The State Dept. has 13 months to field an army and an air force.
When the last of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq pulls out at the end of 2011, the 1,100 civil servants who will stay behind will be in charge of their own security, responsible for running their own fleet of aircraft, and even operating a rocket-warning system.
They will be assisted by as many as 7,000 contractors who will train the Iraqi police force and provide protection for American civilians overseeing reconstruction in a country that averages 15 insurgent attacks a day. "I worry a great deal about that transition," says Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq between 2007 and 2009. "The capacity does not exist on the civilian side to take on the vast array of roles and missions" the military performed.
U.S. forces now protect the American embassy in Baghdad—the world's biggest—with a counter-mortar and rocket system that lets them fire back at insurgents. Outside the capital, American diplomats and civilians advising on electricity projects and hospitals are housed, fed, and protected by American troops and are shuttled around the country on military aircraft. To prepare for the departure of the military, the State Dept. is assembling a fleet of aircraft, soliciting qualified trainers for the Iraqi police, and preparing to double the number of private contractors from companies such as DynCorp International (DCP) and Triple Canopy, both of which are already in Iraq. Eight companies will compete for $10 billion of State Dept. security business over five years in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. "Am I worried? Yes," says Undersecretary of State Patrick F. Kennedy, who's handling the transition. "Do I feel we will be ready? Also, yes."
Howard Berman, the California Democrat who until January serves as chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has summoned State Dept. and Pentagon officials to a hearing, set for Nov. 18, on the handover. "I want to be reassured that State's transition plan can work effectively. If it can't, we need to know now," Berman said in an e-mail.
After the troops depart, President Barack Obama hopes to be able to point to a democratic and prosperous Iraq as an example to the Arab world. He also is counting on it to provide a regional counterweight to Iran. American economic interests are at play as well: Iraq's crude oil reserves are the world's fifth-largest, and U.S. diplomats may have a role in deciding how to divide the oil revenue among feuding factions.
Already, Congress has proposed cutting $150 million to $425 million from Obama's request for $1.8 billion for the State Dept.'s operations in Iraq this year. Some lawmakers "really want to push down anything to do with Iraq and remove this burden as soon as possible," says Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaida'ie. "That's dangerous."
The bottom line: The State Dept. is hiring thousands of contractors to help it assume duties in Iraq once the last of the troops departs in a year.