Counting on the AWOLs

A new GAO report exposes the Pentagon's fuzzy math regarding Iraq's new security forces.

By Mark Follman
Published March 16, 2005 6:09PM (EST)

With the new Iraqi constitutional assembly meeting for the first time on Wednesday to the sounds of explosions rocking the heart of Baghdad, security there clearly is still a problem.

So too, apparently, is getting an honest appraisal of it from Washington. In recent months the Pentagon has been pumped up about the progress of Iraq's new security forces, but its official take has relied on some pretty fuzzy math, according to the L.A. Times.

"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 Times reports. "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.

"'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."

According to the Times, the GAO criticized the Pentagon in particular for including the droves of AWOL police officers in its totals of trained, equipped and duty-ready Iraqi troops.

The GAO's Christoff takes the prize for understatement of the day: "If you are reporting AWOLs in your numbers, I think there's some inaccuracy in your reporting," he said following the hearing.

The reality of recruiting and training Iraqis is in fact far more daunting than the Bush administration seems willing to acknowledge. According to Sgt. Robert Beatty, an active-duty soldier who oversaw the training of Iraqi recruits last year, many of them will bail out as soon as their American supporters are gone.

"I know for a fact that many of the people we were training were not professionals," Beatty told Salon in a recent interview. "There's a small selection of jobs the Iraqis can get, and this was one of the easier ones. Some of the guys would say that they were just there for the money. You can't blame them for that, because they're just trying to support their families, but by the same token, their patriotism was in question. I felt like a lot of them would do whatever they could for the highest bidder."

During her Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year, Condoleezza Rice defended the administration's beefed up numbers -- but well before the latest GAO report, as the Times story reminds us, administration critics had it right:

"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."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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