Saturday, September 25, 2010

Diplomats face security problems in Iraq

From the Washington Post:

Diplomats face security problems in Iraq

Now that most U.S. military forces have left Iraq, the American diplomats left behind face serious security problems the State Department is ill-prepared to tackle.

That's the grave message the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan presented to Congress on Thursday.

Much of the security once provided by the military will have to be done by private contractors, yet the department does not have the money to hire the number needed nor the capability to manage them.

"Even if State could obtain the funds for more than doubling its private-security force, it is not clear that it has the trained personnel to manage and oversee contract performance of a kind that has already shown the potential for creating tragic incidents and frayed relations with host countries," Michael Thibault, commission co-chairman, said in a statement to the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee.

A July 12 report by the commission said the State Department has about 2,700 private-security contractors in Iraq but will need up to 7,000. It goes on to cite a troubling situation beset by "weaknesses in contract management and oversight, not to mention funding and hiring challenges."

The problem is even more complicated because Iraq "appears unable to provide normal host-country security and services," Thibault said.

The Pentagon has worked with the State Department but could provide much more help even as the military withdraws from Iraq. The Defense Department has yet to respond to a six-month-old State Department request for assistance seeking, among other things, helicopters, trucks and mine-resistant vehicles.

The July report quotes an April 7 letter containing the request from Under Secretary of State Patrick Kennedy. The letter said resources of the department's Diplomatic Security Service are "inadequate to the extreme challenges in Iraq."

Citing the lack of response, committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said the Pentagon's "apparent lack of cooperation is unacceptable." A Defense Department spokeswoman said the Pentagon is preparing a reply.

The letter, the report and the commission's testimony draw a disturbing picture of a State Department that is not equipped to deal with its biggest job ever.

"After the departure of U.S. Forces, we will continue to have a critical need for logistical and life support of a magnitude and scale of complexity that is unprecedented in the history of the Department of State," Kennedy said.

Without that assistance, the department would be forced to rely on less effective equipment and "as a result, the security of [State] personnel in Iraq will be degraded significantly, and we can expect increased casualties," Kennedy warned.

For example, Thibault told the committee about a "counter battery system" that allows the military to determine the location of rocket or mortar launches against U.S. positions. "As a result, enemy insurgents seldom fire more than one rocket, as they know they will be targeted," he said.

But the State Department does not have that capability.

"Enemy insurgents will be delighted when they learn and experience that they will not be immediately targeted and brought under fire by the military. Where our enemies worked very hard to launch a single rocket, there will be little reason not to launch entire batteries of rockets," Thibault said. "The safety of Americans, government and contractor employees will likely be jeopardized. This is simply unacceptable."

This has upset members of the committee, including the top Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa of California. He complained that "the government is inadequately prepared to ensure that our diplomatic personnel are properly supplied and protected, now that our combat troops have withdrawn from Iraq."

The report lists 14 security related jobs that are a good fit for the military but are not in a diplomat's job description, including recovering dead and wounded personnel, recovering downed aircraft and bomb disposal.

If the department does not have enough private contractors to do those jobs, who will? And if contractors do those jobs, will they cross the line and perform inherently government functions that are the province of government personnel?

"Even basic questions of what military equipment will be transferred to the State Department and who will apply rules for the use of force still have not been settled," Towns said.

All of this isn't the State Department's fault, Thibault said. The department, he said, has been dealt a bad hand that includes "unknown contract and program support from the Department of Defense; funding limitations likely to impact mission capability; and the need to contract for and perform functions that have never been done by their department."

The devastating consequences of the war against Iraq are not over yet.

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