The challenge for American diplomats who take over security support in Iraq from the U.S. military next year starts with this: They are to provide protection without carrying guns.
They also will be responsible for running their own fleet of aircraft and operating a rocket-warning system, with fewer than 1,100 civil servants replacing a force as large as 50,000 U.S. troops.
As many as 7,000 security contractors along with military companies will pick up where soldiers left off in shoring up a nascent Iraqi police force and shielding Americans from attack.
Saddling the State Department with traditionally military tasks at a fraction of the manpower poses a risky test in a country that still averages 15 insurgent attacks a day and has failed to form a ruling coalition eight months after elections.
“I worry a great deal about that transition,” said 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 that the military has so ably performed in Iraq.”
The experiment presages what’s to come in Afghanistan, where the U.S. plans a gradual drawdown beginning in July. It also underscores the U.S. reliance on private military contractors such as DynCorp International Inc. and Triple Canopy Inc. to perform jobs, from helicopter pilot to security guard, that diplomats can’t do and will have to oversee.
Worried Yet Ready
“Am I worried? Yes,” Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, who’s handling the transition, said in an Oct. 16 interview. “Do I feel we will be ready? Also, yes.”
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman said he wants to make sure. The California Democrat has called top State Department and Pentagon officials to a hearing on Nov. 17 to discuss preparations for the transition.
“This transition is an unprecedented undertaking” for the State Department, Berman said in an e-mail. “I want to be reassured that State’s transition plan can work effectively. If it can’t, we need to know now.”
President Barack Obama needs success in Iraq as an example of democratic rule and economic prosperity in the Arab world and to provide a regional counterweight to Iran. A flagging U.S. effort would undermine Iraq’s progress in reducing violence since the height of the insurgency three years ago.
Dividing Oil Revenue
American economic interests are also at stake. With Iraq’s crude oil reserves the world’s fifth largest, deciding how to divide the revenue among feuding factions is just one potential crisis that U.S. diplomats will face once Iraqi leaders agree on a coalition.
The plan for U.S. forces to leave Iraq in December 2011 dates to an agreement negotiated under President George W. Bush. Obama ordered this year’s interim cut to 50,000 troops after he took office in a bid to wind down a conflict that has lasted more than seven years, killed more than 3,400 U.S. soldiers and cost $750 billion.
Diplomats and other civilians working for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development outside Baghdad currently live on U.S. military bases. They’re fed by the military, receive their security from the military and shuttle to and from the capital on military aircraft. U.S. troops operate a rocket-warning system for the embassy in Baghdad. All that goes away when the U.S. Army leaves.
Still, Congress has proposed cutting $150 million to $425 million from Obama’s request for $1.8 billion for the State Department’s operations in Iraq this year, the type of cut that could limit diplomats’ movements out of their compounds without sufficient security. The Defense Department spent $2.66 billion a week at the peak of the conflict in 2007-2008.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates “can go to the Congress and ask for $500 billion and get it all,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Washington gathering Oct. 6. “I go to the Congress and ask for $50 billion and they cut $5 billion.”
Republicans seizing control of the U.S. House following Nov. 2 congressional midterm elections aren’t likely to change the scenario in a time of record federal budget deficits, according to Peter Feaver, who worked on the National Security Council under Bush and President Bill Clinton.
Some members of Congress “really want to push down anything to do with Iraq and remove this burden as soon as possible,” said Iraq’s ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaida’ie. “That’s dangerous.”
The Pentagon is granting some of the equipment the State Department has requested. In an exception, other transport helicopters will be substituted for the military’s warhorse Black Hawks, which are needed elsewhere.
‘Very Difficult Mission’
“This is a very, very difficult mission,” James Jeffrey, the new ambassador to Iraq, told his Senate confirmation hearing. “It involves thousands of people, many movements and a very lethal environment.”
By January 2012, the U.S. ambassador will oversee more than 13,500 personnel, an increase of almost 80 percent from about 7,600 in July, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
Many will be employed by private security and logistics companies. The number of security contractors will double to as many as 7,000 from 2,700, and their tasks will include such missions as disabling roadside bombs.
Diplomats and Drones
“We never intended our diplomatic services to need attack helicopters, overhead eyes in the sky, predator drones and the like,” Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House oversight committee, told a Sept. 23 hearing.
Under a Sept. 30 contract award, eight companies including DynCorp, Triple Canopy and a provider linked to the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide won the right to compete for $10 billion of State Department security business over five years in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
DynCorp spokeswoman Ashley Burke referred queries on contracts to the State Department. The former Blackwater Worldwide, now known as Xe Services LLC, didn’t return repeated calls. Triple Canopy didn’t respond to repeated e-mails.
Private companies also will help train police. While the State Department ran civilian police programs in Colombia, where contractors were used to fumigate coca crops, military experts say that mission pales in comparison to the law-enforcement institutions needed in Iraq.
Army General Ray Odierno, the previous commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, said police training would be “the most difficult” task for the State Department.
“There is a long way to go,” said Kenneth Pollack, an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington and author of “A Path out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East.” “This thing could go bad very easily.”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at firstname.lastname@example.org