State will turn to contractors for support in Iraq

The State Department will have to hire thousands of contractors to provide security and logistical support as the U.S. military begins to withdraw from Iraq in 2011, according to new findings by a congressional commission.

Within 18 months, U.S. troops are scheduled to depart Iraq. But, the difficult work of rebuilding the war-torn nation will continue, with most of the responsibility falling on State.

"In most cases, State has no organic capability to perform the functions now provided by DoD, and support from the Iraqi government is generally not yet a practicable option," said Michael Thibault, co-chairman of the Commission on Wartime Contracting, during a hearing on Monday. "Assuming no change in State's Iraq mission, the department's only realistic option for dealing with the U.S. military's exit is to make much heavier use of contractors."

But, turning to the private sector for greater assistance is far from a panacea, panel members said. Recently, State has had trouble ensuring proper oversight, management and accountability of its war zone contractors. Meanwhile, Congress has to yet to give State the resources to carry out its new mission in Iraq, the commission wrote in a new report.

The Defense and State departments have developed a list of more than 1,000 tasks and functions that must be addressed during the transition of responsibility next year, ranging from portable toilets to environmental cleanup. State also must pick up the slack for 14 key security functions the military performs, including recovering killed and wounded personnel; clearing travel routes; and overseeing convoy security, tactical operations and communications support.

In an April 7 letter to the Pentagon, Ambassador Patrick Kennedy conceded State does not have the capability or the tools to perform many of these functions and likely will have to rely on contractors for support. "After the departure of U.S. forces [from Iraq], 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," wrote Kennedy, who serves as undersecretary of State for management.

State requested that Defense provide the agency with 24 Black Hawk helicopters, four refueling trucks and trailers, 50 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, and security equipment for perimeter security and observation.

Without the military equipment, Kennedy suggested State would "essentially have to duplicate the capabilities of the U.S. military" using less effective gear. "As a result, the security of [State] personnel in Iraq will be degraded significantly and we can expect increased casualties," the ambassador wrote.

State also wants access to the Army's Logistics Civil Augmentation Program contract and to continue receiving acquisition support from the Defense Logistics Agency. But, relying on the single-source LOGCAP III contract -- which provides meals, fuel, and laundry and sanitation services to U.S. troops in Iraq -- could be politically and bureaucratically tricky.

In May, the Army announced, much to the dismay of many on Capitol Hill, that it would not hold a new competition for LOGCAP work in Iraq and KBR would maintain control of the multibillion-dollar contract until U.S. forces withdraw from the country in December 2011. The Army had planned to hold a competition for the work in Iraq, much like it did in Afghanistan and Kuwait, but after consulting with military commanders, officials decided the transition would be too disruptive and costly.

The Army would face a difficult choice if it allowed State to continue using LOGCAP past 2011: extend the contract again or conduct a new competition for a contract another agency would use almost exclusively. The commission suggested the Army consider the latter option, but in either scenario, Defense would almost undoubtedly play a role in overseeing the contractor.

"[State] does not have within its Foreign Service cadre sufficient experience and expertise to perform necessary contract oversight," Kennedy wrote.

In a July 9 letter to Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, State said it would ask Defense to revive its LOGCAP IV competition plan. The Army did not respond to a request for comment.

"Due to the long acquisition lead time involved, the department has already initiated action to develop a competitive solicitation for the base life support services should it be unable to remain under the LOGCAP program," State said.

In addition to logistical challenges, State would have to more than double its 2,700-member private security force in Iraq to handle its future needs, officials told the panel.

State has been hiring specialists for its Diplomatic Security arm, but the clock is ticking and major decisions about interdepartmental efforts and contractor support remain unanswered, the commission said.

"The [Obama] administration and the Congress face a fast-closing window of opportunity to avoid unnecessary and tragic loss of life; to reduce the risks of unmet needs, weak oversight, and lost or misspent funds; and to avert damage to the U.S. mission in Iraq and to broader policy objectives," the report said.

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