The tweet from the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General Thursday afternoon was blunt.
“We recommend @CENTCOM issue an updated Iraq Country Plan.”
As the MacDill-headquartered command in charge of U.S. military operations in most of the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Centcom is responsible, in conjunction with the State Department, for putting together a plan for how the U.S. military will interact with its Iraqi counterparts.
The tweet included a link to a report the inspector general’s office released Thursday that found disagreements between the Department of Defense and the Department of State are hindering Centcom’s ability to provide support to train and advise the Iraqi army how to defend itself against foreign threats and help fight extremist groups like al-Qaida in Iraq.
The report also has reverberations beyond Iraq.
At the end of next year, U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan are scheduled to end, and the U.S. will begin the transition away from a wartime footing there. Lessons learned in Iraq should come into play in Afghanistan as well, according to the report.
The 106-page report laid out what inspectors found when they investigated how the State and Defense departments were working together through the Office of Security Cooperation - Iraq.
Because the U.S. and Iraq failed to come to an agreement on providing certain “privileges and immunities” to U.S. troops, the Pentagon drastically reduced the number of post-war troops on the ground after the Iraq war ended in 2011, impeding efforts to train the Iraqi military. As a result, Congress authorized the creation of the Office of Security Cooperation - Iraq.
Under the plan, Centcom provides administrative support through resources and personnel, but the office ultimately reports to the Chief of Mission at the U.S. embassy in Iraq.
But differences between what Centcom and the State Department wanted out of the office led to problems, according to the inspector general’s report.
Exacerbating the problem was a lack of clear direction from Centcom, and the State Department drastically reducing the number of its personnel in Iraq and making cuts in the security cooperation office without considering the military training implications, according to the report.
The report found that, among other issues, the Office of Security Cooperation - Iraq did not have sufficiently trained personnel, and the post-war transition of responsibilities in Iraq from the Defense Department to the State Department was lacking.
The inspector general’s office recommended, among other things, that Centcom’s commander - now Army Gen. Lloyd Austin III - issue an updated Iraq plan.
In their responses to the report, both Centcom and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed a new plan needs to be developed in conjunction with the State Department. Centcom also said is has worked out a staffing plan with the State Department for the Office of Security Cooperation - Iraq and that it will increase training and provide stronger direction.
Centcom has also issued an updated Theater Campaign Plan, with revised security cooperation details for Iraq, as well as an updated Iraq Country Security Cooperation plan.
As for Afghanistan, Centcom and the Joint Chiefs of Staff each agreed that there needs to be a doctrine for transition from the Defense Department to the State Department after combat operations are over in Afghanistan.
Centcom spokesman Belcher said it was too early to comment on the report’s accuracy or context. The State Department declined comment on the report.
The “big takeaway” from the inspector general’s report is that, “from a broad policy perspective, the United States interagency doesn’t have a common understanding of how to conduct the transition from a large-scale military operation like in Iraq to a normal civilian-led state-to-state relationship,” said Rick Brennan, senior political analyst at the RAND Corp. who has high-level policy making experience with the Pentagon.
The most dangerous finding of the report is how the U.S. desire to create a long-term relationship with Iraq, through Centcom to the Iraqi military, might be set back by changes that would further limit Pentagon-led security cooperation activities, Brennan said. Brennan is a former military officer who spent five years in Iraq as senior advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq and is about to publish “Ending the U.S. War in Iraq,” a book based about the transition in Iraq.
“That relationship between the U.S. and Iraqi military has grown over eight years and eight months on the ground,” said Brennan, “and the military wants to maintain that relationship, for the same reasons it maintains relationships with every other military in the region - the long-term security interests of the United States.”