|Posted By Ahmed Abudullah
“The congressionally mandated 'Initial Benchmark Assessment Report' released today is only the latest attempt by the Bush administration to put the best face on a failed strategy,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, said on Thursday following the release of a key White House report that painted a bleak picture of progress in Iraq.
The eagerly awaited report, which evaluated a list of 18 benchmarks on political, security and military goals that Congress set when it signed on to Bush’s strategy to surge about 30,000 additional troops into the four-year war, only cited progress on the military front, not the political arena, reporting “satisfactory” progress in just eight benchmarks, “not satisfactory” progress in eight others, and mixed assessment of two.
Despite citing progress on the military front, the interim report – which comes before a final assessment of Bush’s surge strategy due to be released in September by top U.S. commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker – showed that efforts by the Iraqi government to get its armed forces operating independently of U.S. units – a key goal that would pave the way for the withdrawal of American troops – had made "unsatisfactory progress." What’s more confusing is that the assessment cites positive development in areas not originally set as benchmarks, like the growing number of Sunni tribes in Iraq’s Anbar province who have turned against Al-Qaeda-linked groups.
Despite the shortcomings, the study showed that the Bush administration believes that its military strategy is the right one, that it should be given more time and that positive results are at least months away.
This conclusion sends the confrontation between the Democratic-led Congress and Bush over the war to boiling point, increasing pressure on the administration to report political progress in the September assessment, particularly because the American president is trying to quell a Republican revolt and thwart Democratic demands to withdraw troops from Iraq.
Unveiling the report at a White House conference Thursday, President Bush again pleaded for patience over the war, acknowledging that his report paints a brighter picture on the military front and saying that security is the prerequisite for political progress. "It is not surprising that political progress is lagging behind" military achievements, he said.
Acknowledging the U.S. public opposition to the extended presence of American troops in Iraq, Bush again reiterated his long-held view that leaving Iraq would endanger U.S. security.
Supporters of the surge strategy also tried to lessen the impact of the report, claiming that it is more positive than had been expected. But an assessment that basically emphasizes military achievements at a point when military commanders and analysts agree that political progress is now the crucial determining factor in Iraq is not encouraging.
Some analysts say a current overemphasis on the military role suggests the administration does not yet acknowledge the nature of Iraq's political state of affairs. "There is still a tendency in the administration to see this as a military battle with a military outcome," said James Miller, a military expert at the Center for a New American Security, at a Washington forum evaluating the strategy this week. Regional and international diplomatic initiatives to address the Iraq conflict "are still way below what they need to be."
Such diplomatic initiatives will allow the White House to tackle more issues other than military efforts, given that little political progress in Iraq is anticipated in the weeks before the September assessment as the Iraqi government continues to be hobbled by boycotts by key ministers, in particular the Sunni bloc. Moreover, the Iraqi parliament, which has yet to receive some key legislation from the government, including a crucial bill for oil revenue-sharing among sectarian communities, is set to take a month-long recess in August.
But Iraqi politicians, most of whom rejected the idea of setting progress benchmarks in the first place, believe that it’s not entirely their mistake. "The (Bush) administration will say that things have been achieved and more will be achieved while others will say there were failures. Still they will both blame Iraqis," Sami al-Askari, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, on U.S.-funded Alhurra television.
The supposed progress on the military front didn’t change the mind of those who support a troop withdrawal. Hours after the report’s release, the U.S. House of Representative, on a 223-201 vote, passed a Democratic measure calling for the withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq by April next year, a legislation that comes despite Bush’s repeated threats to veto any timetable.
"After nearly five years of a failed policy in Iraq, we have a duty not just to voice our opposition but to vote today to end the war," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
However, the report clearly implies that the troop reinforcements that Bush ordered in January may need to remain in Iraq until spring 2008. It seems that Bush had planned to ward off political pressure to change course before the final progress report, hoping that by September the so-called security plan will have reduced the level of violence in Iraq in order to create an atmosphere in which political progress can be made.
But Iraq’s violence is expected to surge in the coming period, likely killing hundreds of Iraqis and Americans, prompting many Americans to doubt the success of the surge. "Nearly five years of combat, 3,610 American lives lost, 26,500 wounded and more than $450 billion spent, and the White House says we are at the 'starting line' in Iraq?", said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada agrees, saying that the recent report confirms the need to change course now, not in September. “It is time for the president to listen to the American people and do what is necessary to protect this nation.”