August 17, 2010

In Iraq, What Are We Leaving Behind?

News this morning that a suicide bomber attacked an Iraqi Army recruiting center, killing 48 and wounding 129, comes weeks before the U.S. military prepares to drawdown troops from Iraq. By August 31, 2010, the U.S. military will shift from combat missions to training and security assistance, leaving 50,000 U.S. troops in the country – down from a high of 160,000 in 2007 during the military surge that helped improve stability in the Iraqi state. But as U.S. troops prepare to drawdown, I wonder what our long-term commitment will look like in Iraq.

With the U.S. military drawing down, our long-term commitment will undoubtedly rely heavily on our civilian assets. Tens of thousands of private contractors, a large civilian corps and embassy staff will play an increasing important role, perhaps helping the Iraqi government build capacity where it hasn’t otherwise been able to.  

In a guest post I wrote back in June for Tom Ricks’s Best Defense blog, I discussed some of the acute challenges that have been marginalized in the post-war years that could undermine long-term stability, principally around natural resources, such as water and agricultural productivity. I’ll be honest, I don’t have a lot of confidence that in the near term the Iraqi government will be able to adequately address these enduring challenges, like that one in four Iraqis don’t have access to fresh water; the Iraqi government has been in limbo since March when national elections failed to form a national government. Needless to say, the government still has much to do to strengthen its legitimacy – and the attack this morning suggests that near-term security challenges – direct threats to the state – could be where the Iraqi government’s attention is focused as it begins to completely take over responsibility for state security.

Much of the work the Iraqi government needs to do to build long-term stability, such as providing access to fresh water, a stable and secure electrical grid and sustainable agricultural practices, could fall on the shoulders of the thousands of contractors, civilian corps and embassy staff left in the country – at least in the near term. Over the long term, our civilian assets should be able to help the Iraqi government build its capacity to provide these services on its own, but only after the government is standing solidly on its own two feet. But how long will that take? That’s one of the questions I hope is addressed this afternoon at a CNAS event, “The Next Phase in America’s Relationship with Iraq.” Come join us at the Willard Hotel at 12:30 PM. Nate Fick, our CEO at CNAS, Michael Corbin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Dr. Colin Kahl, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, will discuss how the transition of responsibility from the Department of Defense to the Department of State in a resource-constrained environment presents challenges for the U.S. government in meeting U.S. foreign policy objectives and managing the thousands of contractors needed to provide security and other services necessary for the Department of State to operate in Iraq. Hope to see you there! If not, look for some of my tweets: @wmrogers.