Khalid Mohammed / AP, file
An Iraqi Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team walks with their U.S.-made explosives ordinance disposal robots during a parade in Baghdad, Iraq on Nov. 22.
BAGHDAD - After billions of dollars and nearly nine years of training, American troops are leaving behind an Iraqi security force arguably capable of providing internal security but unprepared to defend the nation against foreign threats at a time of rising tensions throughout the Middle East.
Building up an Iraqi military and police able to protect the country became a key goal of the United States and its allies after they defeated and then disbanded the Saddam Hussein-era force in 2003. As America's role in Iraq fades, the results appear at best incomplete.
Iraqi forces — currently about 700,000 strong — have been largely responsible for security in Baghdad and other cities since 2009, carrying out their own raids and other combat operations against insurgents.
More than 10,000 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed since the new force was established — more than double the number of American military deaths. Few if any military forces in the Arab world have as much combat experience within the ranks.
"They can kick a door in and knock out a network's leadership as good as anybody I've seen," said U.S. Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, commander of the NATO training mission, which will soon be disbanded. "I would say that they have the discipline and the tenacity to fight as well as anybody I've ever seen."
Rock Center Special Correspondent Ted Koppel first traveled to Iraq nearly nine years ago as the 3rd Infantry Division crossed from Kuwait into Iraq. As the U.S. military prepares to finish withdrawing from the country by the end of December, Koppel reflects on his latest visit to the country.
Nevertheless, Iraqi forces have their work cut out for them. They will be operating in a country which, although quieter than a few years ago, saw more people killed, wounded and kidnapped last year than in Afghanistan, according to U.S. figures.
The departure of American forces this month also leaves Iraq vulnerable to threats from its neighbors — Iran to the east, Turkey to the north and Syria to the west. A major Arab country of about 30 million people with some of the world's largest proven petroleum reserves is incapable of defending its borders in one of the most unstable parts of the world.
The Iraqi military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Babaker Zebari, has said it would take until at least 2020 for Iraq to defend its airspace. Without a well-trained and equipped air force, Iraqi ground forces would be hard-pressed to defend against incursions across borders with few natural barriers and little cover from vegetation.
In Iraq's oil rich southern region, the United States is building a massive consulate in Basra. The consulate is situated just miles from Iraq's border with Iran. One security officer says it's like building a consulate on Omaha Beach. Some of the 1,320 people who work there call it "Fort Apache." If Iranian backed militias were to launch a full scale attack on this consulate, would the U.S. military ride to the rescue? Ted Koppel reports.
"An army without an air force is exposed," Zebari was quoted as saying in a report last October by the U.S. agency responsible for overseeing Iraqi reconstruction.
Even though a full-scale ground invasion from its neighbors may seem remote, the possibility of incursions from Turkey against Kurdish rebels, or Iranians along disputed border stretches or even from a Syria facing an internal revolt cannot be ruled out, especially at a time when the Arab Spring and the looming showdown between the West and Iran are raising tensions throughout the region.
Read more content from msnbc.com and NBC News: