The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad is planning to double its ranks as it takes over a host of missions for the military there, according to America's No. 2 diplomat in Iraq.
"If Congress gives us the money we are asking for, this embassy is going to be twice the size it is now. It's not going down, it's getting bigger," said Robert Ford, the deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, in an exclusive interview with The Cable.
As the military continues to drawdown in Iraq, the U.S. Embassy there is taking over many of the "critical missions" that the military has been heavily involved in for years, and fundamental changes in the American role in Iraq are coming. Moreover, the State Department has a very different approach to various issues than many in the military who have served there -- leading to some concerns about the handoff among senior military leaders.
One of the chief missions being handed over is the training of the Iraqi police. The Obama administration has prepared a budget request for that program that would vastly increase the number of people working on police training. That request, if granted, could increase the overall U.S. diplomatic presence in Baghdad from around 1,400 to more than 3,000 total personnel, including contractors, said Ford.
"My biggest problem here is figuring out where are these people going to live, how are we going to get the security for them, how are we going to get food for them, and how are we going to get their mail delivered," he said.
The Baghdad embassy is already the largest in the world and bursting at the seams with people and equipment.
Regarding State's takeover of the Iraqi police training mission, the embassy has worked out the details with the military but the result will look much different from the current mission."It is different qualitatively from what the military has been doing," said Ford.
The new police training will focus more on "middle management," to include human resources, operational planning, and building institutional capacity, "rather than showing a new recruit how to wear a uniform and how to shoot a gun," Ford added.
Another major change coming will be the reduction and eventually transformation of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq, the expeditionary units that provide various types of assistance in each and every Iraqi province. Currently there are about 600 civilian and 400 military personnel in PRTs, but when the military guys leave, the PRTs will cease to exist in their current form.
The U.S. will reduce the number of PRTs in Iraq from 22 to 16 by August, according to Ford. After August, the PRTs will shift their focus to more consular and diplomatic duties, he said.
"We understand that there is a utility in keeping a robust diplomatic engagement," he said. "If we get the budget, we will have diplomatic presences in strategically vital provinces. They will have some of the same functions, but we're not going to call them PRTs."
"They Are Not Actually Doing the Research"
Some senior military commanders in Iraq and experts back in Washington are concerned that the changes planned by the embassy risk sacrificing U.S. leverage and influence in Iraqi issues. They also allege that State hasn't done the analytical spadework to properly understand the implications of the changes they are proposing.
"I think there is a self-limiting quality to how U.S. Embassy Baghdad is functioning," said Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the recently returned commander of all multinational forces in Iraq's northern region, in an interview with The Cable. "They are not actually doing the research to say this is what we need and if you don't give me this, this is what we are going to have to take away and here is the effect it will have on the effort."
"Rather they are going through things and saying this is what we think the piece of the pie is we're are going to get and here is some stuff we could do for that money. That's all fine and good, but if you don't actually accomplish the mission in the end, then you actually fail. What good is that?"
For example, Caslen said the PRTs role in actually helping Iraqis in rural areas with reconstruction is vital and abandoning it in any way would be a mistake.
"The task that [the Iraqis] value more than anything is reconstruction and that clearly is a PRT task," Caslen said. Regarding plans to alter the PRTs away from the reconstruction mission, he said, "That course of action puts our future relationship at risk ... We definitely need the PRTs."
Ford rejected the notion that the embassy hasn't done the research and planning needed to understand the implications of the moves. The embassy has worked out a detailed joint campaign plan with Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top military commander in Iraq, for the way forward, he said.
An Iraq expert in Washington who travels frequently to the region said that the different approaches to Iraq between the embassy and some in the military reflect their different institutional cultures.
"State as an organization historically has been about interactions between normal states and about traditional diplomacy. Historically, it's not an expeditionary agency; it's not in their DNA," said the Iraq expert. "So there's always been this tendency in Iraq to try to make the relationship more normal in a way that fits into State's traditional way of doing business."
Ford's view is that it's simply time for the United States to start taking its hand off the bicycle seat and let the Iraqis learn to fend for themselves.
"The Iraqi government, little by little, is growing more capable itself," said Ford. "Therefore, the things that we need to do must adjust. The Iraqis can and should do more for themselves, and frankly, they want to."