Battling Bureaucracy in Afghanistan

Commentary | April 12, 2012

When I took command of a NATO task force in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan in July 2010, one of my first patrols in the province included a stop at the construction site for an unfinished U.S.-funded police headquarters. Inside, we found loose 82mm mortar rounds and cell phone components: clearly the tools of an IED-maker.

Finishing this well-intentioned and important project, which had stalled due to a cumbersome bureaucracy, poor contracting procedures, high leadership turn-over, and a lack of proper supervision, became one of my top priorities.

When I relinquished command and left Afghanistan about a year later, the project was back on track but still incomplete, despite three years of frustrating effort. Next door to the police headquarters, meanwhile, my Australian friends and counterparts had quickly transformed a vacant lot into a gleaming, functioning school for girls – all within a single calendar year.

Though we were successful in some other important development projects, the challenges we faced in bringing this single U.S. project to fruition, and the strategies that allowed other NATO nations to move more quickly, symbolize many of the challenges faced and lessons learned by U.S. and NATO personnel in Afghanistan. These lessons also highlight how outside help, if offered and managed with an awareness of local cultural sensitivities, can help transform whole communities for the better in a much shorter period of time.

Route to Command

I reported to the International Security Assistance Force Afghanistan on June 27, 2009. As the lead planner on the newly established ISAF Joint Command (IJC) run by both Americans and Afghans, I supervised planning for the security of Afghanistan, including the role of the 30,000-soldier U.S. “surge,” and the corresponding 10,000 increase in NATO forces.

After a year, planning included how to replace the Dutch when they departed Uruzgan, a province about 100 miles north of Kandahar. The plan called for a NATO command called “Combined Team Uruzgan” (CTU) to take control of Uruzgan from the Dutch. The new team would consist primarily of U.S. and Australian forces and be commanded by a U.S. colonel—in this case me.

When I arrived in Uruzgan as the new commander, I had about a month to meet, train, and prepare my largely ad hoc Australian and U.S. staff for combat. The lessons I learned as a planner in Kabul were essential to preparing my command to conduct counterinsurgency operations. These lessons focused on building solid relationships with Afghans and coalition forces; helping the Afghans build better governance systems; completing development projects; developing the Afghan National Security Forces; and expanding security in the province. Consequently, my first battlefield circulation patrols were intended to determine the status of existing development projects in Uruzgan’s capital city of Tarin Kowt.

The need for the police station

Police in Tarin Kowt clearly needed better facilities if they were to play a major role in an Afghan-led security effort after NATO forces depart in 2014. The Combined Security Transition Command (Afghanistan) and the Afghan Ministry of Interior Affairs decided the police headquarters in Tarin Kowt was a high-priority project. They tasked the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with its construction.

The project, which included four major buildings and several outbuildings, was 70 percent done when the Afghan contractors from Kabul and Kandahar stopped paying their subcontractors and fled the area, taking with them what was left of the money they received to complete the project. Having spent the budgeted funds on the project without completing it, the Corps of Engineers struck a deal with Matiullah Khan, a local warlord. Matiullah also happened to be the commander of the local militia, the Kandak-e Amniat-e Uruzgan (KAU), and a colonel in the Afghan National Police (ANP). The idea was that he would keep the site secure indefinitely.

The previous Dutch commanders viewed the headquarters as a U.S. project and let it sit unfinished. They also chose not to deal with the local police chief, who, although corrupt, was able to secure the population by resolving conflicts and expanding police presence throughout the province in a professional manner. The lack of ownership, change-over in coalition leaders, and distrust of local officials created a situation where there was no one who felt responsible for the half-completed project. In fact, when I returned to base after my initial reconnaissance patrol and made inquires as to the status of the project, it took several weeks to find documentation on the project and determine exactly how it had come to fail.

A lot can go wrong in Afghanistan, and in the scheme of things you could argue this project was a drop in the bucket. Our frustrated attempts to get the project restarted so that it could be completed are symbolic of the seemingly dysfunctional process the United States has created, making building trust—and constructing buildings—as difficult as possible. The four-acre compound stood as a monument to the coalition’s ineptitude.

Bringing it back on line

To get the project on track, we had to find “back pay” for security services that for two years had guarded the partially built but unoccupied police headquarters. The Corps of Engineers had a dilemma: The original contract was cancelled, but all funds had been paid to the original contractor who left the area. There was no money remaining on the original contract to pay the guards. Even if there were additional construction funds available, the Corps could not pay the guards, as to do so would have violated U.S. regulations on how construction funds can be expended. The Corps tried to solve this problem by initiating a new contract, but it still could not include back pay for two years of security. It took seven months to get the exceptions and authorizations needed for the guards to receive their back pay. The final solution to pay the guards included a deal coordinated with Matiullah, the local warlord.

After two years of inactivity, the contractors were ready to finish the job, but again the Corps of Engineers stepped in and stopped any effort. In Afghanistan, the Corps is required to adhere to certain specifications on construction projects, so parts of the plan had to be redesigned. This continued for several months, with the project commencing in fits and starts.

Then there were the multiple regulations clearly designed for the United States but blindly transferred to such projects in Afghanistan. When hand rails and wheelchair ramps did not meet U.S. codes, the contractors had to stop their work. Accessibility is important, but we lost another two months reworking the plans. Afghan contractors were not prepared to meet the requirements of U.S. plumbing and electric codes either. Insisting on adherence to Western plumbing standards hardly made sense, since most Afghans did not use Western facilities and often ruined the plumbing soon after installation.

Finally, there were the myriad rules and regulations that required Afghan companies to fill out mountains of paperwork, which they simply were not prepared for. After 11 frustrating months, and intervention at the flag officer level, the project had barely restarted and was still several months from completion when I departed in June 2011.

Lessons Learned

Compare the police headquarters with the beautiful school next door, where girls were already getting an education. Without many of the road-blocks that the U.S. experienced, the Australian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team was able to build their school in under a year. The Australians tracked the progress with regular check-ins and aggressive quality assurance while coordinating their activity with AusAID (the equivalent to USAID). The U.S. experience with absconding contractors would have been detected quickly. Moreover, unlike the U.S. practice of paying contractors up front, they dispensed funds in phases throughout construction. Finally, they did not face the road-block of construction regulations built for their home country; they constructed their projects in accordance with Afghan standards.

Completing the police headquarters is important not only for the effectiveness of the police, but for gaining the respect for the local government and the Afghan national government. When NATO or the United States promises to make improvements in cooperation with the Afghan government, the people see a more effective, more trustworthy government. When we fail the government, the government fails the people. The success of counterinsurgency operations is contingent on assisting the local government in earning the trust of its people.

I worked with a remarkable multinational group of soldiers and civilians. We worked together across cultures and regulatory structures. Though it was no small task, the group divided labor, and I believe we made a real difference in securing and building infrastructure in Uruzgan by expanding security to new areas and building roads that cut regional travel time dramatically.

The U.S. Army’s obstacles are often self-inflicted. Problems with contracting and money disbursement in Iraq and other theaters are directly related to the massive bureaucracy associated with contracting today. In my opinion, we have gone too far in regulating projects, to the point where we are wasting time and money due largely to our own inefficiency. The U.S. has committed to too many projects to manage and complete effectively given the massive regulatory requirements and turnover of coalition forces. The United States should take the spirit of cooperation in the coalition one step further and learn from the efficient operations of some of our partners.

James L. Creighton served as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army for 30 years, including as commander of Combined Team Uruzgan. He is chief of staff of the EastWest Institute in New York.

Image Credit: Australian Department of Defense

Click here to read an AAP write-up of this article in The West Australian.