"We’re really on-plan," Strock told ENR editors in a briefing July 7. "By December everything will be under way." Strock notes, however, that the current U.S. plan only addresses about 20% of Iraq's needs, as estimated by the World Bank. Strock recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, where he officiated over the Gulf Regional Division change of command. GRD covers Afghanistan and Iraq. Brig. Gen. William McCoy took over on June 26, replacing Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Bostick, who returned to Washington, D.C., as USACE deputy commanding general.

Strock is optimistic about reconstruction in both countries, saying he can compare observations from Iraq during the first six months of the engagement to his impressions today, with many trips in between. "We’re making steady progress," he says. "In Baghdad I saw a city teeming with life." He said the cars are not "the old rattletraps" of before–many are new.

But most telling is that people no longer stop to watch U.S. convoys pass, Strock says. "I see that as a positive sign," he adds. "We are not in control now. We are turning things over to the Iraqis." He also cited a halt to killings on one notorious Baghdad street that followed the turn-over of security to Iraqis. "It shows the Iraqi government is getting a sense of control and traction," he says. Click here to view chart

Expressing frustration at the stream of negative news reports, Strock notes that 14 of the 18 provinces are peaceful. "In some places there is no security presence on our sites," he says. "In the other four, security is a real challenge for us." Much of Afghanistan also is quiet, although building outposts for Afghan troops often means "we do projects in dangerous places," he says.

Strock says contractors in Iraq are making increasing use of a "Reconstruction Operations Center" that tracks and coordinates contractor movements and military activities. Contractors’ participation in it is optional and was boosted by a shooting incident in June in which 16 American security contractors working for Zapata Engineering were detained and later released after allegedly firing on friendly Iraqi forces and U.S. Marines, he says. Radio transponders are being distributed to convoys and movements tracked has doubled to 120 per day, he says.

Strock praised U.S contractors who "stood up and said, ‘we’ll go,’" when reconstruction began, but acknowledges that the number of jobs going to them is dwindling. He says 70% of current construction contracts, representing 20% of spending, has gone to Iraqi firms as local construction capacity recovers. The transition is handled with care, he says. "We’ve got to be sensitive that we don’t pull the rug out from under some of these [American] firms," he says.

"We want to turn things over to the Iraqis as quickly as we can," Strock says, but adds that there is no set timetable. "We’re feeling our way along," he says.

In Afghanistan, where reconstruction is on a much smaller scale than in Iraq, Strock says the main construction effort is roadbuilding, which he says “appears to be going fairly well.” He does not read the recent uptick in clashes with the Taliban as an indicator that security is deteriorating. He says it is partly the seasonal cycle, because when the winter ends the Taliban usually begin to move, and partly because the Afghan and U.S. forces are aggressively going after them. He called the Afghan army “very effective.”

“I get a sense we are inflicting a very high ratio of casualties on the enemy,” he says. “We taking the fight to them, and they are going to have more clashes.” In any case, he added, “it’s not affecting construction work. I don’t think this up-tick in violence has impacted our construction effort at all,” Strock says.

Aiding AID

Afghanistan has little in the way of utility infrastructure, Strock says. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the Corps are studying the problem. “We are looking at an electrical plan for the nation. They don’t have national electric infrastructure...they don’t have a national power grid. We are looking into how to establish one,” he says. Transmission will be “a big challenge,” he says, but there are “conceptual plans,” including importing power from Tajikistan and Iran. He says the U.S. State Dept. and USAID have also asked the Corps to get involved in studying prospects for building a 100-MW gas-fired power plant, but that project is still in the talking stage.
Click here to view chart

Water resource planning is also under way, Strock says. The remains of a “primitive, but effective irrigation network” that fell into disrepair decades ago during the Russian occupation may be a candidate for rehabilitation, Strock says.

Back in the U.S, Strock spoke of the success of the program to privatize base housing construction. “I think it’s a great success story,” he says. “I was a skeptic early on because it was counter-intuitive that you could get someone with a profit motive that would do a better job than someone with a public service kind of ethic,” he says.

“Because of cash flow, with USACE construction, we have to do incremental, 35-year programs. This let them bring in venture capital. I won’t say it’s high-return, but it is very low-risk because they are almost guaranteed returns,” he says, and adds, “If those resources had been available to the government we could have done equally innovative kinds of things.”

Still, there are some challenges. “Before, if we wanted to expand a portion of the base we would just talk to the base civil engineer and the public works guy and say, ‘run the lines.’ Now you are talking with the Hawaii electric company and they say, ‘well, we’ll put you on the list,’” Strock says. “There are some challenges with privatization, but it’s one of these cost/benefit things you have to deal with.”

Staying the Course

He stressed the importance of the Corp’s relationship with the construction community, both at home, and in prosecuting foreign programs like Iraq’s reconstruction. He says he wants to be careful not to “cut the rug out from under” U.S. companies that have made strong commitments to the effort there as U.S. government participation in the program winds down.

“My concern would be if the industry gets the message that we are going to attract them in and then cut and run and leave them holding the bag, then we’ve got a problem.” He says. “The Corps of Engineers relies on the industry for 100% of our construction. We can’t do the work without them, so we’ve got to maintain good solid relations with the industry—appropriate arms-length kind of things—but we’ve got to be sensitive to their equities when we make these kinds of decisions,” he says.

Strock also vigorously defended the contracting process that awarded a
sole-source, no-bid contract to Halliburton/KBR for the initial phase of
work to restore the Iraqi oil industry in the spring of 2003. He also
defended the June 21 award of a U.S. Army Europe logistics services contract
to KBR for supporting troops deployed in the Balkans. He says he award was
made after a rigorous evaluation that also invoves other government agencies
in the process. "KBR definitely has ...

y year’s end, more than 3,000 projects worth $11.2 billion will have been launched for Iraq’s reconstruction. All but 300, worth about $2.8 billion, will be completed by then, says Lt. Gen. Carl A. Strock, chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.