Analysis: The real picture in Afghanistan

Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller got cashiered for intemperate remarks about Afghan leaders. But what he has to say about the situation in the country is really important.

Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller is an engaging, good-humored man who loved his job as chief of security forces training in Afghanistan -- until he lost it just hours after joining me on the National Press Club stage in Washington last week.

During our Nov. 3 session, Fuller pulled no punches about the steep uphill road the United States is climbing to drag Afghanistan's civilian government and security forces into some semblance of modernity. But this wasn't what got him fired by his boss, Gen. John R. Allen, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in the country. Fuller's fatal offense came in a Politico interview on Nov. 2 during which he voiced criticism of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

I'd say there are two lessons here. The more obvious is that military officers can't criticize political leaders -- as we learned earlier when Allen's predecessor, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, was cashiered by the White House after Rolling Stone portrayed him as tolerating impolitic remarks about Vice President Joe Biden during a bull session with his staff. Allen's statement said of Fuller: "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 like it is. Government, and indeed every institution, is inclined to put lipstick on a pig, as in the old saying, and to selectively tell only the good news about what it's doing. But transparency is one watchword of the Obama administration. Fuller, and indeed the Pentagon bureaucracy as well, has been quite open about the difficulties in Afghanistan.

Battling Illiteracy

Fuller shared the Press Club dais with me and my colleague Katherine McIntire Peters just three days after the Pentagon released its semiannual "report on progress toward security and stability in Afghanistan," a document that pulled few punches on the tough situation facing us there. It said, for example, that "widespread corruption" continues, that "criminal patronage networks" compromise development of Afghan security forces, and that "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. As he talked, he deployed marvelous metaphors and anecdotes to illustrate how far we have to go. 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. These 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." He added that NATO trainers "are really focusing on driving. There are a lot of poor drivers, and we're losing a lot of vehicles because of that, not just because of [improvised explosive devices]." His broader message was that U.S. trainers and mentors need to sit beside the Afghans, in vehicles, in offices and on the battlefield.

Fuller portrayed Afghanistan's 86 percent illiteracy rate as a key obstacle to progress. Security forces need to read and write. If you're an Afghan cop dealing with a driving infraction, you must be able to read a license plate and write the offender's name on a form, he observed. Most can't do that. So, said Fuller, the U.S.-led NATO forces are mounting an extensive training program aimed at getting security forces to the first-grade level in reading and math. Sixty-four hours of classroom time gets you through first grade, another 130 through second and yet another 130 through third, which is the international standard for literacy. "We're hiring more teachers than the Ministry of Education," he said. Some 100,000 security trainees are taking literacy courses, and demand to get into these classes is so great that "we are turning 1,500 a month away," Fuller said. "For them, it's like the G.I. Bill."

He told a hair-raising story about literacy's importance in the provision of supplies for Afghan security forces -- which are slated to number 195,000 in the Army and 157,000 in the civilian police. The United States already has sent a lot of equipment and spare parts to Afghanistan (including 55,000 vehicles since 2003), and is preparing to send more stuff worth $2.7 billion during the next eight months. The military has set up warehouses for all the materiel, but many of the Afghanis who staff them are illiterates to whom stock numbers or written descriptions (whether in English, Dari or Pashto) mean little. So a picture system was devised, and at the front desk 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, Fuller admitted.

The latest surge of equipment will include 22,000 new vehicles that are better than any sent before. "They haven't had up-armored Humvees, for instance," Fuller said. "They've been driving around in Ford Rangers, which aren't so great in encounters with IEDs." Along with the new vehicles, we're providing stepped-up training in maintenance, repair and recovery of damaged vehicles, which typically are simply abandoned by their Afghan drivers. "The other day, we had our first battle-damaged vehicle turned in," he added, "and we're having a big celebration."

Better vehicles, guns and other equipment may help with another daunting challenge: the very high attrition rate among recruits to the security forces. Last year, one combat-oriented part of the Ministry of Interior policing forces suffered an attrition rate of 140 percent. Said Fuller, "It's like a bucket of water with holes in the bottom. You just keep pouring it in at the top but it never stays full." Attrition rates have been dropping, but still remain very high: 30 percent in the Army at the moment. That adds $250 million a year in training costs. "We can afford that," Fuller said, "but it's not sustainable."

Katherine and I asked Fuller about corruption and accountability for all the money the United States and its NATO partners are pouring into Afghanistan. He responded first by talking about pay for the 352,000 people who will make up the Afghan security forces at full strength. "It starts with literacy," he said. "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." So paymasters could simply pilfer from payrolls. Fuller's command has responded by "getting cash off the battlefield," as he put it. Security personnel are given debit cards that are automatically loaded on paydays. There are ATM machines in cities, but authorities didn't want 100 soldiers or police lining up there, presenting soft targets, so they have installed some machines on secure bases. Of course, many soldiers are stationed in small, remote garrisons and here another system has emerged: use of cellphones and moneylenders. Soldiers receive e-mails certifying that they've been paid and show their phones to local moneylenders, who give them cash and charge the bank a fee for the service.

Afghan Right and Afghan Light

Theft of fuel has been a problem too. But NATO officials are closely monitoring how much is being used and can detect cases where fuel depletion isn't matched by commensurate vehicle sorties. 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," Fuller said, calling it "just another drop in the river" of efficiencies the command has sought to achieve to save U.S. taxpayers' money.

That river has proved swifter than one might have expected. Against the Obama administration's fiscal 2012 appropriations request of $12.8 billion for his training and supply mission, Fuller last summer turned back $1.6 billion, telling Congress he didn't need the money. An "Afghan First" procurement strategy has contributed: the 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 some $660 million, Fuller said.

Pay is a continuing challenge for the NATO mission. Adequate compensation is essential to avoiding corruption. For example, if police are not paid enough to support their families, they are tempted to shake people down "for a little more cash," he observed, or they might join Taliban units offering better pay. This issue is being addressed. But still very much on the problem list is civilian salaries, as good systems do not yet exist 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 run by military personnel. Because there is no pension system for Army generals, the current Defense Minister cannot shed his uniform for a suit without suffering a huge pay cut that he would, Fuller said, be paid "less than a private. So there's no incentive for anyone to come into the government as a civilian." On his to-do list, thus, was helping "to create a bureaucracy. Sometimes I don't like our own. But you need a bureaucracy," Fuller said.

Fuller and his colleagues developed two other management principles: "Afghan Right" and "Afghan Light." He 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. Reversals of earlier decisions have come, if painfully, as was the case when U.S. authorities withdrew two of the four heavy machine guns supplied to Afghan infantry companies. Two is the international standard, but four is what we'd supplied earlier, and Afghan officers complained that we were diminishing their combat capabilities. Similarly, said Fuller, Afghan leaders wanted sophisticated F-16 Fighting Falcons. But this would require highly trained pilots, mechanics and other support personnel and facilities, not to mention a fully loaded cost of $10,000 an hour to operate. So we're supplying less expensive aircraft, including Cessnas whose per-hour cost is a modest $1,000. The Afghanis "wanted lobster," said Fuller, "but we said, I'm sorry, but lobster is not on the menu. You are getting cod."

Smaller helpings of cod are coming the Afghan's way once NATO starts withdrawing equipment. Today, NATO has 650 helicopters that often are used to evacuate injured personnel and deliver a wounded soldier to a surgeon within 42 minutes. But international forces will be leaving behind only 56 helicopters, according to Fuller, 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 said. Heavy, 5,000-gallon fuel tankers offer another example: NATO supplied 156 of them, but will reduce the number to 18 on the way out.

Then there's the matter of air conditioning. The United States is spending $11 billion on infrastructure for the government, and Afghan officials, seeing air conditioning in American facilities, wanted it too. This would require facility engineers, Fuller observed, and more power in a country already suffering severe shortages of 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 decision is saving some $150 million a year.

Fuller and his team emphasized self-sufficiency as they've dealt with Afghan commanders. And so, with his gift for anecdote, told the parable of the boots. On a visit to a big southwestern Afghanistan training facility recently, Fuller asked why some 600 of 1,500 trainees on-site were wearing sandals, not boots. Afghan commanders complained that Kabul was not responsive to requests for more boots. "But I knew we had 55,000 pairs of boots in Kabul," Fuller told us. He told the Afghan commander, "All of you have different sizes of feet, and we need stock numbers, so you might want to tell us just what you need." The commander responded that this seemed too burdensome, "so just send us 15,000 boots." Then, in a testy meeting of higher ranking officers, Fuller delivered the message that this was an Afghan problem, not an American one. "You take charge of it," he told the Afghan officers.

Fuller talked about other initiatives under way, for example Britain's effort to establish an officer training institution modeled after one of its own. For more extensive education of the officer corps, the United States is planning to fund a "West Point equivalent," he said.

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

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

Wrong Decision, Right Guy

In the newspapers, Fuller's firing consumed less space than these developments. But to the three of us who were on stage at the Press Club just hours before that news flashed over the wires, it came as a huge surprise. Katherine and I, and our audience of 100 senior federal officials, had been taken with Fuller -- his charm, his enthusiasm, his gift for storytelling. In their evaluations, attendees said the general had offered valuable lessons in leadership. He had been a highly effective communicator who ended our session with the message the military has been trying to convey: We can get this done; just give us a little more time.

Fuller's superiors doubtless knew that he was going to be interacting with the press. He surely was not as prepared for that as, say, former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Michael Mullen. Perhaps Fuller should have been warned against commenting on the development that had outraged many U.S. officials -- Karzai's assertion that he would side with Pakistan if a conflict developed between U.S. and Pakistani interests. Expressing what everyone else in the military, and many in Congress, felt about Karzai's statement is what cost Fuller his job. Candor is a quality that people like among government officials. Getting rid of a talented general for such an understandable slip seems the wrong decision about the right guy at the wrong time.