Friday, June 22, 2007

While Petraeus was "waxing lyrical"....

I began this week by questioning whether Gen. David Petraeus can be entrusted to give us straight talk about the Surge, given his track record of toeing the Bush administration line on Iraq. In particular, I mentioned how he had sought to reassure Americans – on the eve of the ’04 election – that the U.S. program to equip the Iraqi army, and train Iraqis to defend themselves, was going just swimmingly. (I neglected to mention, by the way, that Petraeus was the supervisory officer of that program.)

I then received a number of emails from people who deemed it inappropriate to question the credibility of a man in uniform; they argued that a soldier of his stature was the perfect choice to tell us this autumn whether the Surge is working. Their actual language was unfit for a family blog, but you get the idea. Perhaps if I offered a fuller picture of Petraeus' training program, they might think differently.

It’s clear that the “progress” he touted back in 2004, with respect to the Iraqi training program, didn’t amount to a hill of beans. If the Iraqi troops had been effectively trained and equipped, chances are that the Bush war team wouldn’t have needed to launch its Surge. In other words (to borrow Bush’s terminology), if the Iraqi troops had indeed been able to stand up, we would be standing down – as opposed to ratcheting up.

So the big question is: What happened? Why did the Iraqi training program, supervised by Petraeus and touted in the press by Petreaus, turn out to be a flop?

The answers are available, to any American with an interest in factual reality. Pick up a copy of The Occupation of Iraq, authored by Ali Allawi, an Iraqi scholar and government insider. He lays out the details midway through his 544-page book:

In April 2004, Allawi writes, the U.S. decided to launch a program to train and expand the Iraqi army. The Iraqi Ministry of Defense was designated as the agency that would run the show, line up the weapons contractors, and disburse the money (primarily American money, naturally). Gen. Petraeus was brought in to supervise.

But here’s what was happening while Petraeus was (in Allawi’s words) “waxing lyrical” about the training program in the American press: The money earmarked for weapons procurement was disappearing. Or, as Allawi puts it, “the Ministry of Defense was being systematically looted.”

As a 2005 Iraqi investigation later discovered, the top Ministry of Defense officials – none of whom had any experience in procurement – awarded no-bid contracts to con men who never intended to provide quality equipment. Allawi writes that “in a series of astounding and brazen decisions that broke every contracting and procurement rule, the ministry started to award huge contracts without any bidding and with minimal documentation.”

For instance, Ziad Qattan, the head of the ministry’s procurement department, knew nothing about his new line of work. He later told the Los Angeles Times that weapons that before the war, “I sold water, flowers, shoes, cars – but not weapons.” At one point, he awarded $1 billion in contracts to a newly-formed company that had no background in the army equipment business.

Most of the American money for the program, as much as $2.3 billion, wound up in the foreign bank accounts of “unknown people,” writes Allawi. And, not surprisingly, the equipment supplied to Petraeus’ training program “was of poor quality, (worth) a fraction of the money that was paid out by the Ministry of Defense.”

Allawi writes about the helicopters, for instance. They were 30 years old, originally owned and operated by a nation that has ceased to exist, the Soviet Union. All told, “the litany of disastrous and outrageously overpriced equipment covered the entire spectrum of armaments, from machine guns that were copies of the ones actually contracted for, to armored vehicles that were so poorly armored that machine-gun bullets would easily pierce them.” Moreover, “the Iraqi army was saddled with vehicles equipped with right-hand drive steering,” which was a problem, because “Iraqis drove with left-hand steering.” Most of the culprits ultimately fled the country.

You might wonder, “Where was Petraeus while all this was happening?”

Allawi replies that Petraeus basically let it happen: “Petraeus was a firm believer in giving the new Iraqi government as wide a latitude as possible to make its own decisions, without intrusive involvement” from the Americans.

In the end, he writes, “the saga of the grand theft of the Ministry of Defense perfectly illustrated the huge gap between the harsh realities on the ground, and the Panglossian spin that permeated official pronouncements of the government, the U.S. embassy, and the Multinational Force. The optimistic assessments of Gen. Petreaus concerning the equipping and training of Iraqi forces clashed with the huge squandering of the MD’s resources and the abysmal and inappropriate equipment purchases for its rapid deployment forces….(Americans) simply watched, while the MD was being plundered in front of their very noses, hiding behind the excuse that the Iraqis were now responsible for their decisions.”

The obvious next step, for those who would prefer to deny this history, is to find a way to discredit the messenger, perhaps to impugn Allawi’s politics or to dismiss him as a terrorist, America-hater, whatever. But this is not easily done. Allawi spent his adult life in exile, as an opponent of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party regime. He returned only in 2003, after the U.S. toppled Saddam, and served as a senior government official in a variety of top jobs.

After witnessing the postwar era, he now writes: “Bush may well go down in history as presiding over one of America’s great strategic blunders. Thousands of servicemen have been the casualties of a failed policy…But it is Iraq and the Iraqis who have paid most for the failed policies of their erstwhile liberators.”

Did he say “erstwhile” liberators? General Petraeus would beg to differ; he just put Dick Cheney’s favorite word back in circulation. During an interview Wednesday with The Times of London, he said: “The interesting dynamic here is that we have been here long enough to become liberators again for certain sectors of the population.”

Still "waxing lyrical," after all these years.