The Risky Business of Post-War Contracting

Is the Iraq War really over or have we just outsourced it?

The Iraq War is officially over. Tens of thousands of U.S. troops slipped quietly out of the country last year with none of the bodies-clinging-to-helicopter-struts drama that characterized America's exit from Saigon in 1975.

The only "uniforms" remaining in-country are those assigned to the U.S. Embassy, possibly as few as 200 troops in all. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has announced plans to decrease the size of the military, "a clear sign," according to the New York Times, "that the Pentagon does not anticipate conducting another expensive, troop-intensive" war like the ones in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Yet there are dangerous -- and painfully familiar -- demons lurking in the details of the postwar U.S. presence in Iraq. The State Department plans to spend $3.8 billion between now and the end of September to run its Baghdad outpost, aka the Green Zone and the world's largest embassy complex. A substantial portion of those funds will go into the pockets of private contractors. The State Department estimates that it will employ approximately 15,000 contract workers to provide for services "such as security, logistics, and life support." Other estimates put the number as high as 18,000.

If the past is prologue, we should be nervous. The State Department's track record managing overseas contractors ranges from spotty to downright awful. As Americans focus more on the 2012 elections and other domestic concerns, it would be far too easy to ignore the glaring need for oversight in Iraq.

A bipartisan study by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan found that the U.S. government did a terrible job of managing private contractors in conflict zones. "At least $31 billion, and possibly as much as $60 billion, has been lost to contract waste and fraud in America's contingency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," the commission reported to Congress last fall. "Much more will turn into waste as attention to continuing operations wanes, as U.S. support for projects and programs in Iraq and Afghanistan declines, and as those efforts are revealed as unsustainable."

This damning finding, however, has yet to result in any transformational change in contracting rules. Lots of money will keep slipping through cracks in those Green Zone walls.

Even more ominous are the risks of entrusting our reputation to some of the same mercenaries whose lawless conduct has already poisoned the U.S. reputation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraqis remember that operatives employed by Blackwater (the contracting giant that rebranded first as Xe Services and now known as Academi) have never been held accountable for the 17 civilian deaths in Baghdad's Nissour Square from 2007. They also know that the same Armor Group that allowed appalling levels of debauchery by guards on duty at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul remains qualified for State Department business.

My colleagues at the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) have documented hundreds of examples of contractors being implicated in human trafficking, wage theft, and illegal arms sales and remaining eligible to bid on government contracts.

What exactly will these contractors do in 2012?

Details are scant, but we do know that many will be doing the things that the military has done in the past -- providing security for diplomats and other government representatives operating in Iraq. Many will continue to do the things Washington ceded to private operators throughout the Iraq War, such as making meals or running concessions.

These folks won't be in uniform, nor will they be civil servants. None of them will be governed by the standards of conduct or accountability we impose on civil servants, nor will they enjoy the diplomatic immunity afforded to personnel attached to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Many thousands will carry guns. Given current security conditions in Iraq, including a string of bombings since late December more lethal to civilians than any seen in the last year of the U.S. presence, many could be nervous enough to be trigger-happy.

Is this war really over or have we just outsourced it?

This column was distributed by OtherWords.