About That Counter-Insurgency Contract

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Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez / U.S. Marines

Marines in Helmand province.

On Wednesday, Mark Thompson posted about the renewed award of the Counterinsurgency (COIN) Advisory and Assistance Teams (CAAT) contract to Jorge Scientific Co. As the only Battleland contributor who actually participated in this contract, I thought I might comment.

I served as the Senior COIN Advisor, on the CAAT, to the RC-East Commander (primarily thenMajor General John C. Campbell, now the Army vice chief of staff) in 2010-2011.  The CAAT was the brainchild of Bob Kinder, a retired Army Ranger, now at the McCrystal Group. Bob’s concept was to provide high-end contractors, with unique experience and credibility, to assist and assess for General Stanley McCrystal as he implemented the new Afghanistan COIN strategy, as outlined by President Obama in his 2009 West Point speech. Bob was the first Senior COIN Advisor to the ISAF Commander in late 2009.

The early days of the CAAT were exciting times with a clear sense of mission, and the CAAT survived the transition from General McCrystal to General David Petraeus quite nicely. Early CAAT members were legendary within the small COIN and Special Operations community—Roger Carstens (recently returned from training Puntland Marines in Somalia) was my precedessor in RC-East, and then succeeded Bob Kinder at ISAF headquarters. Randy Brumit was the first advisor in RC-South, and was yet another who warned of the command climate issues in the 5th Stryker Brigade. JD Stevens, Pete Carey, and Drew Mullins were also all senior advisors at key points, while Erin Simpson (the “Charlie” of the early Abu Muqawama blog, now CEO of Caerus Analytics and Radha Iyengar (now the chief of staff to Mike Sheehan, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict) provided analytic support.

While the group  was not without critics, I like to think that it provided a pool of highly-qualified civilian defense experts who remained largely outside the military chain of command, and were therefore more empowered to be candid while still bringing significant experience to bear and being under contractual oversight.

I have not kept in touch with the CAAT in any significant way, and I do not pretend to know what functions this group now performs (though I am told they are no longer COIN advisors, but COMISAF advisors—keeping the acronym but with a significant change of emphasis).

But it is hard to picture how this concept could still provide significant value as the command downsizes—and as policymakers flirt with the “zero option” of leaving no U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond next year. I suppose this provides a lesson in the difficulty in shutting down programs, once started, and perhaps also the importance of building “sunset clauses” into good ideas.  Granted, $11 million is mere pocket change in the scheme of Afghanistan expenditures, but it still puts a sour taste in the mouth.

In our continuing debate about the role of armed contractors on the battlefield, bounding what contractors do — and do not — do, and when they do (and do not) do it, will be key. Knowing when a program has run its course will be an important part of these limitations.

While I would love to learn I am wrong, I fear that by not closing down the CAAT as the entire ISAF structure contracts, what could be a model for the correct use of expert contractors circulating the battlefield may be tainted by a poor ending.

Douglas A. Ollivant, Ph.D., is the Senior Vice President and a Managing Partner of Mantid International, a strategic consulting firm with offices in Washington D.C., Beirut, and Baghdad. A former NSC Director for Iraq, he is also a Senior National Security Fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @DouglasOllivant.