American troops have a silent partner in Iraq: Tens of thousands of contractors who support their mission in unsung but critical ways, serving food, providing security, and cleaning bathrooms. But as President Obama reduces the American military presence there over the next year-and-a-half, US commanders face the challenge of weaning themselves off the contractors' services and sending them home.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, recently issued a directive asking his subordinate commanders to reduce the use of civilian contractors on at least 50 bases and small installations across Iraq and, where possible, provide employment to Iraqis instead.
Mr. Obama announced last week that all US troops would leave Iraq by mid-2010.
Over the course of the next year or so, most of the 150,000 civilian contractors working in Iraq – more than the total number of US troops there now – will have to leave Iraq and return to Peru, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines as well as the US.
"This initiative supports our desired end state of a stable, sovereign, and prosperous Iraq," General Odierno wrote in a directive dated Jan. 31. "It's the right thing to do, so let's move out."
Soon after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US forces found they needed a corps of contractors to provide a number of services, from security to transportation to construction and translation. Over the years, the number of contractors ballooned to as many as 200,000. Controversies surrounding their role in Iraq began to emerge, as in the case of security firm Blackwater USA.
But most contractors are doing work that the military doesn't have the resources to do.
There are now 150,000 contractors in Iraq, comprising about 39,000 Americans, 70,000 "third country nationals," and 37,000 Iraqis. A little more than half provide support to the more than 50 American bases and installations in Iraq, and they are the ones Odierno wants to phase out. His directive asks for a 5 percent reduction in the use of contractors each quarter. Many will simply be terminated as the need for services like cleaning bathrooms and serving food ends with the US departure. But Iraqi security forces will take over other bases and the need for those jobs there will continue.
Whenever appropriate, the remaining contracting jobs should be given to Iraqis, says Odierno's directive.
"Employment of Iraqis not only saves money but it also strengthens the Iraqi economy and helps eliminate the root causes of the insurgency – poverty and lack of economic opportunity," the directive says.
The unemployment rate in Iraq is now about 18 percent, while 28 percent of men between the ages of 15 and 29 are "underemployed."
But reducing the number of contractors may not be easy. The support these contractors provide are sometimes critical, and difficult to eliminate quickly. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of them use American equipment, which may or may not be left behind.
As for hiring Iraqis, apart from the security concerns posed by employing them for certain jobs, many Iraqi workers need to be trained before they can take over jobs such as base maintenance overnight. A training effort is now being planned to ensure Iraqis have the skills to take over these jobs, says a senior official in Baghdad.
In the interim, US forces may be forced to fill the void left by some of these contractors on everything from training Iraqi security forces to driving trucks, which could take them away from their military duties, says a former senior commander.
"Coming at a time when there are requests for troop reductions, this exacerbates and complicates commanders' issues," he says.
Nevertheless, the move away from contractors must eventually happen, he adds. "It's a good thing, and has to happen. We've become too dependent on contractors, so it will be a tough thing for soldiers."
Some bases use only a handful of contractors, say for translators, interpreters, and law enforcement and cultural advisers, and many of them are already Iraqi, according to Col. Walter Piatt, a brigade commander in Salahuddin Province. Colonel Piatt, speaking to reporters last month by a videoconference at the Pentagon, said it's hard to predict how quickly they will be able to reduce their use of the contractors.
"[T]here may be, in the future, a time when we can reduce other contractors. But the ones we have now, at least in my brigade, the ones that we're using are really for" specialized work, he said.
While the transition is critical to Iraqi independence, letting contractors go may not have much of an effect on US military forces, says Charles Ries, a retired American ambassador who oversaw the economic transition team for the State Department in Iraq until last August.
But it could have short-term effects on the local economy. Although much of the economic benefits resulting from these contracts go off-shore, it also fills the wallets of workers who in turn spend it in the economy, says Mr. Ries. "The Sri Lankans [in Iraq] are making a lot of money, and they spend some of it in Iraq."
The US has been training Iraqis to assume responsibility for many US bases. But it may take some years of such "capacity building" to get the Iraqis to adopt a "maintenance culture" that keeps base facilities, water treatment plants, and electric plants operating long after the US leaves, says Ries.
"A sharp change without a transition is destabilizing," he says.