U.S. Moves On, But Can't Leave Iraq Behind

Nearly nine years after the Iraq war began, the U.S. is winding down its involvement there. Host Audie Cornish speaks with Stuart Bowen, the special inspector for Iraq reconstruction, about lessons learned and challenges ahead.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Even as the U.S. military leaves, relief and reconstruction dollars continue to flow into Iraq from the United States. Stuart Bowen is the longtime Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction. And he joins us now in our D.C. studios to talk about lessons learned challenges ahead.

Welcome, Mister Bowen.

STUART BOWEN: Great to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: So first, give us some of the basics. Exactly how much did the U.S. spend on reconstruction and relief over the course of the war in Iraq?

BOWEN: The Congress has appropriated to date over 61 billion dollars. Really, the largest stabilization operation - overseas funding operation in U.S. history, matched now by the one in Afghanistan.

CORNISH: Your office was established in 2004 and you've done more than 200 audits of U.S. spending in Iraq specifically. Can you give us a sense of how much waste, fraud and abuse there has been out of that, as you said, 61 billion dollars?

BOWEN: Sure, Audie. There's been much in more ways than there has been fraud. On the waste front, we've estimated six to eight billion dollars wasted in the reconstruction program. That's because of poor planning, poor oversight - management oversight that is. And ultimately, the lack of clarity about who's in charge of stabilization and reconstruction operations.

CORNISH: To get a little bit into the idea of waste, fraud and abuse, can you give us an example of a project that stands out to you that was symbolic of the reconstruction effort, where it goes wrong?

BOWEN: Khan Bani Saad Prison, 40 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqis call it The Whale. Sitting out in the desert in one of the most dangerous places in Iraq; a crucial project obviously relative to improving security, virtually no oversight. Indeed, when my inspectors showed up there in 2008 to look at it, they were met with surprise by the Iraqi contractors there, 'cause they virtually never saw Americans out there.

That was representative, frankly, of a recurrent problem across Iraq; the failure to carry out effective quality assurance programs. And that means going out to projects and making sure contractors are doing what they're supposed to do.

CORNISH: And so, Mr. Bowen, what does the U.S. withdrawal do to Iraq?

BOWEN: The first aspect is the reduction in the capacity to move about the country. That's going to affect everyone working in Iraq, including my auditors and investigators.

CORNISH: Because you don't feel secure or what do you mean by that?

BOWEN: Well, the military simply provided a backdrop, both in security and transportation that permitted relatively easy movement. That's gone. And such movements are only going to be accomplished through the use of private security contractors going forward. And given the still very unstable environment in Iraq, those missions will, I think, be as frequently cancelled as go forward.

CORNISH: Do you think that the State Department is really in position to do the kind of monitoring and oversight that's going to be required after this withdrawal?

BOWEN: Not yet. I was just in Iraq a couple of weeks ago and they had two auditors there and one investigator. These operations are fundamentally interagency, and we have proposed the creation of an entity that would coalesce the pieces that are scattered across government now and put somebody in charge.

CORNISH: And so, a kind of reconstruction czar?

BOWEN: Well, not so much a czar. A czar sounds like a piece of an adhocracy. This would be an institutional shift, the streamlining of existing pieces that have no leader. And...

CORNISH: And they'd watch for overlap and make sure not everyone is trying to build the same thing in the same place...

BOWEN: Precisely, right.

CORNISH: Okay.

BOWEN: Matter of fact, we don't know what we've built in Iraq. We only know about 70 percent because there is no one IT system that tracked it. And there was no one in charge to be sure that those who were managing the program were inputting their data in and providing information - crucial information, in my view - about what we what we got for $61 billion.

CORNISH: I'm sorry, 'cause that was my next question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Is ultimately what did the taxpayers of the United States buy with the money spent in Iraq?

BOWEN: We bought a lot. We bought the training of Iraqi security force that is many orders of magnitude better than it was eight years ago. We spent $6 billion about on the electricity system, and electricity output today in Iraq is higher than it's ever been in the history of the country. We spent about $2 billion on the oil infrastructure; production on that front is equal to what it's ever been before.

CORNISH: For you, and what is the lesson that you think the U.S. has learned from this reconstruction effort?

BOWEN: Oversights matters. Oversight is crucial. Economic power can be used in to help secure and protect national security interest, but we have to do so in sensible ways. And the hardest lesson from Iraq: is we are not well structured to carry out these operations. We need to reform our system so that we can plan, execute and be accountable in a more efficient fashion.

CORNISH: That was Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

Mr. Bowen, thank you so much.

BOWEN: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: You're listening to NPR News.

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