In Iraq, can State Department pick up where US military leaves off?

US military wrestles with sheer size of shutting down operations in Iraq by next December – and handing off key security jobs to the State Department, which is staffing up to handle them.

Scott Nelson/AFP/Pool/Newscom
This file photo shows a private security guard standing at the front entrance of the US Embassy building in in Baghdad's Green Zone.

As remaining US forces prepare to pack up and leave Iraq in the year ahead, the Pentagon is wrestling with the sheer size of shutting down operations – and the risks of handing over key security jobs that were once handled exclusively by the US military.

In little-noticed testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, lawmakers, too, warned that the test in Iraq is now “to ensure that a strategic defeat does not spring from [the] hard-fought tactical victory” of US forces.

With US military operations in Iraq set to end in December 2011, the challenges America faces will be considerable, say senior officials, who add that it will be “at least five more years” before Iraq “is truly self-reliant.”

For starters, the State Department will take charge of some highly complex military operations, often with the aid of private contractors. This will include everything from operating early-warning radar systems that alert personnel to incoming rocket fire, to handling unexploded munitions that land inside US bases. It will now also be charged with running certain unmanned drones and recovering broken-down vehicles.

And while the State Department has long taken the lead in training Iraqi police, this job is expected to get more complicated, since the police must take over more operations as US troops depart. This is happening at the same time that the State Department will be dramatically expanding its diplomatic presence in Iraq.

That’s because while Iraq has made significant strides, the country “is not yet in a position to resolve its challenges and make strategic progress on its own without continued assistance from us,” Jeffrey Feltman, assistant secretary of State for near eastern affairs, said in congressional testimony last month. “None of us should be under the illusion that success is a foregone conclusion or that there won’t be significant challenges ahead.”

It will be “at least five more years,” Mr. Feltman added, before Iraq is “truly self-reliant.”

On the security front, however, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, told the committee. US troop levels in Iraq have declined by nearly 100,000 in the past year, from some 144,000 in January, 2009 to roughly 50,000 today. “While the United States continues to provide vital support to the Iraqi Security Forces, including training, equipping, mentoring, advising, and providing certain critical technical enablers, the Iraqis are very much in charge and they simply no longer need such large numbers of US forces to keep violence in check,” he said.

Not only does the US military provide support for Iraqi troops, it also performs a number of “essential activities” for US operations there. Mr. Kahl testified that the Pentagon identified 1,127 such tasks in a recent review. So far, the US Embassy “has already taken the lead on 150 of these tasks, and will assume control of another 310” as troops complete their drawdown next year.

Kahl also put in a plug for more money. “Reduced funding is a challenge for the transition,” he said. “Security costs are high and planners must base costs on conditions today, not on best-case assumptions of what they may be in 2012.”

That said, he painted a guardedly optimistic portrait of Iraq’s future. “It is our judgment that the current military footprint on the ground is currently so modest compared to what it used to be in the past,” he said, “that the remaining drawdown over the next year is unlikely to trigger a dramatic surge in violence.”

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