By Spencer Ackerman
It was the last major non-military project of the war of choice the U.S. launched ten years ago: an ambitious, expensive post-withdrawal effort to strengthen the Iraqi police. But quietly, the Obama administration has pulled the plug on the much-criticized training program, leaving some 400,000 Iraqi cops without U.S. mentorship.
The State Department confirms to Danger Room that it pulled its final adviser out of the project, called the Police Development Program, on March 1. The move kills the training effort less than two years after the Pentagon handed it over, and after State spent at least $700 million on it.
A State Department official who would not speak for the record said shutting down the police training program was part of a series of “difficult choices” the U.S. made “to achieve our goals in Iraq of streamlining the U.S. presence and reducing resource requirements overall.”
A handful of diplomats in Baghdad are conducting the administrative tasks necessary to shut down an effort envisioned in 2011 to last five years. After September 1, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq will work generically on “Rule of Law” programs like “judicial cooperation, anti-corruption, drug demand reduction, and corrections,” the State Department official said, which will retain “some limited” American training for the cops. The total staffing for that effort: two foreign service officers.
The end of the Police Development Program draws to a close an era of intense, expensive U.S. support for the institutions of the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government Washington built. The development agency USAID plans to leave Iraq by year’s end, with about $250 million left to spend. The residual U.S. military agency in Iraq, known as the Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq, is still in charge of supporting hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons and other hardware sales to the still-struggling country, including Baghdad’s purchase of F-16 fighter jets and backscatter scanner vans. Before 2011, when the Iraqi police received training from the U.S. military, the Pentagon spent approximately $8 billion over eight years on the cops.
Yet almost as soon as the State Department took over the police training, it came under fire from prominent Iraqi officials and American watchdogs for neglecting Iraqi priorities. A senior Iraqi interior ministry official, Adnan al-Asadi, told Stuart Bowen, the U.S. special inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction, that the Police Development Program was “useless,” overstaffed, and focused on “secondary issues” like administration and IT. (.PDF) “Interpreters supporting the PDP [Police Development Program] reported that its advisors would meet with Iraqis but commonly accomplish little more than ‘drinking a lot of tea’,” Bowen emailed Danger Room from Baghdad, where he was wrapping up one of his final rounds of oversight meetings.
Partially as a result of the Iraqi criticism, State Department repeatedly downsized personnel for the program almost immediately after planning to take it over. An initial staff of 350 trainers was reduced to 190 in December 2010; by July 2012 it was down to a mere 86. Yet it planned a sprawling constellation of operations around Iraq: three major locations in Baghdad, Irbil and Basra comprised the lion’s share of 28 training sites in ten of Iraq’s 18 provinces. Even that planning was inconstant. In 2012, the State Department largely consolidated its training efforts at the Baghdad Police College Annex after spending $108 million upgrading the facility, but months later, it shut the annex down.
In 2011, Bowen warned that the discrepancy between the program’s ambitions and staff risked creating a “bottomless pit,” especially since the Department lacked opacity on “intermediate or longer-term milestones or measures for assessing progress and accomplishments.” (.PDF) Last year, Bowen further assessed that the police training program had wasted at least $206 million. (.PDF)
“I commend the State Department, especially our U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Stephen Beecroft, for shutting down the Police Development Program. This action averted the further expenditure of hundereds of millions of taxpayers dollars for an assistance effort the Iraqis did not want,” Bowen continued in the email. “Unfortunately, as SIGIR audits revealed, over $200 million was spent constructing facilities for the PDP that will never be used. This is one of the more egregious examples of waste in the entire Iraq reconstruction program.”
It is unclear what the police mentorship efforts actually produced. Human Rights Watch reported in January that Iraqi security forces “continued to arbitrarily detain and torture detainees, holding some of them outside the custody of the Justice Ministry.”
Nearly ten years to the day after the March 19, 2003 invasion, the Iraq war cost the lives of nearly 4,500 U.S. troops; at least $800 billion; and an untold number of Iraqi lives, often estimated at around 110,000. Armed conflict and sectarian violence persists in Iraq, as does Iranian influence. In 2012, after the departure of the vast majority of U.S. troops, Iraq recorded 3,085 homemade insurgent bombs, according to Pentagon statistics.
“The United States remains committed to a close partnership with Iraq including through cooperation on many aspects of rule of law, as called for under the Strategic Framework Agreement,” the State Department official said.