Amidst all the debate about Iraqification and troop drawdown, a couple of interesting details in the Iraq Study Group Report haven't gotten the attention they deserve. Here's a quote from page 7 of the report:
"There are roughly 5,000 civilian contractors in the country."
5,000 contractors? Any Iraq vet will tell you, that number's dead wrong. In fact, the Washington Post reported just last week:
There are about 100,000 government contractors operating in Iraq, not counting subcontractors, a total that is approaching the size of the U.S. military force there, according to the military's first census of the growing population of civilians operating in the battlefield.
Unless I am missing something, that means the ISG was off by a factor of 20. At least.
Contractors on the battlefield are a serious and controversial issue. Despite questions about their accountability and cost-effectiveness, tens of thousands of contractors are in Iraq doing more than just laundry or preparing meals. They are fulfilling security roles that once would have been held by US troops, making significantly more money, and facing minimal oversight. It's no wonder there have been allegations of abuses.
How could the ISG miss such a crucial aspect of the battle environment in Iraq? I have no idea. It certainly didn't help that the ISG didn't talk to anyone who was serving on the ground below the rank of lieutenant colonel. (By the way, they also failed to talk to some key high-ranking people like George Tenet, Paul Bremer, and Generals Sanchez, Myers, Franks, Eaton and Batiste).
This is a critical oversight by the ISG. Talking to lower ranking troops is important because most of the fighting (and dying) in Iraq is done at the small unit level. The people hit by IEDS, kicking in doors, handing out candy and otherwise testing our policy limitations daily are enlisted soldiers and junior officers. They know better than almost anyone the realities of life in Iraq.
My friend Cpt. Phil Carter just got back from a tour with the Army's 101st Airborne Division. He highlights the the lack of input from the grunts in a piece called "What About the Grunts?":
For all of the time they spent learning about America's war in Iraq, the Iraq Study Group failed to study the war at its most critical level: that of the grunts. Nothing makes this clearer than the report's appendix, which lists scores of men and women interviewed for the report, but none below the rank of lieutenant colonel. [...] It speaks volumes that the panel did not take the time to hear any of these grunt-level voices while in Iraq or back in the United States, or at least did not bother to list their names as authoritative sources for their report.
So the report has its flaws, but it is scathingly accurate in its assessment of how bad things have gotten in Iraq. Even a few weeks ago, the reality that the situation in Iraq was "grave and deteriorating" wasn't universally accepted in Washington or across the country. If the report does nothing more than open eyes to the grim reality of our position in Iraq, it will have served a worthwhile purpose. It is my hope that the ISG report will jumpstart a national debate that is about three years overdue.
But from the beginning, troops on the ground have been ahead of the policy wonks and talking heads on every issue coming out of Iraq -- from the body armor shortage to the rise of the insurgency to the civil war. If the wise men of Washington had started listening to lower level troops back in 2003, then we would certainly be in a better position than we are today.
As the Iraq debate continues, there's still time to talk to the troops on the ground. America has heard enough from the Generals. The Armed Services Committee should hold new hearings, and invite a few grunts to testify, so we can all see what they think about the ISG report. As new Iraq plans emerge from top brass and politicians to great media fanfare, maybe they could get a couple of sergeants or captains to add their two cents.