Panel says firms need U.S. guidance to reduce contractors in Iraq

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The U.S. government is probably paying contractors millions of dollars for unnecessary work in Iraq because the military is not giving companies clear enough guidance about reducing their employees, officials on the Commission on Wartime Contracting said Monday.

There are roughly 102,000 contractors in Iraq, and each contracted worker can cost the government thousands of dollars a month, according to federal auditors. Commissioners said they were concerned that the U.S. military was not providing contractors with key information to help them synchronize their efforts with the drawdown of combat forces.

There are about 98,000 troops in Iraq, but that figure is expected to drop to 50,000 by August. At that time, the Pentagon estimates that the number of contract employees in the country will still exceed 70,000 -- about half the count in January last year.

"Conducting the drawdown of forces . . . is not a simple task like turning down a thermostat," said Michael Thibault, co-chairman of the commission. "Thousands of contractor employees must be reassigned or released. Hundreds of military bases have to be closed or handed over to the Iraqis. Millions of items of equipment, whether military or acquired by contractors and now government-owned, must be moved, donated or scrapped."

The commission, which was appointed in 2008 to look at the use of government contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, questioned officials from Houston-based KBR at a hearing Monday about whether they were reducing their workforce in a cost-effective and timely way. Under a $38 billion contract, KBR provides a variety of logistics services, including running dining halls, doing laundry and transporting supplies for U.S. troops.

Auditors for the Defense Department said late last year that KBR could save $193 million from January to August this year by reducing its workforce. But, in a new report, auditors said that KBR's plans for a drawdown during the same time period would save only $27 million.

KBR officials said they need "written contractual direction" from the U.S. military about its plans to reduce troops so that it can staff accordingly.

Douglas Horn, a KBR vice president of operations, told commissioners that while troop levels will come down, the company still has to "support those service members who remain." KBR has said that it expects to have 30,000 employees in Iraq by late summer of this year, compared with more than 60,000 in March last year.

Lt. Gen. James Pillsbury, deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Material Command, which helps to oversee the military's contracting work in Iraq, asserted that the drawdown of contractors in Iraq is on track. But he said that moving personnel and equipment out of Iraq is a massive, complex job, with "situations on the ground that are somewhat fluid."

The "magnitude and scope of the Iraq drawdown is unprecedented," Pillsbury said, noting that there are more than 341 facilities; 263,000 soldiers, Defense Department civilians and contractor employees; 83,000 containers; 42,000 vehicles; 3 million equipment items; and roughly $54 billion in assets that will ultimately be removed from Iraq.

Pillsbury said that the effort is "equivalent, in personnel terms alone, of relocating the entire population of Buffalo, New York."

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