By Elaine Sanchez
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 2, 2011 – The recent Middle East turmoil underscores the importance of an active U.S. engagement in Iraq and a “shoring up” of relations with key regional partners, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East said yesterday.
“[The Defense Department] strongly believes we must remain focused on Iraq in order to advance our broader regional objectives of peace, prosperity and security,” Colin Kahl told the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East and South Asia subcommittee.
In his opening remarks, Kahl provided an assessment of the security situation in Iraq as the United States transitions from a military- to civilian-led effort there, and the importance of establishing the groundwork for a long-term partnership with the nation.
While terrorist and militia attacks continue to pose a threat, Kahl acknowledged, the underlying security situation in Iraq remains strong. With Iraqi security forces leading the way, attack levels have remained near their lowest levels of the entire war over the past two years.
“This is particularly remarkable, considering that the Iraqi security forces have assumed primary responsibility for security for the entire country,” he said, “and our U.S. force numbers have declined from roughly 144,000 -- when the Obama administration came into office in January of 2009 -- to roughly 47,000 today.”
Since they took the security lead Jan. 1, 2009, Iraqi security forces have “more capably embraced” their role with each passing month, Kahl noted, a role further cemented Sept. 1, 2010, as Operation Iraqi Freedom became Operation New Dawn, reducing troop numbers and signifying the end of the combat mission there.
The combat mission’s end did not, however, signify the end of U.S. support. The United States continues to support Iraqi forces through training, equipping, mentoring and advising, Kahl said.
However, “we need to be clear that the Iraqis are very much in charge, and they simply no longer need such large numbers of U.S. forces to help them keep the violence in check,” Kahl said.
Kahl acknowledged an ongoing threat from terrorist and militia groups, citing two deadly attacks in May. A series of car bombs mid-month targeting Iraqi policemen killed more than two dozen people, and another series of attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq later that month left 14 dead and dozens wounded.
“Iraq still faces dangerous and determined enemies,” he said, “but it is important to emphasize that these enemies do not have the support of the Iraqi people, and these attacks have not sparked a return to widespread insurgency or communal civil war.”
Beyond efforts to build Iraqi security forces and draw down forces there, the Defense Department and other agencies also are undertaking “unprecedented levels of coordination and planning” for the transition, he said. In particular, DOD is working closely with the State Department to achieve a successful transition, he added, citing several examples.
The Defense Department embedded a staff officer within the transition team to serve as a liaison and work day-to-day issues with the State Department, Kahl said. Also, he added, the Defense and State departments have established a steering group to review status and progress in areas such as supply chain, equipment, contracting, medical, facilities and construction, information technology, security and aviation.
To quickly respond to equipment requests, a combined equipping board was established in January to feed recommendations for equipment sourcing to senior leaders.
Finally, the Defense and State departments established a team in each of the remaining locations in Iraq to assess and address issues that may arise after these sites transition, Kahl said.
“As one would expect with a transition of this scope and complexity, challenges exist,” he said, “but rest assured that DOD is doing everything it can to help the State Department achieve success.”
Challenges aside, the nation’s ongoing engagement in Iraq remains vital, Kahl noted.
“We are now at the point where the strategic dividends of our tremendous sacrifices and huge investments in Iraq are within reach, as long as we take the proper steps to consolidate them,” he said. “A long-term strategic partnership with Iraq based on mutual interests and mutual respect continues to present many advantages.”