The Complex

Ghosts of Baghdad: America's Army of Contractors Hasn't Gone Anywhere. They Just Work for The Iraqi Government

The Pentagon says the last of its defense contractors left Iraq in December, just weeks before portions of the increasingly violent country were conquered by al-Qaeda. There's a catch, however: While the number of Iraq contractors on U.S. payrolls has plummeted, some of those same individuals are still there, working directly for the Iraqi government.

The change is part of the United States' evolving relationship with Baghdad. The last Defense Department contract with Iraq was transferred to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration in December, said Navy Cmdr. Bill Speaks, a Pentagon spokesman. That leaves the Defense Department's number of contractors in Iraq at 0, down 6,624 in October, according to a quarterly report released at the time. Of those 6,624 contractors, 1,626 were U.S. citizens, 2,807 were civilians of another country, and 2,191 were Iraqi citizens from Iraq, the report said.

Work on the last major Defense Department contract in Iraq ended Dec. 15, when the Iraqi government took over a U.S. facility at Umm Qasr Naval Base, Speaks said. The United States built a ship repair facility there for the Iraqi military, and opened it in 2011.

The change underscores how the U.S. military continues to disentangle itself from Iraq even as a recent surge in sectarian violence threatens to undo years of hard-won gains. There are now just 250 U.S. troops in Iraq, Speaks said, down from 157,800 at the height of the surge. About half are assigned to the Office of Security Cooperation - Iraq, which oversees the U.S. military's interaction with Iraqi forces. The rest are primarily Marine Corps security guards who work at U.S. diplomatic facilities.

One example of a company staying in Iraq despite the change in who pays its bill is Triple Canopy, the behemoth defense firm based in Herndon, VA. It has made a fortune as one of Washington's primary security providers in war zones, and is one of eight companies with a piece of the State Department's five-year, $10.8 billion Worldwide Protective Services contract, which was signed in 2010 and lays out the terms by which contractors provide security to U.S. diplomatic facilities and personnel across the world. But Triple Canopy also had a variety of smaller contracts with the Pentagon for other work in Iraq, and intends to continue working there now.

"Recently all U.S. government agencies have reduced their reliance on contractors due to budget cuts and have de-scoped contracts across the board, including in Iraq," the company said a statement to Foreign Policy. "Contractors will continue to remain engaged in Iraq in the near future. However, the majority of these personnel will likely be working on commercial extractive and construction projects."

The State Department, meanwhile, still has about 5,000 contractors on its books working in Iraq at the embassy in Baghdad and its consulates in Basra and Erbil, a department spokesperson told FP. About 2,000 are U.S. citizens. Both numbers reflect a steep decline from January 2013, when the State Department had 12,500 contractors - including about 4,500 American citizens -- working in Iraq.

With virtually no U.S. troops left in Iraq, the remaining contractor force handles a variety of missions that would have once been handled by the military. Dyncorp International, for example, signed a five-year deal with the State Department in 2010 that could be worth up to $894 million to provide a private air force that includes UH-1 utility helicopters and DHC-8 planes.  The company provides not only air transportation, but movement of "quick reaction" forces that might be needed in an emergency, medical evacuation operations, route reconnaissance and aerial convoy escort, a State Department official said.

Top officials at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad plan to continue reducing staff and facilities as the United States establishes a post-war footing with Iraq, according to a State Department inspector general report released in May. The department spent $698 million on security in 2012 -- more than it did on any other mission, the report said.

The current numbers, even with reductions, illustrate the continued problems that go with raising a separate contractor force to provide security, rather than using the U.S. military, former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, R-CT, told FP. He was co-chairman of the Independent Commission on Wartime Contracting, which was established by Congress and determined that at least $31 billion in U.S. funding had been wasted due to poor oversight, fraud, waste, and abuse.

"When the military had to leave, it made us even more dependent on contractors for security," said Shays, now a distinguished fellow at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. "The one thing that's a given: We can't go to war without contractors and we can't go to peace without contractors."

AFP/ Getty Images

The Complex

U.S. Drone Crashes in Yemen

Yemeni officials said that an American drone crashed last week in a deserted area in eastern Yemen.

Three military officers, attached to a military brigade in al-Mahrah province, said that one of their brigade teams was tasked early Thursday, Jan. 16*, to fetch the drone wreck that is now with the brigade near the crash scene.

The United States has used drones to attack suspected militants of the local branch al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, considered the most dangerous affiliate of the global al Qaeda network.

An officer with the 123rd Infantry Brigade under the command of the local "Axis," or local military headquarters, in the town of al-Ghaydah, said that his commander tasked a team on early Thursday morning to fetch the wreck after Bedouins informed him of the crash a few hours earlier. "First, the Bedouins saw it catch fire while still in the air. Then it fell immediately to the desert," said the military officer, who spoke anonymously, citing the "sensitivity" of the matter.

Since 2002, the United States is estimated to have conducted more than 86 strikes against suspected al Qaeda militants, according to the Long War Journal, a website that tracks the covert drone program based on international media outlets and Yemeni local reports. The estimated death toll of suspected al Qaeda members has reached 396, while the civilian death toll has numbered approximately 100. Late last year, a U.S. drone targeted a wedding convoy in al-Bayda province, killing nine civilians and at least three militants who locals said were part of the procession.

This isn't* the first time a drone has supposedly gone down over Yemen. In 2011, for example, a unmanned aircraft crashed in Abyan province. (Initial press reports said it was a Predator drone; locals I spoke with said it was a smaller, hand-held Raven.) Four more drones had major mishaps in the skies over Afghanistan, according to U.S. military statistics.

The 123rd Brigade officer said this most recent crash took place at sunset on Wednesday in a deserted district called Hat, some estimated 60 kilometers from the brigade's headquarters. But the Bedouins who witnessed the drone crash -- some of whom serve as border guards and are enlisted in the 123rd Brigade -- weren't able to inform the military until approximately 9 p.m.

After the local brigade commander informed senior officials in Sanaa, said the officer, a team was tasked to fetch the wrecked drone at 1 a.m. Thursday. "They arrived at the scene to find it totally burned," said the officer.

So far, the Yemeni government hasn't commented on the issue. Mohammed al-Basha, spokesperson at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, said, "At this point I can't confirm nor deny the incident." Other officers from the 123rd Brigade, contacted by phone, declined to speak on the record because they were not authorized to do so. Representatives for the CIA and the Pentagon also declined to comment.

One officer from the 123rd Brigade said that his fellow soldiers found two missiles next to the drone and detonated them based on the commander's order. "They did so for fear they would later explode and do harm."

He said he wasn't among the team that first came across the drone. But he saw the wreck in the morning after the team brought it into the brigade and he helped carry it from a military truck.

He said the drone was fairly damaged and roughly the size of a Toyota Corolla -- too small to be one of Yemen's traditional, manned aircraft.

He said that an intelligence representative and other officers from the main military "Axis" in the city of al-Ghaydah arrived Thursday morning to give a report to senior officials but that the wreck is still with the brigade. "It's still in the 123rd Brigade and will remain probably until a wider committee is formed to investigate the matter," he said.

Shuaib Almosawa is a freelance journalist based in Yemen. Follow him on Twitter at @Shuaibalmosawa.

*Correction, Jan. 21, 2014: The brigade team was tasked on early Thursday, Jan. 16, to fetch the wrecked drone. An earlier version of this article said the team was tasked to fetch it on early Wednesday. (Return to reading.)

*Correction, Jan. 21, 2014: This incident was not the first time a drone has allegedly crashed over Yemen. Another alleged drone crash occurred in 2011. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said this incident was the first time that a drone has allegedly crashed over Yemen. (Return to reading.)

United State Air Force