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Cooking the books on Iraq

A Defense Department report to Congress gets an A in self-delusion and an F for accuracy and truth.

June 03, 2006|Anthony H. Cordesman | ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN is a defense and intelligence expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He is the author of "The Iraq War: Strategy, Tactics and Military Lessons."

IF THE UNITED STATES is to win in Iraq, it needs an honest and objective picture of what is happening there. The media and outside experts can provide pieces of this picture, but only the U.S. government has the resources and access to information to offer a comprehensive overview.

But the quarterly report to Congress issued May 30 by the Department of Defense, "Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq," like the weekly reports the State Department issues on Iraq, is profoundly flawed. It does more than simply spin the situation to provide false assurances to lawmakers and the public. It makes basic analytical and statistical mistakes, fails to define key terms, provides undefined and unverifiable survey information and deals with key issues by omission. It deserves an overall grade of F.

The report provides a fundamentally false picture of the political situation in Iraq and of the difficulties ahead. It does not prepare Congress or the American people for the years of effort that will be needed even under "best-case" conditions nor for the risk of far more serious forms of civil conflict. Some of its political reporting is simply incompetent. For example, the report repeatedly states that 77% of the Iraqi population voted in the December 2005 election. Given that the CIA estimates that almost 40% of the population is 14 or younger, there is no conceivable way that 77% of the population could have voted. The report says 12.2 million voters turned out. The CIA estimates Iraq's population is 26.8 million. This means roughly 46% of the population voted.

The far more serious problem, however, is the spin the report puts on the entire Iraqi political process. Political participation surely rose. But that wasn't because of acceptance of the new government or an embrace of a democratic political process; it reflected a steady sharpening of sectarian divisions, as Sunnis tried to make up for their decision to boycott earlier elections.

The report touts a "true unity government with broad-based buy-in from major electoral lists and all of Iraq's communities." But its own data tell a different story. The one largely secular party won only 9% of parliament. The sectarian Shiite party, the United Iraqi Alliance, got 47%. The equally sectarian Sunni Iraqi Accordance Front got 16%, and the Kurdish Coalition got 19%. That hardly adds up to "unity."

The five-month delay in forming a government after the elections, the failure to appoint ministers of defense or interior and the fact that former Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari relinquished his post only after strong pressure from the United States and from Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani are signs that progress is likely to be slow in the future as well. Sectarian conflict has become almost as serious a threat as the insurgency.

It is scarcely reassuring to be told by the Defense Department that the February attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra marked a defeat for the insurgents and Islamic extremists because it did not instantly lead to all-out civil war. It is hard to think of a worse definition of victory.

THE ECONOMIC section of the report contains useful data and reflects some real progress in the Iraqi financial sector. However, its analysis is flawed to the point of being actively misleading. No meaningful assessment is provided of the successes and failures of the U.S. aid effort, and no mention is made of the massive corruption and mismanagement of U.S. aid discovered by the special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction.

Nor is there meaningful analysis of oil developments, budget and revenue problems or future needs for aid. More than $30 billion in U.S. funds and nearly $35 billion in Iraqi money is involved, yet there is a serious risk that the Bush administration will do more than omit the inspector general's report. In fact, some State Department officials and Republicans in Congress are trying to put the inspector general out of business.

The report's handling of the key issue of Iraqi unemployment is symptomatic of the victory of spin over content. The report quotes vague national figures of 18% unemployment and states that other estimates range between 25% and 40%. By saying that unemployment and poverty "remain concerns" but that there are "substantial difficulties in measuring them accurately," it glosses over one of the most destabilizing aspects of Iraq. It ignores the failure of the aid program to create real jobs, especially for young men in areas of high crime and insurgency. Unemployment is not a casual macroeconomic factoid; it is central to bringing stability and security and to defeating the insurgency.

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