Iraq is falling fall far behind schedule in creating a system to maintain its own military equipment, costing American taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars to fill in the gaps, according to a new U.S. audit.
The report highlights some of the fundamental worries among American commanders as they look past the U.S. military exit from Iraq at the end of 2011: Will Iraqi security forces be able to handle tasks as basic as keeping their vehicles on the road?
The U.S. has spent billions of dollars to develop Iraq's security forces with an emphasis in recent years on Iraq's maintenance and supply capabilities — seen as essential for the country to maintain a self-sufficient force after the lifeline from Washington is trimmed back.
It's part of the Pentagon's wide-ranging plans to train and upgrade Iraq security forces from street-level police units and rebuild Iraqi naval and air power.
But the audit — by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction — found a pattern of negligence and shortcomings by the Iraqi military in planning for the basic needs of the military: repairing and maintaining equipment and supplying troops.
The problems include not allocating enough funds for logistics operations and failing to provide enough soldiers for training, the audit said.
In one case, Iraqi soldiers abandoned a 90-day maintenance training class in March 2008 because they hadn't been paid in weeks by their units. The report said the Iraqi army has not yet assigned other soldiers to take a class.
But the study, released Sunday, also faulted the U.S. military for setting unrealistic training timetables — saying it added $420.5 million to the costs.
Initially, the contract costs were put at about $208 million to train Iraqi soldiers in routine but critical roles that include repairing equipment, construction and running warehouse operations.
The audit says the contract has ballooned to more than $628 million in part because there was no clear blueprint for the programs, which led to frequent extensions and cost overruns.
"The U.S. objective is to achieve greater capacity within the Iraqi security forces as quickly as possible," said David Warren, assistant inspector general for Iraq reconstruction in Washington. "The fact that these things have occurred on this contract have delayed that. We would have like to see a greater return on the investment."
The clock is ticking for the Iraqis to take advantage of the U.S.-funded logistics training contracts, which expire at the end of December, ahead of President Barack Obama's plan to withdraw combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010. The remainder of U.S. troops must withdraw by the end of 2011.
The skyrocketing costs for Washington in Iraq go well beyond efforts at making the Iraqi military ready for the U.S. withdrawal.
Numerous U.S.-funded reconstruction contracts have had to be modified — adding millions of dollars in extra costs — because Iraq's public services were in such poor shape and needed attention first, Warren said.
But the military training has been a growing frustration to commanders and budget overseers.
Relying on Iraqis
Col. Mike Sage, the assistant chief of staff for logistics for Multi-National Security Transition Command, said developers of a Humvee maintenance training program believed Iraqi commanders would jump at the chance to have their soldiers learn how to care for the armored vehicles.
As part of the contracts, the U.S. gave Iraq more than 8,000 armored Humvees.
"We did not read the commanders as well as we thought," he said. "They would not commit soldiers to train on (Humvees)" because they didn't want to give up the troops for the 90-day classes.
The report recommended the U.S. military negotiate a firm agreement with the Iraqi government on a timetable to take over maintenance responsibilities. An earlier draft of the audit recommended withholding further U.S. funds until an accord was reached.
But the U.S. military said disrupting or stopping any training projects already in progress would be a strategic error.
"It relies on Iraqis, themselves, to put forth the effort to make themselves successful," Sage said.