By Morgan Cohen –
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once famously quipped, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want.” On December 31, 2011, what remained of the army we had in Iraq – some 33,000 troops – withdrew, providing a bookend of sorts to America’s near decade-long occupation. But while the war may be over, Iraq remains a battle zone, and the Obama administration has planned an unprecedented civilian effort to fill the void.
An estimated 16,000 civilians will remain on the ground under the auspices of the State Department. The size of the operation – which the Washington Post has called the largest since the Marshall Plan – is rivaled only by its scope. The State Department will assume over 300 activities currently performed by the military. As the Post reports, it will field 5,000 private security contractors to protect some 1,800 U.S. Embassy workers, as well as a number of sites at Iraqi airports and a handful of police-training facilities. The State Department will also operate its own air service and network of hospitals, both of which are to be staffed by a further 4,600 private contractors. Finally, an additional 4,600 contractors will be deployed to instruct Iraqi forces on how to use military equipment purchased from the U.S.
The military nature of the State Department’s mission in post-withdrawal Iraq is a logical, if unexpected, byproduct of the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). The SOFA creates two distinct classes of individuals for the purpose of allocating jurisdiction over U.S. personnel. The first class is comprised of “United States forces” and their civilian components, over which Iraq and the United States share jurisdiction. By contrast, Iraq maintains exclusive jurisdiction over the second class of individuals, which consists of “United States contractors and their employees.” However, the terms “United States contractor” and “United States contractor employee” only apply to contractors operating under a contract or subcontract with “United States forces.” In practice, this means that Iraq only has jurisdiction over Defense Department contractors; American contractors operating under contract with other departments, like the State Department, are immune from Iraqi law.
For much of the past year, President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki attempted to negotiate an agreement that would have kept several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the year-end deadline set by the SOFA. The talks broke down over Obama’s demand that American troops receive legal immunity for their actions, a request Maliki could not oblige without alienating anti-American elements in his governing coalition. Consequently, in order to protect the thousands of American diplomats and other civilian government employees slated to remain in Iraq after the withdrawal is complete, the State Department is stepping through the SOFA loophole to field an army of private security contractors that will operate beyond the reach of Iraqi law.
As McClatchy’s Warren Strobel put it, “State Department contractors in Iraq could be driving armored vehicles, flying aircraft, operating surveillance systems, even retrieving casualties if there are violent incidents and disposing of unexploded ordnance.” The militarization of State Department duties has alarmed some experts. Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, characterized the State Department’s assumption of military activities as “one more step in the blurring of the lines between military activities and State Department or diplomatic activities.” Other experts have expressed concern over the State Department’s lack of experience in managing and supervising such large numbers of contractors without Pentagon aid. “I don’t think State has ever operated on its own, independent of the U.S. military, in an environment that is quite as threatening on such a large scale,” said James Dobbins, a former ambassador who also served as a special envoy for Afghanistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and Somalia. Max Boot, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, has echoed these concerns, calling the State Department’s reliance on private contractors, “unprecedented in scale,” and noting that “this is not what State Department people train for, to run an operation of this size.”
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also questioned the wisdom of a strategy that relies so heavily on private contractors, given that poor oversight of similar operations in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has already cost taxpayers billions of dollars. The Commission on Wartime Contracting, an independent, bipartisan legislative commission established to study wartime contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, has estimated in reports to Congress that anywhere between $31 and $60 billion has been lost in Iraq and Afghanistan because of waste and fraud on the part of private security contractors. In October, Dov Zakheim, a member of the Commission, told the House Government Oversight Committee that the Commission was “very, very worried” that the State Department would be unable to supervise the contractors’ extensive operations. Another Commission member, Robert Henke, testified that “the bottom line is we rely on contractors too heavily, manage them too loosely, and we pay too much for what we get.”
It is too soon to tell whether the State Department’s experiment in “muscular diplomacy” will strike the right balance between the demands of America’s strategic interests, on one hand, and the limited resources with which we will be able to pursue those interests, on the other. For now though, one thing is quite clear: we may have gone to Iraq with the army we had, but we will stay in Iraq with the army we can buy.