Here’s one more Iraq retrospective likely doomed to the shelves of lost lessons and missed opportunities. Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, has poured some 250,000 pages of audits over five years into a 465-page book called “Hard Lessons.” This is what he found, according to The Washington Post today:
“…the largest single-country relief and reconstruction project in U.S. history — most of it done by private U.S. contractors — was full of wasted funds, fraud and a lack of accountability under what Bowen, the congressionally mandated special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, calls an “ad hoc-racy” of lax or nonexistent government planning and supervision.
And despite the Iraq experience, he said, the United States is making many of the same mistakes again in Afghanistan, where U.S. reconstruction expenditures stand at more than $30 billion and counting.
“It’s too late to do the structural part and make it quickly applicable to Afghanistan,” Bowen said in an interview last week. None of the substantive changes in oversight, contracting and reconstruction planning or personnel assignments that Congress, auditors and outside experts proposed as the Iraq debacle unfolded has been implemented in Afghanistan.
One of the first tests of this administration and new congress will be whether they have the fortitude and foresight to turn this thing around and at least try not leave Afghanistan an open sore of broken lives, failed promises and seething resentments. Bowen says Obama could start by devoting more military and civilian personnel to reconstruction and relief assignments. A new bipartisan commission is also supposedly on the job.
Seeing that our military is already stretched trying to fight the Taliban, and domestically, we are mired in a recession, with Congress currently embroiled in a political and ideological battle over how to best weather it, the chances that reconstruction in Afghanistan will fare any better than in Iraq are getting slimmer by the day. I hope I am wrong.
As an aside, I think Bowen is one of the few high-profile holdovers from the old GOP-dominated Washington who has consistently taken the role of public servant seriously. He has exposed too many disturbing schemes, rip-offs, blunders, crimes, frauds and inconsistencies to put into one post. Republicans tried to have his office closed in 2006, and he has been the target of formal complaints and even a federal investigation brought on by former employees (the latter ended without an indictment in July). I’m sure he is not perfect, but he’s persevered, and I think his work as SIGIR will — and should — withstand any historical revisions future pols and partisans will try to impose on our Iraq experience moving forward.