A final investment in the transition to a civilian-led U.S. presence in Iraq will produce enduring results and create a stabilizing force in the region, a senior defense official told legislators here yesterday.
“We are 10 yards from the goal line and need one final push,” Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
“The strategic dividends of our enormous sacrifice are within reach,” Kahl added, “as long as we take the proper steps to consolidate our hard-fought gain.”
Based on a 2008 agreement between the United States and Iraq, U.S. military forces have a Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawing from Iraq. American forces in Iraq now number fewer than 50,000 troops, down from more than 150,000 at their peak.
Today the mainly Defense Department-led military campaign is transitioning to a diplomacy-advisory-assistance effort led by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“DOD has an excellent working relationship with the State Department and we are working together at all levels to achieve a successful transition,” Kahl said.
More than 1,100 essential activities performed by DOD in Iraq have been identified, he said, that fall under 24 categories, including intelligence, telecommunications and reconciliation efforts.
Those activities are now being transferred to the Iraqis, the State Department and its offices, U.S. Central Command, U.S. civilian agencies or multilateral or private institutions, or phased out entirely.
DOD also is providing the State Department with excess equipment and technical support and is planning for post-2011 support.
“This is a good start,” Kahl said, “but in the coming year DOD will likely have to do even more to assist the State Department to ensure a successful transition — and we will.”
Kahl said the U.S. transition in Iraq also requires ensuring that Iraqi security forces are trained to certain essential capabilities, and creating a state-led police development program.
The massive and complex transition also includes expanding the U.S. diplomatic presence and establishing an Office of Security Cooperation, he added.
“Since January 1, 2009, the Iraqi security forces have been in the lead on security operations, a role that they have more capably embraced with each passing month,” Kahl said.
The United States provides vital support, including training, equipping, mentoring, advising and more, but Kahl said “the Iraqis are very much in charge and they simply no longer need such large numbers of U.S. forces to keep the violence in check.”
The Iraqi security forces have remained professional and independent of political pressure, Kahl said, despite eight months this year of “sometimes raucous government formation negotiations.”
Last week, he added, Iraqi leaders took a major step forward by forming a governing coalition that includes all the major Iraqi political blocs. They also agreed on a set of political reforms.
Violence will continue to challenge the political process in Iraq, Kahl said, “but as long as Iraqis stay committed to resolving their differences through the force of words rather than the force of arms, Iraq is unlikely to sink back into widespread violence.”
Continued U.S. support to the Iraqi security forces, including joint training exercises and military exchanges, will help ensure steady improvements in Iraqi capabilities even beyond 2011, he said.
Continued security assistance through the Office of Security Operation, now being established in Iraq, will help address concerns the United States shares with Iraq, Kahl said, including counterterrorism, counterproliferation, maritime security and air defense.
“As the U.S. draws down its military presence,” Kahl said, “the Iraqi government must feel that it has the foundational capabilities to defend against external threats both objectively and subjectively.”