[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
The statement is made in the U.S. media, over and over again, as if it is as factual as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening: "The surge is working." But just because the media has parroted the talking points of the Bush administration and John McCain's campaign in making such an assertion, it does not make it true. And a report released by the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) yesterday does something that McCain and the White House probably wish would not be done: actually evaluating progress in Iraq against the goals the administration laid out in January 2007 when undertaking the surge. Guess what? In many material ways, the surge isn't working. Sorry to rain on the parade of CNN, Fox News, ABC, CBS, etc. with the facts.
The mainstream media is barely even acknowledging the report's release. At the time of this writing, the GAO report didn't even warrant a headline on the CNN.com home page, although CNN did see fit to include Imus's allegedly racist remark, pirates kidnapping European tourists, a British man accused of killing his wife and child, a prisoner's escape gone bad, the cost of orange juice in "paradise," a calf with an extra snout, and the denial of a U.S. visa for Boy George. And there is a headline that the Iraq military will control Anbar province, but there is no mention of the fact, cited in the GAO report, that only nine of Iraq's 18 provinces were controlled by the Iraqi government, even though the goal was to have Iraq control all 18 of its provinces by the end of 2007.
Since the mainstream media won't report on the GAO report, I decided to go through it myself to see what is there. The report states that some progress has been made in Iraq, but that in many other ways, things are not going well.
Rather than just stick to the GAO's conclusions, I took from the report some disturbing findings, many of them uncontested (yes, I know the Departments of Defense, State and Treasury objected to the conclusions, but in addition to the GAO being nonpartisan, the report also acknowledges and addresses the complaints of the departments), that point to the larger problems with the U.S.'s occupation of Iraq. Here are some of the highlights (or, really, lowlights):
Bill Clinton famously once said: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." The Bush administration had no effective plan to handle a post-war Iraq. The incompetence shown was disastrous. So why would anyone think for a second that the White House had a post-surge plan?
And the GAO report finds just that, that the Bush administration has no plan for what to do next. With the 18-month surge coming to an end in July, the report says that the administration has not set out "strategic goals and objectives in Iraq for the phase after July 2008 or how it intends to achieve them" and "an updated strategy is needed for how the United States will help Iraq achieve key security, legislative, and economic goals."
What did the Defense Department and State Department think of this statement? They were against it, of course. According to the report, the two departments said that the surge strategy "remains valid." But if most of the goals laid out by the president in January 2007 have not been met in July 2008, how can the plan still be valid?
Once again, the White House has no plan. Is this is a rerun?
When the White House and McCain say "the surge is working," how is it different than Bush's disastrous "stay the course" strategy in Iraq that failed and supposedly necessitated the surge in the first place? Keep that in mind the next time you're asked to support an open-ended troop commitment.
The report acknowledged that violence was down in May (after rising in March and April) and attributed the reduction to three factors: "1) the increase in U.S. combat forces, 2) the creation of nongovernmental security forces such as the Sons of Iraq, and 3) the Mahdi Army's declaration of a cease fire." What do these three conditions have in common? They are all temporary and unlikely to continue in the future.
Congressional testimony by generals in April, an April press release by Republican Senator Richard Lugar and statements by former secretary of state Colin Powell on Good Morning America in April all agreed on one premise: The U.S. military is stretched beyond its limits and cannot sustain current troop levels in Iraq indefinitely. The Sons of Iraq is a Sunni group that has fought al-Qaeda (fellow Sunnis) in Iraq. Groups like the Sons of Iraq are paid by the U.S. military. When the money stops, there is no guarantee the cooperation will continue. And as the GAO report points out, these groups have not reconciled with the Iraqi government, which is a recipe for future problems. As for the the Mahdi Army, its leader, Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said two weeks ago that he is setting up a fighting force specifically designed to fight Americans in Iraq, after making clear in April that he is not interested if fighting Iraqis but did want to fight U.S. troops. So the cease fire is, at best, to quote the report, "tenuous."
With all three elements affecting a drop in violence in Iraq being so precarious, it stands to reason that the drop in violence is also fragile, something both the GAO and the Defense department acknowledge. And the GAO report cites findings from the United Nations that violence in Iraq could "rapidly escalate."
Finally, the report notes that while violence is down from past levels, it is still high enough to keep a significant number of Iraqis displaced from their homes and to stymie rebuilding efforts in the country.
That, to me, sounds a lot more complicated than the simple campaign rhetoric of "the surge is working."
The purpose of the surge was to give the Iraqi government "breathing space" to enact laws to bring together Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, resolve their differences and establish a democratic government. In fact, President Bush said in January 2007 that the Iraqi government would be held to benchmarks, and if the government did not meet these goals, U.S. support would cease. Bush said in January 2007: "America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people."
Has the Iraqi government followed through on its promises? Well, the GAO reports that while some legislation has been passed to restore Ba'ath Party members to government (although many have questioned the legitimacy of these efforts), give amnesty to some detainees and define provincial powers, on many of the larger, stickier issues, no progress has been made. The report notes that the Iraqi government has not enacted "important legislation for sharing oil resources or holding provincial elections" and that "[e]fforts to complete constitutional review have also stalled."
In other words, we were told that the surge was put in place to provide temporary peace under which the Iraqi government could step up and pass necessary laws so that the Iraqi people could govern themselves. These laws were supposed to be passed and in place by now. This was one of Bush's benchmarks. But, according to the report, the Iraqi government has not met its obligation.
Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, should all be outraged at the piddling amount of money the Iraqis are spending on their own rebuilding efforts. Remember all those claims about Iraqi oil revenues paying for the war? Well, it hasn't even come close to working out that way. As American expenditures approach the $1 trillion mark, the GAO report reveals that "Iraq spent only 24 percent of the $27 billion it budgeted for its own reconstruction efforts" between 2005 and 2007. And things are moving in the wrong direction. The report says that "Iraq's central ministries, responsible for security and essential services, spent only 11 percent of their capital investment budgets in 2007 -- down from similarly low rates of 14 and 13 percent" in 2006 and 2005.
The White House and McCain may cite an increase in the number of Iraqi forces, and the report backs that claim up, saying that Iraqi security forces had grown in number to 478,000 in May 2008, up from 323,000 when the surge began. However, what the GOP doesn't discuss is that the benchmark set up in January 2007 by the Bush administration was for these forces to be able to act independently, without being propped up by the U.S. military, and in this regard, the Iraqis have fallen way short of their obligation. The report says that the Iraqi military has shown "limited improvement" in this area, noting that "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."
Poking a little deeper into the issue, the report notes that the four causes of the lagging readiness rate are "(1) the lack of a single unified force; (2) sectarian and militia influences; (3) continued dependence on U.S. and coalition forces for logistics and combat support; and (4) training and leadership shortages." The first two problems relate directly to the failure of the Iraqi government to take the necessary steps for reconciliation and the creation of a unified government (again, the reason for the surge in the first place). As for the dependence on U.S. forces, the report notes that "contracted logistics support in some form will be necessary for 2 to 3 years." How do you think the American people will feel about that? And, more importantly, three more years of American support for the Iraqi military goes against Bush's benchmark.
The GAO report says that U.S. goals for oil, electricity production and water production have not been met. There were two statements in this section of the report that caught my attention.
One of the headings is, "Iraq Needs an Integrated Energy Plan." My initial reaction was, "Yeah, so does the U.S."
In that section, the opening line reads: "As we reported in May 2007, a variety of security, corruption, legal, planning and sustainment challenges have impeded U.S. and Iraqi efforts to restore Iraq's oil and electricity sectors." Later, the report says: "For example, the lack of cooperation and coordination between the Oil and Electricity ministries, particularly in supplying appropriate fuels to the electricity sector, has resulted in inefficiencies such as increased maintenance costs and frequent interruptions in electricity production, according to U.S. officials."
Cutting through the technical jargon, what jumped out to me is that while thousands of U.S. soldiers have died, tens of thousand have been wounded, hundreds of thousands have had their lives disrupted with dire consequences, and the American government has hemorrhaged hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money at a time when the U.S. economy is sputtering, the Iraqis are engaging in petty power battles rather than supply electricity to their people.
If the surge was supposed to give space for the Iraqis to work out their problems, this is yet another area where the Iraqis have come up woefully short. How can the surge be working if the Iraqis are more interested in maintaining their little fiefdoms in the government rather than providing basic services for their people?
After looking through the GAO report, I can't help but wonder: What the hell are we still doing in Iraq? Why are we spending billions of dollars to prop up a government that is seemingly putting power retention over making the hard decisions necessary to reconcile the differences between the country's religious groups (assuming such a reconciliation is even possible)?
And why, if the benchmarks have not been met, are we continuing down the same path that has not worked, especially since the reduction in violence is so tenuous and connected to volatile factors?
I think what the GAO report makes clear, above all else, is that contrary to what the mainstream media and the GOP would have you believe, the surge has not worked, not enough anyway, and, even more importantly, the administration has no plan as to what to do next.
John McCain loves to talk about "winning" in Iraq. After reading the GAO report, winning, to me, would be getting our military out of Iraq as quickly as possible. They've done their jobs, it's the Iraqis who have failed to step up. It's time for the U.S. military to go home.