Dealing with the vagaries of a bureaucracy anywhere in the world is not a pleasant experience, so much so with one still stuck in the pre-digital age like that of Iraq’s. After six years of America’s presence, critical departments of the Iraqi state with a bearing on security still refer to antiquated ledgers running back to the early 1900s with nary a desktop in sight.

The good news is that, eventually, the paperwork moves; the bad news is that we’re still talking about paperwork—plenty of it. Renewing a national identification card requires countless folders, stamps, photocopies, signatures and plenty of shuttling back and forth between unmarked counters. The buildings housing such institutions are decades late in need of paint job. Supplicants must stand for hours in an unforgiving sun waiting for the electricity to come back on, so that the laminating machine can be cranked up. But at least those supplicants can gripe out loud, with one mischievous youth from Sadr City screaming “It’s better to elect an Israeli than an Iraqi” at some hapless public servant.

Palpably and anecdotally, there is less petty corruption. A recent governmental campaign seems to have cowed many state employees who otherwise may expect, or demand, a little extra to compel them to do their jobs, leaving them content with the salaries they are getting, some of which have shot up 200 percent since Saddam’s time.

However, it is shocking that a matter as crucial to the stability of the country such as knowing who’s who is still being done by multicolor pens and stencil paper. The only electronic databases available seem to be the food ration card system—used as the proxy roll for election purposes—and vehicle registration. One cannot get a driver’s license since the system has not been reestablished since liberation, and most cars and vehicles run on temporary plates. One would think that a persistent problem such as car bombs would have obligated a solution. When it comes to the national ID system, there is no database into which a name and address can be punched in, and pertinent and relevant information extracted.

Only last week did cell phone companies take serious measures to match lines to an end-users’ database, which would make it far easier to track kidnappers and bomb riggers who use cell phones as triggers for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). If a phone is lost or stolen, then it would be possible to shut down the unaccounted number. It’s a good step, but a few years too late.

Why were things left so mismanaged? After billions and billions of dollars pumped into propping up the Iraqi security services, why is that common sense measures, such as computerizing national ID databases, are not in place?

Things are slowly, very slowly, improving in such sectors. But one is at a loss for excuses as to why it has taken so long.



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