Plenty still stands in way of standing down in Iraq

  • Jim Hoagland / Washington Post columnist
  • Wednesday, June 7, 2006 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON – The United States cannot afford to leave Iraq now, President Bush argues forcefully. But the real question is whether the United States can afford to stay in Iraq if the administration continues to squander the military, financial and political resources it promised to bring to bear after it toppled Saddam Hussein.

Neither the revenues being produced by Iraq’s besieged oil industry nor what is left of the American financial commitments to reconstruct Iraq’s infrastructure and to train and equip its armed forces appear to be sufficient to stabilize the country and permit American combat troops to come home in a deliberate fashion.

The growing disconnect between resources, spending and security results does not stop U.S. field commanders from planning an orderly departure. U.S. officials told coalition diplomats in Baghdad recently that they hope to cut the present U.S. combat force – now at 140,000 – in half by next summer. They hope to have it down to 35,000 in 2008 and withdraw totally by 2010. Officials in Washington refuse to confirm this account or discuss any timeline for withdrawal with journalists or foreign diplomats.

Military planners have to draw up schedules knowing they will be overtaken by events that demand new schedules. To give these commanders any chance of being close to the mark with their projections, Bush and his aides must become more realistic about the deep economic and social problems that could undo the “stand up/stand down” military strategy.

The administration has concentrated its efforts for four months on the formation of a new Iraqi government, which U.S. officials have hailed as an important stabilizing force for the country. But in that time Washington has done relatively little to help an economy that is spiraling downward or to provide more security in the anarchy-ridden central part of the country.

Two broad assumptions seem to underlie the overly optimistic approach of the Bush team. The first is that political resolve alone can determine Iraq’s fate. This is a particularly flawed emphasis for an administration that has shown absolutely no talent in identifying, aiding and sustaining durable political leadership for Iraq.

The second assumption is one the administration shares with anti-war critics who demand a specific deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops. Both sides seem to believe that Washington can engineer a relatively neat, predictable outcome that responds above all to U.S. actions. But history suggests that the loss of control over events could drive sudden, abrupt decisions that shape a more chaotic final outcome. The air rushes out of war balloons quickly.

To prevent that and to make sure that the sacrifices made by Iraqis and by U.S. military forces, diplomats, aid workers and others do not come to be seen as having been in vain, the administration needs to assign more importance to developing an economy able to finance the Iraqi government’s increasing responsibilities for reconstruction and security. Washington also needs to manage its own spending in Iraq – which is estimated to total at least $320 billion so far – more efficiently.

A recent report by Stuart W. Bowen, the government’s special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, suggests that there is little to show for the estimated $16 billion spent since 2003 to restore and improve Iraqi public health, oil production, water and other infrastructure projects. There is about $2 billion left in U.S. reconstruction funds to be spent before this task is turned over to the Iraqi government at the end of 2006.

Iraq’s oil production limps along below prewar levels. Sabotage and neglect hamper production. Corruption that is aided and abetted by neighboring Arab countries drains revenue. Forced to import $6 billion worth of refined petroleum products this year for the domestic market, the Baghdad government will spend the same amount to sustain its security forces in 2006, according to U.S. estimates. While reliable numbers are difficult to come by, it appears that the Iraq government spends all of the $26 billion it earns from oil, and more.

Nonetheless, the Baghdad government has spent little if anything this year to purchase the defense equipment its soldiers will need in order to take over primary responsibility for fighting the insurgency, Iraqi sources report. And the Pentagon has been slow to spend the $5.7 billion that Congress appropriated to train Iraqi security forces, according to a Congressional Research Service report recently obtained by The Associated Press.

The Iraq War was triggered by a dictator’s suicidal bluff about weapons of mass destruction. Now it is the Bush administration that risks being caught in a trap of self-delusion.

Jim Hoagland is a Washington Post columnist. Contact him by writing to jimhoagland@washpost.com.

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