Saturday, November 14, 2009

Who You Callin' a Crony?

If you want to read a great piece of reporting about how American policies -- and American money -- can be terribly misguided and misspent, check out Farah Stockman's piece in the Globe from a couple days ago about Afghanistan's wariness to accept more U.S. 'advisors.'

The humor (if you can call it that) behind the story is that we are very quick to label the Karzai government, or virtually any government in that part of the world, as being corrupt institutions where bribery and cronyism carry the day.

At the same time, however, we dictate that the hiring of certain 'advisory' civilian positions to the Afghan government go to self-important, highly-educated but often practically useless Americans with high-level connections to the U.S. Government (i.e. our cronies). If you can believe it, the entire costs of these contracts can be as high as half a million dollars annually. The individual receives a fraction of that, and a sponsor company receives the rest, but as you can imagine, that's a huge cost of the war.

And here's why the Afghans are justifiably upset -- for a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost of those contracts, they could hire real talent from neighboring countries like India, get someone who can speak the language competetently and is able to move about the country. In many cases, the 'advisers' being sent now are stuck inside their compounds and haven't the slightest clue as to the culture, language, or customs of the people they were sent to go 'help.' Sometimes through no fault of their own (as in the case of the geologist mentioned in the piece) they're relegated to 'useless' status by their Afghan counterpart.

And sometimes the fault is theirs.

I worked with a Marine Major who was part of a PTT (Police Transition Team). He and his guys -- most very junior personnel who only made peanuts, even in a war zone in western Iraq -- were outside the wire every single day, training, traveling, sweating, and bleeding alongside their Iraqi counterparts.

Also at their FOB (Forward Operating Base) were a group of chiseled and tanned police officers from back in the states who were sent on a very lucrative contract (they were each making $250k, and that's after whatever fees their company took from Uncle Sam) and essentially did nothing. Literally, these guys watched movies and lifted weights all day for that money. There was no chain of command to get them to work, and no enforcement mechanism anywhere in sight...very different, of course, than the case would be if one of the Major's Lance Corporals decided to just 'phone it in' and stay in the rack all day.

I know that the idea of government waste is nothing new.

And I know that a military person impugning the work ethic of civilians is nothing new.

But if we're making an open-ended, long-term commitment to the people and nation of Afghanistan, it might be wise to consider their thoughts and inputs on the situation.

And if they're saying they want a little more say in the hiring of civilian advisers, or maybe if they're just offering us a few hiring pointers along the way, we might be wise to listen.


C R Krieger said...

Ah, scooped.  I had made a note to blog on this.  But, I waited too long.

I noted this article in a meeting I was in yesterday and it was agreed that there was cronyism in the United States with regard to Government (and other) contracts.  And in our Commonwealth here in Massachusetts.

The activities of a US Representative, like John Murtha, brings into question the integrity of the whole system.  And what about Representative William Jefferson, from Louisiana?  (convicted of corruption and up for sentencing.)  Our representatives in Congress are supposed to bring home the beacon, but it has become a system run amok, as when Dan Rostenkowski was the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and there was a minor revolution on the part of the voters in response.

Democracy requires continuing reform.  In the words of Mao, a permanent revolution.  As someone once said about Isaiah 64:8, better more time on the potter's wheel than broken on the floor.

Having been in the procurement dodge, I feel that it seems that cronyism has gone too far and it is time, again, for reform.  And it will be again in a decade or so.

Regards  —  Cliff

The New Englander said...

Yup, we're no angels on the cronyism and corruption stuff, either. And as to what specifically goes on in the theater, I'm guessing some things stay constant (but the dollar amounts might change radically).

And to me, someone collecting $250k/yr to lift weights and suntan on the roof at a FOB probably ranks up there with a Congressman keeping gobs of cash in boxes of fishsticks in his freezer..