The last American troops will leave Iraq this year, and the first troops will leave Afghanistan starting this summer. That means the civilian side of the U.S. government must step up to assume a greater responsibility in the void the military leaves behind. But is the U.S. government ready to take on this bigger role as the military exits? The answer is: it's far from clear.

February 22, 2011

The last American troops will leave Iraq this year, and the first troops will leave Afghanistan starting this summer. That means the civilian side of the U.S. government must step up to assume a greater responsibility in the void the military leaves behind. But is the U.S. government ready to take on this bigger role as the military exits? The answer is: it's far from clear.

Earlier this month, USIP co-hosted a two-day, off-the-record meeting with nine agencies - from the National Security Council to State to the Department of Defense to Justice and Commerce and others to focus on the transitions from military to civilian control in Iraq and Afghanistan, and eventually to the Iraqi and Afghan governments.

TRANSITION TIME IN IRAQ, AFGHANISTAN – The last American troops will leave Iraq this year, and the first troops will leave Afghanistan starting this summer. That means the civilian side of the U.S. government must step up to assume a greater responsibility in the void the military leaves behind. But is the U.S. government ready to take on this bigger role as the military exits? The answer is: it’s far from clear.

SO MANY QUESTIONS – Who will maintain the massive infrastructure the U.S. has built in Iraq and Afghanistan? What will it cost to sustain host nation militaries and who will pay that cost? Who will provide security for the U.S. civilians the military leaves behind? What agreements need to be in place to ensure their safety? Answers don’t come easy. But most people agree that those answers must be soon. And, they say, the American government must be running on all its metaphorical cylinders as it determines what role each agency plays. “We have not attempted this type of massive transition between our own agencies since the Marshall Plan,” says USIP’s Beth Cole. “It’s a collective responsibility, but we’re not used to divvying up these roles and responsibilities.”

CULTURE CLASH – Experts worry that the internal culture and budgetary wars that have plagued the American government for years will cause it to stumble at a time when it can’t fail. And amid overall budget worries across the government, perennial fears are surfacing once again that non-Defense Department agencies like State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) don’t have the resources they need to get the job done in Iraq and Afghanistan. The stakes are high: bureaucratic failure during this period of transition could amount to strategic failure and squander all the security and governance gains in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

THE USIP-HOSTED INTER AGENCY CONFERENCE – Earlier this month, USIP co-hosted a two-day, off-the-record meeting with nine agencies – from the National Security Council to State to the Department of Defence to Justice and Commerce and others – that included 28 bureaus, offices and commands from each. The symposium, held in partnership with the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center (CAC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the Simons Center for the Study of Interagency Cooperation, is the third annual interagency symposium. This year, it was held at USIP’s new headquarters building in Washington. The sponsoring organizations hoped to use the opportunity to engage key government leaders and focus on the challenges that lie ahead as the U.S. transitions from military to civilian control in Iraq and Afghanistan – and then for eventual hand-off to the Iraqi and Afghan governments. Discussions were tense. But USIP, a non-partisan federal agency, can offer a “safe place for agencies to come and discuss very difficult issues,” says Cole.


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FULL LIST OF PARTICIPANTS – Officials from the National Security Council (NSC), State, Defense, Justice, Commerce, Treasury, USAID, Agriculture and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) , as well as U.S. Forces in Iraq, the NATO training command, and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad all met together for the conference at USIP Feb. 3 and 4.

FROM RULE OF LAW TO ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT – The conference was organized into discussions on governance and politics, security and rule of law, economic development and a number of other issues. Officials talked about the need for greater clarity on security objectives and development goals in both countries, as well as the recurring problem of developing the rule of law, the challenge of incomplete national reconciliation and political agreement, and the role of decentralization, local partnership and capability building for long-term sustainability.

TIMELINES, MONEY AND AGREEMENTS? – Participants focused heavily on both the benefits and the pitfalls of meeting rigid timelines for military-to-civilian transition. Too loose a timeline provides too much wriggle room; too rigid a goalpost forces less-than-ideal outcomes. “Commanders from Iraq felt that timelines are tactically awkward but can have strategically significant effects. In Iraq, troop withdrawal deadlines drove planning, forced better partnering with civilians and the Iraqi Security Forces, and sent strong signals regarding the U.S. commitment to Iraqi sovereignty,” said USIP’s Sean Kane. “However, former division and corps commanders cautioned that timelines cannot be entirely divorced from conditions and that setting a date for withdrawing troops two years earlier would not have worked.”

The talks focused on other concerns as well: how to build an effective bridge in both theaters between a security mission to a development mission amid scarce resources; an assessment of the value of organizing agreements such as the “Status of Forces Agreement” in Iraq. “One thing that we know is that the strategic framework in Iraq and the Status of Forces Agreement really help lay the basis for transition,” said USIP’s Cole. “So far we don’t have those in Afghanistan… but we’re going to need them.”

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