Rethinking Contracting as the Front Lines of COIN, Pt 1
I’m going to make a few blog posts helping to redefine the idea of a “front line” and a “supporting element” in a COIN environment. Many participants are familiar with the need for economic development, but are not always sure how their own actions can or should directly support local Afghan economies. The same way that tactics, techniques, and especially procedures had to change for traditionally trained organizations to find a level of success in COIN, contracting elements need to examine their processes and priorities in light of achieving broader development effects.
PDT’s focus in Afghanistan has been on the importance of local procurement to ISAF and the international community’s larger missions. Many international organizations (IOs) are making good-faith efforts at local procurement, without PDT involvement. They do the best they can to collect and store company information, relying on business cards (usually collected on base) and photocopies of AISA licenses. These companies are almost by definition, companies that have some advantage that gives them access to base. So, some companies in construction and logistics have done well. Unfortunately these small pools of successful companies have bred resentment among the rest of the business community, and contributed to a perception of ISAF and other IOs as corrupt. IOs have not implemented the efficient business processes to help expand their supplier bases, receive higher quality bids, and improve the social and development effects of their spending.
On very built up bases, Afghan First is limited by the entrenched international interests that have unfettered access to solicitations. Understanding that the contracting offices (KOs) are overworked and understaffed, they naturally prefer to limit the number of bids they receive on each tender. The only way to limit the number of bids is to limit the number of companies that receive the solicitation. Because every solicitation is invariably available to dozens or hundreds of international contractors resident on base, the pool that gets shut out is the growing Afghan small business sector.
Perversely, these are exactly the companies that can provide the best COIN and development effects [PDF] for the IO contracting dollar. They are the companies that will reinvest in the economy, hire local workers, and become social leaders with business success. They are also the companies that can provide the best security guarantees and the shortest supply lines, reducing costs and time to delivery. Tellingly, the work that KOs physically contract (as opposed to the administration of the contract) is often farmed down to these small businesses at fractions of the original award price.
Admittedly, patience is sometimes necessary in getting international quality results. Larger contractors play a role in ensuring that projects are completed on time and to standard…or at least a handy scapegoat if not. The NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) and Kabul Regional Contracting Cell (KRCC) showed visionary leadership in setting aside the recent OCIE contract for Afghan women owned businesses, and set an admirable example in maintaing the tactical patience necessary to get development effects. Out of cheap, fast, and good: they chose cheap and good, and reaped additional development benefits.
The rapid pace of contracting “dictated” by operations is directly at odds with that necessary patience. If operational needs and contracting culture cannot permit a slow down to let small Afghan businesses catch up, they need to make the additional investment in time and resources to get the Afghan private sector running. I’ll address this dynamic further in part 2.
This is PDT’s role. We can help IOs streamline local procurement operations, centralize company information via our business portal, manage vendor communication (including, importantly, post-bid debriefs), and conduct vendor training targeted to IO-specific procedures. We also bring a wealth of options to help provide a level tender distribution playing field, which follow the US’s Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and other international regulations for distribution while still favoring the Afghan small business sector, rather than the international sector as currently done.