On a conference call with progressive media, White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communication Ben Rhodes stressed that the United States would now commence a “normal” relationship with the Iraqi government, an equal partnership between two sovereign nations. But it’s hard to square that with the reality that the United States will have a massive diplomatic presence in the country, with the largest embassy in the world in Baghdad, two consulates in Ibril and Basra, and as many as 5,000 private military contractors under the direction of the State Department protecting it all.
Reporters questioned Rhodes on the private military contractors running security in Iraq, the level of which he put at between 4,000-5,000. On two occasions, Rhodes tried to spell out their mission. “They will not be engaged in any type of operations beyond securing our sites and personnel,” Rhodes said. At another point, he added, “They will be focused, primarily, exclusively, on the protection of our diplomatic personnel. They are not going to be involved in any operations beyond that.” They would mainly guard the specific sites where diplomats and other personnel are doing their work, and would guard the movements of personnel around what still can be a dangerous country.
But if that’s the case, why has the White House been blocking oversight about basic facts regarding the composition and makeup of the private security force? We don’t know basic questions, like the amount of armed personnel and the rules of engagement. I asked Rhodes this question, about why the State Department has not been forthcoming on oversight. “It’s our responsibility to be as transparent as possible,” Rhodes said. “And we are committed to fulfilling those responsibilities… we’ve been putting together the projected staffing. We did want to finalize how many troops would be in the country, as that has some bearing on this.” Rhodes said that, now that there is greater clarity about the military footprint, or lack thereof, the State Department should be able to be more responsive to oversight requests about the nature of the private military contractor mission. “We have an obligation to fulfill those requests,” Rhodes said.
Responding to a question from Wired reporter and former FDL colleague Spencer Ackerman, who wrote skeptically about the end of the war earlier today, Rhodes said that the State Department and the US government “learned a lot of lessons on private security contractors” during the war, and hopefully they would apply those lessons to managing what amounts to the size of a military combat brigade full of them. “In the planning that’s been done for the end of the war, the State Department has been building out its own capacity to manage a contractor presence,” Rhodes added. “The planning has been going on at State for a couple years now. You’re correct that this is a uniquely large State Department civilian footprint. But we want to make sure our people are secure.”
Rhodes concluded that he expected the security contractor footprint to decrease over time, as more Iraqis are hired to manage security of the diplomatic personnel.
What we don’t know is what manner of shadow force, with the CIA or JSOC or some other covert operation, will remain in Iraq to deal with counter-terrorism operations. Increasingly, this is the way our wars are going, away from overt troop deployments and toward covert operations that get little attention.