Nearly Eight Years After Petraeus’ “Tangible Progress” WashPo Op-Ed, Iraq Security Training Still a Failure

Petraeus likes pineapple, but only if it's fresh. (Kyle McDonald photo, Creative Commons license)

One of the topics I seem to find myself posting on the most frequently is the remarkable lack of accountability for the spectacular failure of David Petraeus’ efforts to train the Iraqi security apparatus. Petraeus has repeatedly touted how wonderfully his training work went and yet whenever the failures of this training actually make it into corporate journalism, Petraeus’ name is nowhere to be found.

Such is the case again today. An article titled “U.S. May Scrap Costly Efforts to Train Iraqi Police” appears on the front page of today’s New York Times and it shows, once again, that the tremendous amounts of money and effort that have gone into “training” in Iraq are a complete waste (and since training is shown to be a failure in this article, Petraeus’ name does not appear):

In the face of spiraling costs and Iraqi officials who say they never wanted it in the first place, the State Department has slashed — and may jettison entirely by the end of the year — a multibillion-dollar police training program that was to have been the centerpiece of a hugely expanded civilian mission here.

But wait, this is the State Department. How did the effort get in their hands? It turns out that they started it originally, turned it over to Petraeus and then recently took it back:

Since 2003, the American government has spent nearly $8 billion training the Iraqi police. The program was first under the State Department, but it was transferred to the Department of Defense in 2004 as the insurgency intensified. Yet the force that the American military left behind was trained to fight a counterinsurgency, not to act as a traditional law enforcement organization. Police officers here, for example, do not pull over speeding drivers or respond to calls about cats stuck in trees.

Petraeus burst onto the scene politically in September of 2004, when he penned an op-ed in the Washington Post in which he praised himself for his wonderful work in training Iraqi security forces:

Helping organize, train and equip nearly a quarter-million of Iraq’s security forces is a daunting task. Doing so in the middle of a tough insurgency increases the challenge enormously, making the mission akin to repairing an aircraft while in flight — and while being shot at. Now, however, 18 months after entering Iraq, I see tangible progress. Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up.

This was a nearly unprecedented move by an active military officer, jumping into a political discussion just before a critical presidential election. Petraeus’ actions could be seen in no other light than as an endorsement of Bush’s war and an attempt to help Bush get re-elected by painting a rosy picture of “progress” at a time when citizens were beginning to think the war effort had been a waste.

Petraeus threw some big numbers around in the op-ed:

Nonetheless, there are reasons for optimism. Today approximately 164,000 Iraqi police and soldiers (of which about 100,000 are trained and equipped) and an additional 74,000 facility protection forces are performing a wide variety of security missions. Equipment is being delivered. Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions are being reestablished.

And yet, when we hit the review of war progress three years later in September of 2007, Petraeus was not held accountable for the fact that his claims on training had been false. In their “fact-checking” of the “General Betray Us” ad, the Washington Post (while awarding three Pincchios to Move-On and undoubtedly earning a number of their own) wrung their hands over the training claims:

With hindsight, Petraeus was overly optimistic in his 2004 assessment. But does this statement support’s indictment against him?

A claim of “tangible progress” was not totally unreasonable in 2004. The more important question is whether that progress was sufficient to stabilize Iraq. Obviously, it wasn’t.

Yup, Petraeus clearly claimed in 2004 that his training had everything on track to stabilize Iraq in short order. That turned out not to be true, but the Post merely decided to describe that as “not totally unreasonable” so that they could award Pincchios to Move-On for pointing out where Petraeus lied. The Post had a clearly marked roadmap showing where and how Petraeus lied, and they chose to shield him against his failures.

Sadly, this indirect reference in the “fact checker” is about the only place the issue of training came up during the 2007 debate, and yet the misleading statements about training were clearly an area in which Petraeus should have been most vulnerable at the time. Petraeus was allowed to wipe the slate clean of his previous failures and lead the “new, improved” effort in Iraq.

Going back to today’s Times article, a bit of reading between the lines shows that as we approach eight years after Petraeus’ claim of “tangible progress”, the entire concept of training has been a sham from the start. Recall that we read earlier that “the force that the American military left behind was trained to fight a counterinsurgency”, but the Times tells us in another part of their article:

The Iraqis have also insisted that the training sessions be held at their own facilities, rather than American ones. But reflecting the mistrust that remains between Iraqi and American officials, the State Department’s security guards will not allow the trainers to establish set meeting times at Iraqi facilities, so as not to set a pattern for insurgents, who still sometimes infiltrate Iraq’s military and police.

Although we have avoided traditional police training to train Iraq’s police in counterinsurgency, that force is still infiltrated by…insurgents. We have poured billions of dollars down the training rathole and accomplished nothing.

Despite these spectacular failures, the most visible leader of training in Iraq, David Petraeus, has never been called to task for his actions claiming success. Instead, we have the same group that was instrumental in getting unrepentant torturer Allen West  elected to Congress agitating last January to get Petraeus a fifth star, presumably as an attempt to bolster his chances for an eventual Presidential run. And in the meantime, Petraeus is happily running the CIA and eating his pineapple.

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
17 replies
  1. der says:

    It would be interesting to see the per/unit cost that adds to 1/2 a billion bucks. Of which we got this:

    – “The trainers are mostly retired state troopers and other law enforcement personnel on leave from their jobs back home, and a number of officials who criticized the program questioned what those trainers have to offer Iraqi police officials who have been operating in a war zone for years. Mr. Perito said that the State Department never developed a suitable curriculum and that instead, advisers often “end up talking about their own experiences or tell war stories and it’s not relevant.”

    That in part leads to this conclusion – ““What is really needed is a restructuring and reorienting of that force so it becomes a law enforcement agency that serves a democracy,” Mr. Perito said.”

    Spend more money on defense and the homeland – fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here!

    Atrios asks “stupid or evil” and leans more to stupid most of the time, this story seems to confirm that view. We are led by idiots. Austerity! Save Social Security! Cut social welfare state waste!

  2. rosalind says:

    i find myself constantly surprised taht Petraeus is now CIA. my brain just refuses to believe. like waking up to a bad dream, over and over…

  3. P J Evans says:

    Police officers here, for example, do not pull over speeding drivers or respond to calls about cats stuck in trees.

    They don’t rescue cats from trees in the US, either: you can get a tree service to do that, but it will cost. And in some areas, the police will only bother with burglaries and violent crimes (when they’re not busting pot shops).

  4. Bob Schacht says:

    “…cats stuck in trees.”
    I doubt there is much sympathy for cats stuck in trees in Iraq. They don’t have the same attitude towards cats as Americans have.

    Matter of fact, I bet an Iraqi policeman would feel it as an extreme insult to be asked to rescue a cat from a tree. Probably good for target practice, though.

    Bob in AZ

  5. rosalind says:

    my brother recently admitted he actually called the fire dept. when their new cat climbed to the top of a tree and was still there the next a.m. i couldn’t believe we were raised by the same father who – when i tearfully showed him my kitty at the very top of the neighbor’s oak tree mewing pitifully – asked me how many cat skeletons i’d ever seen at the top of a tree.

    (after the fire dept. stopped laughing, my brother remembered a tree trimmer friend who came over, strapped on his spikes, shimmied up the tree where the cat leapt on him from four feet out, and peace was restored to the neighborhood.)

    (my kitty showed up at the back door around dinner time.)

  6. rugger9 says:

    So, while Mitt has sewn up the GOP nomination, he still needs a veep. In fairness, I was expecting a brokered convention and DP as the nominee, but he still will be useful as a veep candidate to shore up the war hero bona fides [even though he isn’t really]. Plus, the time at CIA is probably very useful to get all the oppo research he needs to help Mittens out, both on Obama and on Mitt. I also am cynically expecting more than a few like-minded yahoos in the “company” will only be too willing to help out the GOP.

    And, in addition to the training failure, let’s also remember Abu Ghraib, Baghram, the lost AK-47s that Mookie has, and the lost nine billion dollars in cash. All on DP’s watch in the Middle East.

    The pineapple stuff reminds me of Darth and his demands [Faux News, 72 degrees, etc.] which tells me he’d be perfect for the GOP. What I don’t know is how aligned he is with the fundies, because they simply don’t like Mitt.

  7. P J Evans says:

    They’d probably be happy to vote for him if DP were the nominee in charge of vice. It’s their ‘support our troops’ slogan made real. (Never mind that he’s the guy who got so many of them killed or injured, along with their prior idols Bush & Darth.)

  8. orionATL says:

    this is a very helpful “reminder” post, aka, a history post – one of the most useful/educational of all categories of posts.

    i did not remember petraeus’ role with the iraqui police in the early days of the iraq occupation.

    however common it has become, it is still very strange to me that actual in-the-field competence seems to bear an inverse relationship to media acclaim.

    petraeus has his fingerprints on iraq, afghanistan, and now the cia,

    but somehow, the media story/stereotype for petraeus was early on set to “competent guy/hero”, entirely independent of his actual performance in the field.

    in this respect, petraeus and obama are brothers under the skin; both float in light airships on winds of unmerited media praise high above the chaos they have sustained or have lacked the leadership to contain.

  9. orionATL says:


    the pineapple-like object on the right looks like an incipient ied.

    who did you say you worked for?

    lest we forget?*

    *that grenades were once called “pineapples”, at least in the comic books i read :)

  10. Bill H says:

    Don’t forget the weapons which disappeared under his command, resulting in his testimony to Congress that, “we were literally kicking weapons out of the helicopters while under fire.”

  11. Jeff Kaye says:

    A failure? But by whose standards? If the purpose of the training was to create terroristic counterinsurgency units, like the Wolf Brigade, then Petraeus succeeded, and this is why the US rulers praise and promote him.

    As Peter Maas wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 2005, Petraeus put James Steele in charge of helping arm and train these murderous thugs, many of them former Hussein enforcers, even if he didn’t create the squad. No, that was the brainchild of the Iraqi Interior Ministry, supported by another US official, Steve Casteel, former top DEA official.


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