Losing Iraq, One Truckload at a Time

By Luis Carlos Montalván, an army Captain (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 14/01/07):

IN 1901, Gen. Leonard Wood, the American governor of occupied Cuba, wrote an incensed letter to President William McKinley after discovering deep corruption in the island’s postal service. “We have gone into Cuba to give these people an example of good government,” Wood insisted. “These thefts in the post office are so far the only blot on our record. Our honor as a nation demands that we bring the thieves to trial.” He gave his commander in chief an ultimatum: “If it is embarrassing to you to have me persist in this matter, I will resign.”

About the only difference between Cuba then and Iraq today is that Wood’s intervention resulted in the jailing of the culprits. The level of corruption in the Iraq Security Forces is staggering. The Iraq Study Group found that $5 billion to $7 billion is lost annually to different types of corruption, and yet “there are still no examples of senior officials who have been brought before a court and convicted of corruption charges.” The result: “Economic development is hobbled by insecurity, corruption, lack of investment, dilapidated infrastructure and uncertainty.”

Yet of the study group’s 79 recommendations, only two are much relevant to this problem, and no anticorruption milestones to be achieved were set forth. Having served in Iraq, I find this very disappointing. While I can’t of course speak officially for the Pentagon, I can describe what I saw and give my own thoughts on how to improve things.

The most prominent forms of corruption I saw were Iraqi commanders pocketing the paychecks of nonexistent troops in the Iraqi Army and officers in the police forces, and customs officials abetting the smuggling of oil and precious rebuilding supplies across Iraq’s porous borders.

These are vast problems, but some relatively simple solutions could tamp them down considerably.

The greatest amount of corruption in the Iraq military and police forces occurs when payrolls are handed out at the unit level. Because the country doesn’t have a functioning banking system that would allow easy money transfers to private accounts, military and security commanders receive large sums of cash every payroll period based on the number and rank of soldiers on their personnel rosters. The endemic problem is that commanders frequently put nonexistent soldiers and security personnel — dubbed “ghosts” by American overseers — on their rosters and pocket their salaries.

It is difficult to overstate how deeply these ghosts hurt the war effort. Most obviously, we have no idea how much of this money is being siphoned off to support tribal and ethnic fighting, and even the insurgency itself.

Also, because hundreds and thousands of ghosts exist at all echelons, many military and police units in the field do not have nearly as many men at arms as they seem to have on paper. Thus the units are often assigned tasks for which they do not have necessary manpower. And when American or other coalition forces are asked to “partner” with Iraqi troops, we have often found that there simply aren’t enough bodies to conduct training and missions.

American officials have long been aware of this problem. “The number of trained and equipped security forces does not provide a complete picture of their capabilities and may overstate the number of forces on duty,” was the finding of the Government Accountability Office’s “Stabilizing Iraq” report last fall. “For example, Ministry of Interior data include police who are absent without leave.”

Those of us on the ground discovered this the hard way. When I was with the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment in Nineveh Province in 2005, we tried for months to get the names of all Iraqi security personnel in our sector on the payrolls of the Ministries of Interior and Defense. We were curious because when we tried to assess the effectiveness of the Iraqi Border Police brigade in Sinjar, on the Syrian border, we were told by Iraqi commanders that at least 300 officers were “performing guard duties in Mosul.” Mosul is more than 100 miles inside Iraq, so border troops had no business there, if indeed they existed at all.

Similarly, in South Baghdad, we American advisers assigned to the Fourth Brigade of the Sixth Iraqi Army Division had little luck getting a clear read of the brigade’s strength. Iraqi commanders repeatedly told us that many of their men were “elsewhere, performing security duties for the Ministry of Defense.” The advisers found personnel discrepancies as high as 30 percent in any given unit.

How can we bust the ghosts? Every soldier, police officer and government official is assigned a national identification number for bookkeeping, but so far it has been far too easy for corrupt officials to get numbers for nonexistent people. A better idea would be a universal national identification card for all government and military employees that includes the holder’s photograph and fingerprints.

Such cards should be required for any Iraqi to receive his paycheck. Both the distribution of the cards and the payroll-distribution sites should be jointly overseen by coalition and Iraqi officials. There is no reason such a system could not be in place by the end of the year.

It would also help if American advisers embedded with security forces were charged with ensuring that all Iraqis are actually on duty with their assigned units. Should Iraqi commanders refuse to cooperate with their audits, we must insist that the Iraqi government fire them.

The second major source of corruption I witnessed is what I call the “reverse Ho Chi Minh Trails” that facilitate smuggling of Iraqi oil and other resources out of the country. A United States interagency panel reported in November that oil smuggling abetted by corrupt Iraqi customs officials is netting the insurgents $100 million a year, helping to make them financially self-sustaining.

Because most of Iraq is landlocked, almost all goods going in and out pass through 14 land “ports of entry.” Smuggling has always been a part of Iraqi life, and was even more so during the last years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, because he encouraged it to counteract the embargo on Iraqi oil. Yet, almost immediately after the 2003 invasion, former customs officials from the regime resumed their duties at the ports of entry.

Later that year, we in the Third Armored Cavalry were given responsibility for the Syrian, Jordanian and Saudi Arabian borders along Anbar Province. In addition to helping create the new Iraqi Border Police force, we set about reforming the customs checkpoints.

At first, this was successful: for example, the border police battalion we trained at Walid, near the conjunction of the Syrian and Jordanian borders, uncovered many attempts to smuggle out large quantities of food, fuel, industrial parts and other goods. Hundreds of smugglers were arrested.

Unfortunately, we left Anbar in early 2004 and corrupt officials in Baghdad soon took away the border police’s oversight authority on the grounds that it wasn’t their “jurisdictional role to conduct operations that were assigned exclusively to customs officials.” American advisers at the national level failed to do anything about this, and things quickly reverted to the corrupt status quo.

The situation at Walid was hardly unique. In 2005 I returned to Iraq with the Third Armored Cavalry, this time to Nineveh Province, to cover the northern section of the border between Iraq and Syria. It soon became clear that the region’s port of entry, at Rabiya, was a hotbed of corruption. Not only were customs officials apparently turning a blind eye to smuggling, but they seemed to be directly engaged in it.

And little has changed: last month the American special inspector general for Iraq, Stuart Bowen, reported that the pipelines in the area have been blown up, so the only way to export oil is by road. He noted, “That leaves it vulnerable to smuggling as truckers sell their cargoes on the black market.”

How can we shut down this black market? First, we must insist that the Iraqi government replace the customs workers at the 14 land border crossings with a new set of at least 1,400 elite officials jointly selected and vetted by the Iraqi ministries and the coalition forces.

We should supplement this new force with teams of American advisers — soldiers, police officers, customs officials and the like — to ensure that the Iraqis are prepared to do their jobs. And we should create an anticorruption task force of coalition officers with the power to periodically review systemic issues like the Iraqis’ recruitment methods, policies governing potential ethical problems and records of internal discipline.

The Iraq Study Group concluded that “the ability of the United States to shape the outcomes is diminishing” and that “time is running out.” Those of us who have been on the ground know how true this is. Irrespective of the number and mission of United States forces sent to Iraq, winning or losing will depend in large part on our ability to, in General Wood’s phrasing, “give these people an example of good government.”