The surge is working, which is great news. But is that reason to conclude that the whole American-led effort in Iraq is working?
I think not. The reduction in fatalities of both Iraqis and multi-national force members is important but hardly the only criterion to go by. After all, the American prescence in Iraq is not intended just to avoid death but to build a model of something new and better, a "free and prosperous" Iraq.
By that latter yardstick, I would say that American efforts are less than a complete success. I did a whole article on the mind-boggling danger posed by the Mosul Dam. But that is hardly the only problem; how, for example, fares the approximately $30 billion American-funded rebuilding effort? Digging in the archive, here's a piece by James Glanz in The New York Times, "Rebuilt Iraq Projects Found Crumbling," from April 29, 2007, that characterizes the problem more broadly:
inspectors for a federal oversight agency have found that in a sampling of eight projects that the United States had declared successes, seven were no longer operating as designed because of plumbing and electrical failures, lack of proper maintenance, apparent looting and expensive equipment that lay idle. …
The inspections ranged geographically from northern to southern Iraq and covered projects as varied as a maternity hospital, barracks for an Iraqi special forces unit and a power station for Baghdad International Airport. At the airport, crucially important for the functioning of the country, inspectors found that while $11.8 million had been spent on new electrical generators, $8.6 million worth were no longer functioning. At the maternity hospital, a rehabilitation project in the northern city of Erbil, an expensive incinerator for medical waste was padlocked - Iraqis at the hospital could not find the key when inspectors asked to see the equipment - and partly as a result, medical waste including syringes, used bandages and empty drug vials were clogging the sewage system and probably contaminating the water system. The newly built water purification system was not functioning either. …
Besides the airport, hospital and special forces barracks, places where inspectors found serious problems included two projects at a military base near Nasiriya and one at a military recruiting center in Hilla both cities in the south and a police station in Mosul, a northern city. A second police station in Mosul was found to be in good condition.
These eight projects cost in total about $150 million, or just one-half of 1 percent of the approximately $30 billion spent on infrastructure. They may not represent the whole, but they give an inkling of the larger troubles.
Revealingly, the report suggests that most of the problems seem unrelated to sabotage or other problems relating to Iraq's security situation, but result from poor construction, looting, inadequate maintenance, and neglect.
A case in point was the $5.2 million project undertaken by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to build the special forces barracks in Baghdad. The project was completed in September 2005, but by the time inspectors visited last month, there were numerous problems caused by faulty plumbing throughout the buildings, and four large electrical generators, each costing $50,000, were no longer operating. The problems with the generators were seemingly minor: missing batteries, a failure to maintain adequate oil levels in the engines, fuel lines that had been pilfered or broken.
Why these petty problems? One specialist offers an insight:
That kind of neglect is typical of rebuilding programs in developing countries when local nationals are not closely involved in planning efforts, said Rick Barton, co-director of the postconflict reconstruction project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington. "What ultimately makes any project sustainable is local ownership from the beginning in designing the project, establishing the priorities," Mr. Barton said. "If you don't have those elements it's an extension of colonialism and generally it's resented." Mr. Barton, who has closely monitored reconstruction efforts in Iraq and other countries, said the American rebuilding program had too often created that resentment by imposing projects on Iraqis or relying solely on the advice of a local tribal chief or some "self-appointed representative" of local Iraqis.
Americans have a tendency to brush locals aside (South Vietnam and NATO offer two examples) and impatiently take over and that, unfortunately, appears to be what happened in Iraq. I offered some simple counsel in October 2003: "Let Iraqis run Iraq." Specifically, I advocated "handing substantial power over to the Iraqis, and doing so the sooner the better." Good advice then, good advice now. Where to start? Mothball the elephantine U.S. embassy complex in Baghdad. (December 16, 2007)