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Rebuilding Iraq after the Second Gulf War: Lewis Lucke

In January 2003, the U. S. Government established the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) to act as a caretaker administration and begin to rebuild Iraq. Coalition forces from the U.S., UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq two months later, launching Operation Iraqi Freedom. The initial phase, with major combat operations, lasted from March 19-April, 2003. Lt. General Jay Garner and three deputies were appointed in April 2003 to lead ORHA; among them, United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Mission Director Lewis Lucke was named Deputy of Reconstruction. Garner stayed in the job less than a month; he was replaced by L. Paul Bremer in May. ORHA was abolished and recreated as the Coalition Provisional Authority under the Department of Defense.

At that time, Lucke had retired from USAID, having been Mission Director in Amman, Jordan and Port-au-Prince, Haiti. His work in Jordan was touted as a model of how USAID should work in the Middle East. He presided over a USAID budget of $400 million, ensuring this money was used for water access, family planning, education and economic opportunity for the Jordanians. Lucke retired after his posting in Haiti but because of his previous success in the Middle East and working knowledge of Arabic, was called back to lead the ORHA’s Reconstruction efforts in Iraq.

Lewis Lucke was interviewed by Mark Tauber in November 2016. To read more about Iraq, the Gulf War, reconstruction, or to read the oral history of Lewis Lucke, please follow the links.


“We knew we were playing catch-up from the start”

Lewis Lucke, Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Coordinator for Reconstruction, January, 2003

LUCKE:  I wanted to do what I could to help the country respond to this incredible tragedy. I had been a senior manager with USAID in the Middle East. I had studied Arabic including two years with a tutor in Jordan. I had a solid reputation as a good manager because of the successful and well regarded USAID program in Jordan. We had demonstrable results in the three areas of water, economic opportunity and family planning and health. So I started getting some calls from senior people at USAID asking me if I would be interested in coming back. (Lucke is at left.)

The looming question was what was really going to happen in Iraq. What would USAID’s role in Iraq be if the conflict happened? There clearly would be a robust reconstruction and possibly economic development program of some considerable size.

USAID was looking to me to lead that effort in the field… but the organization that was put together was ultimately called ORHA–the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance — and USAID was to play an important part in ORHA.

It was looking like I would be the lead for USAID’s Iraq program in the field — in Iraq. I met with the Administrator, Andrew Natsios, about it and I was set, as far as the Agency was concerned, but my position within ORHA had to be approved by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld.

We knew we were playing catch-up from the start—this was to be a huge effort that had to be put together very quickly, projects conceived, competed, procured, funded, staff hired and so on.

I remember hearing that the US had years to plan the occupation of Germany and Japan after WWII, and here we were trying to put this Iraq program together in just a few months. Some things were obvious from the start though.

We knew we would have to have a program to repair essential infrastructure because, as we suspected and it turned out to be true, the real damage to Iraq’s infrastructure was a result of the utter neglect from the regime and not from damage from the conflict. In fact, there was really very little damage from the conflict that we were required to repair.

So, we had a reconstruction program aimed at power, water, wastewater, port repair, communications and the like. The telecommunication sector was the only one really taken out during the fighting. We also planned projects for local governance, education, health, economic governance (which had many moving parts) and so on.

We planned to grant funds to international organizations like WHO (World Health Organization), WFP (World Food Program) and others when it made sense to do so. The education program, for example, had to replace the Saddam-era textbooks and we had to repair schools prior to the start of the school year.

The demands of the power sector were the most serious as the system was so fragile and had been kept running with duct tape and bailing wire for years. It was a testament to the clever nature of Iraqi engineers that it had been kept running at all for so long.

We even took part in the initiative to replace all the former Iraqi currency with new bills. It was a huge program—in fact the largest U.S.- financed reconstruction program since the Marshall Plan.

“We had a few months to prepare, not years”

It was a huge task to start to get ready. We did not know the timing of the conflict, of course, or even if there would be a conflict. We were brought into the mix of overall preparations being led by DOD (Department of Defense). This was when ORHA, the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, was formed. The new head of ORHA and my soon-to-be-boss was Retired Lt. General Jay Garner(seen left.)

So, all this was happening. I ultimately became one of three deputies to General Jay Garner, the so-called “Deputy for Reconstruction” There were two other Deputies, one for Humanitarian Assistance and another for Governance…

I actually deployed to the field—to Kuwait—in early November 2002. I was met at the airport by two US Army colonels who told me “You are the first civilian to arrive in theatre.” I guess I was the first. Garner and the rest of ORHA came to Kuwait in January of 2003.

We were forced to pull together this huge program very quickly and without the benefit of the preparation time that had been put into place for post-WWII Japan or Germany. We had a few months to prepare, not years. We, in USAID, had to hire new staff off the streets and via a staffing contractor because the normal USAID personnel system was completely incapable of responding to our immediate needs. The bureaucracy was ill equipped to help us.

We in USAID certainly did not have complete visibility as to all the planning and decision-making going on around us. The main decision-maker was Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld. I know that Administrator [Andrew] Natsios (seen right) was in a lot of the high level meetings. USAID was a player in the process, of course, but we were, frankly, a pretty small voice compared to DOD and State.

I was there totally by myself. I needed to first figure out some basic things like where we would be working and who did the coordinating. I was talking to representatives from the various United Nations agencies who were there or were arriving there in Kuwait.

Sometime during that period, I was recalled to Washington to work with ORHA and we were actually looking for offices in the Pentagon. It was a — well, a complete, you know, the colorful military term that starts with the word “cluster”.  I mean they never found us offices and it was completely pandemonium, which surprised me. I thought, gee, the Pentagon would have its act together by now. But it didn’t.

We had to move a lot of bodies and that meant personnel actions and other bureaucratic challenges and so forth. On the bright side, I was getting to know General Jay Garner, who headed up ORHA, and we sort of clicked from the start.

He was a great man and he and I became friendly. He understood my frustration. I mean we just couldn’t wait around and not do anything back in Washington. I really felt we needed to get going in the field as well.

I got the blessing of General Garner to go back to the field. I was there in Kuwait when the first elements of ORHA arrived. I sat there on the tarmac and watched the plane come in and met General Garner. At first, our challenges were interminable; we worked from dawn to midnight with meetings every day to try to get organized

“We arrived into an empty palace, with no lights, no running water, no place to eat or to sleep”

I arrived in Baghdad on April 23rd. By that time, the month of fighting was largely over, and it was declared permissive enough for civilians to come in, or ORHA to come in, and start to do our work. So our team started arriving on April 23 of 2003.

Chris Milligan and I were together along with Ambassador Ward. We went in together, landing in the ruined Baghdad airport via an Oklahoma National Guard C-130. We made our way into what was Saddam’s Palace (seen left), in the soon-to-be-famous Green Zone. We were the very first civilian wave to arrive in Baghdad. I guess Jay Garner was there at the time.

We had nothing. We arrived into an empty palace, with no lights, no running water, no place to eat or to sleep or wash or anything. Just completely nothing.

Little by little your drinking water is delivered and you get mattresses delivered. We had MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) delivered… that kind of thing. So it was very rudimentary, digging away dirt and dust and mud in the palace.

To use the word “palace” was really pushing it. There was a mosaic of Saddam on the wall which we covered up quickly. There was a mad dash for a day or two for people in ORHA to claim office space and sleeping space. So that is what we did.

We kind of marked our spot with those little yellow post-it notes saying this is a USAID office. This is whatever office. The military was there as well as we, so it was another one of those “cluster you- know- what’s”.

Every day it got a little bit better and we got a little more equipment, to the point that ever so slowly we became more and more able to work. But it took a while.

We had very poor communications. We had no way to really talk to each other. Then we got a few satellite phones that you could only use when you were outside. You could never receive calls unless you predetermined the time to be outside to receive one. So that is all we did for outside calls…Cell phones came later

Eventually, we even got email up and running, and that marked the moment we were pretty able to function like a regular office. On my cell phone, I could call internationally. Some but not all of my colleagues were hooked up so you could call the States — our area code was actually a suburban New York area code.

But even with this much connectivity, we didn’t always know everything that was going on, especially in the area of security. For example, when we learned that some of military or police action was going on, and we couldn’t get enough information where we were, I would pull out my cell phone, call my wife in Texas, and say, “Turn on the television and tell me what’s going on.”

As she watched and reported, I was able to pass the information to the security people on the ground in my area

We began moving waves of people to Baghdad as we started to have connectivity, electricity and all of that stuff, generators and whatnot. It was a long process. It was not the most orderly thing you have ever seen, but we got it done.

“We certainly didn’t need to have the presence of a long term occupation force”

By about mid-May we started hearing rumors that [General] Jay [Garner] was going to be replaced by this guy named Jerry Bremer. For about a week both Bremer and Jay Garner were in the palace together, each with his own entourage. It was really strange. (Bremer is seen at left; Garner is at his right.)

Eventually Jay left. I regretted it not only because of personal reasons, but because Jay’s view was: “This is not our country; we need to do our job as quickly as possible and then leave.” I totally agreed.

For our part, we knew if we were going to do any kind of meaningful development or infrastructure repair work, we were going to be here for a while. But in terms of seeing Iraq turned back over to Iraqis as quickly as possible, that was something that Jay and I both thought was absolutely essential. We certainly didn’t need to have the presence of a long term occupation force. I did not think that was appropriate at all. But with Bremer’s arrival a different approach was taking shape.

For better or worse, Bremer came in and took over and his team began to flow in. A lot of this staffing plan was not visible to us. It was all happening back in the Pentagon. People were being identified and then plugged into various positions.

Small numbers became larger and larger numbers of staffers, and a bureaucracy for a huge operation was established with offices, not just in Baghdad, but in Basra, Hillah, and Erbil, up in Kurdistan.

We had to coordinate with everybody. So we coordinated first with the British and certainly all of the international community reps. The UN was particularly important in terms of, for example, the World Food Program, WHO, UNHCR and UNDP and all of those organizations that could meet immediate health, housing, and food needs.

We met with just about everybody who had a growing presence there: the Australians, the Spanish, Japanese, particularly the British. We needed to do this. We needed to show that this wasn’t just an American show; it was an international operation. We were part of it. We were a big part of it, but we came to respect and appreciate that many different players were contributing.

 “None of these successes, or at least very few, appeared in the press”

One problem was that, with as many NGOs as we had working with us, we rarely saw the press cover their successes. For example, Iraqi municipal governance councils did get underway and had credibility on the community level. They helped in terms of identifying needs and assisting in community development programs, including micro finance programs.

This underlines an important point I should mention. With all this activity, there might have been thousands of small successes in our reconstruction work, but none of these successes, or at least very few, appeared in the press. You heard the bad news but you never heard the good news.

And most of the credit has to go to all those people working on the ground, the American contractors, the other donor personnel, and especially the Iraqis who worked outside the protective barriers, sometimes while bullets were flying. We became more and more reliant on the Iraqis to provide the workers and skills, especially when the army was abolished and the resistance escalated. In my view, they did a heck of a job.

The whole point, and to underline it, was that everything should be turned over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. It would make it a more sustainable program if they would lead and, more importantly, if they would finance it with their own resources. So I think we were able to do that.

We saw both men and women who were empowered in the municipal councils do amazing work, and that gave us the confidence to delegate much decision making to them. They weren’t used to having the authority to do it. But once unshackled, we saw what incredible potential these people had…

So, yes, there were a thousand stories about sustainability and passing responsibility back to the Iraqis where it belonged. I think it is a story of which we can be rightfully pretty proud.

There would be a major failure and it would look terrible — like you had accomplished nothing and had to start all over again. But I would say, a rough estimate after three months, it was better than it had been, and probably after six months, it was more or less functional.

Eventually something like a national [power] grid was re-established even though there were still weaknesses in it. I am telling you, that was not a sign of anybody’s incompetence–it was a sign of just how broken and poorly maintained the system was and how long it takes to fix something like that.

Just as importantly, it also signaled that in the future, Iraq was going to require many new state-of-the-art generation facilities and this required time, planning, technology and financing. You don’t just turn on a power plant like that. It takes a long time — years, if you have the money.

I reiterate, the reconstruction task was not for the most part to repair war damage, telecommunications being the main exception. The infrastructure had degraded due to the utter neglect by the former Saddam regime and lack of maintenance.

[Next] there was water conveyance, wastewater treatment and sewage treatment. There was no sewage treatment in Baghdad when we got there. Absolutely none. It went straight into the river. So we were working on rehabilitating all of these plants, or most of them anyway. But remember, these major infrastructure activities were not going on one at a time.

Microfinance sometimes gets lost in the midst of so much else going on, but we loaned out some $300 million in small loans, mostly to women entrepreneurs, and the repayment rate was about 99 percent. The staff that made that a success, by the way, were our Iraqi staff members working for several key US NGOs.

Everything was happening simultaneously. We were doing the education stuff with curriculum and text book development as well as repairing the Finance Ministry so that we could physically replace all of the currency, and all that was going while we worked on the water issues.

The currency replacement was one of the amazing accomplishments that you neither read nor heard about. With everybody working together — USAID, Treasury, DOD, and the military on the ground — we were able to replace every dinar in the system.

The new money went out, the old money was removed, and all of it accounted for. And, most importantly, no one was killed or injured in the process. That was an impressive accomplishment but you will never hear a word about it…

“Proper planning prevents poor performance”: if we had not done the quality planning on contracts that allowed these things to be competed and awarded we would not have had a chance at successful implementation. That is number one.

Number two would be to get yourself a smart, caring, hardworking, competent staff.

Three, understand this is not about us, it is about Iraq and therefore the essential role of participation and leadership by Iraqis was absolutely essential.

Four, you have to sometimes get confronted with impossible bureaucratic challenges like those the CPA (Coalition Provisional Authority) presented to us…

Keep communications with Washington flowing so they have a chance to support you back there.

To the extent you possibly can, convince your colleagues outside of USAID, like DOD — both uniform and civilian — as well as the thousand other players we had there, to say that USAID people could be trusted, knew what we were doing and were able to get results of which we could all be proud.