There are no easy answers for Afghanistan. Take the recent elections for example. What are the viable options to fixing that mess? You can accept the results which is increasingly unpalatable, you can hold a run off which would probably be an even bigger farce; you could hold an emergency Loya Jirga and start over (could you imagine that?) There are a few more options available I suppose but none of them very attractive. President Obama appears to be “voting present” on the Afghan Campaign. Which is consistent with the way he has handled every tough decision during his entire political career. There has been much speculation about the impact of General McChrystal’s leaked confidential report in Washington but little on the impact his report is having on the various formations fighting the war.
The military is asking for more troops but to do what? Unless they move off the FOB’s and out into the local population they do little more than create and even more target rich environment for the various armed opposition groups (AOG) which plague the countryside. What we need are small agile formations integrated with and augmented by civilian contractors who have the ability to remain on contract for years at a time. The civilians fill the crucial role of demonstrating commitment to the local people, and front specific knowledge to the frequent rotations of military personnel. As I am fond of saying there is no other way – none. It is really that simple.
Unless the present FOB bound kinetic ops orientation is completely eliminated we will leave here in worse shape than we are now and right now my friends we are getting our collective asses kicked and kicked good. We are spending blood and gaining not one damn thing to show for it. We are spending billions of dollars we do not have and gaining not one damn thing for that either. These are facts and for a guy like me who spent the happiest years of his life as an officer in the United States Marine Corps it is most upsetting to face up to these facts. When we started this fight President Bush said “we will not falter, we will not tire, we will not fail.” In Afghanistan the military is tired; worn out by back to back to back deployments. We are clearly failing by any unit of measurement and it now appears we are faltering too as the National Command Authority waffles about why we are here and what we are supposed to do.
To validate my claim I have to rely on my personal experience. My colleagues and I are finishing up a six month cash for work program focused on Kandahar, Jalalabad, Gardez and Lahska Gar. Not easy places to work (except Jalalabad which is a great place to work) and Tim the Canadian had over 5,000 people working in Kandahar, Ranger Will over 2,000 in Lashka Gar – I had 4,002 working in Jalalabad and over 2,000 in Gardez. Compare those numbers to the performance of the massive PRT’s located in those towns – it is not even close. I think the Canadians in Kandahar reported a total of 136 cash for work recipients for 2009. We get results because we live and work in the community and operate in close coordination with the municipal authorities who we see almost daily. Plus we control the cash which allows us to use my favorite saying “No – you have time; I have a watch.”
Look at the diagram above and contemplate the fact that there are several large multi-million dollar contracts out to bring internet connectivity to Afghanistan. But nobody can figure out how exactly to do it. You do it by doing it. The Fab Folks surged in here last month from both Cambridge England, Cambridge Mass and Iceland moved the entire FabLab to a better location downtown and installed a bunch more links to schools and NGO’s. They are able to come here and work because they are outside the artificial security bubble which has completely disrupted our efforts in this country. J.D. Johannes did an excellent job of describing the Afghan security bubble in this post. He has great pictures on his follow up post.
The Fab Folk have discovered something which the military may know and the State Department hasn’t a clue about and that is the center of gravity in Afghanistan. It is the children – they are the only real hope to future peace and as they gain more education they become more aware of just how deplorable are the conditions of their country. Ask a religious student what Muslims do for Ramadan if they live above 60 degrees north latitude and he will want to know why. When you explain that there is no sunset up there this time of year he’ll ask why? Which means you have to explain elementary concepts like the earth rotates on its axis but at a slight tilt which causes (among other things) periods of perpetual daylight in the northern extremes. University educated men don’t know this here and when they find out elementary aged children are expected to understand this most basic concept they get angry about the pap they have been taught and hungry to learn more. Poor people, regardless of location or religious background, tend to be serious about learning. Abject poverty is great human motivator.
Contractors have a bad name in this current campaign for several reasons not the least of which is some of them have earned a bad name. But I’ll tell you this – find me a contract where the men are out of control and I’ll show you a contract where the contracting officer has completely abdicated his contractual and legal obligations. Jake Allen has an excellent podcast on contracting over at the Private Military Herald which can be found here. He hits the nail on the head in an interview with Danielle Brian from POGO concerning the American Embassy Guard Contract. As I observed in my post on the topic that contract is a dog and always was a dog – it would be impossible to execute the contract as tendered and still make a profit because the private security industry is not full of competent cutthroats it is full of stupid greedy cutthroats. Time and again we hear of a guy who has grown his companies business and seems to be a golden boy until the home office runs the numbers and finds that they are hemorrhaging money not making it. Retired military officers have no experience with profit and loss statements – we deal exclusively in loss statements during our professional lives. That is the nature of government service. The nature of private security contracting is to cut bids back to the slimmest of margins in order to win the contracts which always go to the lowest bidder. My hip pocket estimate is that over 50% of the security contracts currently active in Afghanistan are losing money. Very few of these companies have the ability or expertise to determine what their exact profits are; they normally don’t do that level of work until forced to by plaintiff lawyers.
Just throwing out more contracts to attract contractors will not work for Afghanistan. It is clear the contracting system is completely dysfunctional and repeatedly produces the worst possible outcomes (look at how are vitally important interpreter corps is being treated.) The only way for this to work is to have battle space commanders not only write the release the contract but insist that the program management and most of the people on that contract are people he knows. Officers or NCO’s he has served with and trusts. I would further argue that the teams going out to districts to replicate what we did in the most contested cites of the country be CivMil – both civilian contractor and military personnel who live where they work. The military part of the team could focus on the most important mission we have and that is to mentor Afghan Security Forces and in some cases help them fight.
Here is why the contracting piece could work if done correctly. Again I use my personal experience to illustrate. I know every infantry Regimental Commander in the Marine Corps. Some are good friends the rest good acquaintances. If I am in charge of a contract let by them where I report to them what are my motivations to do a superior job? It is not money it is my allegiance to peers whom I have known all my adult life and whom I greatly admire and respect. My reputation for getting the mission done is at stake – this is the level of trust and respect needed to get civ/mil teams into the districts. Cost plus contract with clearly stated profit margins which can be easily understood by all – in a dynamic environment simple is smart. When a commander can look at his contractor and say “Timmy I want you to do to this DAC, set up a good safe house, and complete the following tasks….” When the commanders knows that is all the guidance he need provide to get important tasks to operate with speed and vision.
For those of you who do not think my idea is crazy enough I take it one step further. The military should start a program for junior officers and enlisted to participate in these projects as civilians on the contractor side. They would get a three year $1,000 a day contracts and owe three years of service when they complete the contract. Many of the problems which accompany long duration deployments disappear when you get to the $1,000 a day pay scale. And paying these contractors $1000 a day is pennies on the dollar to what we spend to keep an individual service member deployed in country. Most importantly the worth of an officer (or NCO) who has spent three years living in the same province in Afghanistan has to be about 40 times that of an officer (or NCO) who has completed a master degree program.
There are no easy answers but if we want to get the work done which is required to reach an acceptable end state our options are severely constrained. You just have to get off the FOB’s, off our collective fat asses and do it. But it will take a completely different approach to writing and awarding contracts to accomplish the mission.