How The State Department's Iraq Police Training Program Turned Out To Be A Flop
As the U.S. military was preparing to withdraw from Iraq, the State Department took over responsibility for a police training program there. The operation has proven to be a huge embarrassment for the American government. Baghdad has consistently said that it does not want the training, and State has scaled back the scope of its effort, because it can't secure its personnel. While these problems have been attributed to bad planning, it actually was more a case of hubris. The State Department never asked the Iraqis what they wanted, never thought about how they could protect their personnel, or how to manage things. Instead, they just moved ahead with no real plan, expecting the Iraqis to accept whatever they offered.
In October 2011, the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs took over the Iraq police training program from the Defense Department. This was due to the impending military withdrawal from Iraq, which occurred in December. State thought their mission would last until 2016 at which point the Iraqis would take over. State wanted 350 advisers to be spread out between three bases in Baghdad, Basra, and Irbil. Out of those main sites, they would go to 50 smaller ones in outlaying areas and provinces. This was all part of the American government's plans to maintain a robust civilian presence in the country after its forces had withdrawn. Washington believed that it could keep up most of its operations in Iraq almost like nothing had changed after the troops were pulled out. That seemed an odd calculation given the fact that there were organizations like the Iranian-backed Special Groups whose main focus was attacking Americans. The State Department thought it could move around the country to conduct these training sessions just like what the military had done, but with just private security contractors. That proved to be sadly mistaken.
As soon as the State Department took over its new responsibilities, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) audited its program. It found a lack of planning, no assessment mechanism, high security costs, and most importantly, Baghdad was not interested. On October 8, Deputy Interior Minister Adnan Asadi told SIGIR that he didn't think the program was necessary. He didn't believe his forces would get much from it, because it was focused upon topics such as administration and financing. He continued that the money appropriated for the operation might have been better spent in the United States rather than in Iraq. As a further sign of disinterest, the Iraqi government never signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to the mission, even though the U.S. military had been saying one was necessary since March 2010. That was likely the reason why Baghdad was not paying its 50% share of the program. The exception was in Irbil, where the Kurds welcomed the opportunity for training, and there was no real security issue either. On the other hand, because of questions over the U.S. budget, the State Department was consistently cutting back the scope of its training. For instance, the number of trainers went from 350 to 190 and then to 115. State also failed to come up with a curriculum, leaving that to its advisors, and had no way to determine whether they were being successful or not. The audit revealed the deep structural flaws in State's plans. It looked as if the U.S. was starting a program simply because it felt obligated to. The military had been conducting training, so now State had to do the same. State then created a structure of trainers, bases, etc., but with no strategy behind it.
When the training program became operational more problems were revealed. The main one was that the operational costs of the mission became so extravagant that there was little money leftover for actually working with the Iraqis. In October 2012, 88% of the program's budget went to support and security, and only 12% for advisers. By March 2012, that went up to 94% for operations, and 6% for the trainers. This seemed to be caused by two main factors. First, State could not provide adequate protection for its staff. The idea that security contractors could move and protect the advisers around Iraq the same way soldiers could proved false. That completely distorted the program, and led to the closing of the Basra base, and the curtailing of operations in Baghdad. Second, the lack of serious planning meant State's priorities were all wrong, and didn't budget its money correctly. In the original outline of the program for instance, State wanted a small private air force to ferry its people throughout Iraq. This was a hugely expensive idea that obviously took away funds for actual trainers. The results of the security shortcomings and budgetary problems were that the number of advisers was down to just 50 by March 2012, and then 35 in July.
Today, the future of the police training mission is in doubt. The Interior Ministry is still uninterested in the services offered, there are very few trainers left in the country, and the costs of security are still dominating the budget. The result is a very ineffective program. This is the fault of the State Department that believed that it could operate in Iraq just as the military could. Not only that, it never took the time to come up with a comprehensive plan for how the training was to work and be assessed. It simply created a program, because the U.S. military had one. These have all led to major setbacks, and quite an embarrassment for the U.S. government. Too often, the Americans have operated in Iraq like this. They didn't consult with Iraqis, spent millions of dollars, and then were left wondering why nothing worked out. It's like Washington never learned from its past mistakes, and failed to build any institutional memory based upon its last nine years in the country.
*With an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing's work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent.