On the Issues: Iraq in Transition

By the end of August, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will be 50,000. After a seven-year military presence, the U.S. will shift to a civilian-led effort in Iraq. This unprecedented transition takes place at a key time as Iraq tries to form a new government after the March 2010 elections. USIP’s Sean Kane, Manal Omar and Daniel Serwer, who all recently visited Iraq, share their views on Iraq and what this transition means for Iraq’s future and the United States.


By the end of August, the number of U.S. troops in Iraq will be 50,000. After a seven-year military presence, the U.S. will shift to a civilian-led effort in Iraq. This unprecedented transition takes place at a key time as Iraq tries to form a new government after the March 2010 elections. USIP’s Sean Kane, Manal Omar and Daniel Serwer, who all recently visited Iraq, share their views on Iraq and what this transition means for Iraq’s future and the United States


The U.S. drawdown from Iraq takes place on  August 31. What does the Aug. 31 deadline mean and how does a drawdown work?

Sean Kane: The drawdown has been a process rather than an event, with the number of troops being steadily reduced from 144,000 from when President Obama took office in January 2009 to 50,000 by  August 31.  Major milestones along the way have been the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities on  June 30, 2009, and the current change in mission from combat to training and assistance. Under the terms of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement signed between Iraq and the United States in 2008, U.S. troops are to go to zero by the end of 2011.

Daniel Serwer: The drawdown for personnel works largely by not replacing U.S. forces that are rotating out of the country. In addition, there is an enormous amount of equipment and material that will  be returned to the U.S., shipped to Afghanistan or elsewhere, or turned over to the Iraqis.

Manal Omar: U.S. soldiers have been absent from  Iraqi streets for more than a year. Nonetheless, the perception is that things will become less secure after August 31st mainly due to a psychological association of the U.S. presence and Iraqi stability. 

Back to top


Who is staying in Iraq among U.S. personnel?

Sean Kane: Some 50,000 troops are staying behind to advise, train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), conduct counterterrorism missions in partnership with the ISF, and to help protect U.S. civilian and other international partners such as the U.N.  The U.S. mission in Iraq will shift from military-led to a civilian effort led by U.S. diplomats, which will include the largest U.S. embassy in the world, several “enduring presence” posts around the country, and at least 4,000 – 5,000 staff and contractors.

Daniel Serwer: In theory, the “combat forces” are coming out and the “trainers” are staying.  In practice, they are often the same people, with their focus changed.  All U.S. forces are capable of combat, but that will not be their primary mission, which will change to increasing the capacity of the Iraqi security forces. 

Back to top


Has the State Dept. ever taken on this kind of security role or responsibility?

Sean Kane: In many ways the scale of the current military to civilian transition in Iraq is unprecedented, and that includes the security role that the State Department will be taking on.  By some outside estimates, the State Department may require as many as 7,000 security contractors to protect its staff (up from the current 2,700).  The cost implications of this, along with State Department requests for Blackhawk helicopters, mine-resistant ambush-protect vehicles, and other military equipment, have raised eyebrows on Capitol Hill.

Daniel Serwer: The security role of the State Department in the future in Iraq will be theoretically comparable to responsibilities it has in other countries:  to protect U.S. government officials working under chief of mission (ambassadorial) authority and to support the training and equipping of the local security forces.  But the challenges in Iraq to both these missions are gigantic compared to most other countries.  The resources that State will have at its disposal will also be much greater, and the management challenge enormous. 

Back to top


How does this transition affect Iraq’s political process?

Sean Kane: The main effect of this transition is to add an additional layer of uncertainty to the already unsettled political environment after Iraq’s inconclusive elections.  The original administration plan had assumed that a new Iraqi government would be in place when this benchmark was hit, and President Obama had pushed candidate Obama’s pledge of ending combat operations within 16 months back to 19 months and backloaded the redeployment schedule in order to try to ensure that this would be the case. 

The U.S. has in some ways acted as an external check on any one group acquiring too much power or authority in Iraq’s political process, and with this balancing force now being removed, the stakes of the government formation process have been raised and the task of cobbling together coalitions made more complex.

Daniel Serwer:  Iraqis, most of whom wanted the American withdrawal, are nervous about what it will mean.  The American troops have been de facto essential to protection of the state and the political system.  As they withdraw, many Iraqis doubt the ability of the Iraqi security forces to offer the same guarantees that the Americans have provided.  This is one important reason why it has been so difficult to form a government:  no one wants to be left out of the power equation as the Americans draw down. 

Manal Omar: The delay in the formation of the Iraqi government  is creating more uncertainty and instability at a time of transition.  Individuals and  organizations are highlighting their lack of faith in the government due to the delay.  There is a strong sense of pride over successful elections, but a realization that this delay may make the election success irrelevant. 

Back to top


Is Iraq ready to be responsible for its own security?

Sean Kane: The U.S. military believes that the Iraqi Security Forces  are capable today of maintaining order and combating internal security threats such as the insurgency, but will still require substantial U.S. assistance to defend its borders and address external security threats for many years to come.  The ISF has effectively been in the lead since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities last June, and after the initial upsurge of large bombings that followed -- Iraqis have generally proved up to the task.  The question going forward is whether the ISF can maintain this performance in a fractured political environment and with declining U.S. planning and logistics support behind the scenes.

Daniel Serwer: General Ray Odierno says they are ready.  But there is no telling how well they will perform until they are challenged.  So far they have held up reasonably well, but attacks are on the upswing and it is not clear whether the Iraqi forces can respond appropriately. 

Manal Omar: Traveling  the streets of Baghdad, you will likely to come across three or four checkpoints on your daily commute to work or university.  The checkpoints are fully manned by the Iraqi security forces. For the most part, these checkpoints have been professionally maintained, but there is a strong perception that the Iraqi police force is on its best behavior due to U.S. supervision.  Psychologically, many Iraqis are fearful that the U.S. drawdown will lead to an iron-fist policy by the Iraqi army, which could translate to harassment at checkpoints.

Back to top


What does the August 31 drawdown mean for Iraqis? How will their lives be different? What scenarios do you envision for Iraq post drawdown?

Sean Kane: On a day-to-day level there will not be a big difference for Iraqis.  Psychologically, most Iraqis are both happy to see U.S. troops go and afraid about what this might mean for stability and security given the continuing inability of their political leaders to form government and the uncertain views they hold regarding the impartiality of their own security forces.  

Dan Serwer: Not much will change on August 31.  Most of the drawdown has already happened.  Iraq’s security forces already have primacy, and most of the Americans are already gone or on bases.    

Manal Omar: The primary fear is that with the U.S. gone, the political parties will resort to violence to force alliances in power sharing.  The Iraqi citizens will pay the price.  The work from the civilian side to convene Iraqi policymakers, strengthen civil society, work with marginalized groups such as women, youth, and minorities inside Iraq is more important than ever.  Until now, the balance of power has remained due to the U.S.’s strong influence.  It is important that the civilian interventions in Iraq remain to empower Iraqi institutions on the ground to maintain that balance.

The primary issue Iraqi citizens seek is the delivery of services.  Electricity, water, and access to livelihood and health are still major concerns for the average Iraqi citizen.  The question is, can  the Iraqi government make a change? 

Back to top


What is USIP’s role in Iraq going forward? What will USIP be focusing on post-drawdown?

Sean Kane: The ongoing military to civilian transition in Iraq, coupled with the large turnover expected to occur in the new Iraqi government, will place a premium on strengthening Iraqi capacities to prevent, manage and resolve conflicts peacefully.  Sustainable peacebuilding will in fact require these capabilities to be developed across the local, provincial and national levels as well as both inside government, and outside of it among civil society, community leaders and marginalized groups.  USIP is continuing its mission to teach, train and assist Iraqis in developing these abilities.

Daniel Serwer: USIP will keep its focus on peacebuilding in Iraq, where it started in 2004.  Nothing about the drawdown reduces the need to help Iraqis --both in government and in civil society -- gain the capacity to manage their conflicts nonviolently.  But of course our capacity to keep working depends in part on the security situation:  if it deteriorates, we are going to be able to do less.  If it improves—which is what we all hope—we’ll be able to do more.

Manal Omar: USIP is committed to helping build sustainable Iraqi institutions that will be able to manage and resolve conflict nonviolently.  A large part of our work is just beginning because the Iraqi government is confirmed as the primary duty bearer, and there is a strong need to renegotiate a social contract between the Iraqi government and its  citizens.

Back to top

August 16, 2010