WASHINGTON -- American combat troops in Iraq may be heading to the exits -- or not -- but the U.S. government's enormously expensive intervention there is hardly coming to an end.
In a telling sign of how dangerous and chaotic Iraq remains more than eight years after President George W. Bush launched the war against Saddam Hussein, U.S. diplomats, military advisers and other officials are planning to fall back to the gargantuan embassy in Baghdad -- a heavily fortified, self-contained compound the size of Vatican City.
The embassy compound is by far the largest the world has ever seen, at one and a half square miles, big enough for 94 football fields. It cost three quarters of a billion dollars to build (coming in about $150 million over budget). Inside its high walls, guard towers and machine-gun emplacements lie not just the embassy itself, but more than 20 other buildings, including residential quarters, a gym and swimming pool, commercial facilities, a power station and a water-treatment plant.
Yet the embassy is turning out to be too small for the swelling retinue of gunmen, gardeners and other workers the State Department considers necessary to provide security and "life support" for the sizable group of diplomats, military advisers and other executive branch officials who will be taking shelter there once the troops withdraw from the country.
The number of personnel under the authority of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq will swell from 8,000 to about 16,000 as the troop presence is drawn down, a State Department official told The Huffington Post. "About 10 percent would be core programmatic staff, 10 percent management and aviation, 30 percent life support contractors -- and 50 percent security," he said.
As part of that increase, the State Department will double its complement of security contractors -- fielding a private army of over 5,000 to guard the embassy and other diplomatic outposts and protect personnel as they travel beyond the fortifications, the official said. Another 3,000 armed guards will protect Office of Security Cooperation personnel, who are responsible for sales and training related to an estimated $13 billion in pending U.S. arms sales, including tanks, squadrons of attack helicopters and 36 F-16s.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated between Iraq and former President Bush in 2008 -- and, at least thus far, still in effect -- all U.S. troops are supposed to leave the country by the end of this year.
As of now, there are about 45,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq. Obama administration officials had been hoping the Iraqi government would allow at least 10,000 to remain past the end-of-the-year deadline. Earlier this month, however, they floated the idea of keeping only 3,000. But given the unpredictable nature of the fractured Iraqi leadership, nothing is certain.
As the Department of Defense pulls out and its spending drops, the State Department is expecting its costs to skyrocket. State asked Congress for $2.7 billion for its Iraqi operations in fiscal year 2011, and got $2.1 billion. It wants $6.2 billion for next year. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimates that State's plans will cost $25 to $30 billion over the next five years.
Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management, told the Commission on Wartime Contracting in June that State intends to pay $3 billion in the next five years on its major private security contracts alone.
While $6 billion a year might not seem like much compared to the estimated $806 billion in direct appropriations spent on the Iraq war and reconstruction thus far, that is still an enormous amount of money. Consider, for instance, that the State Department's total operating budget this year is about $14 billion.
Money isn't the only resource being drained by Iraq. The toll on the diplomatic corps is substantial.
In addition to staffing the embassy in Baghdad, the department intends to have more than 1,000 people on staff at each of its two consulates, making them far larger than all but the most important U.S. embassies around the world. Given the de facto partitioning of Iraq, one consulate, in Erbil, will essentially be an embassy to the Kurds; the other, in Basra, an embassy to the Shia -- and to the country's biggest oil fields.
Steve Kashkett, then the head of the American Foreign Service Association, complained at Hillary Clinton's very first town hall meeting as secretary of State that the cost of creating the largest diplomatic mission in U.S. history "has been to take people away from all of our other diplomatic missions around the world, which have been left understaffed and with staffing gaps." A Government Accountability Office report in 2009 concluded that filling the numerous positions in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that "key positions at other hardship posts remain vacant or are filled by officers who may lack the necessary experience to effectively perform their duties, potentially compromising State’s ability to advance U.S. international interests."
IS IT WORTH IT?
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey testified on Capitol Hill in February that the State Department's plan is absolutely necessary to achieve key goals when it comes to diplomacy, economics, energy, security and rule of law. "To not finish the job now creates substantial risks of what some people call a Charlie Wilson's war moment in Iraq, with both the resurgence of al Qaeda and the empowering of other problematic regional players," he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who fought the expansion of the embassy in the first place, told The Huffington Post he's been hearing similar arguments for eight years now -- and thinks Iraq isn't worth all this trouble.
"I don't know why that has to be one of our highest priorities," he said. "I think we've reached the point in Iraq where whatever we're spending money on, we're throwing good money after bad."
"I've been to that embassy," Leahy continued, "and I understand security concerns and all. But this is a small country. They can't even get their act together. A lot of people there see us as occupiers and wish we'd leave."
For Leahy, the continued spending spree in Iraq is also part of a larger complaint.
"We're told by a lot of the Republican party that we can't even get disaster relief unless we take it out of some other program in the United States, maybe education or health care or something like that," he said. "I think it's about time that we started thinking more about money for Americans, more than we do for Iraq or Afghanistan. It's upside down."
Leahy stopped short of definitively calling for a smaller State Department footprint in Iraq. "I'm not exactly sure what I'd do, other than to say I wish we'd never built it to begin with," he said.
"I think what's important in this day and age -- particularly with the budget crisis in the United States and the need to convey a message to the Middle East that the United States seeks a relationship that isn't martial -- is to right-size the embassy in Iraq," he said. "That respects the fact that budgets are tight and sends the signal to the Middle East that we're not there as an occupying power."
Van Buren's book, "We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People" is set to be released in two weeks. In his experience, he said, the size and nature of the U.S. embassy compound is a major problem.
"By building a palace -- a fortress -- in the middle of their country, we're sending a message," he said. That message is: "We're still here and we're still running the show."
The U.S. needs to have an embassy in Baghdad to do what embassies normally do, Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told HuffPost. But, he added, "Having an embassy as large as the one that we have suggests that the United States Government is intending something much more than that."
The need for extensive security is certainly real. In his most recent quarterly report in July, Stuart W. Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) wrote that "Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work. It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago."
But in Van Buren's view, the size of the embassy is overkill. "It's a fortress designed to keep both people and reality out," he said.
University of Michigan professor and Middle East blogger Juan Cole said the U.S. embassy in Iraq is "emblematic of the entire way of thinking of this enterprise: From the beginning, the Iraq war was hubris."
A COMPOUND PROBLEM
Construction of the embassy began in 2005, and was troubled from the start. An October 2009 review from the State Department's inspector general recommended that of the $470 million in no-bid construction contracts the U.S. signed with the First Kuwaiti construction company, the department should ask for $132 million back, because of construction deficiencies, inadequate quality control and other problems. There were even allegations that the construction company engaged in human trafficking as it assembled its large, third-country national workforce.
Some cost overruns were not the contractor's fault, however; they were a function of the naivete of the original embassy designers, who both expected diplomats to move to Baghdad with their families and that they would be able to shop at neighborhood grocery stores and eat at neighborhood restaurants. Instead, the designs had to be redrawn for a rocket- and mortar-proof cafeteria where compound residents could eat all their meals. A building intended for use as an international school was converted into offices.
And despite the compound's large size, a report in May from the State Department inspector general warned that there soon won't be enough beds to go around. State Department officials, the report said, are trying to get new leases on nearby properties currently being used by the military -- but are also considering "creative ways" to accommodate more personnel, including "hot bunking," having people share beds and sleep in shifts.
For security reasons, photography on the compound is banned except in a few rare circumstances (see the NBC video below). Its location is hardly a secret, though, and architectural designs for the compound have leaked out, but publicly available satellite imagery is either dated or blurred out.
Van Buren, who now has an administrative job at the State Department in Washington, recalled how shockingly out of place the embassy compound felt whenever he came in from his tours outside the fortified international zone.
"We lived in austere conditions, characterized by heat and dust," he said. But once past the compound's various security gates, "You feel like you've just stepped onto a fairly well funded American community college campus," he said. "It is one of the most surreal experiences that's available without pharmaceuticals."
The compound even had outdoor water-misters to keep people cool. "The people I was working with at the Provincial Reconstruction Teams were desperate for clean water -- and here we were spraying it in the air so that people could sit outside in the summer," he said.
"From the outside, all you see of course are walls," Van Buren added.
"It's a fortress," said Leahy. "I can't imagine how inviting that is to Iraqis."
But no matter how impregnable the embassy compound now seems, it may, in the long run, be doomed. "How long can this enormous fortress on foreign soil stand without at some point offending and angering the population?" asked retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, now a military analyst.
"These are supposed to be monuments to our determination and resolve to stay," he said. But, as with the British edifices built in India, he said, "at some point it's inevitable. At some point in the future, this little fortress America comes under siege."
WATCH rare video NBC shot from inside the U.S. embassy compound in 2009:
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