Contractor General

The officer overseeing Iraq reconstruction counsels patience.

The officer overseeing Iraq reconstruction counsels 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.

NEXT STORY: Looking for Leaders

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.