In September, I wrote a column about how the Government Accountability Office and I were concerned about how the military was going to get out of Iraq at the end of the year without the same massive waste as when we went in, and how the contractors left behind were going to be managed.
I also talked about the new faction of military contracting, which I call the war service industry, and how it is going to handle the shrinking of this war, because they won't have a hot war or occupation in Iraq to keep the billions of dollars flowing to their "life support" of the troops. I think that the Department of Defense (DoD) doesn't really believe that we will pull out all the troops by December 31, 2011, and that the Iraqis will give our troops immunity so that some of them can stay.
That all changed when President Obama announced last Friday that the US will honor the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that was negotiated by the Bush administration and the Iraqi government to remove all US troops by year's end. This has caused a lot of scrambling by the DoD and the State Department on how to make this work while still maintaining the largest and most expensive embassy in the world in Iraq, and continue to train the Iraqi troops.
Once again, the war service industry, which is already deeply entrenched in our nine-year occupation of Iraq, will step in and make sure that their money flow will be maintained, albeit at a smaller level. The tricky part is the immunity problem, which the State Department has found a way to solve - they will take over the war contractor contracts, which will put most of the contractors under diplomatic immunity and that can prevent contractors from being arrested by the Iraqi government and thrown into jail.
There is a range of predictions of how many contractors will be left behind under the mantle of the State Department. ABC News lists the number of contractors left behind and how many government civilian employees will be used:
Roughly 1,700 people will be working under the American mission in Iraq at the various diplomatic posts. About 300 are Iraqi citizens (translators, etc) and a small number of third country nationals, so about 1,400 are Americans.
Those Americans come from various departments and agencies, including the State Department, USAID, Agriculture Department, Treasury Department, Commerce Department and Department of Homeland Security (not to mention the intelligence agencies).
Officials stress that the size of this civilian footprint is on the same level of other major American missions like in India, China, Mexico and Egypt. The biggest difference is the number of contractors employed, especially on the security side.
CONTRACTORS, CONTRACTORS, CONTRACTORS
The State Department is expected to have about 5,000 security contractors in Iraq as of January 2012 (they already have about 3,000 in country).
Additionally they will have 4,500 so-called "general life support" contractors, who provide food and medical services, operate the aviation assets, etc.
How does this compare to contractor levels now? It's actually less.
The Department of Defense currently has about 9,500 security contractors in Iraq and several thousand general life contractors. At its peak in June 2009, DOD had 15,200 security contractors in Iraq.
The State Department expects the number of foreign contractors it hires to decrease over the next 3-5 years as it hires more local Iraqis and the security situation improves.
And, now, the State Department will be literally creating its own special forces of 5,000 and will have its own air force of dozens of helicopters and planes with contractors taking care of the equipment.
This is a brave new world for the State Department. According to Bloomberg News:
... roughly ten percent of this team will actually include diplomats. In addition to their traditional work, the State Department will assume over 300 activities that the U.S. military routinely performs, including air transport, force protection, medical aid and environmental cleanup.
Based on the past oversight of State Department contracting, this promises to be as big of a mess as when these contractors worked for the DoD. According to reporting by the Center for Public Integrity:
According to a preliminary estimate given at the Senate hearing, the State Department plans a persistent presence in Iraq of roughly 17,000 U.S.-paid workers, of which 14,000 may be contractors. On Friday, White House officials, speaking on background at a briefing for reporters, projected that 4,500 to 5,000 of these will be employed in guarding three U.S. diplomatic posts in Irbil, Basra and Baghdad.
There has already been dozens of government reports and news articles on the failure of the DoD to manage the Iraqi contractor contracts with the Commission on Wartime Contracting suggesting in their final report that up to $60 billon was wasted in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Based on my investigations since these wars began, I believe that the waste and fraud is much higher. As I chronicled in my book, "Betraying Our Troops: The Destructive Results of Privatizing War," the contracting in Iraq under the DoD was utter chaos with the DoD still not being able to list all their contracts and contractors.
The DoD is telling Congress that they believe that the State Department is even more unprepared to handle these contractors. Ironically, the State Department will inherit the infamous KBR LOGCAP contract for, as they call it, "life support" of all the US government and other contractor workers. As I outlined in my September column, KBR and other contractors ran up the costs in the chaos of the beginning of the war, thus making a bloated and fraudulent baseline of what KBR can charge. This inflated number will be used in all of the follow-on contracts that the State Department will now have to try to manage.
So, even though there will be a drawdown and shifting of contractors by December 31, there are several problems to watch. One is mission creep, where the State Department keeps hiring more and more contractors as "trainers" and "security detail" until Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has an ever-burgeoning State Department army of her own. When the Army first reported the ratio of contractors in the Iraq war to the Congress, they said that there was one contractor for every four soldiers. Once a real accounting was done, it was shown that there were more contractors than troops in Iraq. This type of mission creep got around the limits on troops surges and the contractors were more than willing to keep sending people and keep billing with inflated prices.
Second is that these contractors, as they have in Iraq and Afghanistan, will fully take advantage of the lack of controls over these contracts and run the prices up again to make sure that the money flow keeps going.
Third is the problem of the private security contractors and their potential abuse of the Iraqi people. One of the main reasons that Iraq was angry about giving out immunity to any Americans was that the State Department allowed their security contractor Blackwater, now Xe, to kill civilians in the infamous Nisour Square incident and Blackwater got away with it. Private security personnel are not under the same restrictions and rules as our troops, and I interviewed dozens of people for my book who told how these contractors would shoot their way through a town, losing hearts and minds and infuriating our troops who had to patrol these neighborhoods after the contractors left.
So, what solutions do we have in this impromptu contracting mess as we withdraw our troops and the State Department takes over the contractors? At the very least, the State Department must make sure they rein in the contractors with strict rules so that there will be no more Nisour Square incidents, which have damaged our diplomatic mission in Iraq for years.
But in the long run, the DoD and the State Department must figure out a way to lessen this addition to contractors and have the contractors only in areas that are not potentially hostile. The laws governing these contractors are still in flux and the contractors take every advantage of it. They also take advantage of transition and chaos, and the only way to make sure that all the fraud, waste and fat in these existing contracts don't pass on to future contracts is to do a thorough accounting of contractor costs in the Iraq war, get money refunded and only use scrubbed numbers as a baseline for the future State Department contracts. The State Department must also have enough auditors and investigators to be sure that the contractors don't, once again, use transition and chaos to their advantage to run up costs.
And finally, we need to keep pushing back on the exploding use of contractors in wars, occupations and now large and prolonged diplomatic missions so that this new war service industry does not get a permanent foothold in the military budget for wars and occupations as the military-industrial complex has for buying weapons. The consequences to our military budget and our foreign policy could be disastrous as this new war service industry pushes for wars and long-term occupations of other countries to justify its large profits and survival.