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State Department Set To Increase Presence In Iraq

  • Richard Solash

A U.S. soldier carried his bag as he prepared to leave Iraq in mid-August.

A U.S. soldier carried his bag as he prepared to leave Iraq in mid-August.

With combat troops gone, and U.S. forces skimmed down to the 50,000 mark, the face of the U.S. presence in Iraq will increasingly be a civilian one.

According to the State Department, U.S. assistance will shift away from helping Iraq rebuild its infrastructure to focus on providing technical advice in fields such as health and agriculture.

Civilians will lead training initiatives for both government and industry, and will promote the diversification of the Iraqi economy, which is dominated by the oil sector.

By October 2011, the State Department will also assume responsibility for training the Iraqi police.

It's all a part of what the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) describes as one of the largest U.S. reconstruction efforts since the Marshall Plan.

But the capacity-building that thousands of U.S. civilians are charged with carrying out presents a new and daunting set of security challenges.

How does the State Department maintain an enormous, mobile presence in a country that remains one of the world's most dangerous, without the protection of combat troops, and increasingly unable to rely on the remaining U.S. soldiers, whose numbers are diminishing ahead of next year's full withdrawal?


To do so, they will field what experts are describing as likely the largest private security operation in the world.

The State Department plans to more than double the number of private security contractors it employs in Iraq, assembling a veritable mini-army of as many as 7,000 people.

To equip them, the department has submitted a request to the Pentagon for 24 Black Hawk helicopters, some 50 bomb-resistant vehicles, or MRAPs, high-tech surveillance systems, fuel trucks, and other heavy military gear.

"The New York Times" has reported that the State Department will also purchase three planes to add to its existing one, creating what it called a "mini-air fleet."

It's an unprecedented security initiative for the government agency charged with managing the nation's diplomatic affairs -- but needed, department officials say, if troop drawdown commitments agreed with the Iraqi government are to be reconciled with ambitious civilian-led goals.

"The State Department does not usually operate effectively in countries with this level of security risk," says Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an Iraq consultant for the U.S. Department of Defense.

"If we look at Yemen, for instance, the embassy is constantly being put under lockdown and State Department people cannot leave the embassy to get out and do their missions. [But] Iraq is so important to U.S. interests, and the U.S. has invested so much, that the State Department is going to attempt to continue to do its full range of missions despite a very serious security threat."

The State Department is also expanding its brief in Iraq. Plans call for it to take on more than 1,000 additional tasks that were previously handled by the military once all U.S. troops have left the country, expected by December 2011.

Contractors And Costs

The Obama administration has pledged to reduce the role of contractors following widespread allegations of mismanagement in recent years.

Knights, who is also an Iraq analyst for Olive Group, a private security firm with staff in Iraq, says the State Department has no choice but to rely on civilian contractors.

"It's really the only way, unless you're going to rely on Iraqi security forces," Knights says. "The U.S. military is rapidly drawing down its capabilities and certainly will not be able to protect State Department teams as they drive around Iraq doing these vital missions. So you have two choices: Either you use Iraqi security forces or you use private security contractors. And there are very many reasons why you can only really rely on the private security contractors."

Paying for the massive security apparatus is another challenge.

The State Department is facing spiraling costs to fund its operations in Iraq at a time when the government is looking to tighten its purse strings. Congress recently gave the department $600 million less than it had requested for additional spending this year.

The department also needs significant funds for the planned transformation of 16 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) into five "enduring presence posts."

In a request sent to the Pentagon last April, the department said it needed helicopters, armored vehicles, and other military gear worth millions of dollars at "no cost."

State Department officials have argued that if they don't get the equipment gratis, private security companies would have to spend "enormously" to equip themselves, which would add to U.S. contracting costs.

The request is pending but analysts say the State Department will get what it wants, even if funds need to be reassigned from elsewhere to cover the expenses.

Though unprecedented and untested, the State Department's civilian security experiment in Iraq is likely being seen in Washington in the context of Afghanistan.

"Certainly, the employment of the State Department and NGOs in Afghanistan has drawn a lot from the way we employ them in Iraq," says James Danly, a fellow at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, who served two tours in the U.S. Army in Iraq. "And I have no doubt that lessons learned from this security problem that the State Department is trying to tackle will similarly be applied later when Afghanistan is in a position for handover, the way Iraq is right now," he added.

For now, however, he says the State Department has its hands full with Iraq.

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