spending in Iraq went to repair the looting and other damage done by Iraqis in the immediate period after the war ended, when U.S. troops were not tasked with keeping order. They also have confirmed that billions of dollars were diverted from civil reconstruction to security efforts after the military abuses at Abu Ghraib helped stoke widespread hostility to the U.S. occupation.

It was the Pentagon that opened a contracting office in Baghdad that Bowen said was chronically understaffed — despite Defense’s peak presence in Iraq of more than 170,000 personnel. The office nonetheless shoveled money out the door at such a high rate and with so little accountability that by 2005, the U.S. embassy there was incapable of matching “projects with the contracts that funded them,” according to Bowen’s report.

Average U.S. expenditures for Iraqi reconstruction in 2005, for example, were more than $25 million a day. When Bowen’s auditors went looking for documents supporting billions of dollars of fund transfers to the Iraqi government in that period, they discovered the paperwork was “largely missing.”

Pentagon-funded fuel purchases were particularly problematic: When Bowen’s office asked to see a log book documenting $1.3 billion in fuel purchases by the Coalition Provisional Authority, “the log book could not be found.” Defense officials also could not produce documents supporting their expenditure of over $100 million in cash found in a vault at the Republican Palace, the gilded Saddam Hussein parlor that became a headquarters of the occupation.

In the crisis atmosphere pervading the reconstruction effort for most of the decade, Pentagon contracts were often open-ended, with vague demands and no precise deadlines. Although the contracts had provisions allowing their conversion to fixed-price awards after some of the work was completed, “the government failed to exercise these options,” Bowen’s report said.

A special system of urgent payments by military commanders — created to tamp down the Iraqi insurgency and known as the Commander’s Emergency Response Program — dispensed $4 billion without any formal oversight. Military officials say it worked well, at least at the outset, but no Defense Department office assembled a comprehensive picture of how the money was spent. As a result, Bowen calls the claims of success “suspect.”


Weak oversight predictably led to rampant overcharging. A firm based in Dubai managed to keep around $4 billion in Pentagon construction contracts, for example, despite routinely marking up the price of switches and plumbing parts between 3,000 and 12,000 percent, according to an audit Bowen conducted in 2011. Kellogg Brown and Root was among a handful of large contractors that kept winning U.S. funds, despite repeated claims by the Pentagon and others of overcharging by the firm and its subcontractors. The firm has said it conducted its work with “integrity, transparency, accountability, and discipline.”

Some military officers and civilian defense officials participated in the looting. A probe by Bowen’s office of the American official overseeing early reconstruction in Hilla, for example, yielded evidence of widespread bribes, bid-rigging, money laundering, kickbacks and illegal gifts in a scheme that included four colonels, who all got prison terms. An Army major who was the main contracting official at a base in Kuwait oversaw fraud in the purchase of bottled water and warehouse construction that involved 21 others.

Perhaps Bowen’s most depressing conclusion is that the U.S. government is no better prepared for reconstruction work in other countries than it was in 2002. No single government office has responsibility for such operations, he notes, and no tracking system has been established to help oversee related contracting.

Bowen recommends that the Obama administration create a new U.S. office for “contingency operations,” and even includes draft legislation on it in his report. But in an austere fiscal climate, and with Obama’s team set against future military occupations, hopes for reform appear scant.

Clearly a number of lawmakers “have signed on to this solution,” said Bowen’s deputy Glenn D. Furbish, a top auditor in SIGIR for the past eight years. “Hopefully, we will not get into these things again … [and] I hope people pay attention to what he has to say … But it is questionable whether these [reforms] are going to go forward. Given the current political environment, I am not particularly optimistic.”

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

R. Jeffrey Smith worked for 25 years in a series of key reporting and editorial roles at The Washington...