A few days ago an excellent investigative report by Mitch Potter of the Toronto Star was published informing the citizens of Canada that their signature project in Afghanistan, the Dahla Dam irrigation project, appears to be failing. It is a story well told and yet another example of the insanity of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Both the Big Army and the “Big Aid Agencies insist on working large projects as if they have all the time in the world to design and implement the perfect plan. Having spent years developing the perfect plan, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and their implementing partner find themselves locked down inside their compounds unable to accomplish anything. Developing a perfect plan is meaningless if you can’t implement it. At exactly the same time and in exactly the same place (plus lots of other worse places) outside the wire legends, Tim of Panjwayi, Mullah John and their motley crew of internationals from CADG have implemented US AID projects which have constructed over 1000 kilometers of irrigation canal in the southern, eastern, and western regions of the country.
In the face of high risk and uncertainty; small agile mission focused organizations will function where large bureaucratic organizations fail. How much longer will it take before somebody at the top of our government figures this out? We are swamped with hundreds of FOB bond bureaucrats who have all the good intentions in the world and can explain in excruciating detail exactly why they can’t translate their good intentions and piles of OPM (other peoples money) into effective projects. Good losers lose and I am sick and tired of being on the side that is losing due to self imposed constraints.
There are two components to this story which bear scrutiny – the first is the security company hired by the Canadians to protect their project and workers. Check out these paragraphs from the linked article:
“Foremost among the setbacks, insiders say, was a dramatic confrontation on Feb. 20, when rising tensions between Canadian security officials hired to oversee the project and members of Watan Risk Management, a group of Afghan mercenaries with close ties to the Karzai family, culminated in a Mexican standoff â€” the guns hired to protect the project actually turned on each other in a hair-trigger confrontation.”
…”Ever since, the project has been basically held hostage by the Karzai mafia, who are using security concerns’ to stall the work. They are able to put fear in the heart of the Canadian contractors, telling them There is evil outside the gates that will eat you.’ The longer they delay, the more money the Afghan security teams make. The Canadians have good intentions but that is the reality.
This is what you get when government officials focus on bureaucratic procedure at the expense of mission accomplishment. This is what happens when governmental funding agencies insist on taking the lowest bidder for all contracts. This is the price for elevating the mission to support GoIRA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) above all other missions despite knowing that often GoIRA is a bigger problem for local people then the Taliban. CIDA could be directly hiring former Canadian soldiers who have served in the Arghandab Valley, paying them a thousand bucks a day, arming them to the teeth and letting them work with the locals, functioning as both implementation managers and security. Why do you think Tim of Panjwayi and Mullah John (both former Canadian infantrymen) are so effective at what they do? Security is their number one collateral duty, implementing projects is their mission. They don’t hire security firms because no other expats in the country have a better handle on their security needs than they do.
Here is a tip you will never hear from an international security company: When working in an area with an active insurgency, smart guys arm their compound guards with double barrel shotguns. The expats inside the compound carry a sidearm at all times, have a battle rifle and crash bag in their room. Staging modern battle rifles which can be used against you inside the compound walls is stupid. The interior guard force mission is to detect intruders, discharge both barrels and fall back behind the expats before the dogs are turned lose. Gunfighting is serious business best left to professionals who have the proper background, training and experience. Guess what? Local Afghan guards like that plan, they don’t mind falling behind guys who have the training and temperament for close quarter battle. Here is another tip, if the local people cannot organize security to protect reconstruction projects which directly aid them, then you move into districts that can. Pashtunwali works both ways; if internationals are invited in to do aid projects, then there are obligations incurred by both parties when it comes to security.
There are no Private Security Companies (PSC’s) in Afghanistan, with the exception of those on high priced (and FOB bound) U.S. Government contracts, who conduct anything remotely resembling proper training. They can’t afford to compete with Afghan firms who have driven prices so low that it is impossible to incorporate a proper training regime into a competitive bid. PSC’s have had their share of problems, mostly in Iraq but a few here too. However the business model used by firms like Triple Canopy or Blackwater are sound and capable of rapidly fielding highly trained teams who can conduct independent operations. They can conduct high end training on modern ranges, process clearances and issue combined access credentials for hundreds of guys per cycle. The only viable way to employ that capability is through special DoD contracts which protects the contractor from operational and administrative interference by the authorities in Kabul, while also placing the responsibility for employment and supervision directly on the battle-space owner.
America and Canada are pouring millions and millions of dollars into this country in an attempt to ease the burdens of a poor, uneducated, abused population. They should be dictating the circumstances of the security plan for their aid projects. The Americans have a treaty dating back to 1954 which allows them to bring in all the support and equipment they need without going through customs. The Canadians and other sponsoring nations should have one in place too. That is called “diplomacy” which is something we were once pretty good at.
All the politics, problems, and misconduct associated with the private security companies are the chickens coming home to roost. The international community represented through the good offices of the UN wanted the PSC’s regulated insisting the industry was full of irresponsible gun goons. The UN aided the Kabul government in designing PSC regulation with the active cooperation of the international PSC companies who operate in Afghanistan. Hundreds of man hours were spent crafting a law, which would require minimal levels of training, certification, and accountability, and the end it all went out the window. The laws currently in place are designed to extract ever increasing fees from the companies headquartered in Kabul and do little else. The laws are ignored by the ANP and NDS around Kabul who periodically throw up roadblocks and confiscate armored vehicles, weapons and radios from licensed expats. They even confiscated an armored SUV from the American army last February – it was stripped by the time the Americans went to the NDS lot to recover it. Laws which are not consistently and fairly applied are not legitimate tools of public policy; they are the tools of tyranny. And that tyranny has bit CIDA right in the ass on their largest, most ambitious reconstruction project.
Here is the other part of the story which reflects a lack of focus on the mission while optimizing the planning cycle:
“Vandehei makes no apologies for the agonizing two-year buildup to January’s groundbreaking, saying the complexity of the system and the fact that it directly affected the lives of more than one million Kandaharis required that Canada measure twice and cut once to get it right.”
Nonsense. When problem solving you can optimize or “satisfice” solutions. Optimization takes lots of time and lots of detailed planning; “satisficing” emphasizes speed and action to get solutions in place while meeting a less than optimal “good enough” technical solution criteria. Vandehei went on to give her completion stats to date:
“Work to date amounts to this: CIDA estimates it has removed the first 90,000 cubic metres of estimated 500,0000 cubic metres of silt blockages. Additionally, the first eight sub-canals â€” there are 54 in all, some as much as 10 kms long â€” have been dug out.”
If the mission is to get people working while repairing miles and miles of irrigation canal then they should have started two years ago. Digging canals and building intakes takes little technical expertise but lots of manpower. Let me paste in a quote from Mullah John on the topic:
“Two years for engineering studies! It’s a dirt dam with a gate! We’ve dug 500 km of canals in Nimroz by hand since December after 2 weeks of study. CIDA was supposed to hire 10,000 CFW workers for other jobs in the area. After year one they had hired 129.”
I asked Tim of Panjwayi, who has small teams of expats working every dangerous Province from Kunar to Nimroz, what his stats look like. Here they are for last quarter; 77 projects in 14 Provinces employing 1,703,829 man-days of labor which paid out $7,860,939 directly into the hands of the poorest of the poor. That’s how you do cash for work, and regardless of how one feels about the effectiveness of using cash for work as counterinsurgency tool, Tim and his boys are accomplishing their assigned mission by satisfing the technical requirements. Their mission is getting more and more dangerous by the day. They have not lost any expats, but they have taken some casualties to their work force.
Clearly the current methods of operation in use by donor governments are not producing acceptable results. It is time to start trying radically different approaches to both the military and reconstruction aspects of the campaign. It is time to reduce the number of people here, but increase the mobility and ability of those who choose to take on the reconstruction battle to get the job done. That means hiring high end, experienced operatives and allowing them to function as implementation managers while being armed and part of the project security detail. Even better would be to marry these teams up with small detachments of infantry of Special Forces types, enabling them to get in, do the work we said we would do, and then get out leaving behind a credible local security force and a functional district government – Inshallah.
If the money is right we could flood the country with teams of contractors who have years of experience operating in austere hostile environments. It is not a perfect solution, but it is one which is working right now while the large bureaucratic efforts flounder. We need to recognize and reinforce success – good intentions mean nothing anymore in this country.