Vinnell's Army on the Defensive
Forget Halliburton. The vice president's former company may keep getting the headlines for its hefty contracts in Iraq and Pentagon overcharging, but it's not the private company that's so badly botched the training of the new Iraqi Army that the Jordanian Army has been hastily brought in to finish the job.
That firm is Vinnell Corp. of Alexandria, Va., owned by politically connected Northrop-Grumman. Its errors in training a new Iraqi Army have undermined the creation of one of the most important institutions in a post-Saddam Iraqa national army, senior American intelligence and military analysts say.
The big risk is the failure to rapidly reconstitute a competent new Iraqi Army may create a scenario akin to Afghanistan, where the countryside is dominated by rival militias and the reach of the central governmentand its nascent militaryis marginal at best. Add to that election year politics in the United States, where there will be pressure to withdraw some American forces, and the outlook on the ground in Iraq is increasingly volatile.
With Congress approving $87 billion for the occupation, could Vinnell's $48 million contract really be that critical? The answer is yes, according to former senior CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency officers and think tank experts on military contracting. Experts all say Vinnell's assignment far outweighed its monetary value.
"This whole thing is just nuts," said a retired Defense Intelligence Agency officer long based in the region. "All you had to do was take a Special Forces battalion based at Ft. Bragg and train the Iraqi Army. They do it one unit a time...Instead, we have created a potential for civil war."
The Vinnell story began with the occupation's administrators, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), disbanding the Iraqi Army. Even though the U.S. military had waged a 12-year propaganda campaign following the Persian Gulf War encouraging Iraqi soldiers to not fight against any American military actionand implying they would be rewarded for doing sothe CPA decided to create a new Iraqi Army from scratch. Many trained Iraqi soldiers felt let down, if not betrayed, and did not join the new military force.
"We broke our side of the bargain, because we dismantled them and didn't have a plan," said Peter Singer, a Brooking Institution expert on private military contractors. This past summer, Vinnell won a one-year contract to train 9 battalions of 1000 men each for the new Iraqi army. For decades, Army Green Berets have handled that work. But under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, these and other special forces troops have been given new roles, more akin to military shock troops. Generals stationed in Iraq have told reporters that special forces troops in the region were already stretched too thin to train the new Iraqi army.
What emerged was typical of the Iraq occupation: a planning vacuum. While Pentagon and CPA officials were scurrying for solutions, defense contractors sensed a bonanza and went to the military with proposals to solve the occupation's problems. Daniel Winter, president of Northrop-Grumman's Mission Systems segment told Defense Week in November that the money the Bush administration will spend on retraining the Iraqi Army was a "wild card" and allbut boasted that they went to the Pentagon with a proposal and contract in hand.
"We sort of have to tell you we anticipated there would be needs of this nature, so we had been looking at it," he said. Add to that Northrop-Grumman's $8.5 million in federal campaign contributions from 1990-2002, and you can see how the politically connected company could gain access to military officers with contract-making powers.
Vinnell's top selling point was it had trained elements of Saudi Arabia's National Guard for 25 years. Indeed, the Saudi apartment complex housing Vinnell workers was attacked last spring in an attack killing 35 people. Vinnell's record sounded good in Washington here's a company with knowledge and a track record of working with Arabic-speaking soldiers. But defense and intelligence analysts who have worked in the Persian Gulf were quick to say otherwise. Vinnell's assignment in Iraq, they said, was different from its role in Saudi Arabia, where it interacted with high-level officers and helped with war games and big-picture operational planning. Vinnell started recruiting soldiers for the new Iraqi Army in August. In December, when its first battalion was slated to assist U.S. forces with basic tasks, the Army admitted that 480 of the 900 men in the unit had deserted. Some desertions are to be expected. That is the case in Afghanistan, where the United States, British and French militaries are now training that country's new army. The reported reasons for the Iraqi desertions were low pay, inadequate training, faulty equipment and ethnic tensions.
Retired special forces soldiers who have conducted this type of training grimaced when they read press accounts of the desertions, including interviews with soldiers. What was clear to them was Vinnell's approach was more akin to college instruction than military boot camp. Basic training discipline was lacking under Vinnell, according to accounts given by Iraqi trainees or deserters, who were not punished by U.S. military officials.
By early December, senior officials based in Baghdad decided a new approach was needed, even though Vinnell had been paid $24 millionhalf its contractand had subcontracted some of that work to other American private military companies.
"They abandoned the Vinnell approach," said a Washington Post defense reporter who has been in Iraq. "They realized they needed to stand up a larger force more quickly. They said you can do some of it, but use the Jordanians to train the officers and others [private subcontractors] to do the NCOs (non-commissioned officers). They just let Vinnell keep their contract."
Northrop-Grumman's Daniel Winter put the best face on a changing situation, telling Defense Weekly, "Everyday we hear new reports of whether there's an expansion of the (training) activity, a need for larger forces, or the inclusion of coalition partners as part of the training."
Winter's comments are truetraining needs to be expanded and expedited, and having allies participate in raising a new Iraqi Army is essential. But it ignores larger realties on the ground and the risks and implications of squandering many months of training. After all, the country's new Army is not being raised in a vacuum.
There are potentially competitive paramilitary forces on the ground in Iraqfor pipeline security, civil defense, civilian police and militias associated with political partiesand these, when thrown into a mix with a sputtering Iraqi army, is "worrying and dangerous," Singer said. "The model we are following is Afghanistan and I mean that in a negative way. We went in, toppled a regime, and left. We made a big to-do about creating an Afghan Army. Two years later, it's the weakest army on the ground."
Singer believes the United States is "in the process of making compromises to declare victory." Despite a full troop rotation among American forces early in 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has said 30,000 troops will be returning in May. "That takes away one of the last remaining rationales to do the war, if we compromise on creating something better for the regionif you build a weak, democratic state," he said.
A retired senior CIA analyst went even further, saying the hasty introduction of the Jordanians to train Iraqi soldiers was "proof-positive the Bush people want to get the hell out by next summer, no matter what."
Other observers, however, said the presence of Jordanians was positive. Jordan was a moderate regime. Its military is modern and professional, and it was perhaps the only country in the region that legitimately could draw on pan-Arabic sentiment without negative political or cultural repercussions inside Iraq. Turkish soldiers, while under NATO command, would not be accepted by the Iraqi Kurds, for example.
Moreover, Jordanian troops have also trained elements of the Saudi National Guardlower-level, rank-and-file troopsin contrast to those assisted by Vinnell. And Jordan has become involved in a range of nation-building projects in Iraq, also assisting with training new Iraqi police and with social services. In exchange, Jordan will receive oil from Iraq at subsidized prices, which will help its struggling economy.
"It's not a bad thing," the Washington Post defense reporter said, referring to Jordan. "They did these contracts quickly. Grab the people you know. Throw money at them. My hunch is you will find they threw $50 million down the toilet, quickly getting it to Vinnell. Upon a month or two or reflection, they will try another approach."
Steven Rosenfeld is a senior editor for TomPaine.com.