A hazy vision of the U.S. role ahead in Iraq

By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, September 25, 2010

IN BAGHDAD At a time when Washington policymakers would prefer to put the Iraq war behind them, the American mission in Baghdad is becoming more complicated as U.S. officials embark on one of the most complex power transfers in American history.

Many aspects of that handoff - to be completed in just 15 months, when all U.S. troops are due to leave Iraq - have not yet begun or been decided upon, military officials and diplomats in Baghdad acknowledge.

Since the launch of New Dawn, as the military mission was re-branded on Sept. 1, the United States has entered a gray zone that has left many Iraqis - and Americans - puzzled about the U.S. role.

With 50,000 American troops left in the country, combat is now officially over. But American F-16s are still dropping bombs, and troops engage as "advisers'' alongside Iraqi special forces on dangerous counterterrorism missions. On the civilian side, U.S. officials are looking to the Iraqi government to take the lead, but squabbling has left Iraq without a functioning parliament since a March election.

U.S. officials say it is difficult for them to get clear answers from their Iraqi counterparts, including how much money the Iraqi government has in its banks. That's a key question for Congress as it considers new funding requests for Iraq.

"We have got to work at ensuring that everybody understands what is happening here," acknowledged Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, chief spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. The shift from combat to "stability" operations "hasn't resonated with everybody back in the U.S. or even here in Iraq. . . . Advise, train, assist is not necessarily well understood."

The longer-term vision beyond New Dawn is even blurrier.

Some question whether transition planning is getting underway too late to be completed in time.

In House testimony on Thursday, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, raised concerns about the State Department's readiness to take over projects from the military.

The projects the State Department will "inherit from other agencies, as they leave, are many times greater than those it has traditionally managed," Bowen said, according to his prepared testimony. "It takes time to nurture an organizational culture that respects the need for planning and to develop a workforce with appropriate skills. State needs to promptly address this issue."

Those concerns are echoed by some in the military here.

"If you're starting now, you're already behind the curve," said one U.S. military officer involved in equipping Iraqi security forces. "And they're not even really starting now. I don't think they'll be ready for some time. They don't know which contractors they're going to use. It's a myriad of things they need to address. Even the time we have to end the mission won't really be enough time to do it correctly."

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