By the end of 2014, 13 years after they first arrived, US and NATO troops will officially withdraw from Afghanistan. In September 2012, 33,000 additional US troops that President Barack Obama ordered to the war-torn nation to counter Taliban attacks left, leaving 68,000 US troops (part of a NATO force of more than 100,000) in Afghanistan. The bulk of these will be withdrawn over the coming two years, leaving only a ‘light footprint’ of roughly 10,000 American troops to pursue counter-terrorism efforts – and train and advise Afghan security forces.

The hope is that by the end of 2014, Afghan personnel will be able to take responsibility for the security of their own country. And, according to US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, this is more than achievable. "We have turned the corner" in Afghanistan, he said in September 2012, adding that Afghan security forces have been successfully built up to enable them to take the lead in maintaining security for large sections of the country.

But Afghan forces will not only have to ensure that their soldiers on the ground are capable of preserving order. "To provide security and peace for our people, we have to get the right logistics at the right place, at the right time," said Lieutenant General Abdul Hamid Mohebullah, Afghanistan’s Assistant Defence Minister for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, in September 2012.

However, implementing a robust and efficient logistics strategy that can be operated without the help of coalition forces is no mean feat, especially when you consider that this needs to be achieved in the next two years.

Procurement process transition

Enter Joint Theatre Support Contracting Command, the department of US CENTCOM that conducts contracting, supports warfighters in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and is currently committed to ensuring a smooth transition from the Afghan security forces’ current dependence on coalition forces to near self-sufficiency when it comes to logistics.

"Currently our engagement has been with International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and United States Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A)," says Major General Mark Brown, commanding general of Joint Theater Support Contracting Command, US CENTCOM. "However, as the coalition transitions security to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), we will be assisting NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan (NTM-A) in preparing Afghan procurement officials to assume contracting and acquisition support for ANSF requirements.

"This will help set the conditions for long-term stability and economic growth as the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (Giroa ) takes on more responsibility in procuring from Afghan industries."

In fact, this process is already well underway, with Joint Theater Support Contracting Command beginning to work with Afghan procurement organisations, as well as with other parts of ANSF, in order to facilitate a smooth transition of acquisition functions to Afghan personnel.

"The benefit is that Afghan procurement organisations will be able to seamlessly take ownership for supporting their forces, and the US Government will be able to drawdown contracting personnel in line with force reductions," Brown notes. "The ultimate goal is to have Afghan industry growth resulting from internal procurement practices and subsequent economic growth and stability."

Of course, this is easier said than done, and ensuring successful knowledge transfer from US experts to their Afghan counterparts has been challenging.

"We have learned that understanding each other’s culture and the differences that exist have been key," Brown emphasises. "Afghanistan’s trading history can be traced back several centuries due to its proximity to the Silk Road. Developing personal relationships is part of their business culture, and we must understand those unique cultural differences to ensure that successful knowledge transfer occurs."

For example, US forces have had to invest a huge amount of time in getting to know their Afghanistan business counterparts and establishing trust before business arrangements can even be considered. Moreover, according to Brown, their communication style can be indirect at times, making it essential to read between the lines and ask the right questions in the right manner to ensure everyone is understood.

"In addition, their acquisition guidance and associated regulations are very streamlined," Brown adds. "I believe we are transferring our tradition and culture of openness and fairness in our acquisition practices. While our process is sometimes criticised as being overly cumbersome, above all though, it is very transparent, and has oversight and governance procedures that ensure fair and open contracting opportunities."

Aligning logistics models

But simply replacing Afghan practices with US practices would be short-sighted and ultimately unsustainable. So, rather than replicating what is done in the West in Afghanistan, Joint Theater Support Contracting Command hopes to find a sustainable balance between the two ways of doing things.

For example, the organisation will be transferring bases, infrastructure and equipment to the ANSF, but it must also ensure that the Afghan forces are able to sustain this infrastructure and equipment when the coalition is no longer there to fully support them.

"We must be careful when we provide something to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that they understand the costs and the responsibility to maintain support," Brown stresses. "For example, we may transfer a base to the ANSF and the base has infrastructure and large generators that will eventually require maintenance. We need to ensure GIRoA has the means and resources to continue maintenance support without USG or external financial assistance."

Moreover, while it is crucial for Afghan forces to have insight into the US’s logistical support requirements as well as being trained in the administration processes that need to be in place to ensure the systems work, it is also key that they interpret the US’s way of doing things in a way that works for them.

"With the complexity of the US logistics and procurement process, our partners have learned to not replicate but to enhance their logistics strategy by incorporating best practises," says Brown.

Looking to the future, this will mean much more local procurement, a strategy that will not only reduce the Afghan forces’ dependence on the coalition; it will also help Afghanistan to become a more stable and prosperous nation.

"By ensuring we contract with local Afghan industries, as well as developing a Central Asian State (CAS) supplier capability, we are setting the conditions for long-term growth and stability," Brown believes. "Moreover, increasing the supplier base in the region creates competition to ultimately drive service and commodity prices down."

"The ultimate goal is to have Afghan industry growth resulting from internal procurement practices and subsequent economic growth and stability."

But how are the coalition forces going to ensure that the transition to local procurement is as smooth as possible?

"From a contracting perspective, we have worked to purchase products for the ANSF for local vendors so that any maintenance, repair or replacement would be locally obtained and interoperable with existing ANSF equipment," Brown explains. "As we ramp up our CAS buying, we look to ensure that what we buy is consistent with current ANSF equipment. Moreover, as the coalition transitions security to the ANSF, we will be assisting NTM-A in preparing Afghan procurement officials to assume contracting and acquisition support for ANSF requirements."

Part of that training will cover how to continue procurement from local or CAS vendors that are capable of providing supplies similar to current ANSF equipment. "This will help set the conditions for long-term stability and economic growth as the GIRoA takes on more responsibility in procuring from Afghan industries," Brown emphasises.

An enduring presence

But even when the majority of US and NATO forces withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014, they will not entirely be leaving the Afghans to fend for themselves. Indeed, Panetta has described the 10,000 American troops that will remain behind as ‘an enduring presence’. For Brown, this means that an integrated logistics strategy, encompassing many multinational partners, is still essential during contingencies.

"We, the military community, need to transform our capability to fully leverage, integrate and administer strong contracted support during contingencies," he notes. "Without an integrated strategy, operational contracting support (OCS) will not achieve its objective and will likely have a negative impact on unity of effort, moral and management of contracted capabilities.

"This will decrease our effectiveness and increase cost by escalating the number of contractors in theatre, expanding force protection requirements, stressing infrastructure and generating unproductive competition for limited resources within the area of operations."

A unifying strategy for aligning OCS among multinational partners is therefore absolutely crucial, and could improve the effective and efficient use of contracts and contractors during contingencies, particularly if it complies with regulation, leverages best practices and incorporates lessons learned along the way.

"To this end, my organisation has already established integration cells (ICs), along with a requirements acceptance process to ensure contract workload goes to the organisation best equipped to handle the requirement," Brown notes. "Currently we are initiating the planning for an overall OCS structure to ensure our logistics strategy runs smoothly. The challenge is to gather all the numerous organisations that have an involvement in OCS, come to an agreement, and then implement the resulting optimum process."

Despite the challenges Joint Theater Support Contracting Command will face in implementing this process, Brown is confident it will be in place by 2014. Moreover, he is keen to emphasise that several million dollars of military procurement have already been transitioned to ANSF procurement organisations. Examples of contracts that have already been awarded by the Afghans include:

  • construction of a medical building ($1.1 million)
  • spare parts for light tactical vehicles ($3.1 million)
  • computer hardware ($2.4 million)
  • generators ($4 million)
  • hospital renovation and facilities maintenance ($5.9 million).

So, progress is clearly being made on all fronts. Not only are the Afghan security forces already taking responsibility for part of their logistics strategy; coalition forces are well on the way to laying out effective logistics contingency processes. Looking forward, balance between US and Afghan strategies as well as local and international procurement processes will be key to ensuring that military logistics is as robust and effective as possible.