The Government Accountability Office delivered on Monday what was, in many ways, a sobering report on the current situation in Iraq. Noting that violence levels in the war had decreased, the authors nevertheless concluded that many of the Bush administration's "surge" priorities had so far been unrealized.
The most startling illustration of the hindered strategy seems likely to be the current status of the Iraqi Security Forces -- the policing and military presence that is supposed to allow U.S. troops to come home. According to the GAO, the percentage of Iraqi units "capable of performing operations without U.S. assistance" remains roughly 10 percent. Thus, while the number of forces has risen by more than 150,000, the actual assistance that American troops are receiving is far more negligible. Adding salt to the wound, the GAO notes: "Since 2003, the United States has provided more than $20 billion to develop Iraqi security forces."
But when it comes to Iraqi security, the devil is in the details. Indeed, even stating that there has been an increase in Iraqi forces is a bit misleading. As the GAO notes, the methodology for counting these force levels contains inherent flaws, including tallying those who are dead or deserted.
The number of trained Iraqi security forces may overstate the number of troops present for duty. According to DOD, the number of trained troops includes personnel who are deceased or absent without leave. For example, DOD reported that approximately 24,500 soldiers were dropped from the Iraqi Army rolls in 2007 because they deserted or were absent without leave. However, these troops are still counted in trained numbers. An April 2008 Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction report confirmed that a substantial number of Iraqi personnel still on the payroll were not present for duty for various reasons, such as being on leave, absent without leave, injured, or killed.
Claims that Iraqi army battalions are now "in the lead" in counterinsurgency operations are also a bit dubious, as these tallies include units that have unproven capacity. As the GAO reported: U.S. officials are now counting units at ORA level 2 - units that are only "partially capable of conducting counterinsurgency operations" - as battalions taking the lead in counterinsurgency operations. Back in January 2007, however, such units were not counted.
Although Iraqi security forces have grown in number and many are leading counterinsurgency operations, MNH-1 assessments of their readiness levels show limited improvements... While 65 percent of the Iraqi units were in the lead in counterinsurgency operations as of March 2008, the number of Iraqi army battalions rated at the highest readiness level accounts for less than 10 percent of the total number of Iraqi army battalions.
All of this contains implications both for U.S. forces in Iraq - which are dependent upon Iraqi Security Forces to ultimately faze them out of combat operations - and U.S. lawmakers back home. Congress, as the GAO report noted, has established as a benchmark the number of Iraqi security forces' units capable of operating independently.
Perhaps more significantly, much of the goodwill being built around the president's surge policy has been contingent on the idea that Iraqi security forces would one day be able to keep violence levels in the country low. Sen. John McCain, the surge's foremost champion, has said that success in Iraq would come when "Iraqi forces have the responsibility for enforcing security in their country, and where American troops can return home, with the honor of having secured their country's interests at great personal cost." The Arizona Republican even predicted that "the Iraqi Security Force" would be "professional and competent" by 2013.
General David Petraeus, meanwhile, has been relatively straightforward about the situation, declaring during a his testimony before Congress in September 2007: "Iraqi Security Forces have also continued to grow and to shoulder more of the load, albeit slowly and amid continuing concerns about the sectarian tendencies of some elements in their ranks. In general, however, Iraqi elements have been standing and fighting and sustaining tough losses, and they have taken the lead in operations in many areas."
But even his assessment back then was far rosier than that offered by the GAO this week: "Coalition and Iraqi Security Forces have made progress toward achieving sustainable security," Petraeus declared, "As a result, the United States will be in a position to reduce its forces in Iraq in the months ahead."