Though the story of the U.S military’s dependency on contractors — particularly the behemoth Kellogg, Brown and Root, offspring of Halliburton — is well-ploughed, writer Pratap Chatterjee, who has made reporting on the seediness of war profiteering his obsession over the last seven years, embedding with U.S military and spear-heading CorpWatch, freshly explores today how KBR is the fuel, keeping the ranks flush enough to fight, and why President Obama might not be able to wean the military off privateers, even if he wanted to.
Many people who know something about KBR’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan might want Obama to question the military commanders at Rock Island and the corporate executives in Arlington about the shoddy electrical work, unchlorinated shower water, overcharges for trucks sitting idle in the desert, deaths of KBR employees and affiliated soldiers in Iraq, million-dollar alleged bribes accepted by KBR managers, and billions of dollars in missing receipts, among a slew of other complaints that have received wide publicity over the last five years.
But those would be the wrong questions.
Obama needs to ask his Pentagon commanders this: Can the U.S. military he has now inherited do anything without KBR?
Consider that the center-left in political discourse has now shifted into an “it’s our war now” mode. Between Tom Ricks (now a senior fellow at the Center for New American Security, brainchild of Michele Flournoy, now at the Pentagon, and led by chief COIN-operator John Nagl ) declaring we must stay in Iraq for years and years, and mainstream cup bearers like David Ignatius arguing for more U.S troops in Afghanistan and money for Pakistan on behalf of “American officials” in his Sunday column, insisting the decision to put more than 17,000 troops into Afghanistan will be “one of the fateful decisions of (Obama’s) presidency,” we know any echoing drumbeat to throttle down on the war machine gets lost in the din. Just like old times.
So, Chatterjee writes, the relentless need to recruit fresh troops and retain them chugs on — KBR helps by padding the soldiers’ experience in-country with unprecedented comforts supplied mostly by poor migrants making $2.50 an hour — though recent experience tells us that recruiting has its limits. Therefore, without the contractors there is no war. The best we could hope for, now, is for Obama’s team and Congress to try and force some transparency and accountability onto the situation, but let’s be real, the private sector is now in the catbird seat:
But could Obama dismiss KBR’s army, even if he wanted to? Will Obama really be willing to ask American volunteer soldiers to give up the bacon, romaine lettuce, and roast turkey that they have come to expect in a war zone? And even if he could do so, those are only the luxuries. Keep in mind that, on U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, every single item, from beans to bullets, is shipped using contractors like PWC of Kuwait and Maersk of Denmark. In the last two decades, the U.S. military has even divested itself of the hardware and people that would allow it to move tanks around the world, relying instead on contractors to do such work.
The White House Web site states that “Obama and Biden support plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 soldiers and the Marine Corps by 27,000 Marines. Increasing our end strength will help units retrain and re-equip properly between deployments and decrease the strain on military families.” As part of the same policy statement, the site claims the new administration will reform contracting by creating “transparency for military contractors,” as well as restoring “honesty, openness, and commonsense to contracting and procurement” by “rebuilding our contract officer corps.”
Nowhere, however, does that Web site suggest that the new administration will work toward ending, or even radically cutting back, the use of contractors on the battlefield, or that those 92,000 new soldiers and Marines are going to fill logistics battalions that have been decimated in the last two decades. What we already know of the military policies of the new administration suggests instead that President Obama wants to expand U.S. military might. So don’t be surprised if the new LOGCAP contract, a $150 billion 10-year program that began on September 20, 2008, remains in place, with some minor tinkering around the edges to provide value for taxpayer money. KBR’s army, it seems, will remain on the march.