Lessons from Iraq

These lessons have been reaffirmed by our experiences in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The waste, fraud, and abuse that ensued in both theaters point to the imperative for strong Inspector General (IG) oversight from the onset of a contingency operation. The work of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), created in 2004, underscores the importance of the IG’s office. To date, SIGIR’s accomplishments include: producing over 200 audits, which have yielded over a billion dollars in savings; securing over 60 convictions of those who took criminal advantage of the chaos in Iraq; and issuing seven lessons learned reports that have offered meaningful improvements to the U.S. approach to stabilization operations.

ADVERTISEMENT
A forthcoming SIGIR report, the latest from its lesson-learned initiative, will provide further insight on what happened in Iraq and how we should learn from it. Drawn from a survey of several hundred U.S. military and civilian reconstruction managers who worked in the rebuilding effort, this latest review highlights the compelling need for reconstruction managers to consult closely with local governments before embarking on relief and reconstruction projects. According to the review’s findings, the United States too often undertook rebuilding efforts in Iraq without adequately ascertaining local needs or capacities. This lack of consultation led to the construction of projects that the Iraqis either did not want or could not operate, contributing to the billions of dollars wasted during the program. SIGIR’s auditors have estimated that between six and eight billion dollars were lost to waste and fraud since the beginning of the U.S. operation.

We have a responsibility—to our Service Members and our citizenry—to demand greater efficiency and accountability. With this goal in mind, I have authored H.R.3660, a bipartisan bill cosponsored by Congressmen Dan Burton (R-IN), Gerry Connolly (D-VA), Renee Ellmers (R-NC), Walter Jones (R-NC), and Peter Welch (D-VT), which would establish the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO). USOCO would concentrate the planning, management, and oversight for stabilization and reconstruction operations within a single agency, coalescing under one roof the disparate operational elements now diffused across the executive branch. This reform would save taxpayer dollars and strengthen our national security interests by bringing unity of command and unity effort to current and future stabilization and reconstruction operations. Too often in Iraq, the lack of integration among the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development caused breakdowns in management—increasing costs and decreasing effectiveness. USOCO would help solve this by clarifying who is in charge and accountable.

My legislation also includes a permanent Inspector General for contingency operations. This important reform would preserve the crucial oversight capacities developed by SIGIR and its parallel organization in Afghanistan, SIGAR, ensuring the presence of an effective watchdog on the ground from the outset of any future stabilization operations. Such a presence was missing from the early stages of both the Iraq and Afghanistan operations. In its final report issued last summer, the Commission on Wartime Contracting recommended that the Congress create, authorize, and fund a standing Inspector General. Support for this reform is further underscored by H.R. 2880, introduced by my colleague, Congressman John Tierney (D-MA), which similarly calls for the establishment a Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (SIGOCO).

Had either USOCO or SIGOCO existed at the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, they could well have saved hundreds of millions, if not billions, in taxpayer dollars. Lessons from the Balkans learned during the 1990s foreshadowed some of the problems encountered in Iraq, but were largely lost to history. If Congress acts now, in concert with the executive branch, to apply what we learned from the past eight years, we can avert losing Iraq’s lessons to history. Creating USOCO or SIGOCO would ensure the United States is manifestly better prepared for future stabilization and reconstruction operations and thus better postured for success. Efficient and effective systems are crucial to the success of any operation. Sound institutional structures promote more than just the protections of taxpayers’ fiscal interests–they also preserve our national security.

Rep. Carnahan (D-Mo.) is ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. He represents Missouri’s 3rd Congressional District.