By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 26, 2007
The White House may have killed attempts to revive the much-heralded Iraq Study Group, but the Bush administration will still face a tough, independent evaluation of the progress in Iraq -- from one of its own agencies.
In a little-noticed addition to legislation requiring the July and September assessments on Iraq from the White House, Congress mandated a third report from the agency that has quietly done the most work to track the missteps, miscalculations, misspent funds and shortfalls of both the United States and Iraq since the 2003 invasion: the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO's international affairs team has had far more experience in Iraq than the study group led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) or any of the other independent panels that have weighed in on Iraq. Indeed, the study group consulted the GAO team in preparing its report. Over the past four years, the GAO has issued 91 reports on Iraq, on topics including the mismanagement of Iraq's oil industry and problems in its new army.
The GAO team is back in Iraq this week doing research to make its own assessment of the 18 benchmarks covered by the administration's reports.
The 15-person team includes an array of specialists, lawyers, economists, foreign policy experts and statisticians. Most have been working on Iraq since June 2003, when the first GAO reports were mandated. They work on a day-to-day basis with the departments of State and Defense, but the GAO makes independent assessments.
The GAO report is due Sept. 1 -- two weeks before the administration's document. So it may set a standard that makes it harder for the administration to attach caveats to its answers, as outside analysts say it did in the July report.
The administration's assessments are more nuanced, with grading based on whether Iraq is making "satisfactory progress" or "unsatisfactory progress" on the 18 political, military and economic benchmarks. The GAO is mandated to give a more straightforward "yes" or "no" on whether the benchmarks have been achieved, said Joseph A. Christoff, director of the GAO's International Affairs and Trade Team, which will write the report.
Christoff anticipates blunt critiques in the GAO report, based on benchmarks his team has long been monitoring as part of its oversight of Iraq.
On Iraq's military, for example, the administration's July report said Iraq is making "satisfactory progress" on providing three brigades for the new U.S.-led Baghdad security plan.
But Christoff said the GAO is probing deeper. "For us, it's not just an issue of showing up, but showing up with equipment and logistical support so they can move on their own, and then being effective," he said.
The Iraqi military has serious shortcomings, including, according to a Pentagon report, a no-show rate of one-third to one-half on any given day, Christoff said. "Celebrating 360,000 trained and equipped forces says nothing about their loyalty or effectiveness," he said.
On Iraqi politics, a pending law to equitably distribute Iraq's oil income has come to symbolize attempts to address the needs of all ethnic and sectarian communities. The July report acknowledges that the Iraqi government has made "unsatisfactory progress" in passing legislation but says it is too early to tell what will be enacted and rejects any revision of U.S. plans or strategy.
Christoff questions whether that conclusion is giving the Iraqis the benefit of the doubt. Only one of four pieces of legislation required on Iraq's oil sector is now before the parliament, and it addresses only who will be responsible for distributing oil, not how revenue will be shared among the communities, he said. A second bill on revenue-sharing is being debated in the cabinet. But two other basic laws -- on creating a national oil company and restructuring the oil ministry -- have not been drafted, he said.
"So much has to be done that it will be difficult to meet this benchmark, even by September," Christoff said.
On Iraq's economy, the July report said Baghdad is progressing satisfactorily in allocating $10 billion for development to its ministries and provinces, much of it for electricity and oil industry infrastructure. But Christoff is again skeptical. "If the past is any indication, it will also be very difficult to meet this benchmark," he said.
The need for development in the two sectors is critical. The oil-rich country last year spent $2.6 billion to import gasoline, diesel fuel for electricity and kerosene for cooking, because it cannot refine enough oil, Christoff said. Also, U.S. officials acknowledge, Iraq managed to allocate only about a quarter of the $10 billion in development funds during the first six months of 2007 -- much of which has not been spent.
"When you look at what is needed and what the goals are, there's a huge gap," Christoff said. And the gap between the administration's and the GAO's assessments on these central issues is likely to be reflected in other benchmarks, he said.
The GAO team is due back Aug. 4, after which it will begin writing its report.