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The disconnect in Obama’s plan for Iraq

The disconnect in Obama’s plan for Iraq

The president is commemorating "the end of the combat operations in Iraq." Except that U.S. military forces remaining in Iraq will continue to have combat responsibilities, both in support of Iraqi forces for internal security, and to protect Iraq from external threats, through at least the end of 2011. There is a serious disconnect between military missions and the statements coming out of the White House. However, this disconnect is not even the most egregious problem with administration’s policy on Iraq. Far from being the "responsible drawdown" mantra the Obama administration keeps chanting, its transition to a completely civilian mission puts at risk the gains the military force has achieved thus far.

President Obama declared that "our commitment in Iraq is changing — from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats." To the State Department’s credit, it is dramatically increasing their numbers in Iraq. Iraq has the largest U.S. embassy in the world, and projections are for further increases to nearly 7,000 personnel. But more than half that number will be providing security, and the vast majority of them will be contractors, empowered to use deadly force. Every inspector general and GAO report on operations has criticized oversight of contractors; this has the potential for catastrophe.

Despite the increase in people, as the military has drawn down, the State Department has also consolidated, from 16 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) to what will be only five locations: the Embassy in Baghdad, consulates in Basra and Erbil, and temporary consulates planned to last a few years in Kirkuk and Mosul. Security concerns drove the consolidation. PRTs were the beginning of a successful model of integrated civil-military activity, with the military providing security for the political and development work. Instead of compensating for reduced military presence by increased civilian activity, the State Department has made the transition more brittle by eliminating PRTs. 

Part of the problem in fully civilianizing the mission in Iraq is that the State Department is deficient in its planning and programming efforts. They have not valued the skills that build Congressional confidence in budgetary rigor, such as producing a several year budget like DOD’s Future Year’s Defense Program, or the Quadrennial Defense Review (State has its first such review underway now) or a Program Analysis and Evaluation office that red-teams funding requests. Long-term underfunding of State operations has created a culture of doing the best you can with whatever money is available, which has been evident in planning for the transition in Iraq. 

As the dimensions of responsibility that State would assume became clear, the department remained in denial. Hundreds of tasks the military had identified as important to sustaining security and governance gains in Iraq were simply set aside as more than Congress would fund.  Instead of determining their requirements and building support for funding, State reduced the requirements to what they believed would be funded. 

State has now produced an extensive list of essential equipment: helicopters, mine resistant vehicles, armored cars, heavy cargo trucks, sophisticated surveillance systems. But these are nowhere near the actual needs of the mission. And State only recently scoped their requirements, when the drawdown has been policy since November of 2008. It almost goes without saying they did not include funding in either their baseline budget or the emergency supplemental; they are now asking for DOD to provide the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment at no cost to the State Department.

Congress has nonetheless supported the unprecedented civilian effort. It fully funded State’s fiscal year 2010 supplemental request of $1.8 billion for Iraq, with the exception of $527 million to build consulates, which Congress understandably did not consider "emergency" funding and instructed State to include in their baseline budget. The administration made no threat to veto the bill. Congress even provided $305 million more than asked for in operations money, demonstrating a greater than expected willingness to support the civilian transition. 

When President Obama speaks to the country about the end of combat operations, he needs to make clear why civilians will be performing inherently military tasks, why the State Department has reduced its presence throughout Iraq even as its numbers have increased five-fold, what steps are being taken to ensure State has the resources it needs and has adequate oversight of spending and contractors, and, most importantly, prepare Americans for the continued risks our diplomats and development professionals will be running.