On December 31, 2011, the United States has committed to the government of Iraq that they will be removing their troops and contractor personnel. The US State Department will remain in a diplomatic role with limited Department of Defense (DoD) personnel and some State Department-hired private security personnel for protection.
Beyond the sticky diplomatic implications of this transfer, the DoD has a complicated task to wind down its giant footprint in Iraq. It will require a delicate and well-prepared withdrawal to get all the troops, contractors, equipment,and other assets out of the giant bases and turn the bases over to the Iraqi government while preventing attacks from insurgents and looting of US government assets.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) just released a detailed report saying, in their ever so polite way, that the DoD and the State Department don't have the information and tools to pull this off. The benign title of the report to Congress ("IRAQ DRAWDOWN: Opportunities Exist to Improve Equipment Visibility, Contractor Demobilization and Clarity of Post-2011 DoD Role") doesn't project the startling troubles they outline inside the report that threaten this withdrawal.
To anyone who has followed the logistics of this Iraq war, problems with getting out are no surprise because of the unprecedented use of contractors and the lack of oversight of these contractors. All in all, there promises to be a huge mess that could affect the lives of our troops and our future diplomatic abilities in Iraq. Some of the withdrawal has been taking place all this year, but an important share of the troops and contractors and the turnover of the biggest bases will be happening between now and the end of the year deadline. According to the GAO report, "In terms of military personnel and contractors, 46,000 and 61,000 continue to conduct operations or work under DoD contracts out of pre-drawdown levels of 134,100 and 125,163 respectively, as of June 2011."
Notice how there are many more contractor personnel than troops left and 52 percent of the contractor personnel are connected to the LOGCAP (Logistics Civilian Augmentation Program) contract, the infamous contract that has been executed by KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. That service contract, which has swelled to over $40 billion over the course of the war, has been cursed, investigated, exposed and threatened to no avail. KBR has led almost a charmed life with this contract and has suffered little consequences from the government for their overcharging and lack of supplying of safe services to the troops. People remember the endless scandals such as allowing unsuspecting troops to drink filthy water and the electrocution of troops due to shoddy wiring. Now, the military is going to have to rely on them to turn over all the lists of government equipment they were using; keep their employees there to continue feeding and other support tasks for the troops until the end of the year; and, in an organized manner, help the military exit Iraq.
I started following the LOGCAP contract and other contracts in this war from the very beginning. I was alerted by some whistleblowers early on that there were far more contractor personnel in this war than any other war and that the contractors were closer to the war action than contractors in past wars. This presented a very unique problem for the military on several levels. The commanders in the fields, who were forced to rely on their "life support" from these contractors, didn't have absolute authority over the workers like they did when the work was done by the troops in past wars. The contractors and their personnel were not under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) like the troops. This led to the contractors refusing to do work that they didn't want to do with little recourse for the commanders. Unlike the troops, who would face jail if they left their posts, the contractor personnel, as civilians, could quit anytime they wanted and go home, leaving the military shorthanded in critical areas.
After realizing that the logistics and hired-gun contractors were turning into a disaster in Iraq on a scale that had not been seen before, I spent several years investigating and co-authoring a book on it. The book, "Betraying Our Troops: the Destructive Results of Privatizing War," was published in 2007, and now I am watching the last chapter of this problem playing out as we withdraw our troops and contractors.
There was a mess going into this war, partly because all the traditional logistic plans were thrown out the window just weeks before the invasion by the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and partially because of an unrealistic troop cap imposed by him. In desperation, the logistics section of the Army dusted off a small contract with KBR to maintain bases around the world called LOGCAP, and exploded it to cover the invasion of Iraq because they did not have enough troops to do traditional logistics for the war. Many in the military bought into the idea that this would be a short war where we would be greeted as liberators, and there were only five to seven days of parts and logistics in place as the war started, compared to 30 days of supplies in the Gulf War.
KBR and other contractors were responsible in warehousing and organizing supplies in Kuwait before the war and to give the troops what they needed for the invasion. Many of my sources claimed that the contractors did not have the same urgency as the military to be ready for the war and to make sure the supplies were there for the troops. GAO confirmed this problem and the other logistical problems that happened even before the invasion. Their December 2003 report stated, "a discrepancy of $1.2 billion between the amount of materiel shipped to Army activities in the theater of operations and the amount of materiel that those activities acknowledged they received." That is GAO speak meaning that the military lost an astonishing $1.2 billion worth of war materiel between the continental United State or Europe and the staging areas of Kuwait.
The security on crucial war materiel was also a problem in Kuwait. "Physical security at ports and other distribution points in the theater was not always adequate to protect assets from being lost or taken by unauthorized personnel. For example, Army officials noted cases where vehicles and expensive communications and computer equipment had been lost from various distribution points in Kuwait." This meant that vital communications and computer equipment, with their sensitive information and codes, just disappeared. My sources told me that this type of equipment was left unguarded outside on pallets in Kuwait and was raided nightly. The GAO report goes on to say that this affected the invasion with a lack of crucial supplies and replacement parts. I recorded major problems for troops as they invaded and did not have enough supplies since the contractors did not get into the country fast enough because of the sustained fighting.
Now this new GAO report lists forbidding problems in getting out:
"DoD will have fewer available resources. DoD's infrastructure in Iraq that supports its equipment retrograde [removal] and base transition efforts, such as materiel handling equipment and military personnel, will simultaneously decrease as USF-I exits Iraq. Base-level personnel with whom we met expressed serious concerns with the sufficiency of military, civilian and contractor personnel to set the conditions for transitioning the base according to the schedules required by USF-I's plan. For example, officials were concerned that as living standards decrease on bases in Iraq and new job opportunities open elsewhere, contractors will be unable to remain fully staffed and thus less likely to complete their work and demobilize by the required date. In addition, DoD officials cite the collapsing support infrastructure in Iraq as a challenge for the current phase, noting concerns regarding the availability of key transportation resources, such as aviation assets, flatbed trucks and heavy equipment transporters."
Note that the military is having the same problem on relying on the contractors not to leave as they did during the course of the war. The special problem here is that it will be very hard to replace these people as the military draws down and the "life support" (why does it sound like they are on the moon?) could quickly collapse and create dangerous chaos.
"... CMGO [Contractor Managed, Government Owned] equipment can still only be tracked in real time by government personnel, such as those responsible for executing the drawdown, after the equipment has been 'delivered' to the government, which often may not occur until contract performance ends. Therefore, real-time visibility over this category of equipment during the drawdown remains an issue. For example, USF-I estimated that its confidence in its total equipment visibility was only 80 percent as of June 2011, primarily due to shortfalls in its visibility over CMGO equipment, according to DoD officials. According to Army data, such equipment comprises over a third of the Army equipment remaining in Iraq....
"According to a senior DoD official, officials in Iraq recently discovered that one contractor had been using 200 CMGO trucks it had obtained from another contractor, yet had never transferred these vehicles to its own property record. Because these trucks were not on the contractor's list of equipment, they had not been included in prior inventories. As a result, these trucks were not factored into DoD's drawdown plans until they were properly added to the contractor's equipment tracking system and checked by USF-I....
"Without developing a means to achieve and maintain real-time visibility over critical CMGO property that retains the important checks and balances inherent to DoD's current accountability processes, DoD will continue to face challenges ensuring the efficient retrograde and transfer of such property as it completes the drawdown in Iraq and begins the drawdown in Afghanistan."
What GAO is trying to say is that a third of the Army equipment is at risk to be lost, looted or sold on the black market because of bad databases on the part of contractors and the military. The Army has already shown that they can lose over a billion dollars of equipment just sending it to Kuwait. Their problem of tracking this equipment on the way out could be many more billions of dollars and loss of military assets that are needed in Afghanistan.
"DoD has taken action to improve its management of contracts in Iraq, such as enhancing contract oversight through command emphasis and assigning COR [Contracting Officer's Representative] responsibilities as a primary duty in certain instances. However, other concerns, such as lack of experience among contract oversight personnel, remain. As the drawdown progresses, DoD may face further challenges in ensuring that major contracts transition without gaps in key services and in effectively implementing its guidance for descoping [reduction in services commensurate with declining needs] contracts and demobilizing contractor personnel and infrastructure. Specific challenges for DoD include providing certain information, such as base closure dates, to contractors, obtaining information from contractors such as accurate personnel headcounts and ensuring sufficient resources to facilitate full contractor demobilization."
During the years I was researching my book until 2007, Congress grew increasingly frustrated with the DoD because they could not provide a list of how many contracts they had let in Iraq, how many contractors they had and how many contractor personnel. The DoD started coming up with sketchy lists and many assumed that the DoD had finally gotten their act together. One of the problems at that time was a lack of DoD oversight personnel on these contracts and the inexperience of the oversight personnel that was stationed in Iraq or Kuwait. The paragraph above shows that, as they are trying to wind down in Iraq, they are having similar problems. One would think that the DoD has finally figured out who their contractors are in Iraq as they are leaving, but the GAO has come out with another report, also just last week, called "IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN: DoD, State and USAID Cannot Fully Account for Contracts, Assistance Instruments and Associated Personnel." The report concludes:
In 2008, DoD, State and USAID designated SPOT [a computer program] as their system of record for tracking statutorily required information on contracts and contractor personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, a designation they reaffirmed in 2010 when the requirement was expanded to include assistance instruments and personnel. Yet the agencies still do not have reliable sources and methods to report on contracts, assistance instruments and associated personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I fear that it will be very hard to "descope" (Isn't that a proctology word?) these contracts when, amazingly, DoD still doesn't know how many contracts, contractors and contractor personnel they have. This will just add to the potential chaos at a delicate time and certainly puts federal dollars even more at risk. This lack of information is just begging for some substantial contractor thieving to go on while we extract ourselves from this war.
Using subcontractor personnel from foreign countries was always a big security risk in Iraq because of the active insurgency just waiting to slip past any physical security to kill troops. Although the report does not address security directly, these scenarios place troops at risk while they are transitioned out of Iraq:
... Providing information to contractors. Guidance in a USF-I fragmentary order requires senior tactical commanders at each base to notify all contractors with the base closure or transition date no later than 180 days prior to the base closure or transition so the contractors can start preparing their personnel and equipment for redeployment. However, LOGCAP program officials were unable to provide base transition dates to subcontractors because base closure dates and other information relevant to demobilization are classified, which limited the contractors' ability to plan their demobilization tasks such as replacing third country national personnel with local national personnel to ensure continuity of service while downsizing their infrastructure. [Emphasis added.]
... As a further example of the challenge of accounting for contractor personnel, when closing Forward Operating Base Sykes, a medium-sized base in Iraq, CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command said that it found 392 third country nationals when they were only expecting to find 381. According to CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command, this was due to a database not being updated by vendors when they reassigned their workers to other locations during the course of employment. CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command said that this issue was being addressed with a new demobilization clause that was being inserted in contracts with its vendors. CENTCOM-Joint Theater Support Contracting Command also stated that it was conducting face-to-face interviews with all of its contractors to help them understand what is expected with respect to accounting for contractor personnel. [Emphasis added]
...Units are taking further steps to ensure the continuity of key services while continuing to descope contracts. For example, as bases begin descoping contracts and demobilizing contractor personnel in preparation for base transition, some units are exploring the option of using local contractors to provide certain services. According to senior military officials, since local contractors do not require extensive base life support, such as housing and will not have to be repatriated to their country of origin at the end of the contract, they can be employed to provide certain services that would otherwise have to be discontinued. However, we have previously reported on challenges hiring local national contractors, including the need for greater oversight due to Iraqi firms' relative lack of experience, limited capacity and capability, unfamiliarity with U.S. quality standards and expectations and lack of quality control processes that U.S. firms have in place. Some units also intend to replace contractor personnel with servicemembers to ensure continuity of certain services, such as guard security, airfield vegetation removal and generator maintenance and are conducting "troop-to-task" analysis to determine which servicemembers will perform these tasks and how many will be needed. For example, the mayor cell at Joint Base Balad has developed plans to reduce contractor personnel for the base's incinerator operations and eventually replace them with servicemembers. Officials from one mayor cell noted that these additional tasks may further tax unit personnel who are in short supply and busy meeting other priorities. [Emphasis added.]
It is also the height of total irony that some of the units have decided that the most practical and safe thing to do as they transition out is to use troops to do the tasks because they can be trusted. These are the same tasks that, before this war, the troops use to do because they were under the same command, could be trusted to do the work for their fellow troops and were not a security risk.
This is supposed to be a solutions column, but since 2004, I have written a book on the problems of using contractors this extensively in war, have penned many columns, have promoted a commission to look at these problems, have worked on whistleblower lawsuits to expose and recoup money from these contractors, have pressed members of Congress to do more investigating on this, encouraged reporters to keep reporting on the fraud and waste and risks to our troops, and the contractor problem has remained, now to the bitter end. Many other people have committed time and efforts to reform and change the dominance, waste and fraud of this War Service Industry before it got too entrenched, to no avail.
This GAO report also warns of problems with the arrangements with Iraq after December 31. The State Department will be taking over our presence in Iraq with a weird hydra of State, DoD and KBR personnel that promises to be as complicated as anything else we have seen, albeit at a smaller level.
At this point, I think that the only solution now is to be alert, carefully watch this transition and ring the alarm bells if and when it starts to fall apart and especially if this "descoping" out of Iraq threatens the safety of our troops. They have been through enough. This is a very weak solution, but the staying power of the War Service Industry is very strong with powerful friends in Congress and the DoD and a lucrative revolving door for whoever helps them.