Troops withdraw, but US work in Iraq war unfinished and fragile

The last US combat troops leave Iraq Thursday, shifting the American role in the Iraq war from the Pentagon to the State Department, which faces a potentially unprecedented task.

Mohammed Ameen/Reuters
A policeman stands guard at a checkpoint in Baghdad August 19. With the last US combat brigade leaving Iraq Thursday, the American effort in Iraq over the coming year will be 'transition,' as the US shifts from seven years of a military operation to a civilian-led project.

The key word defining the American effort in Iraq over the coming year will be "transition," as the US shifts from seven years of a military operation to a civilian-led project that in many respects outstrips anything the State Department has ever undertaken.

With the last US combat brigade leaving Iraq Thursday and only a residual force of 50,000 American military personnel remaining until December 2011, the months ahead will be a major test for both the Iraqis and the US.

The Iraqi military and police will be judged on their ability to maintain security and order, while perhaps even more crucial will be the ability of Iraq's mosaic of rival politicians to fashion a functioning government. The country is still operating under a caretaker government more than five months after March elections.

But for the US, the test will be in how its civilian State Department experts are able to take on and advance an unfinished and fragile project. Among other things, civilians will be taking over from the US military the critical police training program – and the State Department will be doing it with much less money than the Pentagon had.

The $16 billion the Pentagon was spending annually in Iraq will be slashed to about $1 billion. Some Congressional lawmakers would like to see that figure cut even further.

State Department takes lead role

State Department officials say they have been gearing up for their new lead role in Iraq for years. Most say the Iraq project is ready for a shift to a more traditional diplomat-led binational relationship.

But Iraq experts worry that the timing is wrong, given Iraq’s delicate political environment. Many question whether the State Department is prepared for its substantial new duties.

Some say that Iraq, with its tradition of military involvement in domestic affairs, is at best not well suited for what has essentially become a US experiment in civilian-led nation building.

Iraq “is not the place I’d be wanting to try this experiment,” says Ken Pollack, director of the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy. “What the State Department is being asked to do is not in their DNA.”

While the US retains tremendous influence in Iraq, Mr. Pollack says, the US role is now largely one of “persuading” a divided Iraqi leadership to do things. And that power of persuasion is likely to suffer as the US moves toward a full departure of its military by December 2011, he says.

Michael O’Hanlon, a military affairs scholar also at Brookings in Washington, says he actually sees three transitions going on in Iraq, making for a particularly difficult moment in the country. In addition to the US military-to-civilian shift and the Iraqi stalemate over forming a new government, he says the top tier of US leadership in Iraq has changed all at once.

US Ambassador Christopher Hill and Gen. Ray Odierno, the US military commander in Iraq, have both departed their posts. What's more, Gen. David Petraeus no longer heads Central Command, which includes Iraq, and is now in charge of Afghanistan.

“It’s a little bit of a crisis moment in over-all policy,” Mr. O'Hanlon says.

He says flatly that he does not see how the 50,000 US troops that remain in Iraq can do what they are being called on to do, while drawing down by the end of next year.

Among those continuing military duties will be manning with Iraqi forces checkpoints in some of the country’s more ethnically sensitive regions, participating in counterinsurgency operations as requested by Iraqi officials, and continuing to “train, equip, and advise” Iraqi military forces.

A military-to-civilian transition

State Department officials discount the notion that the civilian side is unprepared or sailing into uncharted waters.

“This is a transition to a broader, more traditional binational relationship,” says Michael Corbin, the North African Affairs Bureau’s deputy assistant secretary for Iraq.

Officials also challenge the perception that the military-to-civilian transition is the first step in a withdrawal from Iraq.

“There is a misconception that the president’s priority is to leave,” says Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary for Middle East affairs. “It’s really laying the foundation for a long-term partnership.”

In addition to the US embassy in Baghdad – the largest US diplomatic mission in the world – the State Department plans consulates in Basra, the port and economic hub in the south, and in Arbil in the Kurdish north. Two embassy “branches” will be set up in Kirkuk and in Mosul, two flashpoints in Iraqi ethnic relations.

The State Department will make liberal use of private contractors in both its new police-training functions and in covering essential duties like personnel protection. But it is likely to run into financial shortfalls, Iraq experts say, especially given what appears to be a mood in Congress to trim back on Iraq spending.

What concerns some Iraq observers most is a sense that, for political reasons, the Obama administration is portraying Iraq as largely “mission accomplished” when there is still a steep and uncertain road ahead.

Noting that some officials talk about Iraq “as if we’re on the five yard line,” Pollack says, “We’re on more like the 40 – and it’s probably our 40. There’s a long way to go here."

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