Getting Our Money's Worth in Iraq

The AP reports that the Congressional Budget Office is worried about the cost of the war in Iraq; more specifically, they don't think our government is getting a good deal for our money. They inform us:

Military contracts in the Iraq theater have cost taxpayers at least $85 billion, and when it comes to providing security, they might not be any cheaper than using military personnel, according to a report released Tuesday.

While much of the discussion (and the accompanying photos) in the article centers on security contractors, those who make it through to paragraph 12 will discover additional details:

The CBO estimated Tuesday that $6 billion to $10 billion has been spent on security work, and that the prices paid are comparable to a U.S. military unit doing that work.

Confused? Fortunately, one can find some clarity in the actual report:

  • "Military contracts": DoD's piece is actually $76 billion (and of that "only" 54 billion is spent in Iraq); the Department of State and US Aid spend the remaining $9 billion. That figure may seem comparably small, but
  • About 40 percent of DoS contractors in Iraq are security providers. So there's another element of confusion in that opening paragraph -- the total government expenditure is $6-10 billion, and a good number of those security folks are working for State.
  • Why the ambiguous "$6 billion to $10 billion" range? Direct government spending on security contracts is "between $500 million and $1.2 billion annually" for a total of "between $3 billion and $4 billion" (a bit down from that $85 billion now, aren't we?). But non-security contractors also sub contract for security, and acceding to the CBO report that represents the balance of their $6 to $10 billion estimate.
  • Would it be cheaper just to have the Army provide the security? According to the CBO report -- no. The perhaps widely held contrary belief is at least partly based on comparisons of the cost of a contractor to the pay of a low-ranking soldier. When one compares the costs of each, the results are similar:

    CBO performed such an analysis, comparing the costs of a private security contractor with those of a military alternative. That analysis indicates that the costs of the private contractor did not differ greatly from the costs of having a comparable military unit performing similar functions.

And once the war is over, the report explains, the contract isn't renewed, and the government is under no further obligation (continued employment, pension, VA benefits, etc.) to the contractor.

So now we know that according to the CBO report security contractors -- about whom the Washington Post dedicated so much article space they ran out of room to tell us where our money is actually spent -- make up a small percentage of the total contractors in Iraq and represent a savings of taxpayer dollars. (We could have saved much time if only the WaPo hadn't been so confusing in that opening paragraph.)

So let's re-write it for them: "Government security contracts in the Iraq theater have cost taxpayers at least $3 billion since the war began, but offer substantial taxpayer savings, according to a report released Tuesday." Of course, had they actually written that -- it would be news.

So what are all these other "contractors" doing? Here's where I can help a little. Having spent much of last year in Baghdad I got to interact with them on a daily basis. And now you can spend a day in Iraq with me.

It's Sunday on a big FOB. I wake up, wind my way through twenty cots to exit the tent, and head for the shower/latrine. The contractors who clean it have just finished making it shine -- no easy task given the hundreds of people who share the space. Next: the laundry. On the way I pass an area where contractors are busy installing new sleeping trailers -- soon we'll move out of our tents. At the laundry the Philippine contractors take my stuff; in three days it'll be ready for pick up.

Off to the Dining Facility. I show my ID card to the African security contractors at the door and within minutes contractors from India serve me food trucked in by contractors -- with security provided by American military teams. I eat and then drop my tray off on the way out to be cleaned by contractors, and I'm glad they're all here.

Next stop the barbershop, where a contractor from another south Asian country gets me looking sharp. Now into the PX, where the contractors work the cash register and stock the shelves with stuff driven up in trucks driven by contractors, etc., etc., etc. ...

Then into my Humvee, and off to higher headquarters. I stop to get fuel -- pumped by a contractor who's masked (in spite of the heat) to protect himself from the fumes. HQ is on the other side of the big base, a long ride because the roads are rutted beyond belief (but months later local Iraqi contractors will re-pave them) and there are checkpoints along the way where more smiling African security contractors want to see my ID. I'm also slowed by shuttle busses moving folks around the base, driven by contractors from all over the world.

But I make it to HQ -- a massive cubicle farm. Some of the folks who work here are civilian contractors. I say hello to one who's former FBI, brought in for his expertise in "crime investigation." Over in the corner a contractor responsible for the computer network (thanks to the helpful manufacturer who got the contract) looks bored. Nothing wrong today, but tomorrow -- who knows?

I make my way to my boss' office. We chat. The news? We've got some new gear deployed with us, and the contractor who supports it is coming by later this week to ensure things are well.

Later, back to my side of the base, a trip lengthened this time by a traffic jam -- a line of big trucks ready to roll outside the wire, delivering supplies to our remote combat outposts. The Turkish contractors driving the big rigs look impatient, but the GIs preparing to run security on this ride look professionally cool. I don't mind waiting -- their job is important, and soon enough I'm back at the tent I call home.

The sun is down, the trucks are rumbling, the generators are humming, the air inside is cool. The night shift is waking and the day shift is heading in. Some guys are going to the gym, where contractors maintain everything, and others to the "Internet Cafe" where other contractors do the same. But I'm hitting the sack early; tomorrow starts before dawn. The sound of the A/C units running smoothly lulls me to sleep. Should they fail, the temperature in the tent can rise to 120 degrees if the contractors don't respond quickly enough, but they keep on running, and that's the end of a day on the FOB.

Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe they'll contract out my job.