Confusion in Iraq: Troops and Contractors March Into New Era

Confusion in Iraq: Troops and Contractors March Into New Era

The Obama administration signaled the end of an era this week as the last combat troops left Iraq, but insurgents apparently did not get the message. A wave of attacks targeting Iraqi security operations left at least 51 dead and dozens wounded on Wednesday, just one day after the White House continued to congratulate itself for reducing the US presence to 50,000 “noncombat” troops.

Last week’s initial announcement of the withdrawal lined up with President Obama’s August 31 deadline for ending the combat mission in Iraq, but military officials moved quickly to clarify that the war is not yet over before the insurgents could beat them to the point.

“I don’t think anybody declared the end of the war as far as I know,” Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said last week. “There’s still fighting ahead.”

Obama is expected to choose careful words next Tuesday when he addresses troops and the nation at Fort Bliss in Texas. The speech, followed by a prime-time Oval Office address, will take credit for shifting the US role in Iraq away from engaging in open combat and toward assisting Iraqi forces in reining in control of the country.

Iraqi security forces are obviously incapable of preventing attacks, with the most recent attacks killing dozens of cops and two Iraqi soldiers in cities across the country. So, who will be assisting them in fighting the terrorists?

The job has fallen on 50,000 remaining troops and the civilian State Department, flanked by 7,000 private military contractors, despite recent reports that contractors – some of them notoriously trigger-happy guns for hire – are chronically mismanaged and linked to $8.7 billion in reconstruction funding that is currently unaccounted for.

“After September 1st, the United States will have a different mission, one of advising and assisting Iraqi security forces, joining the Iraqis in targeted counterterrorism operations and protecting U.S. troops and civilians who remain in Iraq,” White House Press Secretary Bill Burton told the press the day before the string of deadly attacks.

This mission involves facing terrorist attacks, roadside bombs and accompanying Iraqi troops on dangerous counterterrorism missions – essentially combat, but it’s just not classified as such, according to report in the Navy Times.

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Some members of Congress, already frustrated by the billions of taxpayers dollars spent on the war, aren’t buying the White House lines.

“A war based on lies continues to be a war based on lies,” said Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) after the announcement. “Today, we have a war that is not a war, with combat troops who are not combat troops. In 2003, President Bush said ‘Mission Accomplished’. In 2010, the White House says combat operations are over in Iraq, but will leave 50,000 troops, many of whom will inevitably be involved in combat-related activities.

Kucinich went on to reference a statement recently made by leading Iraqi military commander Gen. Babaker Shawkat Zebari, who said Iraqi security forces won’t be able to stand on their own for at least a decade.

Anthony Cordesman, a military expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also criticized the Obama administration for misleading both Americans and Iraqis, calling the August 18 announcement “just as wrong and irresponsible as the one given by President Bush.”

“The Iraq War is not over and it is not ‘won,'” Cordesman wrote. “In fact, it is at as critical a stage as at any time since 2003 … everything now depends on a successful transition to an effective and unified Iraqi government, and Iraqi security forces that can bring both security and stability to the average Iraqi. The creation of such an ‘end state’ will take a minimum of another five years, and probably ten.”

For leaders like Kucinich, however, the conflict has gone on long enough. “I object to spending billions of dollars to maintain a charade in Iraq while our own economy is failing and over 15 million Americans are out of work,” Kucinich said. “I object to keeping any level troops in Iraq to maintain a war based on lies.”

If insurgents continue to target Iraqi security forces as they did on Wednesday, then State Department officials, contractors and the 50,000 noncombat troops will remain in the line of fire. That is until the end of 2011, when, according to the current US-Iraq security agreement, the remaining troops must ship out, leaving an increasingly privatized contingent of diplomats and security contractors behind.

Outsourcing a War

“This isn’t just about broken laws or wasted tax revenues,” then Sen. Barrack Obama said in a 2007 New York Times article on contractor oversight. “This is about our claims to moral leadership in the world. We cannot win a fight for hearts and minds when we outsource critical missions to unaccountable contractors.”

But now, with looming deadlines and a frustrated public gearing up for midterm elections in November, Obama seems to have changed his tune. By declaring the end of combat operations in Iraq, the administration is moving toward replacing combat troops with diplomatic officials who will increasingly be protected in the danger zone by thousands of private security contractors.

The contractors take over combat roles like flying strike drones, searching for roadside bombs and defending US bases in Iraq, according to The New York Times.

Fighting off insurgents and supporting occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan has cost more than $1 trillion, at least 5,648 American lives and demands more security forces than the government can muster. That’s why private contractors now make up 54 percent of Department of Defense (DoD) employees overseas, according to a Congressional Research Report (CRS) released in July.

Overall, the DoD employs 19 percent more contract workers than uniformed personnel, according to the report.

The report shows how insufficient contract management can “delay or even prevent troops from receiving needed support” and lead to “wasteful spending.” The report also shows how poor contract management and “abuses and crimes committed by certain contractors” against local national and civilians is undermining the US counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as locals may not distinguish contractors from official US troops and occupiers.

The report references instances where contractors killed civilians and friendly forces, and the 2004 prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in which prisoners were humiliated and tortured under the watch of contracted security guards.

The CRS report also details the frustration in Washington over the “wasteful spending” on contracting firms that continue to remain unaccountable for the millions of dollars they receive to aid the war effort, and states the fraud committed by contractors can undermine the legitimacy of US forces in the eyes of locals.

Some progress has been made to tighten the financial strings attached to contracts, but a recent audit by the Special Inspector General of Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) shows that the reforms have not gone far enough.

SIGIR reports that “fraud, waste and abuse” committed by the DoD and its contractors left $8.7 of a $9.1 billion fund for reconstruction in Iraq unaccounted for. SIGIR blames bad accounting and a lack of oversight on contractors and contracting practices for the missing money meant for rebuilding Iraq.

And the there’s contractor formerly known as Blackwater. The firm changed its name to Xe Services after September 2007 when its security guards shot and killed 17 Iraq civilians while escorting a motorcade in Baghdad. Now Xe services is back in hot water after five of its former employees were indicted last week for violating federal arms laws.

There have been several efforts by members of Congress over the years to reign in and regulate contractors, but most proposed legislation never made it out of committee. Most recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) introduced the “Stop Outsourcing Security Act” in February to ban private contractors and keep the military’s responsibilities within the military. The bill went nowhere, and most military experts – including former contractor critic Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – have since made statements claiming that it would be impossible to ban contractors and continue operations.

Schakowsky and other critics of contractors were not available to comment and have not responded to recent administration announcements as the legislators are out on August recess.