Old Iraq Strategy Lives On In Weekly Progress Reports

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 26, 2006; 11:28 AM

A year ago, President Bush announced a new plan for Iraq, framed around "eight pillars" of U.S. policy for victory. In the past month, the president and his national security team have been busily working on a new recipe for success in Iraq, having declared the previous plan a failure.

But never mind what the politicians are doing. The bureaucracy churns on.

The State Department continues every Wednesday to issue a 30-page public report that details exactly how the U.S. government is meeting the goals set forth in the president's now-abandoned plan. The report frames the data around Bush's storied eight pillars, which include such goals as "Defeat the Terrorists and Neutralize the Insurgents" (Pillar 1) and "Increase International Support for Iraq" (Pillar 7).

In many ways, the report is a microcosm of the administration's lost year in Iraq. The reams of details aimed at touting success belie the fact that few of the goals are being met.

The report is often upbeat as it presents some of the most minuscule factoids of the situation in Iraq. The Dec. 13 report noted that on Dec. 7, 40 sheikhs from across Diyala province met "to discuss ways to maintain peace and stability" and that on Dec. 9, U.S. soldiers discovered a factory for making improvised explosive devices in a house in Baqubah.

But the bottom-line graphs tell a story of failure. Under Pillar 5 ("Help Iraq Strengthen Its Economy") the reports show that week after week, the Iraqis cannot meet their goals for crude oil production. Another chart shows that efforts to build a 15-day supply of all refined products, such as diesel and gasoline, are woefully behind schedule, reaching a peak of a four-day supply.

Under Pillar 7, increasing international support, the trends are on the decline. The first report of the year showed that 28 countries, in addition to the United States, contributed 23,000 troops to coalition forces. By last week's report, the number of countries had fallen to 25 -- and the number of troops was down to 16,860, a decrease of more than 25 percent. Italy recently dropped off the list when the last of its troops departed.

One figure has not really budged: the $20 billion apportioned for rebuilding Iraq (under Pillar 4, "Help Iraq Build Government Capacity and Provide Essential Services"). That is because the administration ran out of money for rebuilding Iraq, in part because about 25 percent was diverted to security. The latest report says that all but $4 billion has been disbursed.

A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters about the report, said it still plays an important role because it provides the administration with a single set of numbers about the situation in Iraq. Previously, State and Defense department officials might have arrived at meetings armed with different data, but "now everyone is talking off the same sheet on music," he said.

There is also a classified version of the report, which includes details on counterterrorism operations, given to top policymakers on Fridays.

The report is prepared not by State Department officials but by a team of about 10 people hired by a management consulting firm. The firm, BearingPoint, has a $2 million contract to produce the report and to manage the process of running Iraq policy in the administration, the State Department official said.

Below the level of the top policymakers, working groups from across the government implement Iraq policy day by day. The BearingPoint employees, who work out of offices in the State Department, arrange the meetings, set the agendas, take notes and provide summaries of the discussions, the official said. They also maintain the Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The twists and turns of American policy are imperfectly reflected in the report. "Operation Together Forward," the effort this summer to bolster security in Baghdad, which was later deemed a disappointment, was the subject of several upbeat reports but then seemed to fade in importance. During the spike in violence in October, the report noted that the Iraqi Ministry of Interior had recalled a police brigade for more training after "possible complicity with sectarian violence," though it brightly added that the training "will improve the professionalism and confidence within the national police."

The report seemed uncertain how to treat the release of a report by the Iraq Study Group, the independent bipartisan panel that criticized the administration's policy and spurred the White House to come up with a new plan. The earliest mention of the study group's report, in the Dec. 13 edition, came under Pillar 3, "Help Iraqis to Forge a National Compact for Democratic Government."

The headline said it all: "Iraqi Leaders Blast Iraq Study Group's Report." The State Department, perhaps in an effort to demonstrate the unity of Iraqi leaders, then devoted a whole page to negative quotes about the panel's recommendations.

The Dec. 20 report featured one curious item. Under the rubric of increasing international support, the report highlighted a visit to Damascus, Syria, by Sens. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.). The senators "arrived in Syria December 19 to discuss how Damascus could help bring stability and security in Iraq," the report said, noting that another senator, Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in early December.

The State Department had strongly discouraged the trips, saying Syria is a key source of problems in Iraq.

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