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The Cleveland Plain Dealer

US Is Fighting A Contractor War

Elizabeth Sullivan

No matter how hard it surges, America's military can't over come the handicaps of war on the cheap -- including an overabundance of private contractors.

Iraq may be the most privatized war in U.S. history.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's efforts to cut back the number of U.S. supply troops to save money ironically drove up costs by embedding the conflict with the charges of war privatization. The resulting command distortions and supply problems continue to hamper U.S. forces.

The rise of the military service behemoths didn't start with the Bush administration. It traces to the Clinton years and efforts to counteract post-Cold-War reductions by hiring private firms like KBR to gussy up U.S. bases in the Balkans with movie theaters, private chefs and fancy barbershops.

KBR, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root, recently was spun off by Halliburton.

Yet the contracting-out of war has been exponential in Iraq.

Last year, the Pentagon spent 78 percent more on "service contracts" than a decade earlier, according to John Hutton of the Government Accountability Office, a congressional arm.

And the $151 billion forked over to such contractors last year exceeded what the Department of Defense "spent on supplies and equipment, including major weapons systems," Hutton testified to Congress last month.

Rumsfeld decided that one way to limit the number of troops committed to Iraq was to avoid mobilizing the Army's vast supply network in tandem with combat troops.

Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks dissected the result in his book "Fiasco": piecemeal deployments that shattered unit cohesion and created turmoil just as the insurgency was gathering steam. One critic likened it to "playing the Super Bowl with a pick-up team."

It also forced the military to rely for essential spare parts, water and other supplies on overpaid and poorly supervised contractors motivated by profits and personal safety considerations rather than wartime command needs.

Dina Rasor and Robert Bauman provide firsthand accounts of what they call "the destructive results of privatizing war" in their new book, "Betraying Our Troops," published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Some contractors threatened work stoppages to extort payments from the military.

U.S. troops in remote bases scraped by with inadequate supplies of water and only two ready-to-eat meals a day while commanders lived in luxurious bases supplied with plasma TVs, soft-serve ice cream and air conditioning.

Some U.S. soldiers even died providing security for contractors who failed to coordinate plans with U.S. commanders, or who used radios incompatible with military communications gear. Ohio reservist Keith Maupin was guarding a KBR fuel convoy in April 2004 when he was captured by insurgents. His fate remains unknown.

Contractors lost their lives, too: More than 916 working on U.S. contracts have died in Iraq, including 224 Americans.

Yet oversight lags even as cost-based contracts reward companies that fail to perform.

Parsons Corp. pocketed $186 million to deliver 150 health care centers in Iraq, but completed only six before it walked away with its money, according to Joseph McDermott of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

In another case, McDermott told a House appropriations subcommittee last month, U.S. officials continued to pay millions to DynCorp International for a training camp for Iraqi police for years after the contract was canceled and the camp mothballed.

At a police academy that did open, the plumbing was so substandard that feces dripped down on the cadets.

The result is billions down the drain that could have been used to stabilize Iraqi life and to pay up front for the sort of war the U.S. military trains to fight.

Sullivan is The Plain Dealer's foreign-affairs columnist and an associate editor of the editorial pages.

To reach Elizabeth Sullivan:

© 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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