Current Contracting Loses the COIN Fight
It’s exciting to see the concepts behind COIN contracting (of which Afghan First is a vital part) starting to get more attention in the media and from senior leaders. PDT and RC(S) (Regional Command-South, the joint civil and military command responsible for most of southern Afghanistan) are deep in the process of learning to implement the big ideas, so I’d like to put out a piece of a recent discussion for feedback from the blog audience.
A frequent concern within COIN contracting discussions has been the identification of decision makers at various points in the contracting cycle. Whose needs are paramount: the tactical commander whose troops are in contact, or the strategic leader whose plans will (ideally) win the war? Who should be enunciating desired economic effects? What role do the military and civilians have in one another’s processes? What about theater rules requirements versus the national desires of the coalition partners? All very good questions that are answered when subordinate commands do a good job of nesting their policies within those of higher commands.
Nesting is a pretty straightforward concept—it means looking at what you’re being asked or required to do, and figuring out what you need to get it done. For example: ISAF has a strategic Afghan First policy to favor local businesses. RC(S) is working on a nested Afghan First policy as part of its COIN Contracting Code of Conduct (C^4). It will give combat brigades, national contracting offices, and civilian agencies some dos and don’ts plus some practical guidelines to follow for local procurement, while leaving contracting officers to create their own tactical implementation that meets RC(S) goals.
It makes good common sense to create local goals that contribute to higher level goals. USAID and ISAF work hand in hand between GEN Petraeus and Amb Eikenberry, so subordinate units to either should never be in conflict. Military commanders at the lowest levels cannot take actions that are at odds with strategic USAID economic development goals if intermediary headquarters have nested their goals in the broader strategic mission.
The specific issue that spurred this post is about leveraging new electricity supply in Kandahar to produce the greatest economic growth benefits. One suggestion that I think is very good is to improve the financial services capacity of Kandahar (reasons why will have to be the subject of another post). Another suggestion is to improve Kandahari businesses’ access to foreign markets, which pay better prices than do local and Pakistani markets. Part of that improved access certainly has to be improved infrastructure: cold storage, food processing and packaging, airport access. More important I think is the market linkage itself. Kandahar businessmen need to be able to meet the wholesale marketers and distributors in Mumbai and Dubai, Moscow and Shanghai. They need to be able to learn about their (potential) customers, hear their concerns, address their worries. Without a customer base, a strong infrastructure in Kandahar will sit and rot.
Export support is not a part of PDT’s mission in Afghanistan though, right? Well, here is why I started with the discussion of nesting. We’ve identified a strategic effect: increase exports. That’s nice and specific; I’ll leave it to the economists to come up with a target amount. Now, what can RC(S) do to achieve that effect? In parlance, how can PDT help operationalize the idea?
One of the brilliant effects of Afghan First, maybe the reason that I believe that it will lead to a stable and secure Afghanistan faster than any other economic policy, is that international organizations like RC(S) can be a testbed for Afghan businesses preparing to serve export markets. They demand international quality and international administration systems, giving the Afghans a chance to learn how to meet international standards. At the same time, they can have the tactical patience to give the Afghans time to develop new and improved capabilities while new infrastructure to support later export is put in place.
We have a great example in High Standard Pipe. It’s a Kabul-based PVC pipe manufacturer that provided on a small scale to local construction companies and ISAF. In 2009 they attended a PDT sponsored Afghan First vendors conference that let them network directly with the UN and other international agencies, plus expanding their ISAF contacts. Based on those new business opportunities, High Standard Pipe invested in top of the line production equipment, training, and testing facilities while expanding their workforce 30%. HSP now can produce enough PVC piping from their one factory to supply the entire Afghan economy, including the international demand. So, in 2010 they started looking to export markets, attending a trade fair in Uzbekistan. They now successfully export to Central Asia…all kick-started by ISAF’s Afghan First policy.
So, I’m making the recommendation that in order to nest RC(S) economic goals within the strategic mission of increasing exports, RC(S) should implement and Afghan First policy that encourages and favors the purchase of local goods, specifically the ones that USAID identifies as key for the future development of Kandahar’s economy. I don’t think I’m being too forward if I point out that the obvious first choice is the agriculture industry.
An Afghan First policy that favors local agricultural producers and processors will give Soldiers access to better fresh fruit and vegetables than those currently imported from Dubai, will shorten logistic lines and reduce strain on the logistics industry (and check out that sign hanging in a KAF dining facility!), will provide a direct economic boost to a key province, will support the strategic goal of supporting local exporters, and will signal a seriousness to support a key population. There can be no better COIN operation than that.