The United States wasted more than $200 million on an Iraqi police-training program that has little backing on the ground, a new U.S. government audit released Monday found.
Training the Iraqi police was originally envisioned as the biggest single program run by the U.S. Department of State in the world, spanning five years and costing billions of dollars. But the program has been gutted as Iraqi officials show dimming interest. The U.S. slashed the number of advisors from 85 to 36 this month; it had once planned to have 350.
As Iraqi enthusiasm for the idea has flagged, the program has been downsized so much that the Baghdad Police College Annex -- built at an $108 million cost to help house the program -- will be closed. The U.S. also chipped in an additional $98 million to a Basra facility where training will be halted, making the money a “de facto waste,” the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction found.
Only seven police advisors used the $98 million facility at the height of the training program. Government auditors questioned why millions were poured into costly construction projects without a written commitment to the program from the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
The inspector general “acknowledges that gaining Iraqi commitment to the police training program has been exceeding difficult. And the security situation has been worse than expected,” the report says. But the need for Iraqis to be firmly behind the projects had been emphasized over and over.
In a letter, Assistant Secretary of State Carol Z. Perez disputed the idea that the funds had been wasted, saying Iraqis will still use the Baghdad Police College Annex for training, the Associated Press reported. The U.S. had been assured that Iraq was committed to a streamlined version of the program, she said.
The report notes that State Department officials said they were surprised by the Iraqi disinterest because they had repeatedly met with Iraqi officials before the program began in October to share their ideas and ask for input. But as the training began, Iraqi officials and police questioned whether it was useful, faulting it as poorly organized and lacking leadership.
Some Iraqi officers were told not to go to trainings at the Baghdad Police College Annex or the U.S. Embassy for political reasons, the report says, as Iraqi officials tried to avoid being seen as overly dependent on the Americans. The results are “lukewarm relations between the Americans and the Iraqis,” the report says, citing an Iraqi official.
“I do believe that some of this was unpredictable,” said Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. As the U.S. scaled back its forces in a country trying to assert its own sovereignty, “the program began to stick out like a sore thumb.”
Iraqi officials flatly rejected more than a quarter of the meetings that police advisors requested and fewer than half happened. The report says Iraqi officials don’t want the sweeping training that the U.S. had envisioned but a much smaller program solely to hone technical and advanced policing skills.
The program has also been dogged by the worsening security in Baghdad. After American troops withdrew from Iraq in December, the advisors have had trouble traveling to meet with Iraqi police. Meetings at the Baghdad Police College were all but suspended between January and March as bomb attacks targeted Iraqi police. Security costs have chewed up a growing share of the budget.
Because the program was downsized but its funding kept flowing, the crimped initiative may be able to survive on the unspent money left over from past years, auditors say. The report recommends that the secretary of State account for all available funding and that Congress might want to push the department to assure lawmakers in writing that Iraqis want the program before more money is committed.
The U.S. government has spent roughly $8 billion to train, staff and equip Iraqi police since 2003, according to the report.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Iraqi riot police march during a graduation ceremony in Baghdad on Jan. 8. Credit: Hadi Mizban / Associated Press.