Strength of Iraqi Forces Questioned
U.S. commanders and Bush administration officials are overstating the number of Iraqi security forces on duty, providing an inaccurate picture about the training mission that is the U.S. military’s exit strategy for Iraq, a government audit agency said Monday.
The Pentagon in its latest figures said 142,000 Iraqis had been trained as police and soldiers. But the Government Accountability Office said those figures include tens of thousands of Iraqi policemen who had left their jobs without explanation.
The GAO also said the State Department six months ago stopped providing government auditors with information about the number of Iraqi troops who have been issued flak vests, weapons and communications equipment.
The unreliability of the data coming from Baghdad makes it difficult to provide an accurate accounting of the billions of dollars the U.S. is spending to train and equip Iraq’s army and police force, a GAO official told a congressional committee Monday.
“Without reliable information, Congress may find it difficult to judge how federal funds are achieving the goal of transferring security responsibilities to the Iraqis,” Joseph A. Christoff, the GAO’s director of international affairs and trade, told the House Government Reform subcommittee on international relations.
Although the Defense Department has conducted several internal evaluations of the U.S. training mission in Iraq, the GAO is the first government agency to challenge the figures the Pentagon uses to chart the progress of Iraqi troops.
Specifically, the GAO criticized the Pentagon’s decision to include in its totals of trained and equipped Iraqi troops the “tens of thousands” of police officers who are absent without leave.
The most recent Pentagon figures show that nearly 82,000 Iraqis have undergone U.S. police training.
“If you are reporting AWOLs in your numbers, I think there’s some inaccuracy in your reporting,” Christoff said after the hearing.
The progress of the mission has become a politically charged issue, with Democrats in Congress charging that the administration is misrepresenting the number of trained Iraqis in the field.
During confirmation hearings for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, senators challenged her assertion that the Pentagon had trained more than 120,000 Iraqi policemen and soldiers.
That number, they said, included more than 50,000 police officers who were given as little as three weeks of basic training.
“Time and again this administration has tried to leave the American people with the impression that Iraq has well over 100,000 fully trained, fully competent military police and personnel. And that is simply not true,” Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Rice. “We’re months, probably years away from reaching our target goal.”
At Monday’s hearing, Defense Department officials defended the practice of including in the official totals policemen who had gone AWOL. Unlike Iraqi soldiers, they said, police officers do not sleep in barracks and are not closely tracked by the Interior Ministry.
Moreover, officials said, policemen often leave their units when they are paid and return to their hometowns to ensure that the money gets to their families.
For these reasons, officials said, the total figures for Iraqi policemen are less accurate than the numbers for Iraqi soldiers.
“It’s a less precise accounting, and that’s the nature of the business we’re in,” said the Pentagon’s Rear Adm. William D. Sullivan.
The total number of trained and equipped policemen “doesn’t represent the numbers that are actually in the field,” he said.
According to Pentagon figures, more than 142,000 soldiers and policemen have been trained and equipped, with a goal of 271,000 trained by July 2006.
Since Iraq’s elections in January, the Pentagon has made the training of Iraqi forces the focus of U.S. military efforts, and defense officials hope that by the end of the year local troops will be leading the fight against insurgents in most parts of the country.
The U.S. has spent $5.8 billion training and equipping Iraqi forces since April 2003, and this week the House of Representatives is expected to vote on a supplemental budget request that includes an additional $5.7 billion devoted to the training.