Sunday, August 22, 2010

Iraq: 'Mission Accomplished'? Hardly

August 22, 2010, 10:08 a.m.

Private Contractors and Public Credit Cards
(bought to you by*)

I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.
Who said that? A state senator in the Illinois legislature, eight short years ago. Barack Obama, "Remarks of Illinois State Senator Barack Obama Against Going to War With Iraq," October 2, 2002.

These were concerns shared by many Americans at the time, including some military leaders. I was among them; see, e.g., "Ten Questions for Bush Before War," The Daily Iowan, February 4, 2003, p. 6A; "War in Iraq: The Military Objections," International Law Talks, University of Iowa College of Law, February 27, 2003; Nicholas Johnson, "Between Iraq and a Hard Place," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 17, 2002, p. 11A; "Military Industrial Media Complex; Why Did the Media Take Us to War?" March 19, 2008; and, more recently, "America Needs a War Tax; War on the Cheap is the Most Expensive," February 9, 2010; "Why Are We in Afghanistan . . . and how do we get out?" July 2, 2010.

Last week, now President Obama emailed his list, under the heading "Ending the War in Iraq," "Shortly after taking office, I put forward a plan to end the war in Iraq responsibly. Today, I'm pleased to report that . . . our combat mission will end this month . . . [a] milestone in the Iraq War . . .." ">Katelyn Sabochik, "The White House Blog: Ending the War in Iraq," Aug. 18, 2010.

Also last week, while fund raising in Ohio, he said “We are keeping the promise I made when I began my campaign for the presidency: by the end of this month, we will have removed 100,000 troops from Iraq, and our combat mission will be over in Iraq.” Peter Baker, "As Mission Shifts in Iraq, Risks Linger for Obama," New York Times, Aug. 22, 2010, p. A1.

As Baker explains, "The symbolism of the departing troops that played out on network television masked the more complex reality on the ground. Even as the last designated combat forces leave and the mission formally changes on Aug. 31 to a support role, 50,000 American 'advise and assist' troops will remain in the country for 16 months more, still in harm’s way and still armed for combat if necessary." Ibid.

He's right. Obama's wrong. This is not the end of our soldiers' "combat mission." It is only word play to say that 50,000 armed American military personnel are not "combat forces." They are embedded with Iraqi security forces, they have been trained to do battle, they are in a war zone rife with suicide bombers, rockets, IEDs, and the other weapons that have produced over 4000 dead and multiples more wounded American soldiers. They will have to, at a minimum, fire when fired upon and take other action in self-defense.

As Baker quotes the Center for Strategic and International Studies' military specialist, Anthony H. Cordesman, as saying, “The Iraq war is not over and it is not ‘won.’ In fact, it is at as critical a stage as at any time since 2003.”

The Iraq War will end up costing something more in the trillions of dollars than the millions or billions, once the long term care costs for veterans and other externalities are finally totaled up and included. And this, of course, says nothing about the opportunity costs -- what benefits those dollars could have produced if spent domestically (or even on international projects with greater return on the dollar).

Moreover, aside from the troops and their families, who have undergone great hardship and pain, this was a war without pain or sacrifice. After 9/11 President Bush suggested we all "go shopping." Instead of a war tax, the rich got tax breaks. "America Needs a War Tax; War on the Cheap is the Most Expensive," February 9, 2010. During WWII we sold ourselves "war bonds." This time we used our national credit card to pay for this war, and looked to the Chinese and others willing to buy the bonds that would enable us to make our monthly credit card payments. We've left it to our grandchildren to figure out what to do when those bonds come due. There was no Selective Service "draft" of our young sons and daughters. No one went to war who hadn't volunteered to do so. There was no need for the massive, anti-war student protests that accompanied the Viet Nam war. And the American mainstream media seemed more than willing to switch from the role of confrontational journalists to macho cheerleaders for war.

But there's been another major omission from most of the media's coverage of what the White House has called "Ending the War in Iraq."

Three years ago, the L.A. Times' T. Christian Miller wrote,
The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show . . ..

More than 180,000 civilians . . . are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times. . . .

The total number of private contractors, far higher than previously reported, shows how heavily the Bush administration has relied on corporations to carry out the occupation of Iraq . . ..

"These numbers are big," said Peter Singer, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written on military contracting. "This is not the coalition of the willing. It's the coalition of the billing."
T. Christian Miller, "Contractors outnumber troops in Iraq; The figure, higher than reported earlier, doesn't include security firms. Critics say the issue is accountability," Los Angeles Times, July 4, 2007.

Yes, these are old numbers. (I could not, quickly, find more current data.) As the number of "combat troops" have declined presumably the number of contract civilians have as well. What seems certain, however, is that the numbers involved, and costs, of the military's outsourcing of war remain both significant, and far in excess of the percentages during World War II or Viet Nam. Whether it is still more than the number of troops is not decisive to that conclusion.

Miller continues,
But there are also signs that even those mounting numbers may not capture the full picture. Private security contractors, who are hired to protect government officials and buildings, were not fully counted in the survey, according to industry and government officials.

Continuing uncertainty over the numbers of armed contractors drew special criticism from military experts.

"We don't have control of all the coalition guns in Iraq. That's dangerous for our country," said William Nash, a retired Army general and reconstruction expert. The Pentagon "is hiring guns. You can rationalize it all you want, but that's obscene."

Although private companies have played a role in conflicts since the American Revolution, the U.S. has relied more on contractors in Iraq than in any other war, according to military experts.

Contractors perform functions including construction, security and weapons system maintenance. . . .

[C]ritics worry that troops and their missions could be jeopardized if contractors, functioning outside the military's command and control, refuse to make deliveries of vital supplies under fire.

At one point in 2004, for example, U.S. forces were put on food rations when drivers balked at taking supplies into a combat zone.

Adding an element of potential confusion, no single agency keeps track of the number or location of contractors. . . .

[T]he U.S. Central Command began a census last year of the number of contractors . . . [but U.S. military officials acknowledged that the census did not include other government agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the State Department. . . .

The companies with the largest number of employees are foreign firms in the Middle East that subcontract to KBR, the Houston-based oil services company, according to the Central Command database. KBR, once a subsidiary of Halliburton Co., provides logistics support to troops, the single largest contract in Iraq. . . .

Other large employers of Americans in Iraq include New York-based L-3 Communications, which holds a contract to provide translators to troops, and ITT Corp., a New York engineering and technology firm.

The most controversial contractors are those working for private security companies, including Blackwater, Triple Canopy and Erinys. . . .

[S]ome of the sharpest criticism [is] from military policy experts who say their jobs should be done by the military. On several occasions, heavily armed private contractors have engaged in firefights when attacked by Iraqi insurgents.

Others worry that the private security contractors lack accountability. Although scores of troops have been prosecuted for serious crimes, only a handful of private security contractors have faced legal charges. . . .

The Times identified 21 security companies in the Central Command database, deploying 10,800 men.

However, the Defense Department's Motsek, who monitors contractors, said the Pentagon estimated the total was 6,000.

Both figures are far below the private security industry's own estimate of about 30,000 private security contractors . . ..
A few months earlier, the Washington Post reported:
The survey [of] companies operating under U.S. government contracts, is significantly higher and wider in scope than the Pentagon's only previous estimate, which said there were 25,000 security contractors in the country.

It is also 10 times the estimated number of contractors that deployed during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, reflecting the Pentagon's growing post-Cold War reliance on contractors for such jobs as providing security, interrogating prisoners, cooking meals, fixing equipment and constructing bases that were once reserved for soldiers. . . .

Kellogg, Brown and Root, one of the largest contractors in Iraq, said . . . it has more than 50,000 employees and subcontractors working in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. . . .

The Pentagon's latest estimate "further demonstrates the need for Congress to finally engage in responsible, serious and aggressive oversight over the questionable and growing U.S. practice of private military contracting," said Rep. Janice D. Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has been critical of the military's reliance on contractors. . . .

Central Command, which conducted the census, said [its] . . . figures do not include subcontractors, which could substantially grow the figure. . . .

[C]omplexities and questions [have bee]raised by the large numbers of civilians who have flooded into Iraq to work. With few industry standards, the military and contractors have sometimes lacked coordination, resulting in friendly fire incidents . . ..

"It takes a great deal of vigilance on the part of the military commander to ensure contractor compliance," said William L. Nash, a retired Army general and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "If you're trying to win hearts and minds and the contractor is driving 90 miles per hour through the streets and running over kids, that's not helping the image of the American army. The Iraqis aren't going to distinguish between a contractor and a soldier."
Renae Merle, "Census Counts 100,000 Contractors in Iraq; Civilian Number, Duties Are Issues," Washington Post, December 5, 2006.

Almost totally hidden from view by the White House, Congress, Pentagon, and mainstream media, has been the treatment the members of our very substantial mercenary army. T. Christian Miller, "Contractors in Iraq Are Hidden Casualties of War," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 6, 2010, available from Pro Publica. For links to many more related stories see Pro Publica's Web site for the series.
Nearly 1,600 civilian workers -- both Americans and foreign nationals -- have died in the two war zones. Thousands more have been injured. (More than 5,200 U.S. service members have been killed and 35,000 wounded.)

Many of the civilians have come home as military veterans in all but name, sometimes with lifelong disabilities but without the support network available to returning troops.

There are no veterans' halls for civilian workers, no Gold Star Wives, no military hospitals. Politicians pay little attention to their problems, and the military has not publicized their contributions.
"Mission Accomplished"? "Ending the War in Iraq? Hardly. And there is, in fact, still no end in sight -- let alone the prospect of any U.S. benefits from this "invasion of choice" in exchange for the cost in lives and treasure.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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John Neff said...

It is not uncommon that what is supposed to be a short, decisive and relatively bloodless war turns out to be a long, indecisive and bloody war. If you tell people that in advance they don't pay any attention they have to relearn that the hard way.

I guess you could call it the Cassandra effect.

Nick said...

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