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ICYMI: Promises Unfulfilled: How A State Dept Plan To Stabilize Iraq Broke Apart

- August 15, 2016

Excerpts from The Washington Post and ProPublica

By: Jeff Gerth and Joby Warrick

Monday, August 15, 2016

"A week before the last U.S. soldiers left his country in December 2011, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Washington to meet the team that would help shape Iraq’s future once the troops and tanks were gone.

"Over dinner at the Blair House, guest quarters for elite White House visitors since the 1940s, the dour Iraqi sipped tea while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke of how her department’s civilian experts could help Iraqis avoid a return to terrorism and sectarian bloodshed.

"Iraq would see a 'robust civilian presence,' Clinton told reporters afterward, summing up the Obama administration’s pledges to Maliki. 'We are working to achieve that,' she said.

"Less than three years later, the relatively calm Iraq that Maliki had led in 2011 was gone. The country’s government was in crisis, its U.S.-trained army humiliated, and a third of its territory overrun by fighters from the Islamic State. Meanwhile, State Department programs aimed at helping Iraqis prevent such an outcome had been slashed or curtailed, and some had never materialized at all…

"Documents and interviews point to ambitious plans by State Department officials to take control of dozens of military-run programs in Iraq, from training assistance for Iraqi police to new intelligence-collection outposts in Mosul and other key Iraqi cities. But the State Department scrapped or truncated many of the plans, sometimes at the behest of a skeptical Congress and other times on orders from the White House, which balked at the high costs and potential risks of U.S. civilians being killed or kidnapped…

"Senior State Department leaders were at fault as well, according to documents and interviews with officials who helped manage Iraqi aid programs after the withdrawal. By early 2012, pressed by the White House to reduce the U.S. civilian footprint in Iraq, the department had begun implementing sweeping, across-the-board cuts that extended to security and counterterrorism initiatives once considered crucial for Iraq’s stability after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, a joint investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post found…

"For the Democratic presidential nominee, U.S. policy misadventures in Iraq, from the initial invasion and occupation to the disasters after the U.S. troop withdrawal, have persistently undermined Clinton’s efforts to tout her extensive record in foreign policy…

"The downscaling was done over the objections of U.S. military leaders on the ground, who said the slashing of key assistance programs — in a few cases, by more than 90 percent — left the U.S. government increasingly in the dark about developments outside the Iraqi capital. Some former officers who managed Iraqi aid programs say the cuts were a factor in the slow deterioration of Iraq’s security forces in the months before the Islamic State’s 2014 assault.

“'Our job was to prevent this from happening,' said retired Rear Adm. Edward Winters, a former Navy SEAL and deputy director of the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq, a Pentagon organization overseen by the State Department that managed the bilateral security relationship.

“'We felt the capability to do that was being taken away…'

"[I]n scaling back civilian assistance to Iraq, Clinton’s aides cut aggressively and sometimes unwisely, internal auditors later concluded. The reductions met cost-cutting goals but did not 'fully consider U.S. foreign policy priorities in Iraq,' an internal review by the State Department’s inspector general said…

“'There was a period of time after the transition from the military-led mission to a civilian-led mission when strategic decisions were not made, with one official calling the period "a strategic vacuum,”' the inspector general’s office said in its 2013 report, citing interviews with department officials in Washington and Iraq…

"Among the casualties was a U.S. Army-run Iraqi tribal reconciliation program with a record of successfully resolving disputes between Iraq’s querulous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions. Animosity between Sunni tribes and Maliki’s Shiite-led government would become a key factor in the Islamic State’s takeover of Iraq’s Sunni heartland in 2014…

"[T]he result was 'lost trust with the Sunni community' and the abandoning of an important window into what was really happening inside Iraq, said retired Army Col. Rick Welch, who oversaw the program before the military withdrawal.

“'No one from the State Department ever contacted me,' Welch said in an interview. Eventually the Baghdad-based reconciliation effort was scaled back 'to a trickle,' he said, 'and then nothing else happened.'


"An early casualty was direct U.S. support for Iraq’s Counter Terrorism Service. The number of embedded U.S. advisers to the elite terrorist-fighting unit dropped from more than 100 before the military withdrawal to just two, according to Winters and other former Pentagon officials who served in Iraq.

"Another key Pentagon program that helped the U.S. government collect and analyze intelligence about terrorist activities was scrapped. Charles Bova, who ran the program, said the scuttling of the project resulted in the loss of an important window into Iraq that could have provided Americans and Iraqis with 'a better awareness of what al-Qaeda in Iraq was up to…'

"Sunni protests against Maliki erupted in 2012 and, almost in tandem, the number of suicide bombings in Iraq started to rise. The terrorist predecessors of the Islamic State began gaining strength across Iraq, aided by the worsening sectarian tensions as well as the fighting next door in Syria, where the civil war gave jihadist leaders a cause and a safe haven in which to rebuild.

“'None of us thought the problem was gone — we thought we were leaving a void there,' Winters said. 'We all expected that [al-Qaeda in Iraq] would come back and get worse. But we didn’t think it would happen that fast.'

"The budget cuts did achieve one positive, and perhaps unexpected, result: a budget surplus. By May 2012, the State Department was sitting on $1.6 billion in funds that Congress had appropriated for Iraq, but which the department no longer intended to use there. Department officials had the option of redirecting those funds, and did so, shifting some of the money to other conflict zones, including Libya, according to public documents and former officials.

"A large chunk of leftover cash was initially earmarked for the construction of a new diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, the restive Libyan city that Clinton had planned to visit in late 2012. That idea abruptly ended after the deadly Sept. 11, 2012, assaults on the Benghazi compounds that left four Americans dead…

"Clinton has stressed her experience and track record in the national security arena as a key selling point on the campaign trail, echoing themes from her memoir, 'Hard Choices,' which chronicled her experiences as secretary of state. The book came out a few weeks after Mosul fell to the Islamic State.

"The book made news upon publication because of Clinton’s admission that it was a 'mistake' to have voted in 2002 to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq the following year.

"On the rest of what happened in Iraq during her tenure as America’s top diplomat, the 635-page book is silent."

Read the full article here.


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