May 04, 2008

Shocking Encounters

Kip has learned over the course of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan that electricity is serious business and so read with interest what must have been an otherwise strange article in today's NY Times about the dangers of electricity contract work in Afghanistan (given the rather more serious threat of being ground into hamburger meat by an IED).

Two specific events have made Kip slightly more wary about Franklin's fluid. In Iraq, a captain from Kip's unit was electrocuted to death by a low hanging wire while giving chase to insurgents (based on the article, that would account for 8% of all deaths by electrocution in Iraq and Afghanistan).

In Afghanistan, Kip's small unit took over a previously abandoned building and paid a local to fix up some of the old wiring so that we could, on occasion, get a hot shower. All went well until one of our officers was taking a shower and a short circuit gave him something of a shock. Moreover, the electrical fault electrified virtually the entire building until the circuits blew rather spectacularly. Fortunately, no one was hurt badly.

Despite my experiences, it is important to give a little perspective here. Reported deaths by purposeful or accidental electrocution account for less than 0.3% of all military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, which doesn't make it any easier if you are the unlucky one zapped by KBR, but should give you less pause about taking a shower than, say, going out on patrol.

The NY Times article is part of a continued debate within the military, government, and policy makers about both the use and supervision of military contractors as well as the outsourcing of work to for-profit companies considered vital to national security.

The accidental deaths and close calls, which are being investigated by Congress and the Defense Department’s inspector general, raise new questions about the oversight of contractors in the war zone, where unjustified killings by security guards, shoddy reconstruction projects and fraud involving military supplies have spurred previous inquiries.

The unmistakable take away from the article is that continued negligence by contractors and by those who supervise contracts has resulted in otherwise preventable military deaths. Kip does believe that oftentimes contractors have been negligent in both theaters and rarely held to account. Kip's main problem, however, with these contracts is that, like development aid in Afghanistan, they take large amounts of US money and, rather than facilitating local development in support of the war effort, return money to the US economy and, disproportionately, to the barons of military industry at great cost to the American taxpayer and with little effect on the outcome of the wars.

KBR and other contractors will argue that their expertise and supervision is needed to ensure quality and safety for US troops. Articles like this one and my experience on the ground suggest that (for construction in particular) large US contractors serve simply as clearinghouses for local sub-contractors at great additional cost to the US and at great opportunity cost in terms of other projects that could be executed.

Anyone who has executed a local project in a war zone also knows that supervising it is difficult given other pressing issues and that local contractors often lack the expertise to meet all conditions of their contract. Using KBR workers with greater expertise to do your electrical work may, in fact, lead to fewer electrocutions than would wholesale contracting through local labor.

It also makes American soldiers less safe.

The reason is simple. An American or Bosnian doing electric contract work does nothing to convince the people of the benefit of cooperating with the new government and their international supporters. With limited legal mechanisms for recourse of their various grievances, they turn to violence.

On the other hand, when contracts are awarded and locals employed, they may see the direct benefits of the new order. Some of them won't, and we'll have to kill them. Yet we'll be able to better figure out who these spoilers are and find them when we have the cooperation of the locals. Awarding truly local contracts and using them for both political and security leverage are a vital component of getting this cooperation.

If we were to truly embrace our doctrine, "Your best weapons don't fire bullets," then we would in fact see more electrocutions. We would also face less military resistance in the form of ambushes and IEDs. Heck, we might even "win."

I think the average soldier is willing to take those odds.