Fears Mount as Trump Administration Guts USAID’s Iraq Presence

A senior lawmaker fears drastically reduced U.S. diplomatic and aid footprint could pave the way for Islamic State comeback.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Iraqi men unload USAID supplies north of Baghdad.
Iraqi men unload humanitarian supplies provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development in the town of Daquq, north of Baghdad, on Oct. 2, 2014. Marwan Ibrahim/AFP via Getty Images

The United States’ top aid agency is dismantling its presence in Iraq, leaving a skeleton crew ill-equipped to oversee over $1 billion in aid programs aimed in part at staving off the return of terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State, officials and lawmakers say.

An internal U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) document obtained by Foreign Policy confirms that major cuts in staffing were made late last year and highlights the stark difference between the agency’s footprint in Iraq and other countries that receive foreign aid funding: In fiscal 2019, Egypt received roughly one-fifth the amount of U.S. foreign aid as Iraq, but it has more than seven times the number of staff to oversee it.

U.S. foreign aid programs in Iraq are meant to help stabilize the country as it emerges from years of warfare following the defeat of the Islamic State terrorist group’s caliphate. They also support the Trump administration’s aims of countering Iranian influence in the country, officials say.

Those programs could be in jeopardy now without enough staff to conduct proper oversight, particularly in a country where corruption, fraud, and waste are rife.

A senior Democratic lawmaker told Foreign Policy he fears dismantling the U.S. aid agency’s presence in Iraq could pave the way for a comeback by the Islamic State. “The administration says getting Iraq back on its feet is a strategic priority, but slashing our USAID presence does the opposite,” Sen. Chris Murphy, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Middle Eastern issues, told Foreign Policy.

“We need to make sure we have enough staff to continue vital aid programs in Iraq, because without them Tehran’s presence will grow while at the same time creating the conditions for another ISIS resurgence,” he added. “This is a huge mistake, and if we don’t reverse course fast, we will continue to see Iraq slide into political crisis, threatening our national security interests and objectives in the region.”

Congressional aides familiar with the matter say USAID has considered closing down awards for funding in Iraq early because there’s not enough staff to oversee the programs. A USAID spokesperson disputed this, telling Foreign Policy the agency has “not not considered ending any awards early because of our reduced footprint.”

“USAID is experienced in programming in areas where we have limited direct access for American direct-hire staff. We have systems in place to monitor and evaluate US-taxpayer funded activities, including those in Iraq and Syria,” the spokesperson said.

After the Trump administration ordered a drawdown of U.S. diplomatic and aid personnel from the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Iraq last year, USAID had in place 22 officials—eight foreign service officers and 14 foreign service nationals—to help oversee hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. foreign aid programs. The United States doled out $1.2 billion in aid programs for Iraq in fiscal year 2018, and over $500 million in aid in 2019, according to USAID data.

USAID was forced to slash about 80 percent of its non-Iraqi staff last year amid an overall U.S. drawdown from Iraq, as ProPublica reported last November. The internal USAID document adds additional context to this drawdown and sheds light on how the aid agency allocates its staff elsewhere in the world.

As the document shows, USAID’s footprint in Iraq stands in stark contrast to its presence other countries in the region with more political stability and potentially less direct need for U.S. foreign aid. In Jordan, for example, USAID has 132 staff members—41 foreign service officers and 91 foreign service nationals—to oversee nearly $1.1 billion in foreign aid, a similar amount of money the 22 staff members in Iraq are tasked with overseeing. In Egypt, 163 officers oversee $110 million worth of aid—over seven times as many staff to oversee one-tenth of the funding for both aid and stabilization programs as in Iraq.

The document, below, submitted to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Risch last month, shows data on USAID staffing as of November 2019. USAID did not respond to request for comment.

The State Department has also slashed its presence in Iraq. In May 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered a partial evacuation of U.S. diplomatic personnel from Iraq as tensions shot up between Iran and the United States. In December, the State Department submitted to the Senate its plan to make that partial evacuation permanent.

A government watchdog report issued last month to Congress cast doubt on how USAID would be able to responsibly manage the oversight of such a wide and complex portfolio of aid projects. “As of the end of January, it remained unclear where and how USAID would operate and provide oversight for its more than $1 billion stabilization and humanitarian assistance portfolio in Iraq,” the report read.

“USAID [Office of Inspector General] remains concerned regarding the continued ability of the USAID Mission in Iraq to provide oversight and management of such large and complex awards with so few staff,” it added.

“Our staff are in regular communication with partners and third-party monitors to conduct oversight of programs in Iraq,” the USAID spokesperson said. “USAID staff continue to deploy to Iraq to meet with partners and monitor program activities.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer