The scale of the operation has raised concerns among lawmakers and government watchdogs, who fear that the State Department will be overwhelmed by overseeing so many people, about 80 percent of them contractors. There is a risk, they say, that millions of dollars could go to waste and that bodyguards will lack adequate supervision.
“We’re very, very worried,” Dov Zakheim, a Defense official during the Reagan presidency who served on the Commission on Wartime Contracting, said at a recent House hearing. “I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”
State Department officials say they are working flat-out to finish preparations, adding contracting professionals to prevent fraud and focusing on ensuring the protection of U.S. personnel.
“We’ve spent too much money and lost too many kids’ lives not to do this thing right,” said Thomas Nides, deputy secretary of state.
But officials acknowledge they have never done anything quite like it. “Make no mistake, this is hard,” Nides said.
There are 43,000 U.S. service members in Iraq. Under an agreement negotiated by the George W. Bush administration, they are to leave by the end of 2011.
Iraqi leaders said last week that they want a small contingent of U.S. military trainers to remain, but without immunity from local prosecution, a condition the Obama administration has said it cannot accept. The administration has been planning to keep 3,000 to 5,000 military trainers in the country if the two sides can hammer out an agreement.
The list of responsibilities the State Department will pick up from the military is daunting. It will have to provide security for the roughly 1,750 traditional embassy personnel — diplomats, aid workers, Treasury employees and so on — in a country rocked by daily bombings and assassinations.
To do so, the department is contracting about 5,000 security personnel. They will protect the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad plus two consulates, a pair of support sites at Iraqi airports and three police-training facilities.
The department will also operate its own air service — the 46-aircraft Embassy Air Iraq — and its own hospitals, functions the U.S. military has been performing. About 4,600 contractors, mostly non-American, will provide cooking, cleaning, medical care and other services. Rounding out the civilian presence will be about 4,600 people scattered over 10 or 11 sites, where Iraqis will be instructed on how to use U.S. military equipment their country has purchased.
“This is not what State Department people train for, to run an operation of this size. Ever since 2003, they’ve been heavily reliant on U.S. military support,” said Max Boot, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.