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US may scrap costly efforts to train Iraqi police

The State Department could jettison a multibillion-dollar training effort by the end of 2012 that has emerged as the latest high-profile example of America’s waning influence in the country.
/ Source: The New York Times

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.

What was originally envisioned as a training cadre of about 350 American law enforcement officers was quickly scaled back to 190 and then to 100. The latest restructuring calls for 50 advisers, but most experts and even some State Department officials say even they may be withdrawn by the end of this year.

The training effort, which began in October and has already cost $500 million, was conceived of as the largest component of a mission billed as the most ambitious American aid effort since the Marshall Plan. Instead, it has emerged as the latest high-profile example of the waning American influence here following the military withdrawal, and it reflects a costly miscalculation on the part of American officials, who did not count on the Iraqi government to assert its sovereignty so aggressively.

“I think that with the departure of the military, the Iraqis decided to say, ‘O.K., how large is the American presence here?’ ” said James F. Jeffrey, the American ambassador to Iraq, in an interview. “How large should it be? How does this equate with our sovereignty? In various areas they obviously expressed some concerns.”

Last year the State Department embarked on $343 million worth of construction projects around the country to upgrade facilities to accommodate the police training program, which was to have comprised hundreds of trainers and more than 1,000 support staff members working in three cities — Baghdad, Erbil and Basra — for five years. But like so much else in the nine years of war, occupation and reconstruction here, it has not gone as planned.

A lesson given by an American police instructor to a class of Iraqi trainees neatly encapsulated the program’s failings. There are two clues that could indicate someone is planning a suicide attack, the instructor said: a large bank withdrawal and heavy drinking.

The problem with that advice, which was recounted by Ginger Cruz, the former deputy inspector general at the American Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, was that few Iraqis have bank accounts and an extremist Sunni Muslim bent on carrying out a suicide attack is likely to consider drinking a cardinal sin.

Last month many of the Iraqi police officials who had been participating in the training suddenly refused to attend the seminars and PowerPoint presentations given by the Americans, saying they saw little benefit from the sessions.

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.

The largest of the construction projects, an upgrade at the Baghdad Police College that included installing protective covering over double-wide residence trailers (to shield against mortar attacks) and new dining and laundry facilities and seminar rooms, was recently abandoned, unfinished, after an expenditure of more than $100 million. The remaining police advisers will instead work out of the American Embassy compound, where they will have limited ability to interact with Iraqi police officials.

Robert M. Perito, director of the Security Sector Governance Center of Innovation at the United States Institute of Peace, called the project a “small program for a lot of money.”

“The first problem is the State Department doesn’t operate in dangerous environments,” said Mr. Perito, who last year wrote a history of United States police training in Iraq. “As soon as the U.S. military left, the State Department was on its own. And that immediately ran the price up and restricted the ability of advisers to move around.”

The State Department has consistently defended the program, even after it was whittled down in scope and criticized publicly by the head of Iraq’s Interior Ministry, Adnan al-Assadi, who last year questioned the wisdom of spending so much on a program the Iraqis never sought.

“We have stood up a robust police-training program, which is doing a terrific job working with the local police in training and developing a program, which I think will pay enormous dividends,” said Thomas R. Nides, deputy secretary of state for management and resources, in a briefing in February with reporters in Washington.

In fact, at every turn the program has faced steep challenges.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Nides said, “I don’t think anything went wrong.” He added, “the Iraqis don’t believe they need a program of that scale and scope.”

Mr. Nides said the scaling back of the program was part of his broader effort to reduce the size of the embassy.

After realizing that the security environment would largely prevent the trainers from traveling outside their barracks, the focus of the program was shifted to holding seminars and PowerPoint presentations on topics like how to spot suicide bombers, protect human rights and deal with large crowds.

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.”

Retired Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik, now a senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, who oversaw the training of Iraqi security forces from 2007 to 2008, said, “The evidence suggests that the State Department never really engaged the Iraqis to find out what they need and what they want.”

The program has consistently been challenged by the special inspector general’s office, which in an audit late last year warned that it could become a “bottomless pit” for taxpayer dollars. The office’s most recent quarterly report, released at the end of April, stated that embassy officials acknowledged “that those challenges may lead to the further restructuring” of the program “in the near future.”

Last year, in preparation for the withdrawal of the military, the State Department planned a large expansion of its role here, designed to maintain influence and be a counterweight to the vast political influence of Iran. Yet, after doubling the size of the embassy staff to nearly 16,000 people, mostly contractors, the State Department quickly reversed course this year — partly because of Iraqi objections to the expanded operation — and is now cutting back from the slightly more than 12,000 people presently in Iraq.

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.

“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.

This report, "U.S. May Scrap Costly Efforts to Train Iraqi Police," was first published in the New York Times.