Officer overseeing Iraq reconstruction projects urges patience

Brig. Gen. Michael J. Walsh, commander of the Corps of Engineers' Gulf Region Division in Baghdad since Oct. 14, 2006, is responsible for overseeing the bulk of U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in Iraq. Earlier this summer, Government Executive senior correspondent Katherine McIntire Peters interviewed Walsh when he was in Washington during a brief leave from Iraq. The following is an edited transcript:

Q: You've been in Iraq more than eight months now. How have things gone with reconstruction during that time?

A: The security issue had an impact on about 12 percent of our projects when I got there, and now it's up to about 19 percent. Certainly part of the requirements in building, whether in the United States or Iraq, is to make sure you get the skilled labor, the equipment and the materials you need. In Iraq, you also need to make sure the security piece is taken care of, and then make sure the politics are OK with the local tribes and the provincial leadership. If any one of those four or five things is not in alignment, then you have to slow down or stop a project.

About 60 percent of our contracts are now with Iraqi firms. If an Iraqi principal or an Iraqi senior worker receives a cell phone call threatening him or his wife, he may not come to work. That's what we call an impact to the construction schedule. There also have been some attacks on particular project sites. Some small percentage have been damaged beyond repair. So far, we've completed 3,200 projects. I would say probably less than 1 percent of those have been destroyed. It's a very small percentage.

Q: Do you see a pattern in insurgent attacks? Are they going after large-scale electricity projects because they can affect so many people? Are they going after schools?

A: I don't think it's necessarily insurgents. I think in large part these are crooks; this is criminal activity: You know, 'My firm didn't get the bid, your firm did, so I'm going to threaten you,' that sort of thing. There are some projects that are being attacked by the insurgency, but a lot of it is just thuggery.

Q: What percentage of attacks would you attribute to criminal activity vs. the insurgency?

A: I couldn't say. I don't think there's anybody who could tell you that.

Q: Do you see a correlation between the increased violence affecting reconstruction and the U.S. troop surge?

A: I think there's a correlation there. [U.S. combat troops are] going into places where they haven't been in a long time and going after insurgents where they live. That has an impact on what we're trying to get accomplished -- making sure we've got skilled labor, materiel, the construction equipment in one place at the right time. If any of those things are affected because the roads are closed or somebody got threatened or I can't get the equipment to the project site, it influences construction.

Q: Iraq is not a culture with a history of preventive maintenance. There's a lot of concern these projects can't or won't be maintained.

A: It's called capacity development. What we're doing is taking a lot of people out of country for training or doing training in country to show them how to maintain and run the new equipment that we've provided to them. The difficulty in that, especially when you go from a culture of failure maintenance -- which is when you run something until it breaks and then you fix it -- to one of preventive maintenance, is in funding that maintenance.

While we trained people in how to do preventive maintenance, the Iraqi government hadn't yet figured out how to put together a budget that funds preventive maintenance. So, now we're working with the ministers trying to help them put their budgets together. The capacity development is extraordinarily complex, multitiered and shifting all the time.

Q: What's your general assessment of the contractors?

A: When we first started, we took a lot of big Western contractors with us. About 60 percent of our work is now with local Iraqi contractors. Some are doing really great and some are doing bad enough that we ask them to leave, and we've got everything in between -- just like with Western firms. The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found a couple of Western firms that didn't do well, and we found a couple that didn't do well, and we terminated their contracts and sent them home-we do the same thing with Iraqi contractors.

Q: What project most illustrates the challenge and the promise of what you're trying to accomplish?

A: We're building 150 of what might be called emergent care clinics here. We'll soon have about 30 of them open in Baghdad. To see the faces of people coming in, particularly in Baghdad, to see that they're confident in coming into their local clinic, is very gratifying. In the meantime, some of the insurgents have gone after those places, trying to separate the people [Sunni from Shiite]. There are four of them that have been destroyed, and we will not be rebuilding them -- that's very disturbing.

Q: The contract to build those clinics originally went to California-based Parsons Corp., but eventually was terminated. Why did that contract go off the rails?

A: I think the contractor picked up more than they could manage rapidly. Parsons is a good contractor that I've worked with before, but in this case they didn't bring in enough of the right resources, and they did poorly and we asked them to leave.

Q: What are the big takeaway lessons for the Corps of Engineers from its work in Iraq?

A: The Corps has been doing large complex infrastructure work for more than 200 years. Some of the difficulty in Iraq, of course, is the security that's affecting some of the projects. There's certainly a transition of the project character as we moved from coalition control to sovereign Iraqi control. If there's an area that I would look at more distinctly, it's how do we want to manage security requirements in each of the projects as we transition. There's no obvious answer. That's where the challenge is. How do you write a contract that's flexible enough to hit all those requirements?

Q: Is there anything that's surprised you personally about Iraq reconstruction?

A: I guess what's surprising to me is the expectation that things would be fixed in three or four years. Anybody who has knowledge of public infrastructure knows these are large things. When I got to Iraq, the question was, 'Why haven't you fixed the electricity yet?' It takes three to five years to build a generation plant. What is it you're asking me to do? The surprising piece is the lack of patience.

Here in D.C., the Woodrow Wilson Bridge [project crossing the Potomac River] has been ongoing since I was a captain. The mixing bowl [highway project in Springfield, Va.] has been ongoing since I was a major. The U.S. government has only been involved in Iraqi infrastructure for the last three years. People are saying, 'Why hasn't it been turned around?' and I'm just scratching my head.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
X CLOSE Don't show again

Like us on Facebook