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This article, by Jeremy Watson, was published in Scotland on Sunday, January 18, 2009
THE voice was unmistakable and the timing was impeccable. Just as George Bush was preparing to hand over the keys of the White House to Barack Obama, the Texan's bête noire put in the final appearance of his eight-year presidency.
There was only an old still photograph of the willowy, bearded figure of Osama bin Laden, but the voice was quickly authenticated as that of the al-Qaeda leader during a 22-minute rant renewing his calls for a Muslim jihad against the West.
References to the current battle between Israeli forces and Hamas in Gaza placed the video in the here and now, and the overall message could not have been clearer. Despite the global might of the US military machine and its state-of-the-art intelligence gathering, bin Laden, architect of the 9/11 attacks, was still out there. He has successfully evaded capture for more than six years by hiding out in the mountainous tribal regions of north-west Pakistan.
For Bush, bin Laden, whom he famously vowed to catch "dead or alive", is unfinished business of the most embarrassing kind. For Obama, the Saudi Arabian terrorist will be the spectre at the feast of his inauguration on Tuesday.
Andrew Legon, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, believes the significance of bin Laden's reappearance at this transitional moment - his last video was broadcast on Arab networks last May - will not be lost on either president. "The events of 9/11 became the defining moment of Bush's presidency and he won't be happy that bin Laden is still out there and has outlasted him," he said. "Now Obama has to take over, but he may find it just as difficult. It has been a combination of tough terrain and missed opportunities. The terrain in which bin Laden is hiding is very difficult to map and penetrate when you don't have the support."
So how has the master terrorist managed to stay at large despite one of the most intensive manhunts in history? Has his power to inspire terrorist operations around the world diminished because of his constant need for movement and protection? And what can he now expect from a new regime in the Oval Office?
All the signs are that as the Iraq mission starts to wind down, Afghanistan will become the focus and the testing ground for America's new commander-in-chief.
Bin Laden rose to prominence in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Bush, only a few months after taking office, announced his "war on terror" and an immediate attack on Afghanistan and its militant Islamic Taliban government. The mountains of Afghanistan had become the base of bin Laden's al-Qaeda and the launch pad for global jihad. The Taliban was overthrown in a matter of weeks and bin Laden and his fighters were pursued deep into the mountain ranges bordering the largely lawless areas of northern Pakistan. But in the absence of regular troops, US special forces commanders had to rely on mujahideen from northern Afghanistan to act as their spearhead and bin Laden slipped the noose.
Analysts believe Washington then underestimated the challenge of extracting bin Laden from the protection of a fiercely loyal population for whom the Saudi Arabian was a resistance hero. As weeks turned into months, even a dollars 50m reward for his capture failed to persuade anyone in the remote Pakistani villages to betray him. Then, in 2002, the regime of Saddam Hussein replaced Afghanistan as the focus of the war on terror. In 2003 Iraq was invaded, tying up the bulk of the US military for the next four years. Although bin Laden was still a target, he was no longer Washington's priority.
To Professor Paul Wilkinson, of the Centre for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University, criticism of the tactics used by the Bush White House in Afghanistan are justified. "The momentum was lost after the fall of the Taliban," he said. "Many were surprised at the speed at which this occurred and they could have got the core leadership of al-Qaeda if they had pressed on.
"But the Americans got hooked on the idea of invading Iraq and implanting democracy in the Middle East, which they hoped would spread. Saddam had nothing to do with bin Laden and al-Qaeda, but the deflection of resources of manpower and money meant the efforts that could have been put into bringing the leadership of al-Qaeda to book were lost." In the absence of locating him, US policy has been to isolate bin Laden in his hideouts in Pakistan, while taking out more easily accessible al-Qaeda regional commanders in other parts of the world.
But terrorism experts such as Professor David Capitanchik, of Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, believe the psychological impact of bin Laden's seeming ability to evade capture, along with his role in attracting funds to his group, has played a key part in al-Qaeda's survival.
The organisation and its offshoots are still well armed and able to run operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, South-east Asia and North Africa. They have also retained the ability to carry out attacks. Since 9/11, Bali, Madrid, London, Istanbul, Baghdad, Algiers, Islamabad and Amman all have come under attack.
"Bin Laden hides and moves around between remote caves so its not easy to track him," Capitanchik said. "He's well protected and as long as he remains there he remains a rallying point."
Many analysts believe that far from being beaten, al-Qaeda influence in Pakistan is growing with the setting up of training camps that supply the Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan with fresh soldiers. An increasingly heavy toll is being taken on the British forces operating under the Nato banner in Helmand Province. What has hindered US operations in Afghanistan, however, is that they are unable, for diplomatic reasons, to pursue insurgents to bases in Pakistan. Instead, they have had to concentrate on using unmanned missile-carrying drones to kill a number of al-Qaeda commanders on Pakistan soil.
Wilkinson believes that strengthening the government of Pakistan is the key to catching the al-Qaeda leader. "Pakistan doesn't have the military strength to take hold of those areas," he said. "Tribalism is the tradition there.
That situation could be remedied if Pakistan's democratic leadership is strengthened and they get more resources for their army and police. That would prepare the ground for a much more effective strategy against al-Qaeda."
But after last week's audio rant, Obama suggested eliminating the al-Qaeda leader was less important than containing him. "I think we have to so weaken his infrastructure that, whether he is technically alive or not, he is so pinned down that he cannot function," said the president-elect. "My preference obviously would be to capture or kill him. But if we have so tightened the noose that he's in a cave somewhere and can't even communicate with his operatives then we will meet our goal of protecting America."
Britain's Foreign Secretary, David Miliband used a similar theme in speeches in India. He went so far as suggesting the phrase "war on terror" had been "misleading and mistaken" by lumping together all terrorists and giving them common cause. He added that western solidarity "should not be based on who we are against but instead on the idea of who we are and the values we share".
On September 28, 2002, President Bush proclaimed: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons . . . The regime has long-standing and continuing ties to terrorist groups, and there are Al Qaeda terrorists inside Iraq.” Just over a year after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the president and his administration used these two fears — unconventional weapons and terrorism — to win public approval for going to war in Iraq. But the premises proved to be false. The chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq concluded that President Saddam Hussein had no such weapons or the means to produce them, and the U.S. intelligence community determined that there was no meaningful connection between Al Qaeda and Iraq. These conclusions came too late, however. On March 20, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began in an attempt to kill the Iraqi president and overthrow his regime. The Center for Public Integrity found that Bush and seven members of his administration made 935 demonstrably false statements in the lead-up to the war, from September 2001 to September 2003, as reported in Iraq: The War Card. The failure of the commander in chief and his administration to gather solid intelligence before sending U.S. troops to war has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives, billions of tax dollars, and the trust of not only of U.S. allies abroad, but also of a majority of the American people. When asked about the War Card study, a White House spokesman responded: “The actions taken in 2003 were based on the collective judgment of intelligence agencies around the world.”
ABU GHRAIB PRISON SCANDAL
Few incidents have done more damage to America’s image in the world than the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal. In late April 2004, Americans got their first glimpse of the haunting photographs of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad: scenes of naked, humiliated prisoners piled on top of one another, some forced to assume sexual positions, all while American soldiers posed nearby, smiling at the camera. The photos provoked an instant outcry around the world. In addressing the scandal, President Bush insisted that it was the fault of a few dishonorable soldiers, not a systematic problem with how the U.S. was managing the war in Iraq — but investigations suggest that the blame likely rises higher up the military’s chain of command. Some senior officials, such as General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge of military prisons in Iraq, were reprimanded and suspended. But the blame mainly fell on low-level soldiers, who were convicted and sent to prison for participating in sexual abuse, beatings, and other brutal acts. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said news of the abuse “stunned him.” But a military report by Major General Antonio Taguba found that the prison was overcrowded, undermanned, and short of resources, making accountability for prisoner treatment rare. Taguba also noted in 2004 that the Central Intelligence Agency had serious concerns about the kinds of interrogation techniques military forces used on detainees. But Taguba wasn’t permitted to delve much deeper; an article in The New Yorker in 2007 reported that military investigators were not allowed to look into the role of Rumsfeld and other Department of Defense officials. What is known is that the Pentagon found out about the existence of the photos in January 2004 and Taguba filed his report in March. President Bush knew about the abuses at Abu Ghraib at least by March, but he did not address the issue until the media publicized it in late April. Congress found out about the abuse the same day the American public did. “This is entirely unacceptable,” said Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican of Indiana and then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. The scandal, Lugar added, “pushed international resentment and distrust of the United States to levels unprecedented in recent times.” The biggest failure, according to watchdogs: the lack of accountability for military officials who failed to stop or prevent the abuses. The White House press office did not respond to a request for comment, but has previously stated that the administration and the military acted quickly “to hold people to account and bring them to justice, and to also take steps to prevent something like that from happening again.”
ARBITRARY DETENTION AT GUANTANAMO
The U.S. military prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has held hundreds of detainees without charging them with a crime. The White House conceived of Guantanamo as an extralegal zone for hardened terrorists whom it unilaterally declared were exempt from the Geneva Conventions. There, terrorists would have no recourse to the American legal system, lawyers at the Department of Justice argued; instead, they could be imprisoned for as long as the government saw fit. In June 2004, the Supreme Court struck down the administration’s plan and declared that the foreign nationals held at Guantanamo had the right to petition for their release in U.S. courts. Once forced to confront the legal status of its prisoners, the Department of Defense (DOD) began releasing or transferring many of the inmates. By October 2004, the United States had released 202 detainees from the prison camp and between late 2004 and March 2005 the remaining 558 detainees passed through “Combatant Status Review Tribunals,” which determined that 520 of these prisoners were “
By 2008, however, after further review of cases and intervention by U.S. courts, the number of prisoners held at Guantanamo dropped to approximately 255, according to the Pentagon. Another 60 or so have been cleared for release but can not be repatriated because their home country refused to accept them or due to other diplomatic complications. Lawyers for Guantanamo detainees have struggled to obtain documents from the U.S. military believed to contain evidence against their clients, and in some cases, the United States has had to drop prosecutions of Guantanamo inmates because much of their case was built on evidence obtained through interrogation methods widely considered to be torture. Asked to comment, a DOD spokesman directed the Center to a factsheet on Guantanamo: “Detainees held at Guantanamo Bay are not only afforded the majority of the protections granted to prisoners of war,” it states, “but many additional privileges that exceed the requirements established by the Geneva Conventions.
PENTAGON OFFICE’S MISLEADING INTELLIGENCE
An under-the-radar Department of Defense (DOD) office produced highly politicized intelligence assessments and promulgated one of the most inaccurate justifications for U.S. invasion of Iraq: that the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein had a working relationship with Al Qaeda. The Office of Special Plans, part of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy led by Douglas Feith, created and provided these assessments to senior U.S. officials. Though neither illegal nor unauthorized, these assessments were, in the view of the DOD inspector general, “inappropriate” and “did not clearly show the variance with the consensus of the Intelligence Community.” A Senate Intelligence Committee report found not only that the work of other intelligence agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency, was ignored, but also suggested that the Office of Special Plans shaped intelligence to fit the desires of policymakers — a cardinal sin in the intelligence world. According to several Democratic senators on the intelligence committee, “[C]riticism of the CIA’s analysis was sent by Under Secretary for Policy Feith to Deputy Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld.” W. Patrick Lang, the former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency, told investigative journalist Seymour M. Hersh, “The Pentagon has banded together to dominate the government’s foreign policy, and they’ve pulled it off.” The 9-11 Commission would later conclude that it found “
no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States.”
A study conducted by a DOD-funded think tank, after a review of captured Iraqi government documents, also found no “
between Al Qaeda and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Trumpeted by the White House as a key reason to invade Iraq, the much touted close “relationship” between Al Qaeda and Iraq simply did not exist.
MILITARY FAILURE TO SECURE IRAQ AFTER INVASION
Calling them “wildly off mark,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz dismissed the assessments of his own Army chief of staff, General Eric Shinseki, and a 1999 Department of Defense (DOD) war game scenario, both of which predicted the need for hundreds of thousands of troops to secure post-invasion Iraq — far more than the 148,000 who were eventually assigned the job. According to an official U.S. Army history of the conflict in Iraq, “The military means employed were sufficient to destroy the Saddam regime; they were not sufficient to replace it with the type of nation-state the United States wished to see in its place.” A 2005 unclassified study for the Army by the RAND Corporation, which was suppressed until media reports and congressional pressure brought it to light, said that the chaotic security situation after Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled were “conditions [that] enabled the insurgency to take root, and the Army and Marine Corps have been battling the insurgents ever since.” Though there were some strategies for securing post-invasion Iraq, “few if any made it into the serious planning process,” according to the RAND report. These ideas were “held at bay, in the most general sense, by two mutually reinforcing sets of assumptions that dominated planning . . . at the highest levels” — that few armed forces would be necessary after the invasion and that the military would not be an occupying force. Just days before the war began, Vice President Cheney said, “My belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”
LACK OF ARMORED PROTECTION FOR TROOPS
The U.S. military failed to provide adequate body armor and armored vehicles to soldiers and Marines fighting the Iraq war. Key assumptions made before the invasion and early in the occupation of Iraq proved faulty: namely, that the Iraqi people would welcome the United States’ presence and that the American military would not face an insurgency. In April 2003 military supply chiefs told the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Army Strategic Planning Board, led by General Richard Cody, that there was enough body armor and that the 50,000 troops behind the front lines did not need armor, according to a 2005 piece in The New York Times. By mid-May, as troops behind front lines faced attacks, Cody reversed that decision and ordered body armor for all, “regardless of duty position.” The case was similar for military vehicles. According to an Army history: “When OIF [Operation Iraqi Freedom] began, as in every previous war the U.S. Army has fought, logistical vehicles were largely unarmored or lightly armed. . . . The ‘360-degree’ Iraqi insurgency once again exposed the danger of this approach.” The early missteps were soon compounded by other problems. It took time for the bureaucracy at the Pentagon to move; for example, at one point, the Army's equipment manager reportedly reduced the priority level of armor to the same status of socks. Also, DOD relied on several unproven contractors, which led to delays. The result was that for too long too few troops had adequate armor in a conflict that turned out to have no front lines. Soldiers almost anywhere in Iraq could be targeted, especially by the insurgents’ weapon of choice, improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Between the beginning of the conflict in March 2003 through November 1, 2008, 2,145 troops were killed and nearly 21,000 troops were wounded by IEDs and other types of explosive devices in Iraq.
PENTAGON’S SLOW ADAPTATION TO A WAR-FOOTING
The Department of Defense (DOD) has often been unresponsive or slow to react to the needs of soldiers and Marines on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in the United States when they return. “A lesson I learned fairly early on was that important elements of the Department of Defense weren’t at war,” and thus failed to support those who were in a wartime posture, said Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates. Instead, he explained, they were “preoccupied with future capabilities and procurement programs, wedded to lumbering peacetime process and procedures, stuck in bureaucratic low-gear. The needs of those in combat too often were not addressed urgently or creatively.” According to The New York Times, “In Iraq, Army officers say the Air Force has often been out of touch, fulfilling only half of their requests for the sophisticated surveillance aircraft that ground commanders say are needed to find roadside bombs and track down insurgents.” The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Gates has criticized the Pentagon’s slow initial procurement of MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles), saying, “I believe that one factor that delayed the fielding was the pervasive assumption . . . that regimes could be toppled, major combat completed, the insurgency crushed, and most U.S. troops withdrawn fairly soon.” Gates sees a lack of accountability at the root of the problems, citing as an example Walter Reed Army Medical Center: “Over a year ago, The Washington Post broke the story about inadequate out-patient care at Walter Reed. I was disappointed by the initially-dismissive response of some in the Army’s leadership, who went into damage-control mode against the press and, in one case, blamed a couple of sergeants. Wrong move. I concluded responsibility lay much higher and acted accordingly.”
INADEQUATE PLANNING FOR POST-INVASION IRAQ
The United States planned poorly for the post-invasion administration of Iraq, contributing to the rise of a broad insurgency and the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. The blame can be cast widely. An official Army history of the Iraq conflict found that “
the Army, as the service primarily responsible for ground operations, should have insisted on better . . . planning and preparations. . . .” A RAND Corporation study concluded that the State Department’s “main postwar planning effort . . . raised many of the right questions. . . . Yet the Department of Defense largely ignored this project.”
Rand also found that much of the confusion between the State and Defense departments stemmed from poor direction from the National Security Council, which failed to mediate disputes between the departments. Others blame the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, which issued two orders that disbanded the Iraqi military and gutted the Iraqi government by banning members of the Ba'ath Party. Critics say those decisions, which took many U.S. civilian and military leaders by surprise, contributed to the rise in violence. Before Bremer replaced him as director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, Lieutenant General Jay Garner drafted a postwar plan for Iraq, which he introduced with, “History will judge the war against Iraq not by the brilliance of its military execution, but by the effectiveness of the post-hostilities activities.”
POOR HEALTH CARE FOR VETERANS
Veterans enrolled in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care programs have long complained of receiving inadequate treatment at poorly funded facilities. According to a 2003 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, veterans were forced to travel long distances to receive care — about 25 percent of the vets lived more than a 60-minute drive from a VA hospital. They also had to endure long waits for appointments, especially in regions like Florida, home to a large number of aging veterans. Nursing homes for veterans were notoriously understaffed, making it difficult to keep up with the increasing population of older vets who need care. But the strains imposed by new veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan exposed a whole new litany of problems for the VA and the military. Citizens and lawmakers were outraged after The Washington Post exposed dismal conditions for veterans at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2007. Several high-ranking Defense Department officials were fired or stepped down under pressure, and stories soon emerged about other medical facilities where veterans were placed in rooms teeming with fruit flies, slept on broken hospital beds or faced unprofessional staff. A subsequent investigation of 1,400 hospitals and other facilities for vets found more than 1,000 incidents of substandard conditions. The VA has also struggled to deal with the many young veterans complaining of mental health problems, especially post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Treatment for PTSD was found to be inadequate in 2005, when only half of VA medical centers had a PTSD clinical team. Congressional testimony indicated that VA examiners felt pressure to conduct exams of veterans in as little as 20 minutes. The larger problem is that the VA’s patient workload has nearly doubled in the past 10 years; there are now 7.8 million enrollees in the VA health system. The VA “has faced difficulties in managing its resources” in the face of this rising workload, concluded the GAO. While the agency has dealt with challenges in recruiting and retaining health care professionals, it has also encountered problems in its internal budget process, the GAO found. Those issues have been exacerbated by an often-unpredictable Congressional appropriations process, which has frequently been late in delivering a finalized VA budget. The result is considerable confusion and inconsistency in the timely delivery and quality of care. A VA spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, but Gerald M. Cross, acting principal deputy under the secretary of health, told Congress in 2007 that the department is committed to “providing timely, high-quality health care to those who have helped defend and preserve freedom around the world.”
VETERAN DISABILITY CLAIMS LANGUISH
For many injured veterans — aging former soldiers as well as younger ones recently back from Iraq and Afghanistan — disability claims are a vital and necessary source of income. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), however, has long failed to process claims in a timely manner, forcing many vets to wait an average of six months for their claim to be processed, and as long as two years to wait for an appeal. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported a growing backlog of claims and lengthy processing times in 2001, and the problem has persisted. By February 2007, the backlog had grown to almost 400,000 — more than 130,000 of which had exceeded the VA’s 160-day goal to process a claim. This is due in part to the growing number of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan filing disability claims — total claims have jumped from about 579,000 in 2000 to some 806,000 in 2006, a 39 percent increase. The Senate unanimously passed a measure in 2007 to provide the VA with $70.3 million to eliminate the backlog of disability claims by hiring new processors and implementing better staff training. But increasing the number of processors on staff did not immediately solve the crisis. The GAO says that increased numbers must be paired with “adequate training and performance management” in order to issue timely and accurate decisions. Daniel Akaka, Democrat of Hawaii and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has called for better technology, improved employee training, and an enhanced claims process to end the long delays. Until the problems are fixed, the persistent delays mean that tens of thousands of veterans and their families will continue to struggle financially. The VA press office did not respond to a request for comment, but Patrick Dunne, the department's acting under secretary for benefits, told Congress in July 2008 that the department is “
continually seeking new ways to increase production and shorten the time veterans are waiting for decisions on their claims,”
which include “
longer-term efforts to enhance and upgrade our claims processing systems through integration of today's technology.”
FAILURE TO SECURE WEAPONS IN IRAQ
In the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops failed to secure weapons depots across the country, allowing Iraqis to loot vast amounts of explosives, ammunition, and weapons that were then used to fuel and supply the insurgency. Many sites around Iraq remained unsecured even three and a half years after the invasion, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). “According to lessons-learned reports and senior-level DOD [Department of Defense] officials,” the GAO reported, “the widespread looting occurred because DOD had insufficient troop levels to secure conventional munitions storage sites due to several . . . planning priorities and assumptions.” Among those assumptions — which turned out to be wrong — was a belief that the Iraqi military would assist in securing these installations. The GAO also found that the Pentagon “did not have a centrally managed program for the disposition of enemy munitions until August 2003, after widespread looting had already occurred.” The sites included many well known to intelligence experts, such as the sprawling Al Qaqaa military facility south of Baghdad. The Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation each stressed to Pentagon officials the need to secure these sites, but the military largely failed to address the issue. Stolen explosives traced to the looting have been used to make improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the number-one killer of U.S. troops in Iraq. Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, at least 2,145 troops have been killed by IEDs and other types of explosive devices. The DOD press office did not respond to a request for comment, but at a 2007 briefing, Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged the scope of the problem. “We have destroyed several hundred thousand tons of Iraqi munitions,” he told reporters. “I mean, fundamentally, the entire country was one big ammo dump. And there were thousands of these sites... we're doing our best to try and find them, but given the expanse of the country and all the other tasks which the military is trying to carry out there, it's a huge task.
CONTRACTORS FAILING TROOPS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
Since the invasion of Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s escalating use of outside contractors has coincided with a decrease in oversight, endangering the well-being of American troops serving there and in Iraq. The Department of Defense (DOD) has suffered a “complete breakdown in the procurement process” during the past seven years, according to Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, echoing the findings of the Center for Public Integrity’s Windfalls of War and Windfalls of War II projects. Examples abound of companies providing substandard supplies to American forces, such as when Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR), the largest contractor in Iraq, provided contaminated water to 5,000 U.S. troops in 2005 and when Halliburton, then KBR’s parent company, engaged in overcharges and questionable costs of $212.3 million for oil reconstruction work, as reported by DOD auditors. In July 2008, the Pentagon revealed that 16 Americans had died of accidental electrocution in Iraq, some tied to faulty wiring at facilities run by U.S. contractors. Among the problems cited by former electricians: inexperienced employees, including foreign electricians who did not speak English. Another problem plaguing U.S. contractors have been fires — 283 of them over just five months at facilities maintained by KBR, according to a 2007 report by the Defense Contract Management Agency. The most glaring case of poor oversight may be AEY Inc., which was awarded a nearly $300 million contract to supply ammunition for Afghanistan’s army and police. In a case that Representative Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican, said speaks “volumes about what's wrong with the military contracting process today,” AEY was allegedly run out of an unmarked office in Miami Beach by a 22-year-old; much of the ammunition he sold were reportedly old rounds shipped from Albania that were considered so unstable that NATO and the United States spent millions of dollars to destroy the stockpiles. These, prosecutors charge, included $10 million worth of rounds manufactured in China in the 1960s; the selling of Chinese ammunition is a breach of U.S. law. All this allegedly happened despite AEY being on a State Department watch list since 2005.
SURGE IN OUTSOURCING CREATES PROBLEMS IN PERFORMANCE, OVERSIGHT
A dramatic increase in the contracting of government services has resulted in a litany of problems, ranging from cost overruns and missed deadlines to a lack of oversight, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO). From 2001 to 2005, the number of federal contractor jobs surged by 72 percent, increasing from 4.4 million to 7.6 million. Spending on contractors nearly doubled from FY 2001 to FY 2006, jumping from $234.8 billion to $415 billion The GAO has issued a series of reports identifying problems associated with the rise in outsourcing. Among the issues: “separating wants from needs; executing acquisition programs within available funding and established timeframes; using sound contracting arrangements with appropriate incentives and effective oversight; assuring that contractors are used only in appropriate circumstances and play proper roles; and sustaining a capable and accountable acquisition workforce ” GAO auditors found that interagency contracting was a “high-risk area” for outsourcing, as were the Department of Energy, Department of Defense, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The agency also cited concerns about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now contracts out one-third of its workforce. Lack of competition is another problem. The Department of the Interior’s inspector general found that more than a quarter of the agency’s $380 billion in contracts were awarded without competition.
FAILURE TO REGULATE SECURITY CONTRACTORS
In a busy Baghdad square, a disturbance between a group of Americans and Iraqis on September 16, 2007 resulted in the shooting death of 17 Iraqi civilians. The Americans involved were not military; they were private security contractors from a company called Blackwater. To date security contractors in Iraq number around 48,000 from various companies. Similarly, jobs such as cooking and cleaning on military bases — positions that in past wars were largely filled by military or government personnel — are increasingly outsourced to private companies. The number of private contractors, as well as the amount of money the government pays them, has risen considerably as the Iraq war has gone on, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s 2007 report, Windfalls of War II. The result has been less coordination in missions involving both military and private groups, such as U.K.-based Erinys, and U.S.-based Blackwater and KBR. The problem was highlighted in 2004, when insurgents ambushed a KBR truck convoy and drivers refused to work until security was improved. Without the deliveries, the military was left without adequate fuel, water, and ammunition. A complicating factor has been the ambiguous legal status of private contractors. In the 2007 Blackwater shooting, the security firm initially maintained that the guards fired in self-defense, but investigations by the Iraqi government and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both conclude that the only shots fired came from Blackwater employees. The Department of Defense holds its contractors liable under laws covering the military, but Blackwater works for the State Department, which does not. Critics say that such large-scale security contracting results in a lack of coordination and accountability which poses a risk to American troops as well as to Iraqis, and that mistakes made by U.S. contractors will ultimately be seen by Iraqis as mistakes by the U.S. military. In a 2008 hearing, a senior official argued that contractors have long been an essential and cost-effective tool for ensuring safety in war regions. In Senate testimony, Patrick F. Kennedy, a State Department under secretary, said “The use of security contractors in these dangerous places has allowed the Department the flexibility to rapidly expand its capability… and to support national-security initiatives without the delays inherent in recruiting, hiring and training full-time personnel.
190,000 MISSING WEAPONS IN IRAQ
American weaponry intended for Iraqi security forces may have ended up in the hands of insurgents attacking U.S. troops in Iraq, due largely to oversights at the Department of Defense (DOD), according to government auditors. At least 190,000 AK-47 assault rifles and pistols disappeared between 2004 and 2005, some 30 percent of all weapons the United States distributed to Iraqi forces during that time, reported the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in an August 2007 study. While security assistance programs are traditionally operated by the State Department, the Pentagon — as it has in operations throughout the Iraq war— asserted control of the program early on, saying that it could provide greater flexibility. Until December 2005, neither the Pentagon nor Multinational Force-Iraq maintained any central record of equipment distributed during Iraqi security force training (then led by General David Petraeus). The GAO also found that 135,000 pieces of body armor and 115,000 helmets went missing during that time. A subsequent New York Times investigation found that Kassim al-Saffar, an Iraqi businessman Americans entrusted to supply Iraqi police cadets, turned the U.S. armory into a “private arms bazaar” selling weapons to anyone with cash in hand — meaning more U.S. resources wasted in Iraq and greater danger for American troops serving there.
This article, by Josh White, was originally published in the Washington Post, July 3, 2008
July 3, 2008 - The nation's top military officer said yesterday that more U.S. troops are needed in Afghanistan to tamp down an increasingly violent insurgency, but that the Pentagon does not have sufficient forces to send because they are committed to the war in Iraq.
Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said insurgent Taliban and extremist forces in Afghanistan have become "a very complex problem," one that is tied to the extensive drug trade, a faltering economy and the porous border with Pakistan. Violence in Afghanistan has increased markedly over recent weeks, with June the deadliest month for U.S. troops since the war began in 2001.
"I don't have troops I can reach for, brigades I can reach, to send into Afghanistan until I have a reduced requirement in Iraq," Mullen told reporters at the Pentagon. "Afghanistan has been and remains an economy-of-force campaign, which by definition means we need more forces there."
Mullen has raised similar concerns over the past several months, but his comments yesterday were more pointed and came amid rising concern at the Pentagon over the situation in Afghanistan, where insurgents have regrouped in the south and east.
Mullen and President Bush also addressed the possibility of a conflict with Iran in separate appearances yesterday, with both saying they favor diplomacy over the use of military force. Asked directly about the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran, Bush, in an appearance in the White House Rose Garden, said: "I have made it very clear to all parties that the first option ought to be solve this problem diplomatically." But he refused to rule out the use of force in the standoff over Iran's effort to develop nuclear weapons.
Bush also promised to send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan by the end of the year. He acknowledged the increasing violence there, saying that "we're going to increase troops by 2009," but did not offer details.
Mullen said military commanders are looking at the prospects for sending additional troops to Afghanistan in 2009, but only if conditions in Iraq continue to improve over the coming months, which would allow some forces to be withdrawn and reallocated. The war in Iraq has occupied as many as 20 military brigades during the troop buildup over the past year, reducing violence there substantially but convincing many officers and experts that a quick drawdown in Iraq would jeopardize gains.
Recent bleak assessments about the Taliban and a dramatic increase in the number of attacks in Afghanistan have left military commanders with nowhere to turn as they seek more troops. The Army and Marine Corps have been stretched thin by numerous deployments to both war zones, and the administration has been unable to persuade allies to send more troops.
"The Taliban and their supporters have, without question, grown more effective and more aggressive in recent weeks, as the casualty figures clearly demonstrate," Mullen said. ". . . We all need to be patient. As we have seen in Iraq, counterinsurgency warfare takes time and it takes a certain level of commitment."
In April, Mullen told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States was not doing all it should in Afghanistan and that more troops were needed. At a meeting in Fort Lewis, Wash., two weeks ago, Mullen said that he needed at least three more brigades in Afghanistan but that troop constraints were preventing such a move. "We are in a very delicate time," he said.
Members of Congress and critics of the Iraq war have argued for years that Iraq has diverted resources from the fight in Afghanistan. Mullen's comments underscore the effect of keeping roughly 145,000 troops in Iraq. Unlike the critics, however, Mullen sees both wars as vital to creating a stable region and wants to wait for sustained progress in Iraq before trying to shift resources.
About 60,000 troops from 40 nations are in Afghanistan, 32,000 of them from the United States.
"We need to make deeper cuts in Iraq to be able to do Afghanistan at greater strength, but it makes me nervous to accelerate the drawdown in Iraq," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a military expert at the Brookings Institution. "It's dangerous to throw away what you've been able to succeed in doing in one place in the hope that you might help a mission where you're having relative failure elsewhere."
James Jay Carafano, a military expert at the Heritage Foundation, said it is clear that the war in Afghanistan needs more troops. He argued that the only sensible strategy is to hold the line there until brigades can be moved out of Iraq.
"If you want to deal with Afghanistan, you have to deal with Iraq first," he said. Carafano said he thinks the next president could reduce forces in Iraq significantly by 2011, allowing a "responsible force" to be in Afghanistan by that time.
Addressing a potential conflict with Iran, Mullen said he strongly favors diplomacy over military action to deter Tehran from seeking nuclear weapons. Mullen visited Israeli officials last week but declined to provide details on his discussions with them.
"Clearly there is a very broad concern about the overall stability level in the Middle East," Mullen said. For the military, "opening up a third front right now would be extremely stressful on us," he added. "That doesn't mean we don't have capacity or reserve, but that would really be very challenging, and also the consequences of that sometimes are very difficult to predict."
Mullen said he opposes a military strike on Iran by either the United States or Israel.
"My strong preference here is to handle all of this diplomatically with the other powers of governments, ours and many others, as opposed to any kind of strike occurring," Mullen said. "This is a very unstable part of the world, and I don't need it to be more unstable."