Why you’ll be paying for the occupation for years to come, withdrawal or not.
With last week’s announced escalation of the war in Afghanistan, including an Iraq-like "surge" replete with 4,000 more U.S. troops and a sizable increase in private contractors, President Barack Obama blew the lid off of any lingering perceptions that he somehow represents a significant change in how the U.S. conducts its foreign policy.
In the meantime, more reports have emerged that bolster suspicions that Obama’s Iraq policy is but a downsized version of Bush’s and that a total withdrawal of U.S. forces is not on the horizon.
In the latest episode of Occupation Rebranded, it was revealed that the administration intends to reclassify some combat forces as "advisory and assistance brigades." While Obama’s administration is officially shunning the use of the term "global war on terror," the labels du jour, unfortunately, seem to be the biggest changes we will see for some time.
Underscoring this point is an annual report just released by the War Resisters League, which for decades has closely monitored the military budget, revealing how many tax dollars are actually going to the war machine. The WRL puts out its famous pie chart annually just before tax time as a reminder of what we are doing exactly when we file our returns. Noting that 51 percent of the federal budget goes to military spending, the WRL said it does "not expect the military percentage to change much" under Obama.
In fact, the GAO characterizes the Pentagon’s monthly reports on financial obligations under the global war on terrorism as being of "questionable reliability," adding that it "found numerous problems with DOD’s processes for recording and reporting its war-related costs."
"Without transparent and accurate cost information," the GAO warns, "Congress and DOD will not have reliable information on how much the war is costing, sufficient details on how appropriated funds are spent, or the reliable historical data needed to develop and provide oversight of future funding needs."
Dollars aside, the new GAO report report raises serious questions about how Obama will handle key challenges that will ultimately determine Iraq’s future and the extent of the U.S. presence in the country. Among the questions the Obama administration has yet to answer: How to dismantle or hand over the 283 U.S. installations in Iraq (including more than 50 large military bases); What to do with the 160,000-plus private U.S. contractors in Iraq; Who will provide security for the massive — and likely expanding — army of diplomats deployed in the country at the monstrous U.S. embassy in Baghdad?
Will the U.S. Walk Away From its 283 Bases in Iraq?
In a dramatic understatement, the GAO notes that the U.S. "has an extensive basing footprint in Iraq. … Closing or handing over U.S. installations in Iraq will be time consuming and costly." With no fewer than 283 such installations throughout Iraq — 51 large bases and 232 smaller bases — the Obama administration has not said how it will approach this formidable task.
This is no minor detail. "According to U.S. Army officials, experience has shown that it takes one to two months to close the smallest platoon — or company — size installations, which contain between 16 and 200 combat soldiers or Marines."
However, the U.S. "has never closed large, complex installations — such as Balad Air Force Base, which contains about 24,000 inhabitants and has matured over five years. U.S. Army officials estimate it could take longer than 18 months to close a base of that size." Obama should explain clearly how he intends to dismantle these bases or to what forces he is going to give control over them.
Troops Withdrawal, Contractor Surge?
Despite his much-celebrated troop withdrawal announcement, Obama has said nothing publicly about what he intends to do with the 163,000 "security contractors" deployed in Iraq, whose ranks outnumber U.S. troops. This is most likely because, as the GAO reports, there is no plan.
"From late 2007 through July 2008, planning for the redeployment of U.S. forces did not include a theaterwide plan for redeploying contractors," the GAO report reveals.
In fact, the GAO raises the prospect that Obama will actually increase reliance on private contractors — including armed contractors like those who work for Blackwater — particularly given the Obama administration’s stated intention to increase diplomatic and reconstruction work in Iraq, which will create a greater need for "diplomatic security."
According to the GAO, the State Department spent about $1.1 billion from 2006 to 2008 on 1,400 private security contractors in Iraq. As of January 2009, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security (the main employer of Blackwater and other armed contractors responsible for guarding U.S. diplomats and occupation officials), has already experienced a drastic increase in workload.
"State’s reliance on contractors may increase as the department currently depends on DOD to provide some services," says the GAO, citing the examples of Bosnia and Kosovo, where "contractors assumed responsibility for certain support functions that had been previously performed by military personnel."