The straight story on contractors in Iraq

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

The Congressional Budget Office released a report early last month on the use of contractors in Iraq. Predictably, the report generated eye-catching headlines but little in-depth analysis. Yet, as always, that analysis is where the real story lies.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman
Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) requested the
study to assess the roles, costs and
other issues associated with contractors
on the battlefield. The report,
which covers 2003 to 2007, concluded
that the United States spent
about $85 billion on contractors in
the Iraq theater during that time.

The researchers also estimated that
about 190,000 contractor employees
were involved. Those two findings
generated the most headlines, with
many stories ignoring the more important
context behind them.

For example, CBO found that contractor
employees are no more expensive
than military personnel performing similar
functions, such as security. In addition,
although CBO concluded that the
ratio of contractor personnel to military
personnel in Iraq ? about 1-to-1 ? is
higher than it has been during any other
major conflict, CBO also noted that the
ratio is about the same as it was during
the U.S. involvement in the Balkans in
the 1990s.

In other words, the increased reliance
on contractors for logistics, food, engineering
support and more is not particularly
new or radical. It has been evolving.
The scope of U.S. involvement determines
the number of in-theater contract
employees far more than some extraordinary
increase in the use of contractors.

Indeed, although it is true that the raw
numbers are unprecedented, so too is the
multifaceted mission. Never before has
the United States been involved in an
active conflict while
engaged in massive
nationwide reconstruction
and economic,
health, education, agricultural
and other development
initiatives in the
affected country.

In addition, because
the CBO contractor
count includes all contractor
and subcontractor
employees working on
any type of contract in
the Iraq theater (which
includes not only Iraq
but also Kuwait, Turkey
and other countries), it is
more than a little disingenuous
to compare the number of contractor
personnel in theater to the number
of military personnel. The 190,000
estimate includes thousands of contractor
employees working on reconstruction and
development projects across the country
and thousands of others providing support
outside combat zones. To compare
those individuals with soldiers implies
that they are performing functions are
interchangeable or that all take place on
the battlefield, which is not the case.

The report notes that of the 190,000
contractor employees, only 20 percent are
U.S. citizens and about 40 percent are citizens
of the nations in which the work is
being performed, principally Iraq. Put
differently, contracting in and around
Iraq is a source of employment and economic
development precisely where it is
sorely needed.

Unfortunately, the media's coverage of
the report has typically focused on only
the huge amount of money spent and a
comment from one U.S. senator about the
potential for fraud and abuse. However,
the report makes no mention of fraud or
abuse, and the special inspector
general for Iraq reconstruction
has repeatedly said that
although cases of fraud have
occurred, they have not been a
common component of the
Iraq contracting experience.

The CBO report is a serious
and thoughtful assessment of
contractors' role in supporting
the Iraq mission. Regardless of
one's views of U.S. involvement
in that region, the facts and
context contained in the report
deserve more than dramatic
headlines or simplistic interpretations.

After all, if those
facts and context are going to
be ignored, why bother asking
for the report in the first place?

Stan Soloway is president
and chief executive officer of the
Professional Services Council.

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