I was in Iraq for seven months from approximately May of 2004 until December 2004. While there I was the Director of Program Management for the reconstruction effort. I coordinated the efforts of six engineering firms and about 12 design-build contractors who were planning, designing and building about 2,500 projects. They were spread across many areas, including: electricity, oil, water, wastewater, hospitals, schools, roads and courthouses. While performing this task, I had the opportunity to work with many wonderful people from US and coalition military officers, U.S. ambassadors, Iraqi ministries, government officials, and engineers, and the Iraqi people.

Keller, right, with Army Corps of Engineers Chief Lt. Gen. Carl Strock.
(Photo courtesy of C.W. Keller)

It has been just over one year since I returned home. Since then I have spoken to over 20 groups about the U.S.-led effort in Iraq. Below are some of the common questions that I have been asked, and a summary of my replies.

Are the reports of fraud, i.e. millions of dollars disappearing or being wasted true? The unfortunate answer is yes. This fraud occurs for two primary reasons. First, in Iraq the main focus is on speed: get things done quickly. Second, there is no electronic banking system in Iraq. Payments to contractors must often be made in cash. Time was not taken to do proper background checks on contractors and to install the systems needed to eliminate fraud. Also, when dealing with millions of dollars in cash payments, it is virtually impossible to eliminate fraud.

The emphasis on speed of construction is similar to the emphasis on speed to rebuild the Gulf Coast shortly after Katrina struck. Immediately following Katrina, over $20 billion was authorized for rebuilding efforts. About a month later Congress authorized another $50 billion. Already, in just four months $25 billion has been spent rebuilding New Orleans and nearby areas. As in Iraq, the emphasis is on the speed of rebuilding. This is accomplished by not taking the time to fully competitively bid general contracts and sub-contracts and by not fully vetting contractors.

Remember the budget for the entire rebuilding effort in Iraq was $18 billion and it is taking several years to spend the $18 billion in Iraq. Given that the Katrina rebuilding budget is at least three times bigger than the budget to rebuild Iraq and the money is being spend faster, it is safe to say that dollars wasted and dollars lost to fraud will also be greater.

Should we be in Iraq? The true US foreign policy is �we stand for peace and freedom when it is in the best interest of America.�

For example, some leaders in Africa have been slaughtering people for years, yet we and the rest of the world have done little to correct the situation. Iraq is like Africa in that mass murders and genocide were being committed. However, unlike Africa, in Iraq it is in the immediate best interest of the U.S., and for that matter the rest of the world, to create a free, democratic environment for the following reasons:

  • A stable democratic Iraq will eventually lead to a more stable environment in the Middle East.
  • raq has the second largest reserve of oil and gas in world. The recent spike in oil and gas prices helped to illustrate how dependent that the US and rest of the world is on a stable supply of energy coming from the Middle East.
  • If we do not stop and defeat terrorism in Iraq, the terrorists will have created a home base to export terrorism around the world. This would be similar to the base for terrorism that existed in Afghanistan for years. The two quotes below support this statement.
    Bin Laden�s deputy Ayman al-Zarqawi, has openly declared Iraq to be �the place for the greatest battle,� where he hopes to �expel the Americans� and then spread �the jihad wave to secular countries neighboring Iraq.�
    Al Qaida in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, has openly declared that �we fight today in Iraq, and tomorrow in the Land of the Two Holy Places, and after that the west.�

If we believe the quotes from the terrorists and you do not want terrorism/jihad to spread around the world, and/or if you want a stable supply of oil and gas, then you need to support the US led efforts in Iraq.

Do the people of Iraq want us there? While I was in Iraq the consensus was that half of the 25 million people in Iraq wanted the US there and supported our efforts, the other half did not want to take a position, for fear of being killed and were waiting to see who won. The problem is the 20,000 to 50,000 terrorists; who are willing to be suicide bombers. Over the last few years the coalition forces have capture or killed 20,000 to 30,000 terrorist, unfortunately given the porous borders of Iraq the terrorist continuously re populate.

Another common thought that I heard voiced by the Iraqis was that they would prefer the Americans not to be here, but they recognized the need for the Americans to stay to maintain peace. Without American presence in Iraq, too many people would be pushed into violence creating a civil war.

Today, everyone wants Americans out of Iraq. But most agree, if we left today civil war would break out, and the terrorist would move on to new fronts.

How long will it take to achieve our goals in Iraq? For two years we have been building and training the Iraqi security forces, but progress has been slow. Today the Iraqi troops are starting in selected areas to lead the security effort. As a result, we can likely start phasing out our presence in Iraq in 2006, reducing troop count by about 20,000 per year. After five years our troop levels would then be down to about 30,000. This 30,000 could then well be a permanent troop level in Iraq for decades.

If you question the need for permanent US presence, remember: 1) that we still have troops stationed in both Japan and Germany as a result of WW II and 2) that Iran is in between Iraq and Afghanistan.

How long will it take to defeat terrorism? The truthful answer to this is, �several generations.� The reason for this is the suicide bombers are trained to be suicide bombers at an early age. Note that we have many crazy people in America, but none of our crazy people are suicide bombers. However in certain, select conservative Islamic schools in such places as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia young people are taught that being a suicide bomber is what God wants them to do, and that they will be rewarded in heaven. Until these schools are eliminated terrorism will continue.

Does the media do a good job of reporting on the situation in Iraq? The media often gets the story wrong. Two examples will illustrate this point. Most will remember the story of the Italian journalist who last year was purportedly shot while in a vehicle that was approaching a U.S. check point at a high rate of speed and did not slow down because the driver was not aware that they were approaching a check point. The story can not be true. It is impossible to not know you are approaching a U.S. check point in Iraq. About a half mile prior to the checkpoint there are large concrete barriers placed on alternating sides of the road. Vehicles are forced to slow down to about 20 miles per hour and drive in S patterns. At the check point itself, there is a pill box mounted on stiles about 25 feet tall, and there is often an Abram tank sitting with its main gun pointed at the oncoming vehicle. How anyone could miss this is beyond me. While reporting this story, the media, out of ignorance about Iraq never even asked the right question.

Related Links:
  • Bush Says U.S. Is Shifting Focus to Rebuilding 'Smaller, Local Projects' ,
  • Corps of Engineers Chief Calls Iraq Rebuild "On-Plan" ,
  • Another story that is being reported wrong is the story on the proper body armor required by our troops. To hear the media report it, one would believe that the military is either too cheap or too incompetent to supply our troops with the proper body armor. Neither of these is true. While it is true that today�s soldiers in Iraq have bullet proof plates only on their chests and backs, what is not reported is that he or she currently wears 60 to 70 pounds of body armor and that the typical temperature in Iraq is over 100 degrees. To add bullet proof plates to protect both sides and both shoulders of the soldiers would bring the total weight of equipment and body armor to over 100 pounds. And even a young, athletic, soldier is going to have trouble packing 100 pounds for several hours in 100 degrees and maintaining the mobility and agility to fight a war.

    In my own situation while in Iraq I had two vests. One I will call a flak jacket. In was not bullet proof but it did protect me from shrapnel. The other vest had bullet proof plates which covered about half of my chest and about half of my back. These plates were heavy, but could stop an AK-47 bullet. Most of the time I elected to wear the lighter flak jacket. Further, the biggest danger I was faced with was shrapnel from mortars, and the lighter jacket actually did a better job of protecting me from shrapnel

    Editor�s note: Keller is a professor of postgraduate-level engineering management at the University of Kansas. He has worked in senior management positions at Black & veatch and United Telecom (now Sprint).