“There was no doubt in anyone’s mind who was in charge on Jan. 1, 2012,” Gary Motsek, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Program Support, told Federal News Radio.
At the start of the year, the last of the U.S. military redeployed out of Iraq, leaving behind a smaller diplomatic presence run by the State Department and supported by scores of private contractors.
But up until the formal handoff in January, there remained lingering questions about the State Department’s ability to lead a diplomatic mission there. State would take on a number of new functions from DoD, along with a massive buildup of contracting on an unproven scale. Some worried State simply didn’t have the resources or acquisition workforce to handle it.
Motsek and Ebert-Gray had spent the last two years overseeing the departments’ joint steering group tasked with managing the changeover. It was to be State’s largest overseas operation since the Marshall Plan rebuilt a Europe shattered by World War II.
Shifting from a military mission to a diplomatic one was not necessarily unprecedented.
“That within itself was not the issue, from a broad policy perspective,” Motsek said. “It’s the devils that are in the details to get to point A from point B — the thousands of sub-issues that have to be resolved to get there.”
For example, what would DoD do with its stockpile of excess equipment, totaling more than 3 million pieces? Much of it would be required in Afghanistan, but some could be loaned to the State Department. But under what authority would DoD share materiel?
“We speak two separate languages inside the federal government — just the acronyms themselves drive each of us crazy and the way we deal with business,” Motsek said. “In some ways, it is easier for the Defense Department to deal with a foreign nation than it is with the Department of State.”
Planning broke new ground
The planning process for the handoff began somewhat informally.
During the early stages, State put in a request to use some of DoD’s leftover equipment, triggering an initial series of meetings between the two departments. The 1932 Economy Act first allowed agencies to purchase goods and services from each other, but DoD and State had never taken advantage of it before.
“We broke some new ground there,” Motsek said. “Heretofore, we never loaned an item to the State Department. That was probably the anathema of all anathemas.”
But during the transition, it soon became routine.
The initial series of meetings eventually mushroomed into the main body through which the transition was planned, the Executive Steering Group, which met every two weeks to map out the transition.
“It ended up being the sounding board to bring any issue that had to do with the transition to the forefront,” Motsek said.
Perhaps surprisingly, for one of the largest logistics operations since the 1940s, neither the State Department nor DoD added new positions to specifically handle the drawdown of troops and the transition to civilian control.
Work related to the transition was simply added to employees’ existing portfolios. Top officials, such as Ebert-Gray, and down-range diplomatic personnel alike were tasked with some layer of the big move. “People all had a slice of the transition,” she said.
Coordination was also key. The two teams shared staff and DoD embedded members of its planning personnel at the embassy.
Observers say once DoD and State began the formal planning process, they were thoroughly locked in to the transition. But reports indicate a late start.
In September 2011, the Government Accountability Office, praised the “robust plans and processes” formed by DoD and State for the drawdown, but cited delays that made the transition “more challenging than it otherwise could have been, compounding State’s relatively limited capacity to plan.”
Even earlier, State’s inspector general reported costly delays in senior-level decision-making. “Several key decisions remain unresolved, some plans cannot be finalized and progress in a number of areas is slipping,” the May 2011 report stated.
To lessen the load of the transition, officials eventually decided to keep in place a large-scale logistical support contract, managed by the Army, known as LOGCAP. The contract provides for such essentials as food, laundry, and fire- fighting capabilities. But State and DoD only reached agreement after State spent valuable time and resources planning for its own massive life-support contract, the IG office found.
State ‘right-sizing’ to reach normalcy
The State Department’s stated goal in Iraq is normalcy. “It’s becoming, day by day, a much more traditional embassy,” Ebert-Gray said.
The type of work State does in Iraq is not dissimilar to the work it performs elsewhere: training police forces, construction and development work, and anti- drug and corruption-fighting efforts. But with the exit of U.S. troops, State absorbed new functions as well — 310 activities once performed by the military, according to State’s count.
And that means many more people, especially contractors, than at a normal embassy. State’s initial plans called for a doubling of its Iraq workforce to 17,000 personnel, the vast majority of them contractors. However, by April, personnel supporting State’s mission dropped from nearly 14,000 at the start of the year to 12,755, according to the most recent quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR).
Ebert-Gray said State is able to downsize, in part, because of the improving security situation — which should be viewed as a sign of success.
Leading up to the handover last fall, security was still a volatile situation, she explained, which colored the mood of transition planning.
Now that security appears to have stabilized, State is looking to “right-size” its workforce in Iraq, she said. The department launched an analysis of its workforce called “Glide Path” to guide staffing reductions.
Others, however, see signs of failure in State’s downsizing.
The New York Timesreported earlier this year the embassy would cut its staff by half and dramatically scale back a training program for Iraqi police, characterizing it as an example of “the waning American influence” in Iraq. State has vociferously denied both charges.
Nevertheless, the unforeseen downsizing does point to the difficulty of determining requirements in a shifting security environment.
Tommy Marks, the executive director of the Army’s LOGCAP program, which continues to provide life- support and logistical operations for State installations in Iraq, said nailing down requirements remains an ongoing challenge for State.
“Their challenge right now is to refine that requirement to a smaller size, because they don’t see themselves spread out across 17 bases for the rest of the time frame,” Marks said. So far, State has determined it doesn’t need two of the bases it planned for and will close them this year, Marks said.
But shifting requirements may simply be a part of doing business in a contingency environment, he suggested.
“You don’t necessarily have the [full] picture until you walk the ground,” he said, “and you don’t always have the opportunity to walk the ground as much as one might think you do, even in Iraq.”
Critics blast State’s acquisition workforce
Regardless, lawmakers remain skeptical about the wisdom of a large-scale State presence in Iraq and the untested ability of its workforce to manage it.
Ebert-Gray said many of State’s critics had simply underestimated its experiences overseas, although she acknowledged the scope of State’s work in Iraq is unprecedented.
“We had a lot of the wherewithal and the capabilities, but we were not used to the scale,” she acknowledged. “When you’re talking about scale, that was a fair statement,” which is why State kept LOGCAP in place and has continued to rely on contractors for security, she added.
The commission recommended a wholesale reorganization of State’s acquisition shop, noting only two acquisition professionals — out of 200 Senior Executive and Foreign Service personnel — under the authority of the undersecretary for management.
In 2009, State introduced a working capital fund, a 1 percent surcharge on all contracts that State manages or administers, to self-fund its acquisition shop.
“Because of the working capital fund, we have the sufficient funding to do the hiring we need,” Ebert-Gray said. Since the fund was launched, State has hired 103 additional members of its acquisition management staff and now has 37 contracting officers and support staff in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“So we’ve taken several steps to be ready for the world out there,” Ebert-Gray said.
Blueprint for Afghanistan
The transition in Iraq provided a rough blueprint of sorts for the future transition in Afghanistan.
In fact, Ebert-Gray and Motsek have also been named to lead an executive steering group for Afghanistan. Meetings have already begun.
“We’re going to apply the same general tenets,” Motsek said. “The transition in Afghanistan is and will be far more complex than the transition we had in Iraq. I mean, as painful as this was — and make no mistake, this was a challenge that consumed our time, and our subordinates’ time and our counterparts’ time pretty severely — it was pretty straightforward.”
In Afghanistan there will be multiple players, the U.S. military, the State Department and USAID, the Afghan government and the enduring NATO presence.
“So it’s a hell of a lot more complex in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq,” Motsek said. “I am glad, personally, that the transitions were in Iraq first then Afghanistan, as opposed to the other way around.”
Coming up tomorrow in the second part of Trial by Fire: Overseas Contracting in Transition, despite the best planning, DoD lacked the programs and practical solutions to handle the first round of contingency contracting in 2003, officials say. Since then, commissions, panels and lawmakers have offered fixes and DoD has evolved to try to create “rock-solid” reforms.