Iraq’s Lessons for Transition in Afghanistan - Originally Published November 15, 2010

In his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama set July 2011 as the beginning of a process of transition in Afghanistan, where geographic or functional responsibilities are to be handed over from the international coalition to the host nation. As policymakers in NATO capitals and practitioners in Afghanistan think about transition, they can take a lesson from the Iraq experience. The United States actually experienced two types of transitions in Iraq. The first occurred from 2004 to 2006, where responsibilities for security and governance were handed over to the Iraqis even as the security situation continued to deteriorate and even if their capacities were insufficiently developed. This approach was widely deemed a failure. The second approach began in 2007 and continues today. Six factors govern the more successful second approach. While they may be applied differently in Afghanistan, they will certainly be important considerations in the months ahead.

1. Successful transition is a gradual process, not a rapid handover.

The early experience with transition in Iraq demonstrated that the proper handover of responsibility for both security and governance took time. Iraqis learned new skills and expanded their capabilities, and the Coalition got better at setting the right conditions for transition. Partnerships, military and governmental, were an integral part of the process. These partnerships took place simultaneously throughout the country, in multiple functions and at multiple levels. In Iraq, Coalition forces partnered with their Iraqi counterparts at all echelons of command—from the platoon level, to the Division, to the Ministries of Defense and Interior. On the civilian side, Iraqis worked with Provincial Reconstruction Teams as well as with international counterparts in various ministries. Slowly, this coordinated effort not only improved security but also governance, reconstruction, and service delivery efforts from the provincial to the national level. In the beginning of the transition, much of the responsibility fell on coalition forces. Over time, responsibility was shifted to the Iraqis, first under the supervision and guidance of U.S. and coalition forces and their civilian counterparts, and later, with increasingly less oversight until the Iraqis had developed the sufficient capability.