Update: Security Contracting in Iraq

By Will Grant

Eight months ago, the US military made its formal withdrawal from Iraq. And though the troops and equipment, for the most part, were shipped home, scores of US contractors remained in country to satisfy a variety of needs. The current number of security contractors in Iraq is currently just over 3,000.

At the time of the withdrawal, which concluded on December 18, speculations circulated about the future of the Iraqi government and its ability to maintain a stable, democratic state and hold back the tides of insurgency that never seemed far from the surface. Also in question was the ability of the nascent government to avoid Iranian influence.

It’s safe to say that the jury is still out on many of those concerns. Especially with Iraq’s allowing Iranian aircraft to use its airspace as a corridor to Syria. Many suspect the Iranian aircraft of transporting weapons to Syria through Iraq, and the US would like to see Iraq require the Iranian airliners to land for inspections.

For security contractors in Iraq, the troop withdrawal was foreseen as a major factor in changing the operating environment. The troop pullout was also accompanied by the Department of State’s takeover of the job in Iraq.

Some speculated that providing security in Iraq would become more dangerous without the US military there. At the time of the troop pullout, the Department of State had failed to secure a contractor for aerial operations. The ability of the DoS to handle the job in Iraq, to manage the thousands of contractors was also very much in question.

So what does the situation look like eight months later? The short answer is: It’s hard to say.

Reported contractor deaths in Iraq have been few. But the undercounting of such deaths is a worry, and the magnitude of the undercounting is really the question. There seems to have been no abdominal increase in improvised explosive device incidents or planned attacks by insurgents, though security concerns still prevent US diplomatic personnel from traveling within the country.

As far as how the DoS is handling the contractors under its watch, many of the old concerns continue to linger. The biggest of those concerns seems to be oversight, both of government spending and the accountability of US personnel continuing the mission.

Recent promotion of the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act is part of the effort to ensure accountability of civilians. Hand in hand with ensuring accountability is ensuring the quality of contractor’s work, whether that be providing security, training the Iraqi security apparatus or any of the other many duties filled by civilians.

Oversight of contractors has long been a contentious talking point and has often muddied the waters of constructive conversation of contracting overseas. But there’s no arguing that government spending, no matter the sector, must be fully transparent.

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is a staunch advocate for greater accountability within the defense industry. He recently lead roundtable discussions that compared spending money on the military to spending money on contractors. This will continue to be an issue as the military drawdown in Afghanistan progresses and the number of contractors remains high, with current estimates putting the number at about 11,000.

From the perspective of those in Washington, DoS has managed its cadre of contractors in Iraq in an acceptable way. According to David Isenberg, an expert on security contracting, “I think the attitude is hope for the best and, hopefully, not have to prepare for the worst.”

The only real concern with that is that hope is not a method. But, at some point, the Iraqis will have to take the reins, and the majority of US civilian contractors will return home from Iraq. “Overall, DC policymakers are focused on other things in an election year,” according to Isenberg, “but [they] are hoping and holding their breath that the Iraqis are cohesive enough to run the show.”

The biggest steps now seem to be to ensure quality–both as far as the training of the Iraqi apparatus and the spending of taxpayer dollars.

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