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What's Wrong with the GAO Report

Measuring failure--or the failures of measuring.

3:37 PM, Sep 4, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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At first glance--as those who leaked it last week saw--the Government Accountability Office's report on Iraq, released today, paints a dark view of progress and prospects in Iraq. Its subtitle offers the most attractive thesis to opponents of the current strategy: "Iraqi Government Has Not Met Most Legislative, Security, and Economic Benchmarks." Its opening paragraph dourly states that "the Iraqi government met 3, partially met 4, and did not meet 11 of its 18 benchmarks." Surely its release marks a grim moment for the Bush administration's efforts to sustain their approach in the war. Or perhaps not.

The GAO report reflects everything that has been wrong with the discussion about Iraq since the end of 2006. Through no fault of the GAO's, the organization was sent on a fool's errand by Congress. Its mandate was not to evaluate progress in Iraq, but to determine whether or not the Iraqi government had met the 18 benchmarks. As a result, as the report repeatedly notes, the GAO was forced to fit an extraordinarily complicated reality into a black-and-white, yes-or-no simplicity. In addition, the GAO's remit extended only to evaluating progress on the Congressionally-sanctioned 18 benchmarks, 14 of which were established between eight and 11 months ago in a very different context. As a result, the report ignores completely a number of crucial positive developments that were not foreseen when the benchmarks were established and that, in fact, offer the prospect of a way forward that is much more likely to succeed than the year-old, top-down concept the GAO was told to measure. As the situation in Iraq has been changing dynamically over the past eight months, as American strategy and operations, both military and political, have been adjusting on the ground to new realities, the debate in Washington has remained mired in the preconceptions and approaches of 2006. The GAO report epitomizes this fact.

A number of commentators have already pointed out the absurdity of measuring whether or not the Iraqis had accomplished benchmarks rather than considering their progress toward doing so. Even the GAO found that task ridiculous, which is why, after criticism from the Departments of State and Defense, it invented the category of "partially met" as a third option, a category not foreseen in the legislation mandating the report.

One of the most striking things about the GAO Report is its failure to take adequate notice of the Anbar Awakening and the general movement within the Sunni Arab community against Al Qaeda In Iraq and toward the Coalition. "Anbar" appears twice in the document, both times in a comment noting that violence has fallen in that province, but without reference to the turn of the Sunni population against the terrorists. That omission is unfathomable considering the significance of the movement among Sunnis over precisely the time in which the GAO was researching and producing this report. During the same period in which the report's authors note that they were in Iraq, I was also in Iraq, and received detailed briefings on the Sunni movement not only in Anbar, but also in Diyala, Baghdad, and Babil provinces. It is difficult to imagine that the GAO authors did not receive similar briefings, but even harder to understand why, if they did, they made no mention of the phenomenon. Of course, the Congressionally-mandated benchmarks take no account of the grassroots Sunni movement, and so made it difficult for the GAO to bring them into the picture.

A more serious assessment would have included the effects of that movement in at least two key categories:

* Amnesty. The GAO report assesses that the goal of "Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty" for former insurgents has not been met. Quite right--there is no such legislation under consideration by the Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR). On the other hand, tens of thousands of former insurgents--over 30,000 by the reckoning of counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen--have joined the Coalition and the Iraqi Government in fighting the terrorists and their former comrades in the resistance. That turnabout--the hallmark of a successful counter-insurgency--is perhaps the most important form of amnesty there is, since the Iraqi Government has accepted thousands of these fighters into the Iraqi Security Forces and allowed others to be set up as "concerned citizens groups." Legislation is important--but reality on the ground is more so. Because of the presence of U.S. forces and agreements of the Iraqi Government, insurgents and terrorists feel comfortable providing fingerprints, retina scans, and the serial numbers of their weapons to our forces in order to fight our common enemies in government-recognized organizations. It's hard to imagine a better "amnesty" arrangement than that.