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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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But these criteria are inappropriate. The issue at hand was whether or not the Maliki government would allow Coalition forces to operate at will throughout the battlespace or whether it would continue to cordon off certain Shia areas as "no-go" zones for U.S. Troops, as it had done in 2006. As the report notes, Coalition forces routinely operate in all neighborhoods of Baghdad, including Sadr City, and, we might add, throughout Iraq. The Maliki government has not established areas of the city in which Coalition forces cannot travel--in marked distinction to last year's debacle--with the result that Coalition and Iraqi forces have been able to inflict significant damage on the Jaysh al-Mahdi even within its Baghdad strongholds. Again, the standard of "policy did not allow safe havens and none existed" is a measure of perfection--when there are no areas in which insurgents or militias can operate freely, then the war is over. Until that point, there will be some temporary "safe havens" according to the GAO report, but this has nothing to do with the intention of the benchmark, which the Iraqi Government has clearly met.

Perhaps the most controversial assertion of the GAO report is likely to be that the goal of "Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security" was "not met" based on the following criterion: "there was no clear and reliable evidence that the level of sectarian violence was reduced and that militia control of local security was eliminated." The report notes that it would have assessed this goal as "partially met" if either condition held.

The assertion that there is no "clear and reliable evidence that the level of sectarian violence was reduced" will surprise those who have been listening to American and Iraqi officers alike brief that the levels have been falling for months--as well as those who have walked the streets of formerly war-torn neighborhoods in Baghdad. The GAO notes against these briefs that overall attacks on civilians have remained constant (although its data appear to end in July), but its explanation for its unwillingness to accept the figures of the U.S. command is nothing short of bizarre: "GAO cannot determine whether sectarian violence in Iraq has been reduced because measuring such violence requires understanding the perpetrator's intent, which may not be known." As a statement of epistemology, this sentence is correct and worth meditating on. As the basis for denying that there has been a reduction in sectarian attacks it is ludicrous. When Shia gunmen seize Sunnis, bind them, torture them, execute them, and dump their bodies on the street, it is probably reasonable to assume--as we have been assuming for years--that the motivation was sectarian in nature. When a Sunni al Qaeda fighter (and there are virtually no Shia in Al Qaeda In Iraq) drives a dump truck full of home-made explosive into a crowded market in a heavily Shia neighborhood, it is also fair to say that his intention probably had something to do with sectarianism (considering Al Qaeda In Iraq's repeated denunciation of Shia as "dogs" and "apostates" worthy of death, and considering former AQI leader Abu Musaab al Zarqawi's stated intention of killing Shia to provoke a sectarian war). The U.S. military command has been monitoring both Shia execution-style killings and mass-casualty attacks on Shia targets as "sectarian killings" for many months, and now reports that the trends of such attacks are at one-fourth to one-third of their pre-surge levels. To set against this clear statement the philosophical quandary of looking into the soul of the killer before categorizing the crime is ridiculous.

One could go on cataloguing the failings of the GAO report, both in its mandate and in its execution, but the exercise would quickly become tedious. The GAO was given a fool's errand by a Congress determined to generate at least one report this September that it could reliably cite showing failure in Iraq. Well, Congress accomplished its goal. For those of us who are interested in what is really happening in Iraq, the reports of General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will be far more useful.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is grateful for assistance from Daniel Barnard and Joel Rayburn in the preparation of this article.