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David Isenberg

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Miles to Go

Posted: 11/22/11 07:35 PM ET

I ended a previous post by noting how important it is for the private military and security contracting industry to pay more attention to its history. As the saying goes, you learn from your mistakes. But you can't learn if you don't bother to remember your mistakes, write about them, and circulate the records to others.

I wrote that regular military forces have long understand the importance of doing this, which explains why all the services have numerous offices set up devoted to the study of military history.

The need for this is glaringly obvious. For example, consider the report Wartime Contracting in Afghanistan: Analysis and Issues for Congress released last week by the Congressional Research Service.

According to the author, Moshe Schwartz, Specialist in Defense Acquisition:

From FY2005 through 2011, the U.S. government obligated more than $50 billion for contracts performed primarily in Afghanistan. Because a primary goal of defense contracting in Afghanistan is to support the overall mission, it is deemed essential that contracting is not only thought of as a response to immediate needs but also as part of the larger strategy. As General Allen, Commander, International Security Assistance Force, recently wrote, "We must improve our contracting practices to ensure they fully support our mission."

Many of the weaknesses of the current government acquisition process can be exacerbated and exploited in a wartime environment, making it more difficult to adhere to best practices. These weaknesses include inadequate acquisition planning, poorly written requirements, and an insufficient number of capable acquisition and contract oversight personnel. For example, in a wartime environment, it is more difficult to research and evaluate companies bidding on a contract and more difficult to conduct oversight of projects built in dangerous locations.

It really can't be said too much that contracting in war zones is not like contracting in peacetime. In wartime you have, like it or not, other strategic goals that must be taken into consideration beyond getting the right good or service, on schedule and at a fair price.

In wartime, however, these may not be the right measures, as other goals may be equally or more important. Winning the support of the local village is often more important than staying on schedule. Helping train local nationals and building up the technical capabilities of local firms may be well worth a substantial increase in contract costs.

Contract risks can also differ greatly between peacetime and wartime. Peacetime risks generally include cost overruns, schedule slips, and poor performance. Additional risks that must be considered when awarding a contract in an environment such as Afghanistan include diverting millions of dollars to warlords, criminal networks, or insurgents; hiring private security and other contractors who may engage in abuses that undermine the legitimacy of coalition forces; and the inflow of large sums of poorly managed contracting dollars fueling corruption.

However, the state of the U.S. governmental acquisition process being what it is, namely overwhelmed and under resourced, it has, to paraphrase Robert Frost's poem, miles to go before we can sleep comfortably about U.S. tax dollars being used wisely. The CRS report notes:

Some of the weaknesses of the current federal government acquisition process can be exacerbated by and exploited in a wartime environment, making it more difficult to adhere to best practices. These weaknesses include inadequate acquisition planning, poorly written requirements, and an insufficient number of qualified and capable acquisition and contract oversight personnel. For example, in a wartime environment, it is more difficult to write a good contract that incorporates the sometimes competing goals of counterinsurgency (COIN) contracting, more difficult to research and evaluate companies bidding on a contract, and more difficult to conduct oversight of projects being built in dangerous locations. It is also more difficult to protect against contracting fraud and corruption in countries that have weak law enforcement and judicial systems. Corrupt officials and warlords can exploit these weaknesses to divert contracting funds to their own coffers.

Admittedly, if there are problems with contracting officers then that is primarily a government problem. Still, it takes two to tango. If contractors really want to do the most professional job they can -- a goal that may be problematic for some of them -- they could and should receive the various lessons learned reports government personnel have been compiling for years as they reflect on why so many reconstruction projects went kablooey.

The CRS reports mention two groups the military created to improve contracting in Afghanistan. They are:

• Task Force 2010 which was set up in July 2010 to help commanders and acquisition personnel better understand with whom they are doing business, to conduct investigations to gain visibility into the flow of money at the subcontractor levels, and to promote and distribute best contracting practices.

• The Afghanistan Vendor Vetting Cell was established to ensure that government contracts are not awarded to companies with ties to insurgents, warlords, or criminal networks. The cell was set up in the fall of 2010 and is based in CENTCOM headquarters in Tampa, Florida. In June 2011, the vendor vetting cell consisted of 14 analysts capable of vetting approximately 15 companies a week.

One hopes that the military will share information from those two groups with the industry so that various companies can improve their own due diligence efforts when competing for and implementing contracts.

 
 
 

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