American Troops Leaving Iraq, But 5,500 Mercenaries Are Staying Behind

As James Joyner noted, earlier today President Obama announced that by the end of December all American troops would be removed from Iraq, with the exception of those Marines necessary to defend the American embassy in Baghdad. The media is characterizing this as the end of the Iraq War but, as Spencer Ackerman notes, that isn’t really the case:

The fact is America’s military efforts in Iraq aren’t coming to an end. They are instead entering a new phase. On January 1, 2012, the State Department will command a hired army of about 5,500 security contractors, all to protect the largest U.S. diplomatic presence anywhere overseas.

The State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security does not have a promising record when it comes to managing its mercenaries. The 2007 Nisour Square shootings by State’s security contractors, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed, marked one of the low points of the war. Now, State will be commanding a much larger security presence, the equivalent of a heavy combat brigade. In July, Danger Room exclusively reported that the Department blocked the Congressionally-appointed watchdog for Iraq from acquiring basic information about contractor security operations, such as the contractors’ rules of engagement.

That means no one outside the State Department knows how its contractors will behave as they ferry over 10,000 U.S. State Department employees throughout Iraq — which, in case anyone has forgotten, is still a war zone. Since Iraq wouldn’t grant legal immunity to U.S. troops, it is unlikely to grant it to U.S. contractors, particularly in the heat and anger of an accident resulting in the loss of Iraqi life.

It’s a situation with the potential for diplomatic disaster. And it’s being managed by an organization with no experience running the tight command structure that makes armies cohesive and effective.

You can also expect that there will be a shadow presence by the CIA, and possibly the Joint Special Operations Command, to hunt persons affiliated with al-Qaida. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has conspicuously stated that al-Qaida still has 1,000 Iraqi adherents, which would make it the largest al-Qaida affiliate in the world.

So, we’re removing our ground troops from Iraq by the end of December. That’s a good thing. But, we’re leaving behind the world’s biggest embassy and a 5,000 man private security force. And we’re probably still going to be hunting al-Qaeda there. The potential for problems is quite evident, I think.

FILED UNDER: Iraq War, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. John Peabody says:

    Zero + 5,000 > Zero.

  2. ponce says:

    Zero + 5,000 > Zero.

    + 10,000 Turkish troops that invaded Iraq this week…

  3. Terrye says:

    Doug, for heavens sakes, we use security contractors to protect State Department officials among others. They are not mercenaries.

    I just hope this does not blow up in our faces. I know that Obama is more interested in winning the next election than he is in anything else, but there will be a vacuum there. I just hope the wrong people do not fill it.

  4. @Terrye:

    The fate of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqi people. It is not our business to tell them how to run their country.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    As I noted in a somewhat different context earlier this week, whether we’re counting federal employees or U. S. troops we really should be including contractors in the tally.

  6. David M says:

    @Dave Schuler: I agree, the use of contractors seems to just be a way of trying to hide what’s actually going on. Still, if only we had the problem of maybe only 5000 troops/contractors left in Afghanistan.

  7. ponce says:

    They are not mercenaries.

    Some are.

    Over one third of these “contractors” are neither American nor Iraqi.

    But they do work cheaply…

  8. Pan says:

    5000 men, isn’t that about two battalions worth? How many diplomats are we going to have requiring 5000 security guards?

  9. Davebo says:

    The fate of Iraq is in the hands of the Iraqi people.

    Once again Doug comes up with a brainstorm 11 years too late.

    If only he could have enunciated this epiphany before we spent a couple billion on our new embassy.

    But I’m with Doug on this issue. I can walk away from the “sunk cost fallacy” The difference is in our ability to recognize it.

    I fear that Doug has already moved on to the new money hole as he runs away from his last.

    Syria? Iran? What’s it going to be Doug?

  10. @Davebo:

    What would you have me do, Davebo? Go back in time and singlehandedly stop the invasion of Iraq? I opposed the war back then, as did many others, but it happened anyway.

  11. Ugo says:

    Contractors in Iraq are not a new thing, right? Were they called mercenaries back when Cheney had them there?

  12. Rob in CT says:

    “Private security” people may not necessarily be mercs, but when you have 5000 (!!) of them, yeah, mercs.