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COIN Contracting Pt 2: Tactical Patience Matters

As promised, I’m going to focus on “pace of operations,” “operational necessity,” and local procurement for part two in this series.  To wit: current demands on Afghan companies are actively destrcutive to counterinsurgency efforts.  The howof spending money is every bit as important to the war effort as the where and the with whom.

Warfighting, historically, has been intelligence based.  Whoever had the best information about his enemy, and best protected information about himself, won.  This used to make a lot of sense.  Battles and wars turned on questions like, where is the invasion going to land, where are headquarters located, what routes do supplies take to the front line.  Operations were driven either by some key information coming to light, or by the need to develop new information.  If you don’t know where your enemy is, go find him; if you find his supply depot, blow it to hell.  The underlying assumption is that your desired result is the same, no matter what kind of war you’re fighting: kill the enemy.  Armies have trained for and fought these types of campaigns since essentially the Rennaisance, when Leonardo da Vinci was designing siege engines for Ludovico Sforza.

Counterinsurgency warfare demands a different focus.  The standard assumption is no longer valid: the final result that you seek is not dead bad guys.  The desired final result is more likely to be a stable economy, a representative government, and bad guys that no longer have the will to fight.  Intelligence—information—is still important, but the type of information that is important becomes completely different.  Now your information gathering and your actions should support your desired endstate.  Once you find an efficient and functional enemy supply depot, it’s more effective to persuade him to turn it into a legitimate business, instead of just blowing it to hell.

That brings us up to the current Kandahar “surge.”  Very recent history suggests that whenever the military surges, there’s a lot of fighting and a lot of dead people, good bad and indifferent.  Yet ISAF has been advertising this surge for months, has even gained presidential approval for the operation.  Most interesting for the purposes of this blog, they have been going through a byzantine legal system to gain right of use permission for all of the outposts they plan to put into the city.  This is a little bit like the sitation had Churchill in 1945 gone to the city council of Dresden to buy and evacuate all of the buildings the Allies planned to target.  Clearly priorities have evolved.  ISAF recognizes that the key to this surge, and the key to winning in Afghanistan, lies in gaining the support of the population, not just killing any talib dumb enough to stick his head up.  They welcome the tactical risk of slowing down an operation by a couple of months to achieve the strategic goals necessary to win a counterinsurgency.

A common concern we hear about using local contractors is that they can’t move fast enough—can’t produce bids, can’t do the work fast enough—to keep up with the operational pace of the surge.  After all, roads need to get built, Soldiers need housing, and Commanders demand visible results quickly.  Afghan companies often don’t have the large, experienced procurement teams that let large internationals turn around bids quickly.  They are also less likely than internationals to be able to pay a permanent workforce; instead they hire labor after they win a contract—another slow, risky proposition for a contracting officer to consider.

But what about the lesson coming from the land usage agreements?  Can’t that same tactical patience apply to the contracting process?  In fact, the lesson more than applies.  Land usage is a one time event that has a lot of visibility due to the public nature of the surge.  Local procurement offers a chance to institutionalize the insight that supporting processes have impacts beyond the completed task.

Contracting in most of the developed world, or more accurately in most of ISAF’s home countries, is a smooth, transparent, and fast process.  Requirers write a scope of work, contracting officers put it out for bid, and companies visit a website to download a form that they recognize, in a language they recognize, within a culture that has its own jargon to increase efficiency.  Bids are often fairly standardized, needing only minor contextual adjustments.  Bids go back to contracting officers via the web one or three or five days after release, and the process continues.  It’s an efficient process, with incentives towards low cost and high speed.

Those incentives are harmful to the counterinsurgency effort, where the goal is a stable, sustainable society; not fast, cheap projects.  When tenders require immediate turnaround on bids, and when contracts favor low prices exclusively, companies that have systemic advantages like size (economies of scale), international connections, or powerful patronage gain the advantage over smaller, independant companies that are most likely to reinvest locally and would provide the greatest local economic growth.  In order for contracting at the tactical level to match strategic counterinsurgency objectives, it is imperative for KOs and requirers to look beyond the narrow vision of the project in front of them and towards the ripple effects that the entire process can have.

Next time, I’ll discuss effects in more depth, and why planning to achieve results is so much harder than planning to execute a standard process.  I’ll also pitch some relatively modest (it doesn’t come naturally) ideas about how to bring ISAF’s incentives more in line with its goals.

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  1. W says:

    A very sound argument for the strategic benefits of doing business with Afghan businesses and supporting Afghan First initiatives. Looking forward to the next in the series.

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