This piece first appeared as a op-ed in The National on August 30, 2010

The last American combat troops rolled across the Kuwaiti border from Iraq on August 19, nearly two weeks ahead of schedule. The Obama administration has spoken of this milestone as a promise fulfilled and the first major step toward bringing a “responsible” end to the war in Iraq, setting the stage for the final withdrawal of American troops at the end of next year.

But the departure was a tribute more to US military efficiency in mounting a huge logistical operation – said to be the largest movement of materiel since the Second World War – than it was to President Barack Obama’s Iraq policy.

The United States leaves behind a country in flux, without a formal government, experiencing worrisome levels of violence and ethnic tensions, and the ever-present possibility of a return to civil war. And amid all this the future of the US-Iraq relationship remains ambiguous. This is true not only of bilateral political relations but security relations as well. The White House insists the schedule for a permanent US departure in 2011 will remain intact, even though the secretary of defence Robert Gates recently stated the US is open to staying on after that if the Iraqis request it.

The Obama administration now plans to shift from a military-led presence to one directed by civilians. The mission will be turned over to the US department of state, which will assume the burden of police training as well as a broad number of other programmes the military will leave behind.

But a successful transition faces serious obstacles, which can have a heavy impact as the US readies to pull out next year. Failure would deal a major blow to the United States’ ability to contribute to Iraq’s security and political stability. It could even force the United States to return to a combat mission in Iraq, a possibility that the US vice president Joe Biden referred to in remarks earlier this month.

The civilian mission is to be run out of the US embassy in Baghdad, now the largest American embassy in the world and growing, as well as two proposed new consulates, one in Irbil and the other in Basra. Embassy branch offices will also open in Mosul and Kirkuk. To protect its operations and move personnel around the country, the state department will attempt to run an unprecedented military mission of its own, comprising thousands of armoured cars, mine-resistant vehicles, a small fleet of aircraft, and some 6,000 to 7,000 private security contractors.

The state department – whose expertise lies in the performance of diplomatic affairs in the context of “normal” state-to state relationships – has no experience in running a major operation of this size without military support, and its planning, training and financial projections for such a mission have come under criticism in Washington.

In addition, even as the civilian presence expands in numbers, its geographical presence in the provinces will shrink. The new consulates and offices are not likely to be operational until the autumn of 2011, a few months before the full US departure, and the 16 remaining US provincial reconstruction teams will close around the country over the course of the year. Whether the US can maintain the same level of engagement with the Iraqi provinces as it did in the past is an open question.

Moreover, a sceptical Congress will take a very close look at the billions of dollars required to support such a mission. The Senate has already slashed by half the military’s request for $2 billion (Dh7.35 billion) to conduct training of Iraq’s military next year, and in July Congress cut the state department’s request for Iraq operations by more than half a billion dollars, forcing the state department to drop plans for an office in Baquba and casting doubt on the establishment of the two new consulates.

A bad economy and congressional “Iraq fatigue” could cause additional cuts in the future. It seems that both the commitment and the capability to move the Iraq mission forward is in jeopardy.

Mr Obama plans to deliver a major address today to mark this month’s events. Up to now he has been commendably forthright about the US responsibility to remain engaged in Iraq, and to warn of possible further US sacrifices there. But he needs to use the occasion to speak more clearly about where we have been in Iraq and where we are going.

Obama’s August 2 speech on the Iraq withdrawal – delivered on the 20th anniversary of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait – failed to note both that important milestone and the vast changes in the US-Iraqi relationship since then.

When he addresses the nation on August 31, the president would do well to note the complicated history between the two countries, and to provide more detail about plans for building a strong, multifaceted relationship in the future. Mr Obama can take pride in the orderly withdrawal of US troops, but it would be gracious to acknowledge that the American surge under Mr Bush, as well as the security agreements his team negotiated with Iraq, made this withdrawal possible.

Finally, Mr Obama might remind both Congress and the public that helping Iraq consolidate success remains important to US national interests, even as the American commitment changes, and still requires the backing and resources of the United States. That will be a welcome message to those struggling to build a new government in Baghdad, and to America’s regional allies as well.

Assertions and opinions in this editorial are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.