Lessons from a Long-Time Contractor in Afghanistan

Automotive specialist describes “building capacity” through hiring locals, being on receiving end of SIGAR audits.

During his company’s 16 years as a U.S. contractor in war-torn Afghanistan, Andrew Robertson grew convinced that “building capacity” through hiring locals is the best way to counter the ongoing military threat from the Taliban.

Interviewed April 26 during a visit to Washington, the Dubai-based president and CEO of Automotive Management Services discussed what he believes is good “taxpayer value” in his Defense Department contracts to manage vehicles. And he described what it’s like to undergo audits from the aggressive Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

“We provide meals, uniforms and English lessons” to some 1,700 Afghans at 17 sites, Robertson said of his Defense Department contracts to manage vehicle fleets and supplies for the Afghan National Police and others in a poverty-stricken economy. As many as 90 percent of his employees are locals and four of his firm’s sites are 100 percent Afghan-managed.

“Most people in Washington don’t realize that DoD contractors are building capacity in neighborhoods to counter the Taliban,” he said. “There’s no trust there. Fraud and corruption are opportunistic—that’s the mindset,” he added. “High-value parts are kept under lock and key since [a fuel] injector is worth a month’s salary.”

Robertson, who grew up in Galway, Scotland, first came to Kabul in 2003 working for DynCorp as a member of then-President Hamid Karzai’s protection detail. “Some Afghans had never seen a European,” Robertson recalled.

His first work with Automotive Management Services involved maintaining United Nations vehicles; he located, inventoried and inspected what at the time were often Russian jeeps. The Afghans have since modernized to Ford Rangers and Navistar trucks.

During eight years he spent in Helmand Province, Robertson—who still depends on interpreters---learned that in many instances, one male Afghan aged 18-40 is likely to be supporting a family of 10. He met a 19-year-old who said he had 10 years’ experience as a mechanic—yes, he’d started at age 9—but the man could still use an apprenticeship.

Often “there are no other jobs besides picking poppies” for the illegal opium trade, Robertson said. “So giving them a job, training and skill sets gets a double bang for the buck” in that it boosts readiness against enemy violence and “respect in the country that comes from having a job.”

There is a “brain drain” in Afghanistan in that many locals aspire to get skills “and sign on with an international company and get out,” Robertson said. “We try to harness that” and stabilize the situation so more locals will stay and fewer will rely on theft to survive.

“We don’t pay the highest salary, and we’re proud of that,” he said. “We pay the fair market rate and get the best value for the government.” Salaries in that country, he said, are odd in that doctors can make as little as $300 a month while drivers for the United Nations can make $1,600. “We want locals to respect the value of money and earn their increase, which is not a gift,” Robertson said.

The capacity building -- the economic benefit and the improved security, like a “neighborhood watch” -- helps counter the tendency to “bunker down” in fear that “the bad guys will walk in,” Robertson said.

Automotive Management Services, which competes for contracts with such firms as DynCorp and KBR, has saved the U.S. government $120 million through finding efficiencies, Robertson said.

The company did come in for criticism from SIGAR in a 2013 audit, which said:

AMS generally performed and billed in accordance with the contract’s terms and conditions, but SIGAR found inaccuracies in AMS’s spare parts inventory. AMS generally met the contract-established 90 percent operational readiness rate for ANP vehicles. Additionally, AMS’s firm fixed-price invoices were billed at the agreed upon rates. However, at 11 sites visited by SIGAR, AMS’s electronic inventory management system did not accurately reflect spare parts on hand [and the Army Combined Security Transition Command–Afghanistan and the Defense Contract Management Agency] did not always conduct monthly oversight of AMS facilities.

Robertson said he has been present when SIGAR auditors with their laptops and checklists arrive to inspect his firm’s parts rooms and interview staff. “Generally, the audits are good,” he said, though “sometimes the final report is scandalized a bit. When you know the facts, it’s not as bad, though in other cases it’s absolutely shocking,” Robertson added.

“We mirror SIGAR reports,” he said. If auditors require a checklist of, say, 68 items, “we’ll check 75, and not just on the day they come,” he said. But his staff operates in a severely underdeveloped country where thousands of vehicles “don’t always come in” according to a contract’s parameters. Half of the corruption in Afghanistan, he estimated, comes because contracts are too loose. “Thirty-three of the country’s 34 provinces are outside the wire,” he said. “The hospitals aren’t there, and schools are built and then burnt down, while fuel is used a currency.”

If there’s too much focus on everyone who’s getting fined, that sends the wrong message, he said. It’s better to be “looking at the effectiveness of programs, the responsibility and who’s paying, and asking, ‘Is this a good value for taxpayers?’ ”