WASHINGTON -- With just over three months until the last U.S. troops are currently due to leave Iraq, the Department of Defense is engaged in a mad dash to give away things that cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars to buy and build.
The giveaways include enormous, elaborate military bases and vast amounts of military equipment that will be turned over to the Iraqis, mostly just to save the expense of bringing it home.
"It's all sunk costs," said retired Army Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, who oversaw the training of Iraqi soldiers from 2003 to 2004. "It's money that we spent and we're not going to recoup."
There were 505 U.S. military bases and outposts in Iraq at the height of operations, said Col. Barry Johnson, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq. Only 39 are still in U.S. hands -- but that includes each of the largest bases, meaning the most significant handovers are yet to come.
Those bases didn't come cheap. Construction costs exceeded $2.4 billion, according to an analysis of Pentagon annual reports by the Congressional Research Service. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers alone was responsible for $1.9 billion in base construction contracts between 2004 and 2010, a spokesman told HuffPost.
Rather than strip those bases clean and ship everything home, Defense Department officials tell The Huffington Post that over 2.4 million pieces of equipment worth a total of at least $250 million -- everything from tanks and trucks to office furniture and latrines -- have been given away to the Iraqi government in the past year, with the pace of transfers expected to increase dramatically in the coming months.
THE U.S. BASES
The most colossal relics of the U.S. invasion of Iraq will be the outsize military bases the Bush administration began erecting not long after the invasion, under the never explicitly stated assumption that Iraq would become the long-term staging area for U.S. forces in the region.
As a recent Congressional Research Service report noted, the Department of Defense "built up a far more extensive infrastructure than anticipated to support troops and equipment in and around Iraq and Afghanistan."
The biggest push came in 2005, with over $1.2 billion in base-building contracts signed in that fiscal year alone, according to CRS.
"How did we come to be wasting that much money?" asked Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the progressive National Security Network. The answer, she said, is that dissenting voices weren't heeded when Bush administration officials were pushing their hugely overambitious agenda.
"The problem that is often cited in the run-up to the war continued afterward," she said. "The political and media elite weren't paying attention."
It wasn't until late in Bush's second term that "cooler heads prevailed," Hurlburt said, and it became apparent that there was no political will in either country for the U.S. to keep permanent bases in Iraq, and therefore no need to spend so much to build them.
But by then, the plans had already been set in motion. As Stars and Stripes reported last year, major construction continued even after November 2008, when then-President George W. Bush and Iraqi officials signed a security agreement calling for all U.S. troops to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Most of the $2.4 billion was spent building about a dozen huge outposts that, in addition to containing air strips and massive fortifications also have all the comforts of home. The Al-Asad Airfield in Anbar province, for example, covers 25 square miles -- about the size of Boulder, Colo. -- and is known as "Camp Cupcake" due to its amenities.
The 15-square-mile Joint Base Balad, as Whitney Terrell wrote earlier this year for Slate, is "home to three football-field-sized chow halls, a 25-meter swimming pool, a high dive, a football field, a softball field, two full-service gyms, a squash court, a movie theater, and the U.S. military's largest airfield in Iraq."
Despite the media's elegiac obituaries for these major bases -- like the prematurely named "Camp Victory", with its palace, its lake, and its giant, killer carp -- the fact is that not one major base has yet been evacuated.
And it's not clear just what the Iraqis will do with some of those bases, once they get them.
One U.S. officer whose unit turned over a military outpost in a Baghdad neighborhood to the Iraqi Army in 2009 told the Washington Post that Iraqi soldiers looted it within hours of the U.S. departure. "When we returned to the outpost the next morning, most of the beds had already been taken, wood walls and framing had been pulled and several air-conditioning units had been removed from the walls, leaving gaping holes," the officer told the Post. Weeks later, he added, the power generator the Americans had left behind was barely working.
One Iraqi entrepreneur indicated to NPR last year that there's a thriving black market in U.S. items. "The Americans turn over every base to the Iraqi army and police -- and they are all thieves," he said.
SO MUCH EQUIPMENT
Much of the U.S.'s most lethal and valuable military equipment is being shipped out of Iraq, in one of the military's biggest logistical efforts in history. Johnson, the spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said that 1.5 million items have been removed in the past 12 months, with about 800,000 to go. "It's an enormous task, but we have no major concerns on our ability to meet the necessary timelines." Johnson wrote in an email to HuffPost.
But whenever a big army moves out, there's always a lot left behind -- what Stephen Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations likens to an "iron mountain."
The Pentagon can legally transfer four different categories of equipment to the Iraqi government: "excess personal property," such as generators and mattresses, air conditioners and latrines; excess defense articles; sales from stock, including spare parts and ammunition; and non-excess military items deemed particularly useful for the Iraqi security forces.
Various Department of Defense officials provided not entirely consistent data on exactly how much has been given away thus far in each category. But the man in charge, Maj. Gen. Thomas Richardson, the chief logistics officer in Iraq, told reporters last month that U.S. forces had given away equipment with a fair market value of $247 million between Sept. 1, 2010, and August of this year -- on top of items worth $157 million that had been transferred before the withdrawal officially started.
The lion's share of donated items falls into the category of excess, non-military property. Major Kimbia Rey, a spokesperson for the U.S. forces in Iraq, told The Huffington Post this week that more than 2.4 million such items have been transferred to the government of Iraq since last September.
Richardson explained that much of that category consists of what they call "FOB in a box." When the Iraqis take over a Forward Operating Base, he said, they also get the things that go with it, such as containerized housing units, water and fuel tanks, air conditioning units, generators, refrigerators, porta-johns, beds and mattresses, office equipment, fences, dining facilities and so on.
According to Lt. Col Melinda F. Morgan, a Pentagon spokeswoman, some 12,490 excess defense items worth $70.5 million have been turned over to the Iraqis, with 7,000 more, worth about $40 million, to go. That category includes such things as older versions of weapons, vehicles, and body armor.
Finally, U.S. forces have also given the Iraqis 1,251 non-excess military items worth $47.7 million, Morgan said. That category includes such items as up-armored Humvees and 50-caliber machine guns, Richardson said.
All of the dollar figures are for what the military calls "fair market value"; the purchase price of those items could, of course, have been much higher.
And Morgan noted that the "heaviest volume of future property transfers" is expected to occur between September and December of this year, although the "quantity and value" of what is still to come has not yet been determined.
Indeed, a Government Accountability Office report issued earlier this month raised concerns that military officials will suddenly find a lot of equipment they didn't expect -- right at the last minute, just when everybody's leaving.
After one of the largest base transitions to date, the GAO reported, "officials said that they were surprised at the amount of unaccounted-for equipment that was left over at the end of the transition process." Senior military officials told the GAO they were particularly worried that unexpected or abandoned contractor equipment -- including expensive and much-in-demand materiel-handling equipment, like forklifts and pallet trucks -- would suddenly show up "likely at the last minute."
Some equipment has simply piled up in Iraq since combat operations began in 2003 and may not be properly logged, the GAO warned, pointing out, for example, that "units sometimes turn in such equipment without paperwork and have even removed identifying markings such as serial numbers to avoid retribution."
And while leaving the equipment in Iraq, especially if it's worn out or particularly bulky, is much cheaper and more expedient than shipping it home, there's no getting around the enormous expense of purchasing it in the first place -- and that some of it is precisely the kind of equipment that was in such desperately short supply when state National Guards tried to respond to domestic natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005, or the Greensburg, Kansas, tornado in 2007.
Hurlburt's concern is not so much that the U.S. is giving away the bases and the equipment, but that all these things that so much money was spent on aren't necessarily going to do their new owners much good. "At least, you would like if we were leaving them there, they would be useful to Iraqis," she said.
And it's an awful lot of stuff. "I'm thinking about the size of what was wasted there, and thinking about how what we spent in Iraq was all borrowed," she said. "In a crazy way, what we left in Iraq was our good credit rating."
RELATED: HuffPost's Sept. 16 story, "Massive U.S. Embassy In Iraq Will Expand Further As Soldiers Leave."
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Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.
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