By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
The administration lacks an updated and comprehensive Iraq strategy to move beyond the "surge" of combat troops President Bush launched in January 2007 as an 18-month effort to curtail violence and build Iraqi democracy, government investigators said yesterday.
While agreeing with the administration that violence has decreased sharply, a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office concluded that many other goals Bush outlined a year and a half ago in the "New Way Forward" strategy remain unmet.
The report, after a bleak GAO assessment last summer, cited little improvement in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to act independently of the U.S. military, and noted that key legislation passed by the Iraqi parliament had not been implemented while other crucial laws had not been passed. The report also judged that key Iraqi ministries spent less of their allocated budgets last year than in previous years, and said that oil and electricity production had repeatedly not met U.S. targets.
Bush's strategy of January 2007, the GAO said, "defined the original goals and objectives that the Administration believed were achievable by the end of this phase in July 2008." Not meeting many of them changed circumstances on the ground and the pending withdrawal of the last of the additional U.S. forces mean that strategy is now outdated, the report said. The GAO recommends that the State and Defense departments work together to fashion a new approach.
The GAO report contrasted with a Pentagon report, dated June 13 but not released until yesterday. The Defense Department's quarterly assessment to Congress, "Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq," said that "security, political and economic trends in Iraq continue to be positive, although they remain fragile, reversible and uneven."
In many respects, the two reports seemed to assess wholly different realities. The 74-page Pentagon document emphasized what it called the "negative role" in Iraqi security that Iran and Syria have played. The 94-page GAO report did not mention Iran and referred to Syria only in the context of Iraqi refugees who had settled there.
Lawmakers in the House and Senate last year ordered the GAO -- Congress's investigative arm -- to assess the progress of U.S. objectives in Iraq. Yesterday's GAO report, which cites statistics through early June, said its work drew on a review of U.S. and Iraqi documents; interviews with officials across the U.S. government and intelligence agencies; and military and diplomatic personnel in Iraq.
In comments appended to the GAO report, the State, Treasury and Defense departments objected to its conclusions, especially the judgment that the administration needs to fashion a new strategy.
"We do not require a new strategic document," the State Department wrote. The Pentagon said it "nonconcurs with the GAO recommendation" to update the strategy, adding that the "New Way Forward . . . remains valid."
The Defense Department also disagreed with a separate GAO criticism -- contained in a classified appendix that was not publicly released -- that the Pentagon's year-old Joint Campaign Plan, written in Baghdad, "is not a strategic plan; it is an operational plan with limitations."
The Pentagon said the GAO chose a "misleading" measurement of Iraqi security capabilities -- that only 10 percent of Iraqi units had reached full operational readiness. A better measurement, it said, was the number of Iraqi units "in the lead" in joint operations, which it put at 70 percent.
The GAO's assessment of electricity, the Pentagon said, was flawed because it was measured against "an ever-rising demand." The Pentagon noted that output is now higher than before the U.S. invasion in March 2003.
The Pentagon also criticized the GAO's conclusion that Iraqi oil production is lagging. The "arbitrary goal" of 3 million barrels a day, the Pentagon said, had been set by the U.S. occupation government -- the now-defunct Coalition Provisional Authority -- and "fail[s] to capture the fact that oil exports" are now higher than at any time since the invasion.
The Treasury Department disputed the GAO's assessment of the Iraqi government's expenditures. It said investigators had used the wrong metrics to conclude that "Iraq's central ministries spent only 11 percent of their capital investment budgets in 2007, a decline from similarly low spending rates of 14 and 13 percent in 2005 and 2006, respectively."
On numerous points, the GAO report countered the rebuttals. "We agree that Iraq's budget doubled in size between 2005 and 2008," it said in one response to Treasury's objections. "However, much of the increase was due to a 25 percent appreciation of the Iraqi dinar and a four-fold increase in the budgets of Iraq's security ministries."