Lessons Not Learned: Contracting Out Iraqi Army Advising

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

May 12, 2008

One of the key questions surrounding the government’s escalating uses of military contractors is actually not whether they save the government client money or not (this, however, is getting harder to argue with the more than $10 billion that the Defense Contract Audit Agency believes was either wasted or misspent on contracting in Iraq. Rather the crucial question that should asked at the onset of any potential outsourcing is simple: Should the task be done by a private company in the first place?

This issue of what is an “inherently governmental” job or not is at the center of a raft of recent legislative approaches on the private military issue: the mark up by the Senate Armed Services Committee to prohibit armed contractors from “performing inherently governmental functions in an area of combat operations,” Representative David Price and Jan Schakowsky’s announcement this week of a bill seeking to prohibit intelligence agencies, including the CIA, from hiring private contractors for military detainee operations, like the infamous CACI interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama’s bill that would require the Pentagon and State Department to develop a strategy for ensuring that its contracts do not “have private companies and their employees performing inherently governmental functions, emergency essential activities, or mission critical activities.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the Pentagon apparently hasn’t gotten the memo. Below is an interesting contract notice issued by the force in Iraq:

General Information
Country: United States
Notice/Contract Number: fbo:jccimilitaryadvisorsupportteam
Publication Date: Apr 23, 2008
Funding Agency: Department of the Army
Buyer: Multi-National Forces Iraq, Joint Contracting Command Iraq
Original Language: English
Contact Information
Address: United States
Email: Click here
Sources Sought notice for Military Advisor Support Team (MAST) Joint Contracting Command Iraq, Theater Wide Requirements Division, will solicit sources to provide support to the Iraqi Assistance Group (IAG) in the form of a Military Advisor Support Team (MAST). This team specifically supports various Military Transition Teams (MiTT). The MAST members are assigned to various Mitts throughout the theater and are expected to live with the MiTTs outside the wire on Iraqi Military facilities, under Iraqi living conditions and participate with MiTT special operations and convoy duties. The contractor shall provide the capability to support MiTTs by providing MAST, consisting of former Special Operations/Foreign Internal Defense (SO/FID) experts and vetted Iraqi-National Military Advisors (INMA) who possesses extensive prior Iraqi military experience at division and brigade levels. MAST support primarily provides MiTT Commanders and the IAG Foreign Internal Defense (FID) technicians where there currently are none. These technicians augment MiTT and IAG capabilities with essential expertise on FID techniques, procedures and application. The MAST workforce also has extensive experience living, training, and working with indigenous military forces. MAST special operations FID experts assist MiTTs in understanding and applying FID techniques, and provide written analysis, assessments and reports. The team will also prepare to link up with MiTTs during their CONUS training and participate in their train-up. MAST composition will remain flexible and tailorable based on individual MiTT missions and requirements. MiTTs face challenges associated with differences in national identity, ethnicity, social norms, religion, history, training methodology and continuity of operations. MiTTs must advise, train and assist Iraqi units and establish functional relationships with their Iraqi counterparts, and they must do so in a hazardous and challenging environment that offers multiple opportunities for failure. This requirement supports the overall goals of MNF-I and the Government of Iraq (GoI). The contractor shall be responsible for adherence to all U.S. Government, Coalition and Iraqi laws and regulations associated with operations in Iraq. Response to this notice is not an offer and cannot be accepted by the Government to form a binding contract.The Government requires submittal of a Statement of Capability (SOC), limited to 10 pages, by 1 May 2008, 5:00 P.M.

Translated from bureaucratic-speak, the Pentagon is seeking to hire private contractors to help fill out the teams that will train and advise Iraq army units, including in their operations in the field. In more blunt terms, arguably the most important aspect of the operation in Iraq, the crux to defeating the insurgency/getting our troops out of there (whichever you care more about), is starting to be outsourced.

This one is a doozy of lessons not learned. First off, outsourcing training of the Iraqi military has been tried before and is actually one of the many, many factors into why we have had such a hard time. In June 2003, Vinnell won a $48 million contract (sub-contracted out to firms like SAIC and MPRI) to train up new Iraq Army battalions (the old ones never should have been dissolved in the first place, but that is a subject for another day). Twelve months later, the U.S. military had little to show for its contract. Half the troops in the first Iraqi infantry battalion trained up deserted and the other half couldn’t carry out such perfunctory tasks as march in place or answer radio calls properly, let alone go into battle. As Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton complained in June 2004, the training “hasn’t gone well. We’ve had almost one year of no progress.” John Pike, who heads Global Security, weighed in, “It’s not that the contractors failed to train the Iraqis. It’s that they haven’t even attempted it seriously. Whatever training has been done has been pretty perfunctory.” And so a critical window of opportunity was lost and U.S. forces had no trained Iraqi counterparts to work with. It was at this stage that the training was taken back over by the U.S. military, and soon headed up by a certain general by the name of Petraeus.

Second, to turn over the task of advising the Iraqis now, at such a critical stage in the war effort as we try to translate the limited tactical success of the surge into something more permanent, is not just horrible timing. In the words of one U.S. Army officer, it is “definitely not a job that rational USG policy-makers should want in the hands of U.S./western contractors anytime soon.” The explanation by this officer (whose experience on the topic stems from work in strategic planning and work with contractors during three deployments to CENTCOM countries) goes back to the concerns the force has experienced with contracting time and again in Iraq and Afghanistan, from issues of legal accountability and questions of control when contractors operate in the field to the concerns that contracting out important tasks has repeatedly led to unexpected and unwanted side effects, such as the still unprosecuted Blackwater shootings in Nissour Square. As he explains, “There are many more things that can go wrong with this contracting approach to manning MiTTs than will go right. I fear that it is far too early for any of this field unit advisory work to pass from the hands of a credible, accountable and policy-responsive U.S./Coalition military force into the hands of a non-sovereign entity that will become a nightmare of management for USMIL & Iraqis very quickly thereafter. The potential for social and political damage appears extensive compared to any gains from reduced use of U.S. military manpower ….”

Thirdly, the resultant messaging and long-term effects have to be a cause for concern. General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testified a few weeks ago to Congress that building up Iraqi capabilities was the priority in the year ahead. Contrast this with the message that this contract sends to Congress, the American public, and most importantly, our Iraqi counterparts. When it comes to the actual deed, as opposed to descriptor, of the task, we really care only enough to hire contractors to do the job.

But, fourth, advising a partner military is not just about building up their military skillset. It is also about passing on values and building long-term relationships. When you contract out military advisors, the values of civil-military relations and professionalism are supplanted by the evident commoditization of military skills, not always the best message in a developing democracy. In turn, the relations are not built between officers advancing up the ranks between the two forces, but with a company and its ever-changing staff of employees. A signature moment is U.S.-Indonesian relations, for example, was a decade ago, when U.S. intelligence picked up word that a senior Indonesian general was contemplating a coup. Because he and one of our Joint Chiefs of Staff had actually trained together years earlier, the U.S. government was able to use the back channel of their personal friendship to persuade him not to act and preserve stability in a nascent democracy. Ideally, we would want similar such personal links to develop between the U.S. and Iraqi military, which we can leverage for policy purposes years into the future. Instead, we are contracting this potential relationship out, where it won’t be accessible, at least not unless we want to pay.

It is completely understandable why a hard-pressed force would contemplate contracting out advising the Iraq military. From a bureaucratic standpoint, it’s the easy way out. Despite repeated calls by such top military thinkers as Colonel John Nagl, the U.S. Army still does not have an official advising capacity. Advising has never been something “Big Army” has been all that interested in doing (it has traditionally been viewed as a career drag) and moving officers and NCOs into these roles would mean moving them out of other units. By contrast, all the muss and fuss can instead be handed off to a company to handle.

But just because a company can do the job, doesn’t always mean it should. Advising the Iraqi Army has been determined by our national leadership as a task that is essential to our successful war effort. We should treat it that way in how the job is executed.