Straus Military Reform Project Research Associate Valerie Reed attended and wrote a summary description of the Sept.5, 2007, House Armed Services Committee hearing to consider the Government Accountability Office's assessment of Iraq's progress, and lack thereof, in meeting the 18 "benchmarks" declared in previous legislation by Congress. It is interesting to note that the count of civilian casualties in Iraq is becoming a central focus of whether Bush Administration policy, more specifically the "surge," is succeeding. We will report more on that emerging central issue in the next few days.
House of Representatives Armed Services Committee Hearing:
The Comptroller General's Assessment of the Iraqi Government's
Record of Performance
Wed., Sept. 5, 2007 - 10 a.m, Rayburn 2118
The House Armed Services Committee held its first of four planned hearings on the status of Iraq reconstruction on Wed., Sept. 5. The hearing's focus was to discuss the results of the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) independent analysis of the Iraqi government's record of performance. GAO Comptroller General David M. Walker served as the sole witness. The hearing's public attendance was at full capacity, and only a handful of the 61 committee members were absent, though many trickled out after the first hour. The committee reconvened with Walker later in the afternoon for a classified session.
The GAO's September 2007 report assessed the Iraqi government on 18 benchmarks (legislative, economic and security). The report concluded that Iraq had met three, partially met four, and had not met 11 of the 18 total benchmarks. The report (see link below) also recommended that the secretaries of state and defense: (1) specify clearly what step in the Iraqi legislative process each draft law has reached; (2) identify trends in sectarian violence together with broader measures of population security; and (3) better identify the operational readiness of Iraqi security forces. It also noted that "State and DOD concurred with our recommendations but disagreed with our assessment of certain benchmarks." In his testimony, Walker downplayed the reported discrepancy between the GAO and Department of Defense's (DOD) methodology and numbers, noting that the agencies only diverged on that one subset. Also, Walker stressed that GAO did not say DOD was wrong, but only that GAO did not feel comfortable agreeing or disagreeing with DOD's data on sectarian violence.
Committee Chair Ike Skelton's, D-Miss., opening remarks expressed disappointment with the Iraqi government's progress, noting that "if they [the Iraqi government] had been able to follow the timeline they first proposed, most of the political benchmarks would have been completed by March of this year." Skelton also questioned whether the United States should "continue to move forward with this strategy [the surge].if the Iraqis are not stepping forward." Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., countered by arguing that GAO's report is "subjective and not all related," and that this hearing was set up to create a negative picture of the status in Iraq. Saxton maintained that there should be more debate on what defines progress, because GAO's criteria was limiting.
Walker's testimony stressed the relevance of his agency's report as the only "independent and professional judgment available" - independence being the crucial factor - setting the GAO apart from the Gen. Petraeus-Amb. Crocker report due to Congress next week. Reps. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., and Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., disputed whether the GAO was in fact objective, let alone better able to measure progress than DOD. Walker pointed out that the Bush administration's measure of progress focuses on if "satisfactory progress has been made," as opposed to GAO's report, which measures if the benchmark has been met. Also, Walker took credit for creating the "partially met" category, which was not originally stipulated for the analysis as requested by Congress, but which he felt was necessary in some instances. Walker suggested Congress use the GAO report as a "baseline to assess progress for moving forward," but noted that additional information and considerations were necessary (examples given were the U.S. military's progress and homeland security concerns).
Much of the contention between DOD and the GAO report concerns benchmark 13 - specifically, whether the level of sectarian violence has decreased. When Reps. John M. McHugh, R-N.Y., Skelton, and Terry Everett, R-Ala., asked for clarification on this issue, Walker repeatedly stated that GAO was "not comfortable with the methodology" used by DOD and the Multi-National Force Iraq to evaluate sectarian violence. As a result, Walker said, the GAO will not concur with their assessment that sectarian violence has decreased. Everett, however, continued to disagree, saying, "You're [GAO] not always right."
Walker argued that it was very hard to determine which instances of violence were sectarian and contended that there may be no need to distinguish between sectarian and non-sectarian violence when reporting violence trends. For example, the significant progress against al-Qaida in Anbar may not be related to a decrease in sectarian violence, as the province was predominantly Sunni. Rep. Susan A. Davis, D-Calif., remarked that if sectarian violence is down in some provinces it is because "there is no one left to kill." Saxton noted that DOD has faulted the GAO report; Walker responded that the only benchmark the DOD and GAO disagree on is the subset of benchmark 13 on sectarian violence. Walker attested that DOD and MNFI lack consistent, transparent criteria for determining levels of violence, so their data on the matter could not be verified.
Much of the discussion centered on the United States' role in achieving the benchmarks. Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., argued that the purpose of the surge was to "buy time" for the Iraqi politicians, but questioned how the surge could be deemed effective if it has not translated into political progress. Walker concurred that it was unwise to declare the surge a success in the long run. For example, DOD reports note that sectarian violence has decreased during the summer months. However, the decrease only brought violence down to the levels reported in February 2007, when the surge was initiated.
When the committee moved to the question of how to measure progress, Walker said it was possible that there might need to be amendments to the benchmarks to address other elements of progress, such as improvements in the daily lives of Iraqis, access to water, electricity and fuel. Members of both parties supported the idea of amendments to further assess progress. Walker further said that the benchmarks assigned by Congress and used by GAO do not fully assess the progress of Iraqi reconstruction, but that GAO's mandate was only to measure the current benchmarks. Walker declined to note if these potential amendments would merit a "met" or "not met" status.
Reps. Vic Snyder, D-Ark., Ellen O. Tauscher, D-Calif., and Rick Larsen, D-Wash., then further addressed the U.S. role in achieving the benchmarks, asserting that there needs to be more discussion on U.S. foreign policy goals - specifically what constitutes the country's national interest, and how much the focus on Iraq might deter from other security concerns. Tauscher noted that "there is going to have to be a withdrawal of troops" and that "we have been launched on a false debate," arguing over semantics and the past, instead of moving forward. To this and many other queries on specific policy directions that Congress could take, Walker said that the current task should be to reassess and draft future strategies. However, he pointedly refused to recommend any specific actions, and only noted that Congress has the power to appropriate funds and to declare war.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, countered the criticism of Iraqi government progress, saying, "I would hate for somebody to judge us [the U.S. Congress] by these standards." In response to Thornberry's statement, Walker replied that he would judge Congress' role and policies in Iraq as a "complete failure." Thornberry then stated that nation-building is a lengthy process, and many of the legislative benchmarks deemed "not met" are simply dependent on legislation currently in progress - though later Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., noted that while U.S. troops continued their efforts, "the Iraqi government took a summer vacation."
Many representatives asked Walker what the United States should do next. Walker asserted that the United States needs to reassess strategies, establish new goals and ways to measure them, and then report periodically. Walker stated that one goal of the U.S. military should be to hand over responsibility for policing the streets to Iraqi security forces, once trained. He also cautioned to not take the Bush administration's goals "as a given," but to consider additional incoming information, such as Gen. Petraeus' and Amb. Crocker's reports.
Committee members' queries and comments followed a predictable pattern: Republicans attacked the credibility of the GAO report (regarding DOD assessments as more accurate) and Democrats used the report as ammunition against the Bush administration's past and present reconstruction strategies, including the surge. Walker attempted to downplay discrepancies between GAO and DOD, gave only tempered criticism of specific Bush administration strategies, and left the task to Congress to determine appropriate future policy directions and goals, though he offered GAO as a partner in considering reconstruction strategies, if Congress so desired.
1. Rep. Skelton's Opening Remarks:
2. Comptroller General Walker's Testimony:
3. GAO's Report:
Winslow T. Wheeler
Straus Military Reform Project
Center for Defense Information