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U.S. Diplomatic Security in Iraq After the Withdrawal

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By Scott Stewart

The completion of the U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq on Dec. 16 opens a new chapter in the relationship between the United States and Iraq. One of this chapter’s key features will be the efforts of the United States and its regional allies to limit Iranian influence inside Iraq during the post-Saddam, post-U.S. occupation era.

From the 1970s until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iranian power in the Persian Gulf was balanced by Iraq’s powerful military. With Iraqi military might weakened in 1991 and shattered in 2003, the responsibility for countering Iranian power fell to the U.S. military. With that military now gone from Iraq, the task of countering Iranian power falls to diplomatic, foreign-aid and intelligence functions conducted by a host of U.S. agencies stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra, Kirkuk and Arbil.

Following the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad became the largest embassy in the world. Ensuring the safety of as many as 11,000 people working out of the embassy and consulates in such a potentially hostile environment will pose a huge challenge to the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the agency with primary responsibility for keeping diplomatic facilities and personnel secure. The CIA’s Office of Security (OS) will also play a substantial, though less obvious, role in keeping CIA case officers safe as they conduct their duties.

Both the DSS and the OS are familiar with operating in hostile environments. They have done so for decades in places such as Beirut and, for the better part of a decade now, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. However, they have never before had to protect such a large number of people in such a hostile environment without direct U.S. military assistance. The sheer scope of the security programs in Iraq will bring about not only operational challenges but also budgetary battles that may prove as deadly to U.S. personnel in Iraq as the militant threat.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad sits on a 104-acre compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The size of the compound provides significant standoff distance from the perimeter to the interior buildings. The chancery itself, like the consulate buildings, was constructed in accordance with security specifications laid out by the U.S. State Department’s Standard Embassy Design program, standards first established by the Inman Commission in 1985 in the wake of the U.S. Embassy bombings in Beirut. This means that the building was constructed using a design intended to withstand a terrorist attack and to provide concentric rings of security. In addition to an advanced concrete structure and blast-resistant windows, such facilities also feature a substantial perimeter wall intended to protect the facility and to provide a standoff distance of at least 100 feet from any potential explosive device.

Standoff distance is a crucial factor in defending against large vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) because such devices can cause catastrophic damage to even well-designed structures if they are allowed to get close before detonation. When combined, a heavy perimeter wall, sufficient standoff distance and advanced structural design have proved successful in withstanding even large VBIED attacks.

Working inside the heavily fortified embassy and consulates in Iraq are some 16,000 personnel, 5,000 of whom are security contractors. The remaining 11,000 include diplomats, intelligence officers and analysts, defense attaches, military liaison personnel and aid and development personnel. There also are many contractors who perform support functions such as maintaining the facilities and vehicles and providing needed services such as cooking and cleaning.

When considering the 5,000 security contractors, it is important to remember that there are two different classes of contractors who work under separate contracts (there are contracts for perimeter guards and personal security details in Baghdad as well as for security personnel at the consulates in Basra, Erbil and Kirkuk). The vast majority of security contractors are third-country nationals who are responsible for providing perimeter security for the embassy and consulates. The second, smaller group of contract security guards (from 500 to 700, many of whom are Americans) is responsible for providing personal security to diplomats, aid workers and other embassy or consulate personnel when they leave the compound. A parallel team of OS contract security officers, funded under the CIA’s budget, provides security for CIA officers when they leave the compound.

In Iraq, a team of some 200 DSS special agents now oversees U.S. security operations (by contrast, a typical U.S. Embassy has two or three DSS special agents assigned to it). These agents are charged with implementing all the security programs at the embassy and consulates, from physical security and counterintelligence to cyber security, visa fraud and the investigation of crimes that occur on official premises. (With 16,000 full-time personnel assigned to these posts in Iraq, there are bound to be fights, thefts and sexual assaults.) DSS special agents also provide close oversight of the contract guard programs and directly supervise protective details during moves off the compound.

U.S. embassies are designed to incorporate concentric rings of security. The outermost ring is provided by host-country security forces that are charged, under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, with keeping foreign diplomats safe. Inside that ring is the local guard force, contract security guards who protect the outer perimeter of the facility. They also screen vehicles and pedestrians entering the compound.

The chancery itself is also designed to have concentric rings of security. Inside the outside walls of the building there is an additional ring of physical security measures called the “hardline,” which serves to protect the most sensitive areas of the embassy. The integrity of the hardline is protected by a security detachment of U.S. Marines, which in Baghdad is a company-sized element. Inside the hardline there is also an additional layer of physical security measures intended to provide a safe haven area, the final fallback defensive position for embassy personnel.

Threats and Challenges

Because of the size and construction of the chancery and the consulate buildings, there is very little chance of an armed assault or IED attack succeeding against these facilities. While an indirect-fire attack using mortars or artillery rockets could get lucky and kill an American diplomat outside of the building, the biggest threat posed to American personnel is probably when they travel away from the compound. The large number of people assigned to these posts means there are many movements of personnel to and from the facilities (we’re hearing approximately 20 to 30 per day from the embassy alone).

Baghdad’s Green Zone only has three exits, and there are multiple chokepoints such as bridges and security checkpoints throughout the city. These geographic constraints can be even more heavily exploited in planning an attack if a militant actor can also narrow the time factor by developing a source inside the embassy who can warn of an impending move. The time factor can also be narrowed if militants are allowed to operate freely by host-country security forces due to incompetence or collusion.

Of course, the most dire physical threat to a hardened diplomatic facility is mob violence. If a large mob storms an embassy and the host-country security forces either cannot or refuse to act to stop it, there is no facility in the world that can withstand a prolonged assault by a determined crowd equipped with even primitive hand tools. The high-security doors on the exterior of a U.S. embassy and at the interior hardline can withstand an assault with a sledgehammer for 30 or 40 minutes, but the doors will eventually be defeated. Crowds armed with incendiary devices or explosives pose an even greater threat. During the November 1979 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the mob that stormed the embassy compound lit a fire in the chancery that nearly burned the embassy staff alive as they hid in the building’s safe haven.

So the real key for security of American diplomatic facilities in Iraq, as in any country, is in the hands of the Iraqi government. Currently, there is a Brigade Combat Team from the U.S. Army’s 1st Cavalry Division on station in Kuwait, and a Marine Expeditionary Unit will likely be stationed in the region for the foreseeable future. However, if the security environment in Iraq degrades significantly, it might prove quite difficult to get those forces to a besieged diplomatic facility in time, even if the United States is able to maintain a secure area at the Baghdad International Airport it can use to fly troops into Baghdad and evacuees out. (Getting 16,000 personnel out of Baghdad is no small task, and the number needing to leave would likely be augmented by non-official Americans in country.)

While much ado is being made in the news over the use of contract security guards in Iraq, it must be remembered that the DSS has used contract security guards to provide local guard services on the perimeter of almost every U.S. embassy and consulate in the world for decades. Even small embassies have dozens of contract guards who provide 24/7 perimeter security. In many cases, contract guards provide residential security for diplomats and their families. The DSS also has decades of experience operating in countries where the governments and populace are hostile to their security programs. The anti-contractor sentiment in Iraq in the wake of the 2009 Blackwater shooting incident is not unique, and U.S. embassies operate in many places where anti-American sentiment is quite high.

The concept of a diplomatic facility where diplomats cannot go off embassy grounds unless they have a security escort is also not new. The U.S. Embassy in Beirut has operated that way since the 1980s. In Beirut, DSS agents supervise these security details, but the security personnel manning the details are contractors. However, while such measures have long been in effect in Lebanon, the size of the U.S. Embassy there is quite small. In Iraq, such measures have been applied to a far larger number of people. The sheer scale of this security effort means that the budget to pay for it will have to be immense. The State Department has estimated that it will cost some $3.8 billion to get the system running the first year, and it is then projected to cost roughly $3.5 billion per year. And that number represents just the operating costs; it does not include pre-deployment training for personnel assigned to the mission and other important measures.

Over the many years that the DSS has been overseeing guard contracts, the service has learned many lessons (some the hard way). One instructional incident was the September 2007 shooting of civilians in Nisoor Square in Baghdad by Blackwater contractors. Indeed, that incident spurred the DSS to mandate that a DSS agent be present to oversee every motorcade move. This is a big reason why there are now 200 DSS agents in Iraq. Since the DSS only has 2,000 agents to cover its global responsibilities, the mission in Iraq is placing a lot of strain on the organization.

The presence of these agents on motorcades will undoubtedly assist the DSS in monitoring the performance of its contractors, but experience has shown that wherever there are guard contracts there will inevitably be instances of guard company managers attempting to pad profits by claiming compensation for services they did not render or skimping on services. Such problems tend to be relatively small in the case of, say, a 72-man local guard force in Guatemala, although it is not unusual to see a company lose its guard contract due to irregularities or incompetence. When you are talking about billions of dollars worth of guard contracts in Iraq covering thousands of security personnel, however, the potential for contract issues and the size of those issues is magnified. Because of this, the DSS, the State Department Inspector General and the Government Accounting Office will undoubtedly pay very close attention to ensure that contracts are properly fulfilled. The DSS, like many other government agencies, has been heavily criticized for its contract oversight in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past several years and has instituted new controls. Today the service is far better at overseeing such massive contracts than it was at the beginning of its operations in Iraq.

With a total budget of only about $50 billion for the State Department and U.S. Agency of International Development, and with only $14 billion of that total going to fund operations worldwide, the billions earmarked for security in Iraq will certainly appear as a tempting pot of money for someone to raid — much like the funding provided to security programs in the 1980s following the recommendations of the Inman Commission.

As Stratfor has previously discussed, spending for diplomatic security often follows a discernible boom-and-bust cycle. During the boom, there is plenty of money to cover security expenses, but during the bust times, security programs often suffer death by a thousand cuts. Following the infusion of funding for diplomatic security programs in the 1980s, the 1990s saw a period of prolonged program cuts. Indeed, in the wake of the 1998 bombing attacks against the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, the Crowe Commission, tasked with investigating the matter, concluded in its final report that its members “were especially disturbed by the collective failure of the U.S. government over the past decade to provide adequate resources to reduce the vulnerability of U.S. diplomatic missions to terrorist attacks in most countries around the world.”

As the United States moves further from 9/11 with no significant attacks taking place, and as a mood of fiscal austerity takes hold in Washington, it is likely that budgets for foreign affairs and diplomatic security will be cut and a new security bust cycle will occur. In the long term, budget cuts and unsustainable DSS staffing levels will dictate that diplomatic security programs in Iraq will have to be reduced. Such reductions will also require cuts in the overall size of the diplomatic mission in Iraq unless there is a dramatic change in the security environment.

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