Before The Fall

A general's tale of Afghan challenges.

Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller is an engaging, good-humored man who loved his role as chief of security forces training in Afghanistan-until he lost the job just hours after joining me on the National Press Club stage last month. During a Government Executive leadership briefing on Nov. 3, Fuller pulled no punches about the steep uphill road we're climbing to drag Afghanistan's government and security forces into some semblance of modernity. But this wasn't what got him fired by Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Fuller's fateful offense came in a Politico interview the previous day when he voiced criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Lessons learned

There are two lessons here. One we've learned before: Senior military officers cannot criticize political leaders. In Allen's words: "These unfortunate comments are neither indicative of our current solid relationship with the government of Afghanistan, its leadership, or our joint commitment to prevail here in Afghanistan."

The second lesson, less obvious and perhaps open to argument, is that there's a lot of merit in candor. Fuller, who held the title of deputy commander for programs at NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, was refreshingly telling it like it is. Government, and indeed every institution, is inclined to put lipstick on a pig, as the old saying goes, and to selectively tell only the good news about what it's doing. Transparency is one watchword of the Obama administration. Fuller, and indeed the Pentagon bureaucracy too, has been quite open about the difficulties in Afghanistan.

Fuller joined me and our executive editor, Katherine McIntire Peters, just three days after the Pentagon released its semiannual report on Afghanistan, which also pulled few punches on the tough situation that the U.S. military faces there. It said "widespread corruption" continues, "criminal patronage networks" compromise development of Afghan security forces, and "setbacks in governance and development continue to slow the reinforcement of security gains and threaten the legitimacy and long-term viability of the Afghan government."

At the Press Club, Fuller added color to the bureaucratic gray of the Pentagon report, using marvelous metaphors and anecdotes to illustrate his points. One portrayed Afghan security force recruits as 16-year-olds eager, but wholly unqualified, to step behind the wheel of daddy's souped-up Corvette. Recruits, he said, "come from the hinterlands where they've never seen a bathroom, let alone a vehicle like the one they're now going to drive." His message was that U.S. trainers and mentors need to sit beside the Afghans, in vehicles, in offices and on the battlefield, for as long as budgets and politics allow.

The general portrayed Afghanistan's 86 percent illiteracy rate as a key obstacle. Security forces need to read and write. If you're an Afghan cop dealing with a driving infraction, you must be able to read the license plate and write the offender's name on a form, he observed. Many recruits can't. So, said Fuller, the U.S.-led NATO forces are mounting an extensive training program aimed at getting security troops to the first-grade level in reading and math. Some 100,000 security trainees are taking literacy courses. So many apply that "we are turning 1,500 a month away," Fuller continued. "For them, it's like the G.I. Bill."

Fuller told a hair-raising story about the importance of literacy in providing supplies for the security forces-which are slated to number 195,000 in the army and 157,000 civilian police. The United States already has sent a lot of equipment and is preparing to send more stuff worth $2.7 billion during the next eight months. U.S. forces set up warehouses for the materiel, but they're often staffed by illiterates to whom stock numbers or written descriptions (whether in English, Dari or Pashto) mean little. So for now, stock numbers have to be matched against pictures of the thousands of different items on the shelves. That has obvious consequences for efficiency, accuracy, inventory control and resupply. "It's not going to work" long term, said Fuller.

We are now supplying the Afghanis with sturdier vehicles, better guns and other equipment, and that could help with another daunting challenge: high attrition rates among ill-equipped recruits. In 2010, one combat-oriented part of the Ministry of Interior police force suffered an attrition rate of 140 percent. "It's like a bucket of water with holes in the bottom," Fuller said. "You just keep pouring it in at the top, but it never stays full." Attrition has been dropping, but remains very high: 30 percent in the Army at the moment. The net effect adds $250 million a year in training costs. "We can afford that, but it's not sustainable," he added.

We asked Fuller about corruption and stewardship and accountability for all the money the United States and its NATO partners are pouring into Afghanistan. He first pointed to the pay hurdle for the 352,000 people who will make up the Afghan security forces.

"If you are supposed to be paid $10, but you have no idea what 10 is, or that you even have 10 fingers, then you can't understand your pay," he said. So paymasters could simply pilfer from payrolls. Fuller's command has responded by "getting cash off the battlefield," as he put it. Electronic banking has emerged: Security personnel are given debit cards, which are loaded automatically on paydays. Theft of fuel has been a problem too. But NATO officials are closely monitoring how much is being used and can detect cases in which fuel depletion isn't matched by vehicle use. And the command is investing about $10 million to set up a credit card-like identification system for authorized consumers of fuel supplies. "It's a pretty good investment," he said. "Just another drop in the river" of efficiencies the command has sought to save U.S. taxpayers' money.

In response to the Obama administration's fiscal 2012 appropriations request of $12.8 billion for Fuller's training and supply mission, the general last summer turned back $1.6 billion, telling Congress he didn't need the money. An "Afghan First" procurement strategy has been paying off, he said. The U.S. military has invested in starting up local businesses, some women-owned, to produce supplies that otherwise would be imported at higher cost. Such local factories now are supplying security forces with uniforms, saving $660 million, Fuller said.

Pay is a continuing challenge for the NATO mission. Adequate compensation is essential to avoiding corruption. Police officers who are not paid enough to support their families, for example, are tempted to shake people down "for a little more cash," Fuller observed, or to join Taliban units that offer better pay. This problem is being addressed.

But good systems are not yet in place to staff and pay the civilian workforce needed by the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of the Interior and other parts of the government. NATO and Afghan leaders want civilians to lead and staff the security ministries, but they're largely staffed by military personnel. Because there is no pension system for Army generals, the current Defense minister cannot shed his uniform for a suit without a huge pay cut that would leave him earning "less than a private," Fuller said. "So there's no incentive for anyone to come into the government as a civilian." On Fuller's to-do list, thus, was helping to create a bureaucracy. "Sometimes I don't like our own," he said. "But you need a bureaucracy."

Fuller and his colleagues developed two other management principles:

"Afghan Right" and "Afghan Light." The general explained that what's right for Afghanistan is not the same as for more developed countries, and that lighter and simpler equipment is usually more appropriate. Afghan leaders wanted sophisticated F-16 Fighting Falcons. But this would require highly trained pilots and support personnel and facilities, not to mention the cost of operation-$10,000 an hour So we're supplying less expensive aircraft, including Cessnas, whose per-hour cost is a modest $1,000. The Afghans "wanted lobster, but we said, 'I'm sorry but lobster is not on the menu,' " Fuller said. "You are getting cod."

Smaller helpings of cod are coming the Afghans' way once NATO starts withdrawing equipment. Today, NATO is operating some 650 helicopters often used to evacuate injured personnel, and expected to deliver a wounded soldier to a surgeon within 42 minutes. U.S. forces will be leaving behind 56 helicopters, Fuller said, as part of a 136-aircraft fleet. "And we're telling them you are going to need regional medical facilities rather than trying to get everybody to a high- impact trauma unit," he added.

Then there's the matter of air conditioning. The U.S. military is spending $11 billion on infrastructure for the government. Seeing that American facilities have air conditioning, Afghan officials wanted it too. This would require facility engineers, Fuller observed, and more power in a country already suffering severe shortages and generators consuming expensive fuel. "So we said, let's cut out the air conditioning, except where there are a lot of computers, and go with ceiling fans," he said, adding that the decision is saving about $150 million a year. "Right for Afghanistan," says Fuller of this and other decisions to keep it simple and sustainable once U.S. personnel have left.

As we talked at the Press Club, news was breaking that would affect Fuller's training mission. The New York Times had just revealed details of a NATO-Afghan assessment outlining many obstacles to Karzai's March 2012 deadline for disbanding private security companies whose 34,000 guards protect the work of contractors in Afghanistan. Fuller acknowledged that this huge problem was on his plate, and expressed optimism the deadline could be met.

The following day, The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. leaders are seriously thinking of ending combat operations in Afghanistan next year, at least two years earlier than the scheduled conclusion at the end of 2014. That, of course, would add urgency to the task of bringing Afghan security forces up to speed.

In the newspapers, Fuller's firing consumed less space than these developments. But it was just as great a surprise. Our audience of 100 senior federal officials was taken with his charm, his enthusiasm, his gift for storytelling, and many told us the general had offered valuable lessons in leadership. He had been highly effective at communicating the message the military has been trying to convey: We can get this done; just give us a little more time. Fuller's firing offense was simply expressing the outrage he shared with so many others over Karzai's assertion that he would side with Pakistan in a dispute with the United States. Getting rid of such a talented general for such an understandable slip seems the wrong decision about the right guy at the wrong time.

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