by Mark Silva
And so it is September, one senator noted, the time when Congress called on the Bush administration to report on progress made toward 18 benchmarks which lawmakers set when they reluctantly authorized continuing funding for the war in Iraq this year.
And most of them have not been met, the General Accountability Office is reporting this week, with Comptroller General David Walker noting in his appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that violence in Iraq remains high and, while some military progress has been made: “Clearly, the least progress has been made on the political front.’’
“This is obviously crunch time, an important time for the country, for Iraq, for our soldiers, for the American people and for the interests that are at stake here,’’ said hearing chairman Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), at the committee’s session. “September has been much talked about, much waited and now it's here.’’
With a glance at the GAO’s report, “Securing, Stabilizing and Rebuilding Iraq,’’ Kerry noted that it concludes that the Iraqi government has not met most of the legislative, security and economic benchmarks that the Congress attached to funding.
“That assessment, needless to say, is at odds with some other trial-balloon assessments that have been floated in recent days,’’ Kerry said. “And hopefully, we can establish here some kind of benchmark ourselves as to what it is we ought to be measuring.’’
Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, one of the few Republicans who have broken ranks with the administration over the war, put the question this way: “How much more American investment are we willing to apply, specifically investment in American blood and treasure?’’
The GAO report is far more sobering than the mid-summer assessment that the Bush administration made of the situation. The House Armed Services Committee will examine it today, with further testimony from Walker.
“I think everyone has acknowledged that it is possible with an increase of troops in a particular small area to gain some kind of tactical advantage,’’ Kerry said at the Senate hearing Tuesday. “That is not what is at issue here. The fundamental purpose of the surge was to give the Iraqi government the breathing room to make the decisions necessary to be able to achieve the benchmarks. And when we see that even after its full implementation those benchmarks are as far from being reached as they are, it is hard to draw any assessment except that there is a failing grade for a policy that is still not working.’’
The GAO report, Kerry noted, conflicts with the Bush administration’s own earlier report in July, which found that satisfactory progress had been made toward meeting eight of the 18 benchmarks. They contrast, in particular, over whether the security situation in Iraq actually has improved, he said.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) suggested that, while much emphasis will be placed on the benchmarks this month, and that this is understandable – “given our craving for a simple, objective standard against which to measure’’ – Congress nevertheless should be cautious about weighing only these milestones.
“For the most part, benchmarks measure the official actios of Iraqi government leaders and the current status of Iraq's political and economic rebuilding effort,’’ he said. “This is an important starting point, but pass-or-fail grades on a set of benchmarks are not necessarily predictive of ultimate success or failure. For example, benchmarks do not measure whether Iraq society at the street level can accept compromise and national reconciliation. And I emphasize that, at the street level.
“Now, benchmarks also fail to answer basic questions about the economic, political, and military sustainability of our own policies in Iraq,’’ Lugar said. “These questions, as well as the impact of our Iraq operations on competing United States national security requirements, should be central in our decision-making process. In deference to the upcoming report from General Petraeus, we have largely set aside these questions in recent months. As we receive assessments about Iraq, the administration must be especially candid with Congress about the status of our armed forces.
“Regardless of what Iraq strategy is adopted, it must be sustainable, and it cannot be disassociated from the rest of the United States' national security goals and obligations,’’ he said.
. “it is vital that the administration initiate planning for a range of post-September contingencies,’’ Lugar said. “The surge must not be an excuse for failing to prepare for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is withdrawal, a gradual
redeployment, or some other option.’’
Comptroller Walker, head of the GAO, underscored his own agency’s obligation to be “fair and balanced.’’ He also noted that his own son had fought as an officer in the Marine Corps in Iraq, and that the GAO’s “professional independent assessment… should in no way serve to diminish the courageous efforts of our military.’’
The GAO drew information from several government sources and its staffers have made multiple visits to Iraq in 2006 and 2007, most recently from July 22 to Aug.1. Its analysis has been enhanced by about 100 different reports and testimonies, including data collected as recently as Aug. 30.
As of Aug. 30, the GAO has concluded, the Iraqi government had met three, partially met four and had not met 11 of the 18 benchmarks.
“Overall, key legiation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend the $10 billion in reconstruction funds it has allocated,’’ Walker said.
He noted that the government had partially met one benchmark -- to enact and implement legislation on the formation of regions. This law was enacted in October of 2006 but will not be implemented until April 2008. Further, the government has not enacted legislation on de-Ba'athification, oil revenue sharing, provincial elections, amnesty, and military disarmament.
But just two of nine security benchmarks have been met.
“Specifically, Iraq's government has established various committees in support of the Baghdad security plan, and it's established almost all of the plan joint security stations in Baghdad,’’ he said. “The government has partially met the benchmarks of providing three trained and ready brigades for Baghdad operations and the benchmark of eliminating safe
havens for outlaw groups.’’
Five other benchmarks have not been met in the security area, he reported. The government has not eliminated militia control of local security, eliminated political intervention in military operations or ensured even hand enforcement of the law.
“As the Congress considers the way forward in Iraq, in our view it should balance the achievement of the 18 Iraqi benchmarks with military progress and homeland security, foreign policy and other goals of the United States,’’ Walker said.
Kerry asked: “Are you able to conclude, as a consequence of these many reports and long involvement now, what's missing and what is going to be necessary to try to create greater progress with respect to the sectarian struggle?’’
“Clearly, the least progress has been made on the political front,’’ Walker said, “and, as you and other members -- Senator Lugar -- mentioned earlier, one of the whole ideas about the surge was to enhance security in order to provide additional breathing room in order to make political progress. We did not attempt to weight these 18 benchmarks.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), maintaining that these benchmarks are “ important indicators that can help us understand the direction in which Iraq is headed,’’ called the GAO’s assessment “a disturbing picture: It is one of divisive political turbulence, rampant sectarian violence and calamitous insecurity, in the middle of which are more than 160,000 brave American troops fighting with no end in sight. ‘’
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said: “I have read your report and listened to you today and listened to some of my colleagues and the questions that they've asked, it really does come down to that very basic question that you have put before this committee -- the role of the United States in Iraq.
“And when I hear you say such things as ‘violence remains high in Iraq, unclear whether sectarian violence has diminished in Iraq, least progress made on the political front in Iraq,’ it leads me to -- the obvious question is how more American investment are we willing to apply, specifically investment in American blood and treasure. We are now in our fifth year with, incidentally, our casualty rates last month higher than they were the month before.’’