Tuesday 26 May 2009

Your money. Safe in their hands?

When the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued its first report last week, it noted that the military command overseeing $15bn in US military aid cannot be sure the money is being managed effectively.
In fact, the Combined Security Transition Command- Afghanistan (CSTC-A) is not based in Afghanistan at all, but in Maryland - nine time zones away. At the time of the inspection, four months ago, the CSTC-A had no-one working in Afghanistan and just one technical representative (from another company) actually located in Afghanistan.
In other words, as was the case in Iraq, when billions of dollars were left unaccounted for, no-one appears to be watching out for the US taxpayer. Huge contracts are being let with little supervision.
To make the point clearly, the Special Inspector decided to look at one contract in particular - a $404 million contract to an unnamed company to train the Afghan Army. This is what their report says:

"We found that assigning one contracting officer's representative in the field did not provide the degree of oversight that is needed to ensure that funds are used as intended. The person assigned this duty has limited contracting experience and is on a six-month assignment to Afghanistan. According to CSTC-A, this person has taken the required contractor officer's representative training, but CSTC-A acknowledged that additional training is needed. This assigned contracting officer's representative told us that visits to training sites are not performed; therefore contractor performance is not effectively monitored. Because of other duties, this official does not have time to make field visits. In addition, because some of the training sites are located far from Kabul, availability of transportation resources is also a factor that makes it difficult to perform field visits to oversee contractor performance."

It did not take long to find out that the unnamed company in receipt of an unsupervised mult-million dollar contract was Military Professional Resources Inc (MPRI), a Virginia-based company formed in 1987 by eight former senior military officers, including former Army Chief of the General Staff, Gen. Carl Vuono. Today it has more than 3,000 employees in 40 countries. In 2000 it was taken over by defence contracting giant L3 Communications.
MPRI is no stranger to controversy. In 2004 The Center for Public Integrity revealed that MPRI wrote the Pentagon manual for contractors on the battlefield. They noted:
"Since 1997, Military Professional Resources Inc., which has two contracts worth a total of $2.6 million related to reconstruction in Iraq, has also produced Field Manual 100-21, also known as Contractors on the Battlefield. The manual "established a doctrinal basis directed towards acquiring and managing contractors as an additional resource in support of the full range of military operations", according to the company's website."
In the same year MPRI was hired by the Pentagon to work with the armed forces and national police in Colombia to teach them psychological operations, training, logistics, intelligence and personnel management. After a year Colombian defence officials denounced them as useless, noting that no-one on the company's staff spoke Spanish. The contract was not renewed, although the Pentagon publicly backed the company.
Further information on MPRI, particularly that related to Operation Storm in Croatia in August 1995, where the company was accused of having trained Croatian soldiers who carried out one of the largest episodes of ethnic cleansing during the Balkan War, can easily be found on the internet.
Why is the military unable to supervise its own contractors? Answers on the back of a dollar bill, please.

Monday 25 May 2009

Lessons learned for soldiers

It is always interesting get an insight into how soldiers prepare for war and so the launch of Afghan Lessons Learned for Soldiers is to be welcomed. Created by four American veterans of the conflict in Afghanistan (three senior NCOs and a major), the site is designed to help share knowledge. “We were filled full of bullshit by those who trained us and so we are trying to help tell it like it really is,” they remark.

The first ‘chapter’ on the site deals with ‘Gear’. An interesting subject. Readers may remember the disdain with which US soldiers regarded their British counterparts at the beginning of the conflict in Afghanistan. They often referred to them as ‘Flintstones’ or The Borrowers, friendly jibes based on the poor quality equipment the British Tommies had to make do with.

Now we can understand why the US soldier is so well equipped. He clearly buys much of it himself. There is a list of 69 items that are recommended for those deploying to Afghanistan. For example, weapons lubrication that doesn’t attract sand seems to be a good idea, as do extra bootlaces, a stainless steel mug, lock de-icer and disposable hand and feet warmers.

And I can understand the need for a pair of comfortable desert boots. “All they will give you is a regular summer set and a set of Goretex lined for waterproof needs. Desert is a cold place at these altitudes in the winter time”, says the site.

The same point is made about the standard US Army issue tac vest – for holding magazines and other small pieces of gear. “Dump the IBA tac vest you get issued. Get a Tactical Tailor MAV chest rig (does not matter if you get 1 or 2 piece one as you want to keep the front open for laying in the prone. You don’t want mags pushing into your chest making it hard to breathe).”

Then there’s the computer gear - laptop, screen wipes, canned air to blow dust out of equipment, a DVD ripping program, personal GPS, webcam and headset, skype account, external 120gb USB hard drive, digital camera, MP3 player, LED lights and batteries for 30 days.

Not to mention the soap, toilet paper, baby wipes (30 days supply) foot and body paper, desert tan spray paint, hand sanitizer, Fabreeze fabric softener, a stack of clothing, towels, pillow, pillow cases and sheets.

Eighteen M4 ammunition magazines and nine 9mm mags seems reasonable, as does a LULA mag loader/unloader and a reasonable assault pack.

Not quite so sure about the weightlifting supplies or shower shoes, but I wouldn’t begrudge them.

I think you get my point. War has changed. Today’s soldier expects to be regularly in touch with family and friends half a world away and to be clean and comfortable when not actually out in the field. Even if he has to pay for the equipment himself - (I presume this list is only for male soldiers as there is no concession to women soldiers).

I’m not sure how much all these items would cost the average soldier, but it cannot be much short of $3,000.00.

While the ALL site is good on gear, its understanding of history and Afghan culture is not so good. This is what it says: “Afghanistan has been like the cartoon character who is run over by a car, struggles to his feet and has scarcely dusted himself off when he is run over again. And again. And again, ad nauseum.” Er, I don’t think so. In Afghanistan, the wheels usually fall off the car before it gets a chance to run over anyone.

If you think of Afghanistan as an individual, this would be a person who has suffered repeated blows to the head and suffers from TBI and PTSD.” I think you will find that PTSD is far more prevalent amongst Allied troops returning from Afghanistan than amongst Afghans themselves, who have known nothing but war for the last two generations.

In your research you will find that the Persians, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane, Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan, and more recently the British Empire and the Russians have all swept through Afghanistan. For some, this paints a picture of the indomitable Afghan. I tend to disagree, as the Afghans have indeed been conquered on numerous occasions.” Actually, the British, the Soviets and most other people who tried to hold territory in Afghanistan have come to grief. That is indisputable.

I can’t blame soldiers for wanting to talk up their own prospects and for talking down their enemies. However, let’s face it, the US and its Allies have now been fighting in Afghanistan for twice as long as they fought in the Second World War and for longer than they fought in Vietnam. There is presently no end in prospect and certainly no sign yet of a military defeat of the Taliban.

It never does any good to underestimate your enemy. The reality is that the Afghan fighter is unequalled as a guerrilla. He will march for 30 miles a day at altitude, carrying everything he needs and living on little more than pressed mulberries and dry bread. He is willing to die gladly for his beliefs but will seldom give his life cheaply. There’s no shame in admitting any of this. It is simply a fact. Forget it and you will lose before you even step outside your FOB.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Out of TIME?

Readers may remember my article about TIME magazine a couple of months ago. I expressed surprise that TIME's reporter could have interviewed the Uzbek warlord, General Dostum, in Afghanistan for a major feature published in February this year. General Dostum, I remarked, had been living in Turkey since December last year.
What's more, much of the article by their Afghanistan correspondent appeared to be cannibalised from an earlier article she wrote in December last year. Some of the text was simply cut and pasted from one article into the other.
After I contacted the magazine, their PR person was directed to release a statement to me. It was brief and to the point: "Aryn Baker, who reported and wrote the article about Afghan warlords in the current issue of TIME, stands by her reporting that, according to General Dostum, Dostum’s men and government officials, Dostum is not in exile in Turkey but is there only to receive treatment for an unspecified condition before returning shortly to Afghanistan."
Quite how Ms Baker could stand by an article that was inaccurate and did not mention that Dostum was not in the country is beyond me. However, I published my piece and waited. And waited.
Last week I wrote to TIME again and asked if they still stood by their report, bearing in mind that the General is still in Turkey and shows no sign of coming home. (According to several sources, Dostum has been told he is not welcome to return to Afghanistan and is unlikely to do so in the near future. He has known this for some time and complained bitterly to anyone who will listen that he was tricked into leaving the country.)
So far I have received no response from TIME.

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Wars, damned wars and statistics

While we are on the subject of civilian casualties (see my posting below this one), I have just noticed that the Taliban has issued detailed statistics for its operations in Afghanistan during the month of April. I have written about the Taliban’s statistics before, noting the organisation’s inability to count (See ‘Can the Taliban count?, 17 Nov 2008) and so I did not expect accuracy.

Nonetheless, the figures they produce make interesting reading. According to these highly suspect figures 53 civilians and 12 Taliban fighters were ‘martyred’ during the month. Interestingly, the civilians were killed in Helmand, Kandahar, Wardak, Logar and Kunar provinces. The Taliban lists no other civilian deaths for any other province. The Taliban deaths were even more geographically concentrated, with nine deaths in Kunar, one on Kandahar, one in Logar and two in Faryab (Yes, I know the total does not equal 12, but this is their maths, not mine).

Thus for the vast majority of provinces there are neither civilian nor Taliban casualties. Even if we include Taliban woundings, there are still nine provinces without any civilian or Taliban statistics.

Then we come to the most creative part of the statistics. Compared to the dozen or so Taliban deaths in the month, they claim to have destroyed 338 military vehicles, including tanks, in April and to have shot down three helicopters and one aircraft. They say they killed 992 Afghan National Army soldiers and 533 ‘invader’ soldiers. The table they have produced shows military actions took place in every province In the country, but mostly in Kandahar, Helmand, Ghazni, Khost,Wardak, Kunar, Paktika, Paktia and Kunduz – provinces that it most cases share a border with Pakistan.

Clearly the Taliban is continuing its policy of paying little heed to traditional forms of arithmetic. It continues to announce large-scale casualties that have no basis in fact. According to the official records for Operation Enduring Freedom, 14 Coalition soldiers –six Americans, two Romanians, two Canadians, one Dutch, one British and one Norwegian – died in April in Afghanistan.

Of course, the battle over statistics is very much part of the military conflict. In the last week there has been another dispute over figures, this time over deaths of civilians. According to President Karzai, around 140 civilians - including more than 90 children - were killed in an airstrike by US warplanes in Faryab province on 4 May. It later emerged that around a dozen of the wounded appeared to have been hit by white phosphorus, a deadly chemical that causes terrible burns and which it is illegal to use as a munition – although the USA has never signed a treaty forbidding its use.

As soon as the claims of civilian deaths and use of white phosphorus (known as wp) became public, the US military denied them, saying the deaths had been exaggerated and that in fact it was the Taliban that had been using wp. The US said militants used wp in improvised explosive attacks at least seven times since the spring of 2007, sometimes in civilian areas. Declassified documents showed 12 attacks where militants used wp in mortars or rockets, the majority of which came in the last two years.

The most recent militant attack occurred last week when a NATO outpost in Logar, manned by US troops, was hit with two rounds of indirect wp fire, the document said.

It was in the wake of this mess that the Pentagon announced the replacement of the top US and NATO general in Afghanistan, Gen. David McKiernan. Replacing McKiernan will be Lt Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who has had the top administrative job at the Joint Chiefs of Staff for less than a year. Was there a connection between the two events? No-one is saying, although Pentagon officials struggled to explain exactly why McKiernan was being replaced.