Iraqi leaders have been cool to calls from Washington for a timetable to achieve certain benchmarks as a precondition for U.S. military and financial support. President Bush, too, had distanced himself from attaching strings to U.S. funding, but in May 2007 acknowledged “it makes sense to have benchmarks as a part of our discussion on how to go forward” (NYT). These benchmarks include passing laws governing the distribution of oil revenues among the country’s warring factions, reversing a de-Baathification plan, and passing a provincial elections law. A September 2007 progress report by the White House shows that Iraqis made progress toward eleven of the benchmarks since the release of an interim report in July 2007. An independent assessment by the Brookings Institution in March 2008 evaluated Iraqi lawmakers’ progress using separate “Brookings benchmarks.” Researchers there gave Iraq’s government a five—out of eleven—though some have questioned the Brookings criteria (Atlantic). The benchmark assessments delivered periodically by the top U.S. military and civilian officials in Iraq are highly anticipated in Washington ahead of the U.S. presidential elections.
What exactly is meant by ‘benchmarks’?
Sometimes referred to as “milestones,” benchmarks refer to specific objectives—or rather quantifiable measures of progress toward a future goal—for the Iraqi government to meet with regard to national reconciliation, security, economic performance, and governance. The goal of these benchmarks is to give incentive to Iraq’s leaders to make political progress and start taking over responsibility for security from American troops. “The purpose is to infuse a sense of urgency into the political process in Baghdad,” says Andrew Exum, formerly of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
How does one define progress?
“I want to see life starting to come back,” Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT) told the New York Times in mid-2007. “I want to see people in markets.” Other lawmakers have pressed for more specific metrics to gauge whether or not the surge is working. “The key question is: What have we won?” asks Exum. “Have we set the Iraqi government on a path toward stabilization or reconciliation? Or have we just won the right to stay in the country for another six months?” Like President Bush, Gen. Peter Pace, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, distanced himself from specific metrics. Instead he posed a question: “[D]o the people in Baghdad feel more secure today? If not, then all the other metrics may be of interest but aren’t as compelling as that one is to me.” Pace’s successor, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, has attempted to answer the security question and says progress in Iraq is now self-sustaining. “There is so much going in the right direction that is tied to better security,” Mullen told reporters in March 2008. “The level of violence being down has allowed the Iraqis to focus on the development of their security forces as opposed to focusing on where the next bomb is going to go off.” Yet other observers say progress remains a matter of perspective. W. Patrick Lang, former head of the Middle East section of the Defense Intelligence Agency, argues Iraqi and American lawmakers hold different interpretations of what progress means. “[Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] thinks he is doing the right thing by consolidating Shiite Arab power in Iraq,” he says.
What are the specific benchmarks laid out?
Experts say the benchmarks range in specificity and achievability. They include reaching an agreement on the status of Kirkuk, meeting certain economic criteria like a targeted annual growth, and reducing subsidies on energy and food, which cost Iraq’s economy roughly $11 billion per year, according to the Iraq Study Group. But the most-discussed benchmarks include:
- Holding provincial elections. Because Sunnis mostly boycotted December 2005 provincial elections, local governments are primarily dominated by Shiites in the south and center and Kurds in the north. The Bush administration has pushed the Shiite-led government to hold fresh elections at the local level to reverse this imbalance, allow a Sunni buy-in, and pave the way toward greater reconciliation. The law was one of three slated for passage in February 2008, but stalemate within Iraq’s presidency council sent the measure back to parliament for retooling, where progress won’t come easily (AP). “The biggest challenge ahead of us is the provincial elections law,” said Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, speaker of Iraq’s Council of Representatives.
- Passage of oil revenue-sharing law. An oil law drafted in February 2007, as this Backgrounder outlines, has left Iraq’s leaders bitterly divided. It has drawn criticisms from Iraq’s Sunnis, who prefer a stronger role for the central government, and from Kurds, who prefer a stronger role for the regional authorities. The majority Shiites have sought to mollify the Sunnis by keeping control of Iraq’s oil sector in Baghdad, not the provinces. Most of Iraq’s oil rests in the Kurdish north or Shiite south, not in the Sunni heartland. The role of outside investors, classification of old versus new oil fields, and details on how oil revenues would be distributed also remains unsettled—though oil money is being distributed as part of Iraq’s annual budget.
- Reversal of de-Baathification laws. The Iraqi parliament passed the Justice and Accountability Law on January 12, 2008, clearing the way for an estimated thirty-thousand low-ranking ex-Baathists to return to public life. The law also allowed some party members to collect pensions. But some Sunnis argue the law has made matters worse for them by opening the door to federal prosecution, barring top-ranking officials from regaining jobs, and restricting former Saddam security forces from reintegration. The drive to rescind de-Baathification laws was part of a larger effort to make constitutional concessions to minority groups like Sunni Arabs.
- Amending Iraq’s constitution. The Sunnis favor an amendment to stanch the formal breakup of Iraq into regional states divided along sectarian lines. They fear the Shiites will seek a federal state in the south modeled along the lines of Iraqi Kurdistan, which would cut into the Sunnis’ share of political power and revenue. But the amendment process is purposefully difficult, says Nathan Brown, an Islamic legal scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. To change the document, the Iraqi parliament must first form a committee, which then proposes a package of amendments. Next, the parliament votes on the amendments as a package, not individually, and this requires a simple majority. If passed, the bloc of amendments must then win approval from the public in a nationwide referendum, requiring two-thirds approval from at least three of Iraq’s eighteen provinces. “[The system’s] structured so that the constitution will not develop significant changes,” Brown says.
- Spending of reconstruction funds. One benchmark is the fair distribution across the country’s provinces and various ethnic groups of $10 billion in Iraqi reconstruction funds, as allocated in the Iraqi government’s budget. The monies are aimed at building infrastructure, improving services, and creating jobs for all Iraqis, but parliament cannot agree on how to equitably disperse the funds. “It's hard for the central government to get out of Baghdad and out of the Green Zone and move things ahead,” says Frederick D. Barton, co-director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ post-conflict reconstruction project. He says the easiest way to distribute aid quickly across ethnic lines is to tie it to education or home-improvement funds but that hasn't been done in Iraq. A January 2008 Congressional Research Service report (PDF) notes that Iraqis spent about 4.5 percent of the $10 billion as of August 2007; an additional $13 billion was added to the 2008 budget. Yet some U.S. lawmakers remain wary of Iraqis’ accounting. Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), and John Warner (R-VA), have called for an audit into how Iraq is spending it oil profits (NYT).
- Other measures: Two bright spots for Iraq’s government came on February 13, 2008, with the passage of an annual budget ($48 billion) and another provision allowing limited amnesty for detainees in Iraqi custody. The Bush administration, which has lobbied hard for political progress, praised the actions. “There is still much important work ahead for the people of Iraq and their government,” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in a joint statement with the U.S. military. “Nevertheless, today’s legislative actions reflect a significant commitment to address important issues and find political bases on which to move forward.”
What happens if Baghdad fails to meet these benchmarks?
The consequences of failure remain unclear. Some Democratic lawmakers have pushed for a freezing of aid funds to Iraq, while others have sought a more rapid withdrawal, or redeployment, of troops. White House officials say performance benchmarks should not be linked to troop deployments and reconstruction aid disbursements—that is, the consequences of Iraqi inaction should not include imposing limits on the ability of U.S. military leaders or the president to carry out the war. But as Exum points out, “Having benchmarks is worthless unless you have consequences.” Lang, formerly of the Defense Intelligence Agency, says, the trouble is that Iraqis do not believe there will be serious consequences if they fail to achieve these benchmarks. “Iraqis are every bit as smart as we are,” he says. “Realistically they can figure out that the chances we would pull the plug and leave is just about zero.” Similar U.S.-imposed benchmarks set for the South Vietnamese government during the Vietnam War achieved little, he adds.