You have to admit that the current guard force at the U.S. Embassy Kabul know how to get attention. The rash of stories which broke last Wednesday were amusing to say the least. The story broke with a news release from a group called “Project on Government Oversight” (POGO) who had received pictures and written complaints from a group of contractors at the embassy and given the nature of the pictures it went viral.
I was the project manager for the first group of civilian contractors who relieved the Marines (weapons company 2/6) at that embassy in 2005. At the time the contract called for 146 expatriates, 245 third country nationals and around 75 local Afghans. There are things I know which I can not discuss in an open form but let me tell you this; there are serious, serious problems with that contract which have little to do with the behavior highlighted in the tsunami of international coverage.
Managing contracts of this size in Iraq or Afghanistan is an impossible job and there is a very small pool of talent who have the ability and energy to do it well. I came to Kabul from the American Embassy in Baghdad where I first joined the circuit with a British firm. I received a call around Midnight on a Sunday from the company recruiter who I could barely understand and he said in a very loud voice “mate do you have your kit?” I replied in the affirmative and he says “I need a fill in Baghdad mate can you leave in two days?” I again said yes and he yelled “great mate see you in 24 hours.” The next morning I had a ticket to London and I left the following day. It was a weird thing to do but I hated being retired and was a really crappy civilian. I was lucky, the project manager in Baghdad, who would come back to fill me in Kabul two years later was one of the best I have ever seen. He was from Zimbabwe, had extensive combat experience, and was of the quiet confident type who paid keen attention to what his expats did both on and off duty.
The main reason why managing these contracts is so difficult is that it is impossible to stay ahead of the stupidity curve your men will generate. There is no way to anticipate it because some of these guys do the most unbelievably stupid things sober; add alcohol and the potential for Darwin Award level stupidity goes up exponentially. In the military I knew my Marines well because we spent so much time together – often in prolonged field exercises. Your average young enlisted Marine has the ability to do stupid things too but they fall into an easily anticipated set of behaviors which savvy leadership can recognize and at times circumvent. Not true with contractors – some of stories I have heard are amazing.
I hated working at the American Embassy in Kabul for a number of reasons. My personal antipathy unquestionably clouds my judgment on the ability, competence, and usefulness of the arrogant snobbish bureaucrats who work there. I showed up on the 7th of March, most of the expats arrived on a charter flight the next day and that ride in was so bad that one of them immediately resigned. We were housed in a hastily built camp which had not been completed – the roof was not even on the barracks. Our Nepalese arrived in April but we had to assume the contract on 17 March. We had been set up to fail because the department in charge of our contract, the Regional Security Officer’s (RSO’s) clearly did not want the Marines to go – I knew some of the Marines and they were feeding me the inside scoop.
Most of the expats who arrived for the contract had worked for the same company during the first Afghan election and they were predominantly from the UK. They were also an older crowed with the talents one expects to find in retired military men, so organizing and starting the contract was much easier than the industry norm. Our cookhouse was a nightmare but we had a PA from Scotland who got it sorted out, but not before we lost men to the hospital, to all manner of food borne parasites. The RSO’s would not give us the weapons called for in the contract so we had them send out raiding parties of guys who had worked the election and had weapons stashed or knew where to find them. It was a nightmare and I never got along with the RSO shop but I don’t want to start telling old sea stories or start in on State Department RSO’s. They have plenty of talent in that program and one of them, Tim Sullivan, for whom the current guard camp is named, was one of the best all around operators I have ever met.
The problem with the current guard force is that they are on a shit contract. Ignore the money value published in the papers – that number is for five years executed at full value which is impossible to do . Armor Group North America is losing big money on that job and they are about to lose a lot more. I was asked by a few companies to consult on their bids for it back in 2006 and my answer was always the same – don’t bid because if you win you’ll lose money. There were requirements in the contract that could not be filled. The number of security clearance holding Americans was excessive and unnecessary (they have been modified.) The skill set required in the contract was out of all proportion to the tasks actually executed by the guards (these too have since been modified) and the training requirements were completely unrealistic given the amount of time the State Department would allow for the guard force to train prior to assuming the contract.
The several hundred page request for proposal (RFP) was full of legalize contract language which was there for the same reason congressional bills are several thousands pages of incomprehensible gibberish – to hide things. In the case of the embassy contract it was penalties for failing to meet certain stipulations. The only companies who could have actually met the requirements at the time were Blackwater and Triple Canopy but they could never submit a bid low enough to win because they have to run the training infrastructure back in the States required by the contract and thus were forced to bid realistic numbers. They were never in the running. All of the contracts being let for security and everything else go to the lowest bidder.
When we started the bridge contract back in 2005 I told the men there that although our billets suck and we look like clowns, (we had no uniforms and looked like a motorcycle gang on post with civvie clothing and old AK 47’s with chest rigs, I thought it looked kind of cool, but it wasn’t good for morale) recent history tells us that we will be on the job for years, not the six months of the contract and that the pay is good, risk is low, and thus by definition life is good. I was proved correct – the bridge contract lasted two years before a company successfully took over. The first company to win the contract was MVM and their genius plan was to bring in South African passport holding Vamba tribal fighters from Namibia to work as the senior guards and “english speaking ” junior guards from Peru. The South African plan met the terms of the contract but turned out to be a disaster. When the Peruvians arrived not one of them could speak a word of English. I was there for that too and am thus unable to go into the details.
When Armor Group won they were heading down the same path as MVM but at the last minute the CEO came in, immediately fired his management team and entered into negotiations with the existing project manager for him and his crew to come aboard. I am hesitant to go into detail due to an acute congenital fear of lawyers. Runs in my family according to my Father. The pay for new joins was low and the scheme did not favor Americans due to our tax laws. The original guard force lasted a little less than a year before the PM left which caused the immediate exodus of all the old guards.The new guards got much lower rates of pay. You get what you pay for in this industry and Armor Group was not paying much.
The pay thing is a problem which can be worked through with good on the ground leadership and incentives for people who are on their second, third or fourth year of the contract; the real problem is with the living conditions and job requirements of the guard force. The average living space per man in Camp Sullivan is less than the square footage required for inmates in federal penitentiaries. I put that in writing in a memo to the RSO when the camp was being built which may help explain the stained relationship I had with him. The recreation facilities are inadequate and the gym full of third rate Turkish equipment. There is no space on the camp for the men to do anything outside of their crammed barracks and they have little ability to get off camp. When you are designing camps to house hundreds of guards for years at a time you have to pay attention to their morale recreation and welfare needs which is something the military excels at. If you do not think through what they are going to do off duty as thoroughly as their on duty tasks than you are set up to fail.
Now that the furor of last week has died down it appears that our Secretary of State has the situation in hand. Surprisingly enough she found the behavior completely inappropriate and a threat to good order and discipline. I don’t understand that – what business is it of hers what consenting adults do? Is that not the lesson of the Lewinsky affair? Maybe it was because the guards were having these stupid parties on a facility rented by the State Department which drew her condemnation – but the oval office is even more important a government place than Camp Sullivan isn’t it? Or maybe she was upset because management was encouraging this nonsense which means there is a disparity in power between the individuals involved which makes even their consent suspect….you know like the disparity of power between the President of the United States and an intern? No wait that can’t be it…anyway the boss has taken a stand against serial sexual predators (first time for everything) and fired the whole crew.
But that contract will still have a ton of problems and the men working there will continue to be even more miserable than the FOB bound military who at least have good gyms, pizza hut, lots of girls on their bases, green beans coffee houses etc.
There is only one way to fix the Embassy contract and that is to cut the number of guards in half, make them all Americans and pull them into the embassy where they can work and live alongside the other Americans. The security guards are not now and never have been able to use the gyms or bars or tennis courts or swimming pool which are all reserved for embassy staff. That should change. The security guard contract should also be combined with the Ambassadors PSD contract (currently Blackwater and before them DynCorp) so that guards joining the contract can work their way up onto the Ambassador’s detail – that way when a new guy joins that team he has a clue about Afghanistan. Knowing how to “evasive drive” or shoot is useless here – knowing the people, how they drive and what is normal behavior is critical and you can’t learn that in security “operator” school. What are the chances that the State Department is aware enough to recognize the problems they created on this contract and then really fix them? Absolutely zero. Like I said I hated working that contract because the people you are serving are just plain rude, arrogant and worse yet, completely clueless about what is happening outside the walls of their plush digs.