June 03, 2011

War and the TCN

First off, many thanks to those of you who either attended yesterday's conference or followed proceedings on our website or via Twitter. I will be sure to post the conference videos when they are on-line, and C-SPAN covered the entire event, so when you have insomnia this weekend and are flipping through channels, do not be shocked to see me or Patrick Cronin talking at you.

Second, I finally got around to reading Sarah Stillman's excellent and important article on the treatment of third-country nationals serving in support capacities for the U.S. military in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. The New Yorker has locked this article, which is silly, because this article has real policy relevance yet most of the people who need to read the article do not subscribe to the New Yorker.

In summary: third-country nationals serving in support functions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan often suffer horrific abuses. This will not surprise many of you, but it should make you angry, because your tax dollars are helping fund those carrying out the abuses.

The United States has chosen to do two things in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that have led to a situation in which the U.S. military is obscenely dependent on labor from places like Fiji, Sri Lanka and the Philippines -- often not to do work directly related to combat but to instead support a bunch of stuff unrelated to killing the enemy or supporting the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan.

On the one hand, we have decided that U.S. men and women serving on large forward operating bases and airfields should have as many of the comforts of home as possible, to include TGI Fridays, Burger effing Kings, etc. (Needless to say, the grunt walking point in Paktia gets none of this.)

On the other hand, a lot of the regular support functions -- like, operating regular chow halls and laundry services -- are not carried out by U.S. servicemen but, again, by third-country nationals.

The people who perform these functions and work at the Burger effing King are not from Kansas or California (or,
importantly, Kandahar or Konar) bur rather from South and East Asia.
Big contractors farm out contracts to sub-contractors, which in turn
farm out contracts to smallish recruiters all over the Indian and
Pacific Oceans. The potential for fraud, waste and abuse -- to say
nothing of human trafficking -- is both obvious and immense. Many
(most?) of these third-country nationals are lied to prior to their
arrival about their jobs, the location of their work, their living
conditions, and their compensation.

Decisions made in defense policy and war-making have consequences and trade-offs. This is a truism, but an important one. When you buy a bunch of tanks, for example, that might mean you cannot afford to buy a new aircraft carrier. When you decide to turn an artillery battalion into light infantrymen for the sake of the war in Afghanistan, you accept their artillery skills will suffer.

In the same way, if you're going to outsource so much of these wars, that's fine in theory. (Although, again, don't get me started on Burger effing King, or running convoys through an IED-littered road in order to deliver big-screen televisions to a FOB.) But you also need to be prepared to train a division's worth of contracting officers to oversee all of these contracts and subcontracts. Capitalism is amoral. Left to its own devices, the capitalist system will not just do the right thing. If you care about things like values -- to say nothing of spending tax-payer money wisely -- you need to invest in oversight. You can't just farm out all these contracts and assume people you've never met will behave in a moral, responsible manner toward their fellow human beings.

Those who care about these things, meanwhile -- and I would hope those people include people in the executive and legislative branches of our government -- need to read this article.