President George W. Bush’s Iraq troop “surge,” which is now ending, got a mixed report card from congressional investigators, who found that many of Bush’s stated goals remained unmet.
The Government Accountability Office reported that violence in Iraq has dropped over the past year, but that the training of Iraqi security forces still lags, Sunni insurgents have not been defeated, cease-fires with Shiite militias remain fragile, and political reconciliation has not been achieved.
The supposed success of the “surge” has become a central issue in the presidential campaign, with Republican candidate John McCain and many of his press allies accusing Democrat Barack Obama of refusing to admit that he was wrong to oppose the troop increase in 2007.
Obama has argued that several factors, which pre-dated the “surge,” contributed to the decline in violence, including the decision by Sunni tribal leaders in 2006 to turn against the indiscriminate violence of al-Qaeda extremists and a cease-fire declared by Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Obama’s more detailed account provoked an angry retort from McCain, who told CBS News anchor Katie Couric, “I don’t know how you respond to something that is such a false depiction of what happened.”
However, McCain later was forced to amend his comments during a campaign stop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he acknowledged that the so-called Anbar Awakening did begin in 2006, months before Bush announced the “surge” in January 2007.
McCain claimed that he was defining the “surge” more broadly to include counter-insurgency strategies that pre-dated Bush’s announced “surge.”
The GAO update on evaluating the “surge” noted that, according to the Department of Defense, “in June 2008, less than 10 percent of Iraqi security forces were at the highest readiness level and therefore considered capable of performing operations without coalition support.
The report, entitled “Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq: Progress Report: Some Gains Made, Updated Strategy Needed,” added:
“The security environment remains volatile and dangerous. DOD reports that the United States has not achieved its goal of defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, local security forces (such as ‘Sons of Iraq’) have not reconciled with the central government, and the cease-fire agreement with [al-Sadr’s] Mahdi Army remains tenuous.”
Creating an independent Iraqi security force was one of the benchmarks established by Congress and it was a commitment made by the Iraqi government prior to the “surge.” But maintaining a loyal security force has been problematic, the GAO found.
Several factors have complicated the development of capable Iraqi security forces, including the lack of a single unified force, sectarian and militia influences, continued dependence on U.S. and coalition forces for logistics and combat support, and training and leadership shortages,” the report said.
The Bush administration “also stated that the Iraqi government would take responsibility for security in all 18 provinces by November 2007. However, as of mid-July 2008, eight provincial governments do not yet have lead responsibility for security in their provinces,” the GAO said.
According to the U.S. commander in Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition “continues to provide planning, logistics, and other assistance even after security responsibilities have transferred to provincial Iraqi control,” the GAO said.
The “surge,” part of the Bush administration’s “New Way Forward” plan, ends this month, as U.S. troop levels drop back to about 130,000, where they were before the “surge” began in the first several months of 2007. As of June, there were 153,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq
The GAO said the administration still does not have a post-surge strategy in place to deal with “uncertainties” on the ground. The State and Defense departments rebuffed the GAO’s recommendations to update the post-surge strategy in Iraq.
“GAO recommended that [the Pentagon] and State, in conjunction with relevant U.S. agencies, develop an updated strategy for Iraq,” the report said. “DOD and State disagreed asserting that the ‘New Way Forward’ remains valid and that the Joint Campaign Plan guides U.S. efforts in Iraq.”
But the GAO warned that the “New Way Forward” merely articulates U.S. goals and objectives and the Joint Campaign Plan is not a “strategic plan” but an “operational plan with limitations,” much of which remains classified.
Since 2003, the GAO has issued about 140 reports related to the Iraq War. The GAO based its latest progress report on documents and interviews with officials from the Pentagon, State and the Treasury; the Multinational Force in Iraq; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the National Intelligence Council; and the United Nations. The agency also said it reviewed translated copies of Iraqi documents
The GAO report said “violence — as measured by enemy-initiated attacks — decreased about 80 percent from June 2007 to June 2008.”
Essentially, the surge was an admission by Bush administration officials that their prewar planning for the occupation of Iraq was a disaster and that it was a mistake to ignore advice by career military officials to deploy more troops before the March 2003 invasion.
In February 2003, Army Chief of Staff General Shinseki testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said several hundred thousands soldiers would likely be needed to maintain order in post-invasion Iraq.
Shinseki was publicly criticized by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and was forced into an early retirement.
Rumsfeld denied, in an Oct. 12, 2002, interview with the New York Times that he overrode requests by military brass to deploy more ground troops in Iraq. But he said the cornerstone of the Iraq War plan was to use fewer ground troops.
That decision angered some in the military who said overwhelming numerical superiority was needed to assure victory, minimize combat casualties, and restore order quickly to Iraq.
As of June 2008, more than 4,100 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, along with estimated hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. The United Nations also estimates that 2.7 million Iraqis have been displaced in Iraq and two million additional Iraqis have fled the country, primarily to Jordan and Syria.
The 21-page GAO report added that the surge was supposed to lead to accomplishments beyond a drop in violence. In that regard, the plan has not had much success, the GAO concludes.
“In the legislative area, Iraq has enacted key legislation to return some Ba’athists to government, grant amnesty to detained Iraqis, and define provincial powers,” the GAO said.
“However, questions remain about how the laws will be implemented and whether the intended outcomes can be achieved. Additionally, Iraq has not yet passed legislation that will provide the legal framework for sharing oil revenues, disarming militias, and holding provincial elections.
“The Iraqi government also faces logistical and security challenges in holding the scheduled 2008 provincial elections — a key element of reconciliation for Sunnis. Finally, the government has not completed its constitutional review to resolve issues such as the status of disputed territories and the balance of power between federal and regional governments. “