I got an invitation to speak to the American Society of Civil Engineers at a meeting in Arlington, VA on November 18 about infrastructure in Iraq. They still wanted me to speak even after learning that I was not an engineer. I think it will be interesting for me and I hope for them. There is a general misconception that Iraq is being rebuilt from war damage from the CF invasion in 2003. The problem is older and deeper.
Above is a kid swimming in the Euphrates. Notice the old and picturesque bridge ruins in the background. I don’t know when that bridge fell down, but it was not recently. Below is a recently built bridge. Notice the narrowness and temporary nature. We were afraid out MRAP would fall through. The bluish tint is because I took the picture through the MRAP window. We did not fall through.
If damage from the 2003 war was our problem, the place would be much farther along. Modern weapons are very accurate and there was nothing like the damage people imagine from seeing photos from WWII. In fact, the most serious damage to Iraq’s infrastructure came from mismanagement and sanctions, especially during the 1990s. This damage is less spectacular but more pernicious and a lot harder to address, not least because we are talking about the need to build and repair human, as well as physical, capital. You can build a new plant in a couple of months. It takes many years to “build” a manager to direct the business or an engineer to run the equipment. And it may take a generation to create the maintenance culture that keeps it working.
The organizer asked me to write a brief intro & bio for their newsletter. This is the unedited version that I submitted. I expect they will change and improve it for their publication. I will also do a bit more research for the actual presentation.
Reconstruction in Western Iraq
The U.S. is helping Iraq recover from years of conflict, sanctions, isolation and mismanagement. The most obvious recent damage to Iraqi facilities comes from the Iraq war and the vicious insurgency that followed. The rot had set in before that, however. Iraq’s infrastructure was badly compromised by years of sanctions, socialist planning and lack of maintenance. Western Iraq has most of what it needs to move forward, but much of it just doesn’t work right. Foreign contractors and firms built virtually all the infrastructure in Western Iraq, most of it before the mid-1980s. Many of these contractors were from communist Eastern Europe, and we all know the level of quality during there at that time. Add to that decades of neglect and you get an idea of the challenge.
The last twenty years were lost decades. Human and physical capital was neglected. Little was built or properly maintained and few people were adequately trained. We often find that the only people with the skill to keep the machines and facilities running even at the today’s inadequate levels are already at or approaching retirement age with few competent successors in the pipeline. The best thing for Iraq would be for competitive international firms to invest, bringing modern management methods and cultures of quality and maintenance, training Iraqis in quality control and maintenance methods. Some of this is beginning to happen. Coalition forces and various USG sponsored programs are also training a new generation and the Iraqi authorities are beginning to step up. Rebuilding is happening. Nevertheless, we face a gap.
The oil bonanza means Iraq can buy materials and skills to upgrade its infrastructure. The risk is that, as in the past, the central authorities might buy these things without internalizing the methods to produce and maintain them. All things considered, Iraq is a rich country and I believe the Iraqi people will soon reap significant benefits form their country’s wealth, but progress will not be easy or uniform.
John Matel is a career Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State. He recently returned from a year-long tour of duty in Iraq, where he served as leader of the Provincial Reconstruction Team for Western Al Anbar Province, embedded with the 5th Marine Combat Regiment at Al Asad, Iraq. Beyond the State Department, Mr. Matel owns and manages a small commercial forest operation in Brunswick County Virginia.
Above – same kid in the river, closer view.