BAGRAM — "Get ready," Capt. Jonathan Merrill warned. "It’s going to look like controlled chaos."

Merrill’s comments came before a meeting at Bagram Air Field last week that actually turned out to be pretty calm by Afghan standards, especially considering that a school contract worth many thousands of dollars was up for grabs.

But Merrill — a low-key guy who claims to be the bad cop on his civil affairs team — doesn’t mind the prospect of controlled chaos that such meetings hold. That’s just part of the process of ensuring that Afghan leaders have a role in helping the Americans develop their country.

Nomination review boards, as these meetings are called, are an American effort to increase Afghan participation in their country’s reconstruction, while at the same time helping to connect these projects to government processes, said Merrill, the development officer for Task Force Gladiator, which oversees Parwan.

The Americans invite key Afghan leaders connected to a proposed project to vote on who gets to build it. Merrill, a pair of interpreters, and two Afghan engineers employed by the Americans welcomed the Afghans to Bagram in local fashion, with pastries and hot tea already waiting at their seats. One of the engineers then opened the meeting by explaining the process.

"Each individual has the right to give any number, whether it’s a one or a five, but make sure you have the reasoning behind it because we might question you about it at the end," he said.

The Americans don’t give Afghans total freedom to do whatever they want. Before the meetings, the American-paid engineers weed out all the bids that are too expensive or don’t meet the project specifications, although the local leaders can look at any rejected bids if they want. Americans also don’t tell the Afghans how much they’re willing to spend for fear that contractors will raise their estimates to the maximum amount.

Meeting rules prohibit Afghans from talking about the contractors to one another. They examine the packets individually, silently score each bid in various categories and then turn in their votes to the Americans. Any previous experience they’ve had with a contractor must be written on the sheet, not voiced aloud.

When they’re through, the Americans tally the scores and announce the top three without disclosing the specific order. Division or battalion engineers, depending on the level of the project, will then examine the three winning bids more thoroughly and pick the actual winner.

Merrill said this is all necessary to prevent local leaders from directing lucrative projects to a well-connected contractor, a type of corruption for which Afghanistan is famous. The Americans ask a wide variety of leaders to attend the meetings for further balance. Last week’s attendees ranged from a Ministry of Education engineer to a leader in the district where the school was being built.

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