The war in Iraq is coming to a mostly symbolic end this week; the latest step in President Obama’s campaign promise to bring the troops home from Iraq and focus on Afghanistan. The war ends quietly, but its impact on the United States will be felt for a very long time.
There are so many different ways to look at this conflict: the rightness or wrongness of going there in the first place, the question of what constitutes victory, the exposure of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and other abuses, and the expectation (or not) of stability in the region. As much as we might like to put this piece of history behind us, one thing we must stay vigilant about is the question of contractors and costs.
By the time the year ends, we will have spent $1 trillion of taxpayer money in Iraq. Over $9 billion of it lost or unaccounted for, including millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and equipment intended for the Iraqi security forces.
Perhaps the first sign that this effort was going to be an expensive disaster for the US was the awarding of a $7 billion no-bid contract to KBR, then a subsidiary of Halliburton, raising the specter of war-profiteering for the defense contractor formerly run by Dick Cheney. Sure enough, in 2007, KBR was found to have overcharged the Pentagon for services and materials never delivered, to the tune of over $100 million.
That’s not even addressing conduct issues such as those of KBR failing to protect female employees from sexual assault by co-workers and failing to properly investigate those accused, as well as those of the notorious Blackwater security firm, whose employees were involved in high-profile civilian shootings.
The extent of misconduct from contracting firms in Iraq is the stuff of suspenseful conspiracy films and a stark example of what can go wrong when private companies take over a public function. It seems that we have only to imagine the worst that could be done if no one was looking and these contractors have done it. We almost expect Clive Owen or Matt Damon to appear on screen and, having exposed the intricate plot to defraud the government, go after the bad guys because no one else will.
Today, as most of our troops come home from Iraq, we will leave behind 14,000 contractors, half of whom will be taking on security-related duties once performed by American soldiers. These contractors will now be the responsibility of the State Department instead of the Department of Defense, and already there are concerns about oversight capability.
We have already seen the impact that contractors can have on our budget and our reputation around the globe. If we are going to keep using them because we want our troops out with work still to do, detailed accounting and adherence to strict codes of conduct are imperative.
Is anyone paying attention?