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Where Has All the Money Gone?
Posted on May 15, 2013
By David Vine, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
Outside the United States, the Pentagon controls a collection of military bases unprecedented in history. With U.S. troops gone from Iraq and the withdrawal from Afghanistan underway, it’s easy to forget that we probably still have about 1,000 military bases in other peoples’ lands. This giant collection of bases receives remarkably little media attention, costs a fortune, and even when cost cutting is the subject du jour, it still seems to get a free ride.
With so much money pouring into the Pentagon’s base world, the question is: Who’s benefiting?
Some of the money clearly pays for things like salaries, health care, and other benefits for around one million military and Defense Department personnel and their families overseas. But after an extensive examination of government spending data and contracts, I estimate that the Pentagon has dispersed around $385 billion to private companies for work done outside the U.S. since late 2001, mainly in that baseworld. That’s nearly double the entire State Department budget over the same period, and because Pentagon and government accounting practices are so poor, the true total may be significantly higher.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to such contracts and given our recent wars, the top two countries into which taxpayer dollars flowed were Afghanistan and Iraq (around $160 billion). Next comes Kuwait ($37.2 billion), where the military has had a significant presence since the first Gulf War of 1990-1991, followed by Germany ($27.8 billion), South Korea ($18.2 billion), Japan ($15.2 billion), and Britain ($14.7 billion). While some of these costs are for weapons procurement, rather than for bases and troop support, the hundreds of thousands of contracts believed to be omitted from these tallies thanks to government accounting errors make the numbers a reasonable reflection of the everyday moneys flowing to private contractors for the world of bases the United States has maintained since World War II.
Beyond the sheer volume of dollars heading overseas, an analysis of Pentagon spending reveals a troubling pattern: the majority of benefits have gone to a relatively small group of private contractors. In total, almost a third of the $385 billion has flowed into the coffers of just 10 top contractors, including scandal-prone companies like KBR, the former subsidiary of Halliburton, and oil giant BP.
In addition, Pentagon spending on its baseworld has been marked by spiraling expenditures, the growing use of uncompetitive contracts and contracts lacking incentives to control costs, outright fraud, and the repeated awarding of non-competitive sweetheart contracts to companies with histories of fraud and abuse. There’s been so much cost gouging that any attempt to catalog it across bases globally would be a mammoth effort. The $31-$60 billion in contracting fraud in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars alone, as calculated by the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which Congress established to investigate waste and abuse, suggests the global total could be astronomical.
Since 2001, U.S. taxpayers have effectively shipped hundreds of billions of dollars out of the country to build and maintain an enormous military presence abroad, while major Pentagon contractors and a select group of politicians, lobbyists, and other friends have benefited mightily.
Peeling the Potatoes and Bringing Home the Bacon
While a handful of overseas bases, like Guantánamo Bay, date to the turn of the twentieth century, most have existed since the construction of thousands of bases during World War II. Although the number of installations and troops ebbed and flowed in the Cold War years and shrank by about 60% once it was over, a significant infrastructure of bases remains. Scattered from Aruba and Belgium to the United Arab Emirates and Singapore, the Pentagon’s global landholdings are bigger than all of North Korea and represent by far the largest collection of foreign bases in history.
Once upon a time, however, the military, not contractors, built the barracks, cleaned the clothes, and peeled the potatoes at these bases. This started to change during the Vietnam War, when Brown & Root, better known to critics as “Burn & Loot” (later KBR), began building major military installations in South Vietnam as part of a contractor consortium.
The use of contractors accelerated following the Cold War’s end, part of a larger trend toward the privatization of formerly public services. By the first Gulf War, one in 100 deployed personnel was a contractor. Later in the 1990s, during U.S. military operations in Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Italy, and especially the Balkans, Brown & Root received more than $2 billion in base-support and logistics contracts for base construction and maintenance, food services, waste removal, water production, transportation services, and much more.
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