Progress in Iraq called 'precarious as it is positive'

Pointed questions and all-too-familiar concerns marked a House subcommittee hearing on the United States' scheduled military withdrawal from Iraq. Eight years into the conflict, the core dilemmas that have plagued American policymakers appear unchanged at the Wednesday hearing.

"Our progress in Iraq is as precarious as it is positive," said House Foreign Affairs Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee Chairman Steve Chabot, R-Ohio. "I'm concerned" that the timetable for military withdrawal "is neither well-timed nor well-reasoned."

The United States committed to a complete military withdrawal from Iraq by January 1st, 2012, in a 2008 accord with the Iraqi government. Under the terms of the Strategic Framework Agreement, the United States will only be able to maintain a military presence in Iraq if the Iraqi government explicitly asks for military assistance. It seems likely that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will ask for the extension, despite opposition from other Iraqi political groups. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also said the extension should be made.

Testifying experts stressed that the United States is expected to continue to influence Iraq by civilian means. The State Department is scheduled to take the lead role in supporting Iraq's security, political, and economic development in October 2011, and the U.S. Agency for International Development will continue its capacity-building efforts.

"We're not done," said Patricia Haslach, Iraq Transition Coordinator at the State Department. "We have no intention of leaving Iraq."

Both Haslach and the Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East Colin Kahl contended that Iraqi security forces could provide Iraq with adequate internal security after U.S. troops leave. "The Iraqis simply no longer need such a large number of [American] security forces to keep violence in check," Kahl said, pointing to the currently low levels of sectarian and ethnic violence.

However, Kahl admitted that Iraq's internal security infrastructure still had "gaps" that U.S. expertise would need to fill, particularly in intelligence and logistics. The State Department's Police Development Program and the Office of Security Cooperation in Iraq were among the ways to "basically extend U.S. military aid," Kahl said. He noted that Iraq's external defense programs had even "bigger gaps." How or if those gaps would be addressed was unclear.

Subcommittee ranking Member Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., had a different concern. "Most Americans and members of Congress think that we're basically done in Iraq," he said. "Is someone in the administration in charge of selling this [transition] to the American people?"

Haslach had contended that a "sovereign, stable, and self-reliant Iraq" would become a "political and economic leader" in the Middle East, a "beacon of democracy," and "an anchor of U.S. support" in a troubled region. She added that a successful transition from military dominance to a "long-term partnership" between the Iraqi Government and the State Department had the potential to reshape U.S. foreign policy, tipping the scales in favor of diplomacy over force.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., repeatedly drew attention to the money spent in Iraq, hammering the witnesses with questions.

And alluding to the U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan and Libya, and attempts to bolster the democratic reforms of the Arab Spring, Ackerman asked, "Is there any war in this region we can ever afford to finally leave?"

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