When Smart Power Meets Dumb Bureaucracies


Prior to coming to office, the Obama team emphasized the importance of smart power. For example, now-Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michelle Flournoy argued for establishing “a robust interagency process for strategy, planning, and budgeting that would enable the United States to assess long-term threats and opportunities, set clear priorities, allocate and manage risk, develop long-term ‘whole of government’ approaches, identify critical capability areas in which to invest, and make course corrections along the way.” Yet whole-of-government, interagency, or balanced approaches to foreign policy are easier said than done.   

At the same time police and military units are being trained to relieve NATO forces, military personnel are also engaging in civil-military development projects. These activities rely on a unique blend of charitable Atlanticist political culture, latent civil-military capacity within NATO militaries, and ambitious military officers who see the strategic landscape characterized by challenges to human security, weak states, and transnational actors. Through their efforts to wield smart power, officers are increasingly confronted with dumb bureaucracies that sabotage their own efforts. 

Consider one mobilized reserve officer’s account of supporting reconstruction of the Kandahar International airport:

When it comes to funding development projects in Afghanistan there is really only one honeypot: Commander’s Emergency Relief Program (CERP).  CERP is a billion dollar fund that is meant for urgent humanitarian assistance, but has morphed into the one and only way to pay for anything anybody wants to do.  Sit in any meeting at RC-South HQ and it will only take a few minutes before somebody tosses around the acronym CERP (pronounced “Sirp“).

“How’s the situation on power in Kandahar City?”

“Well, sir, we have several CERP proposals being developed to address that…”

“What’s the status of the Kandahar City bypass road?”

“CERP funds have been allocated to complete the first five kilometers this summer…”

Schools, wells, bridges, clinics, cash-for-work canal cleaning, diesel power generators, you name it, CERP funds it or somebody is trying to get CERP funding for it, a modern day reconstruction and development Widow’s Cruse.

CERP is intended for small projects and is theoretically a quick source of funding.  Never mind that the CERP project checklist includes 13 separate forms that need to be completed, signed and approved.  You need a battlespace commander sponsor, detailed statement of work, independent government cost estimates, letters of justification, memorandum of understanding and land use agreements signed by the Afghan government, the list goes on. 

The amazing thing is how many people need to sign off and get involved on trivial projects.  I arrived in country thinking that my projects in Afghanistan would make deals at [the Information Technology Company] Intuit pale in comparison.  After all, this is a trillion dollar war and I’m at the tip of the spear.  No expense spared, right?  Think again.

The head of US troops in southern Afghanistan only has approval authority up to $1 million.  After that, it goes up to Kabul and General McChrystal.  Beyond $2 million, from what I understand, and it goes back to CENTCOM in Tampa for General Petreaus’ review.  Over $10 million and you’re at the Pentagon.  Folks, at strategy and corporate development at Intuit, we would give $15 million acquisition deals to new associates to let them get their feet wet.  When I was at Oracle, Larry Ellison wasn’t even interested in knowing the basics of deals less than $500 million; he delegated oversight and approval to his deputies.

It’s taken me months, but it looks like we’re almost there with a CERP bid for replacing the badly damaged ramp at the airport, a multi-million dollar project that will take months to complete.  In fairness, the officials at MoTCA did sign the MOU and LUA with alacrity, something to be proud of, I’m told.  The nearly completed application package looks like a GAO report, an inch thick, most of it indecipherable.  Assuming this project gets approved — and that’s not guaranteed at this point (I don’t even want to think about it) — it will still take months to get bids, select a contractor and then develop a work plan.  Between now and then, the airport will support the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.  And the cracks will still be unfixed.

This account illustrates that the Taliban or al Qaeda are not the biggest challenge facing NATO in bringing security and stability to Afghanistan. Instead, it’s bad business practices, which is starting to have political consequences.  

This week’s testimony by General David Petraeus showed a bipartisan frustration emerging in the United States. James Joyner argued in this forum: “it’s more clear than ever that our partners in the Afghan government are not up to the job. Corruption is rampant and Hamid Karzai is hedging his bets, based on the not unreasonable presumption that his Western allies won’t be there forever. Indeed, most NATO countries have already left or announced their imminent departure.  And even the Senate Armed Services Committee seems to be taking President Obama’s July 2011 deadline as an exit strategy, despite assurances to the contrary.” To be all-inclusive, James’ list should also include NATO countries’ rules and bureaucratic structures that inhibit reconstruction activities. 

As I’ve argued elsewhere, external actors can have limited effects on encouraging the growth of Afghanistan’s polity, civil society, and economy. But as the tenth year of Afghanistan reconstruction begins this fall, NATO countries must overcome its own bureaucratic challenges and equip its forward deployed personnel with the right tools to promote Afghan sovereignty—or at least remove the impediments.

Derek Reveron, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.  These views are his own.

Image: bureaucracy-maze.jpg