Iraq Through the Looking Glass(es)

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Petros Giannakouris / AP

An U.S. soldier patrols Sadr City in June

The state of the Iraq war, as it lurches into its sixth hot summer, is in the eye of the beholder. That much is clear from the release this week of a pair of U.S. government reports that offer dueling assessments of the situation in Iraq — a glass-half-empty version from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a glass-half-full account from (surprise!) the Pentagon.

Both reports acknowledge that the slow and uneven political progress in Iraq remains fragile and could jeopardize the prospects for long-term success. But the Pentagon study cites a slew of indicators suggesting that things are moving in the right direction. The GAO counters by saying, in effect, that the Pentagon's assessment is little more than a house of cards built upon the shifting sands of Iraq's internal political conflicts. Even a house of cards, the GAO implies, can appear stable in a snapshot.

The warring reports coincide with the onset of a presidential election season in which the way forward in Iraq will be a central point of contention. It's a sure bet that G.O.P. presumptive nominee Senator John McCain will wield the Pentagon's 66-page report as a bludgeon against those asserting the war has stalled and that U.S. troops should be withdrawn. Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic contender, will just as certainly use the GAO report as a stiletto to puncture the Administration's — and McCain's — contention that the troop "surge" is bringing victory in Iraq closer by the day. "Iraq has made considerable progress in the political and diplomatic arenas, but future progress may be slow and uneven," the Pentagon report concluded. "Moreover, Iraq is pursuing this endeavor surrounded by neighbors that have not fully committed themselves to its success" — a charge the Pentagon could as easily have directed at war critics back home.

The current lull in violence, the GAO contends, is like a stool that rests on three legs: the U.S. troop surge, a creaky cease-fire declared by Shi'ite militias loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr and a U.S.-led effort to hire former insurgents to guard their neighborhoods — hardly a platform for sustainable political and social reform. Indeed, the GAO accuses the Pentagon of cherry-picking the information from Iraq that substantiates the claim of progress and ignoring more unpalatable indicators.

While the Pentagon report declares that "all major violence indicators" have fallen between 40% and 80% "from pre-surge levels," the GAO sees some of that progress as based on the cooperation of Iraqis who remain sharply at odds with one another. The congressional watchdog office cites the so-called "Sons of Iraq" program, a largely Sunni group of militiamen now paid by U.S. taxpayers to keep the peace in their neighborhoods. More than 100,000 strong, the group has yet to reconcile its long-standing differences with the Shi'ite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. U.S. efforts to integrate these forces into the formal Iraq security forces are moving slowly, and only 14,000 militiamen have made the leap so far. What happens if the U.S. stops funding such rent-a-cops is anyone's guess, Pentagon officials acknowledge.

An old Pentagon adage holds that while figures don't lie, liars can figure. That's apt when it comes to measuring the progress of the Iraqi security forces. The GAO cites data showing that only 10% of Iraqi army battalions have reached full operational readiness. In a Pentagon response contained within the GAO report, the Defense Department said a better measure was the share of Iraqi units "in the lead" in combined operations, which it said is 70%. But that "in the lead" phrasing, defense officials concede, is elastic enough to include borderline battalions. There are other shortcomings when it comes to measuring the 478,000-strong Iraqi military and police units: "The number of trained Iraqi security forces may overstate the number of troops present for duty," the GAO noted. "According to DOD, the number of trained troops includes personnel who are deceased or absent without leave."

All along the way, the competing reports measure progress in Iraq by yardsticks of differing lengths. While the GAO said electrical production was lagging, the Pentagon asserted that this was a function of escalating demand for power. Electrical output, it said, now tops what the country was generating before the invasion. The Pentagon also zinged the GAO for using, as an oil-production benchmark, the "arbitrary goal" of 3 million bbl. a day set by the U.S.-run occupation authority immediately following the invasion. More importantly, the Pentagon said, is that petroleum exports are at their highest level since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.

The conflict between the two reports was reflected in the press coverage they generated. Both the New York Times and Washington Post led with the bleak assessment contained in the GAO study, while the Wall Street Journal highlighted what it called a "generally upbeat assessment" of Iraq's current security and political situation. It relegated the GAO's findings to the final three paragraphs of a 17-paragraph story. But it did lead with bad news from the Pentagon report: claims that Iran continues to funnel money to militias inside Iraq, and that Tehran "may well pose the greatest long-term threat to Iraqi security." In perhaps the most dire contrast of all, the 89-page GAO report never mentioned Iran.