Teaching Afghans the paperwork of war
By JOSH SMITH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 29, 2013
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan — Maj. Bryan Carrico pointed out the window.
“They should clean out those tanks so the water is drinkable,” he said. “And if they’re not cleaned, they can go after the contractors or revoke the contract.”
Sitting in the District Police Center at Spin Boldak, near Afghanistan’s southern border, Carrico and a cadre of officers from his Security Force Assistance Team explained to Afghan Police district commander Col. Abduhl Quayoum the value of completing official contracts for work around the center.
It was a boring conversation and that typified the kind of mundane issues that many international advisers find themselves focusing on as NATO prepares to wind down its combat mission.
Afghans usually know how to shoot guns. But everything else needed to fight an insurgency — like buying, ordering and transporting those guns — has remained a major problem.
For Carrico’s SFAT “Tombstone,” logistics have special importance. While the previous SFAT was working with local police forces, “a little bit of animosity built up” between the advisers and the police as the Americans ran generators nonstop while the Afghans’ equipment sat silent for lack of fuel, Carrico said.
That animosity boiled over one night in August when two Afghan police officers opened fire on the advisers, killing one and injuring several others.
One of the attackers was killed while the other escaped. Quayoum’s predecessor was fired over the incident. That insider attack haunted the advisers and complicated Carrico’s mission, but he says relationships have been rebuilt since then.
SFATs pair international advisers with Afghan counterparts to develop staff-level capabilities like planning, logistics and personnel. Officers operating in southern Afghanistan uniformly point to logistics as one of the top hurdles for Afghan security forces in the area.
On this day at the District Police Center, 1st Lt. James Franks is helping the unit submit its first formal requisition forms. It’s been a month and a half coming, he said.
“Doing it more formally means it’s less likely to get lost or ignored, because the request can be tracked,” he said. “Logistics is how you win a war.”
He’s standing in the office of Jamil Kootwall, a 24-year-old police operations officer who also helps oversee logistics for his unit. Like many other Afghan police officers, Kootwall lives where he works. A rumpled bed and pile of clothes sit in a corner while he fills out and signs paperwork: a simple way of life that contrasts with the sometimes complex systems being taught by international advisers.
Kootwall said he likes the supply system the Americans are preaching, but the young officer is often unsatisfied with the response to his requests for supplies.
“They’re stingy,” he said of the Afghan suppliers. “When we request something like weapons, they only give us a few.”
American soldiers acknowledge that problem as well. First Lt. Mitchell Werne, who helps work on logistics for an SFAT based at FOB Zangabad, north of Spin Boldak near Kandahar Airfield, noted that limited supplies often lead to lots of hands dipping into the pie.
“Every unit that handles a fuel order, for example, wants a cut,” Werne said. “So someone who orders 40,000 gallons may only end up with 22,000. I wouldn’t call it corruption; I’d call it spillage and leakage.”
An audit by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released in January concluded that controls over fuel need strengthening to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.
Other problems include rampant illiteracy among Afghan forces, which continues to make paperwork-heavy logistics and contracting systems prone to mistakes and difficult to monitor. Controls have been put in place, like supply forms that feature photos of the people involved to reduce corruption and aid in processing the orders. Also, strict hierarchy complicates efforts to encourage lower-ranking soldiers to initiate requests without their commanders’ approval.
Werne said, however, that Afghan units have been quick to develop their own sources when “weaned” off coalition supplies.
“They used to come get water every day,” he said. “When we told them no more, they tried one more time. After that, within a couple of days they had found their own water.”
That “tough love” approach is one that’s been adopted across Afghanistan. Col. Michael Getchell, who commands the 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division in southern Afghanistan, said he doesn’t blame the Afghans for asking international troops for supplies.
But he says it has to become part of the learning process. “If you give them something, then it becomes a missed opportunity to use the system.”
In the end, however, Getchell says it may be the Americans who need to learn a few things.
“Sometimes we want to slap an American solution on Afghan problems. One of our biggest challenges will be learning to accept ‘Afghan good enough,’” he said in a reference to methods that may be different than Western practice but are still effective in the end.