Mind-boggling Bureaucracy

At a March 12 briefing on Afghanistan, the President asked whether the police will be ready when America’s scheduled drawdown begins in July 2011.  “It’s inconceivable, but in fact for eight years we weren’t training the police,” replied Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, taking part in the meeting via video link from Afghanistan.  “We just never trained them before. All we did was give them a uniform.” The president looked stunned. “Eight years,” he said. “And we didn’t train police? It’s mind-boggling.” The room was silent.

When you think of the number of people involved in such a project, the importance of the issues, the levels of accountability – not to mention the six billion dollars spent – it strains credulity that our minds could let something like that happen?  But actually it’s quite common.

A story in Newsweek details the complexity of this particular problem and provides some hints as to how such a monumental gap in consciousness could occur.  (See. “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”)

For one thing, it seems, we were unprepared for the level of corruption.  The police sell their ammunition and equipment, often to the Taliban, and they use their power to exploit the citizens they ostensibly are there to protect.  According to Newsweek, “when U.S. Marines moved into the town of Aynak last summer, villagers accused the local police force of extortion, assault, and rape. . . . ‘The people of Marja will tell you that one of their greatest fears was the police coming back,’ says Caldwell.”

Corruption on such a scale suggests the absence of a tradition of public responsibility.  It is difficult for people to think beyond their tribes, their families, themselves. “You have to have a police force that the people accept, believe in, and trust,” said Caldwell.  But that can only be when the identity of the police officers connects them to the larger purpose of a community.  That’s a problem larger, even, than corruption.

Then there is the question of training.  It takes significant levels of competence to train others, particularly when they are poorly educated from the start.  Newsweek noted:  “The people who oversaw much of the training that did take place were contractors—many of them former American cops or sheriffs. They themselves had little proper direction.”  Neither they nor their superiors were “prepared for the job they faced.”

Finally, there is a matter of unrealistic expectations and external pressures.  A former executive of the contracting firm commented off the record: “It’s practically impossible to produce competent police officers in a program of only eight weeks,” the time frame State and Defense set for the course. “They were not going to be trained police officers. We knew that. They knew that,” the former executive says. “It was a numbers game.”

So here is a program with inadequate materials to work with, staffed with people lacking essential skills, aiming at unrealistic goals. At every step of the way, no doubt, people were busy, providing instruction, writing reports, ordering materials, etc.  Occupied with their corner of the system, I suspect, they probably knew the system as a whole wasn’t working.  But when they looked up from their jobs, their minds turned off and tuned out – and then went back to their corner.

Monitoring the effectiveness and efficiency of the whole is a management function.  But if management won’t listen or if management reports to a boss who won’t hear, essentially there is no management.  In this case, someone in the White House had to let the mind-boggling truth in.