On the ground experiences, commentary, and progressive viewpoints
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report last week on the Afghan National Army’s problematic accounting for $370 million in spare parts for its fleet of vehicles. While I think highly of SIGAR and the smart, tough, and detail-savvy guys I’ve met who are part of SIGAR’s team of investigators tackling the hard job of figuring out where all those lost U.S. dollars have gone–whether through neglect, criminal activity, or outright fraud–I’m not entirely sure this particular report paints the full or fair picture of the problem.
Anyone within earshot of me for very long will eventually hear me talk about the seemingly chaotic logistics that I’ve experienced during my deployments in Afghanistan. From multiple container thefts to problems getting even simple things we needed (despite the uninterrupted flow of Baskin Robbins ice cream to the larger bases across Afghanistan), as well as my endless Afghan trucking stories–there’s a lot to talk about. But for whatever problems I saw my unit having, what I saw our Afghan National Army counterparts dealing with was always infinitely worse.
In 2010, part of my job involved working with a logistical support battalion of the Afghan National Army (ANA), which included a company of mechanics that was–at least on paper–responsible for repairing the fleet of vehicles that belonged to their infantry brigade. The vehicles included armored humvees (M1151s, mostly) that had recently been transferred to them from U.S. forces, but mostly soft-shell (non-armored) Ford Rangers and International 4 1/2-ton cargo trucks and wreckers. But over the course of nine months, I saw for myself that their job wasn’t so easy as it might seem on paper.
It’s not that the ANA didn’t have trouble with accountability or loss of supplies or equipment resulting from a broad spectrum of problems. It’s almost cliche to talk about problems that U.S. troops have seen with the ANA. But I found out firsthand that there was plenty more to the story.
Back in 2010 and for around 5 to 7 years prior, a multinational contracting firm called RM Asia was the sole provider of depot-level maintenance for the ANA. That means that anything not fixable by the ANA’s “front line” mechanics was to be repaired by RM Asia’s civilian mechanics who hailed from Bosnia, India, or wherever else they came in from. And all of the repair parts were ordered through RM Asia and managed by them as well. Because the funds for the ANA came from the U.S., an American military officer was assigned as the contracting officer representative (COR) to provide government oversight for RM Asia’s various locations, including where I was located. But generally that COR didn’t have day-to-day contact with RM Asia because this was an additional duty assignment that didn’t seem fully mesh with his primary job on the base.
The company of mechanics I worked with was headed up by an old captain who always looked kind of grumpy and didn’t seem to talk much, but it wasn’t long before we learned that just beneath his gruff exterior was a thoughtful, highly intelligent man who just wanted to get his job done. He’d been a mechanic for more than thirty years, he explained, but he wasn’t at all lacking an education. His wife was a doctor in Kabul, and he’d been an army officer since he was a young man, his career interrupted only by the years of civil war when his family had to spend in Pakistan just to survive. On one of my first visits to the ANA maintenance company’s repair shop, I saw one of their wreckers pulled into one of the bays, and the front driver’s side had visible damage to it–it had been struck by IED, they told us. Shrapnel marks peppered the side of the vehicle, and it was clear that the wheel had been replaced, and there were a number of large cracks in the fender. But when I looked closer, I saw how they’d repaired the cracks: thick wiring, coated in tan-colored rubber, had been meticulously threaded through the fiberglass to sew the pieces of the shattered fender back together, as if it were simply a torn coat sleeve. The gruff captain shrugged his shoulders and explained, “We have no way to get a new fender, so we do what we need to.”
It wasn’t until well after that, however, that we learned what the real problems were. We asked him why he was reporting so many vehicles as unrepaired, when it seems he had no shortage of mechanics to do the work. “We can’t get the parts. We can’t even get our vehicles to work on. RM Asia has them,” the captain told us. So we asked him to take us with him to RM Asia so we could see for ourselves.
The RM Asia site manager was a hulking Bosnian man, maybe in his late 20s, who seemed something like a bouncer for a nightclub in a rough part of town. He appeared to take no little offense to a handful of U.S. soldiers coming in with this Afghan captain. “What seems to be the problem?” he said in a thickly accented English. We explained that we needed to look into the reasons why this particular ANA maintenance company had so many vehicles going unrepaired. The site manager looked exasperated, and said, “I keep telling him what he needs to do,” pointing to our gruff Afghan captain. “They never listen, and we have rules we must follow. I can only help this guy so much,” the site manager explained. We nodded, we seemed to understand. Yet another example of Afghans not understanding what to do, perhaps. Meanwhile, our translator told the Afghan captain what was being said, and his face grew dark with anger, and he spoke low in stern words to our translator. “What’d he say?” I asked. “He says this guy is full of shit,” the translator said, pointing to the site manager. We soon found out who was giving us the straight story–and it wasn’t the RM Asia site manager.
RM Asia had been telling the ANA that they had to submit MOD Form 14s to request parts–with all the correct stock numbers according to the vehicle’s repair manual. This seemed simple enough. Why couldn’t the Afghans follow such a simple process? Well, the manuals were all in English. And the Afghans had manuals for some of the trucks, and they’d written in Dari over some of the common part names to correspond with the stock numbers. But they had no manuals for the humvees, and RM Asia wouldn’t let them borrow the humvee manuals. So we asked to borrow the manuals and photocopied hundreds of pages so the Afghans could have them, and we had a translator spend time writing in the Dari to correspond with the common parts they needed. They received some parts, but not many. And they were still reporting a number of vehicles as down. What was the problem?
Our gruff Afghan captain walked me into his shop’s tool room, pulled out the drawers of the large tool chests, and there were many empty spaces visible. “RM Asia comes and takes our tools,” he explained. I was incredulous. “And they keep our humvees, saying we can’t fix them,” he added. He walked me yet again up to the RM Asia shop, where we gained access to a large yard in back of their building that contained dozens of ANA vehicles, The captain walked me around to a handful that were his, and we checked the serial numbers against his report. “If we had parts for these humvees, we could fix them,” he explained, showing me the particulars: a light broken here, a windshield broken there. It took days more, but we were able to get RM Asia to release a few of the vehicles from their yard, provide the parts, return the tools, and otherwise enable this captain to have his mechanics repair the vehicles. But why did it take U.S. soldiers to right these wrongs? And was this the norm or the exception?
We addressed the problems we could see with the assigned COR. He was genuinely attentive to our complaints, but was otherwise busy with his regular job on base. But my sense of things was that the problems were deeper-rooted than what we could see. RM Asia received payment for the work they did, not for what they enabled Afghans to do. As I understood it, RM Asia had no incentives whatsoever to empower the ANA to repair their own vehicles, manage their own parts, or otherwise establish good working procedures to ensure proper warehousing of parts and timely repairs of damaged vehicles. The ANA logistics officers I worked with, including the gruff mechanic captain, believed sincerely that RM Asia was not an honest broker, and for good reason. As a result, the ANA mechanics I saw were unable to gain the level of experience needed to provide even basic maintenance of their vehicles. And even if mechanics were literate, many of the repair manuals were not written in Dari or Pashto. And many of the soldiers transferred into the maintenance company I worked with were infantrymen who had no training as mechanics, and there was no established training program at that time for them. As smart as the gruff captain was, he could only shrug his shoulders and work through these challenges one day at a time.
While it may be tempting to read last week’s SIGAR report as yet another instance of Afghan corruption, the following must be noted:
1. RM Asia never provided a model of “what right looks like” for depot-level maintenance support or parts management. RM Asia provided essential logistical support to the ANA from around 2003 through 2010, yet had no incentives to instruct or share information with the ANA that would have built toward a future in which the ANA could sustain itself. At my location during my nine months there, I personally found that RM Asia was actively disabling ANA mechanics by impeding their ability to order parts, to make maintenance-company-level repairs to their vehicles, and to learn skills and processes to prepare for when RM Asia’s contract ended in 2010. RM Asia is mentioned nowhere in the SIGAR report.
2. The ANA has learned to operate with scarcity, not adequate supply. Soviet logistics (the system the ANA’s experienced logisticians and mechanics first learned) was based on scarcity, and it was the rule that you over-order what you need in hopes that you might receive at least a few. The quantity you requested was more a reflection of importance than actual need. As I saw it, the ANA’s relationship with RM Asia only created a greater sense of scarcity when it came to parts and services. If you operate at the depot or warehouse level, you hoard what you have because you may not be able to get critical supplies again. Since late 2010, when the ANA was expected to start taking on parts management responsibilities at all levels of supply, how much could have changed in this learned mindset? And what new, compelling evidence could have made experienced Afghan logisticians change their mindset?
3. The supply systems that CSTC-A, the NATO transitional authority in Afghanistan, has been transitioning over to the ANA have imposed an imperfect western system on Afghans rather than adapting systems to fit Afghan best practices, and with seemingly minimal accountability. This just hasn’t appeared even remotely sustainable. CSTC-A has shipped in millions of dollars worth of parts from U.S. manufacturers and apparently washed their hands of accountability once parts reached Afghanistan. The SIGAR report shows the basic facts of this, and it’s fairly damning of CSTC-A’s broken processes. Yet the SIGAR recommendations do not make any structural fixes; instead, it says simply that more reports should be required of the ANA, and “non-critical” parts orders should be suspended. ANA troops in the field already aren’t receiving critical parts. How is this anything other than more hand-washing prior to the big 2014 transition?
4. The U.S. has suffered severe problems with theft and loss of supplies and equipment during shipment in Afghanistan. Surely the ANA has an even greater problem with this, although this isn’t noted anywhere in the SIGAR report. The U.S. has had entire shipping containers emptied somewhere between the Port of Karachi and their final destinations across Afghanistan. Theft rings are well established. In my own experience, I learned to be surprised when unescorted cargo arrived intact at its final destination–because too often I saw for myself that it didn’t happen often.
These are just a few thoughts. I am glad that SIGAR is doing what it is doing, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet a handful of SIGAR’s high-caliber investigators. We needed them all years ago. But in this particular report, I do not believe the findings or recommendations add up to making genuine improvements in the ANA’s flawed parts management or maintenance systems. They’ve been too flawed for too long. And the mechanics and leaders I knew simply deserved better, and still do.