Friday, January 30, 2015

smart ideas on military compensation reform

I have long been outraged that only one person in six who serves in uniform ever receives a pension for their service. Members of Congress are happy to keep adding benefits via the Pentagon for "veterans" without realizing how few people actually receive them.  I have also been disappointed, though not surprised, that the lobbyists for the lucky 17% fiercely oppose any effort to make military personnel pay even small additional copays now that their health care costs them only about 1/5 of what civilians pay for their health insurance.

The congressionally mandated commission on military compensation has now issued its report. And so far, at least, the interest groups have held their fire and members of Congress have said they'll study the proposals.

What they'll find is a balanced set of recommendations that saves some money [$31.8 billion over the next five years and ultimately $12.8 billion per year] but should still attract and retain enough qualified people.

-- Best of all, the commission recommends adding a 401(k) type program so that people serving fewer than a full 20 years will still get some retirement benefits. But it grandfathers all currently serving personnel so they can keep the current retirement system if they wish.

-- The commission also recommends a major overhaul of the Tricare health benefits program, turning it into something more like the Federal Employees Health Benefit system with a choice of plans and providers. To make the benefits more transparent [and, I hope, to reduce opposition] they create a new Basic Allowance for Health Care [BAHC] that can be spent on premiums and copays and other services.

-- The commission wisely recognized that military commissaries and exchanges really matter to service families and rejected the ritual Pentagon proposals for closing them or raising prices.

-- The remaining 12 recommendations are mostly family-friendly actions that should be done in any event.

But the big three mentioned above are an excellent starting point for worthwhile reforms that also save at least a little money. [If we get over this hurdle, then DOD and the services should revise their rigid personnel systems to allow for more flexibility, such as sabbaticals for civilian job experience and longer times in given ranks and at given posts.]

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

it helps to be at the end of nowhere

Years ago I wrote a book on American policy toward Laos in the 1950s and 1960s. I called it The End of Nowhere because of a telling quote from a U.S. official posted there. "This place is the end of nowhere," he said. "We can do anything we want here because Washington doesn't seem to know it exists."

The same phenomenon -- out of sight, out of mind -- may lead to military success. A professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Hy Rothstein, wrote an article in 2007 that argued "US success against irregular threats is inversely related to the priority senior US officials (civilian and military) attach to the effort. When
one investigates the return on investment in the global war on terror (GWOT), now increasingly described as the Long War, in Iraq versus in the Philippines, it is clear that US efforts in the Philippines are achieving great success with minimal resources, while efforts in Iraq are achieving limited success with almost unlimited resources. The same is true of US success against an irregular threat in El Salvador in the 1980s."

Rothstein contrasts the first few months of the American intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks as successful, but then the big Centcom planning machine took over. "The result was a large, higher headquarters that didn’t (and couldn’t) acquire or process the large amounts of information needed to generate combat operations, and subordinate units without the necessary authority to act in a timely manner to emerging situations. This hybrid produced paralysis. It also generated operations based on intelligence
that was old and no longer valid."

A commenter on Jim Fallows' discussion of problems in the U.S. military who is said to have extensive government experience makes the point quite effectively:
I find Rothstein's argument very compelling.  I work for [an executive-branch department]  and I see here too how once Big Washington takes over an issue it can quickly destroy it by demanding short-term results, beating the nuance out of any policy, and valuing domestic political considerations over any optimal policy outcome.

Also, once Big Washington takes over, people in the field spend more time reporting back to Washington than they do focusing on solutions to the problem at hand.  Finally, Washington has a tendency to micromanage operations in the field, but how well can anyone in Washington truly understand something as complex as Helmand Province or Anbar?  Instead, once the Washington bureaucracy seizes hold of an issue, it throws money, B-52s and civilian contractors at it until the issue goes away.
Maybe micromanaging is an even bigger problem in DOD than in the White House.

mixed results for nation-building

I used to be a strong supporter of American "nation-building" programs abroad. I thought that careful advance planning, rigorous interagency coordination, and generous resourcing would lead to positive results. I even held out hope for Iraq in 2003, before Rumsfeld and Franks bungled the initial occupation and Bremer destroyed the government institutions we had planned to rely on.

Now I'm skeptical that any of our best laid plans can provide more than a random chance of success.

David Ignatius reinforces my doubts with a fine column about the failure of U.S. policy in Yemen. Indeed, the problems there, he says, are all too typical of outcomes in the rest of the Arab world.
What happened in Yemen is not very different from the stories of other Arab nations shaken by the “Arab Spring” revolutions. Armies that had seemed strong under authoritarian rulers crumpled against insurgents. U.S. military intervention hasn’t checked the disintegration, nor has American retreat. The conclusion is so obvious we sometimes overlook it: This history is being written by the Arabs, not outsiders. Foreign assistance can help strong, broadly based governments but not fragile, polarized ones.
He points to a recent RAND study that reviewed the evidence from 107 countries during 1991-2008.

Among its findings:
• SC [security cooperation programs] was more highly correlated with reduction in fragility in states with stronger state institutions and greater state reach.
• SC was not correlated with reduction in fragility in states that were already experiencing extremely high fragility.
 • The concentration of low state reach, authoritarian regimes, and relatively high levels of fragility in the Middle East and Africa meant that the positive correlation of SC and reduction in fragility was least pronounced in those regions; Latin America, Asia Pacific, and Europe had the best effects.
This suggests that SC may be better at “reinforcing success” or preventing backsliding than
in halting a country’s decline into instability.
 The lesson for me is that, however well-intentioned we may be,it's very hard to get plants like democracy and good governance to grow in hostile soil, intemperate weather, and poor light.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

who lost Syria?

Which Syria? When? The more we learn about American and international efforts to overthrow Assad and destroy the forces of ISIL, the more confusing and difficult those missions seem.

Today the Wall Street Journal has a substantial report on what seems to be a mismanaged and failing effort to arm Syrian opposition forces.Among its findngs:
Entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.
The CIA recently stopped offering help to all but a few trusted commanders in Syria. Much of the U.S.’s focus is shifting to southern Syria, where rebels seem more unified but say they get just 5% to 20% of the arms requested from the CIA.
These cutbacks and shortfalls appear to be in response to administration and congressional concerns that the weapons could fall into enemy hands,
 Officials defend the decision to keep the arms pipeline small and tightly controlled, citing concerns that weapons could fall into the wrong hands. “This was consistent with the administration’s legal responsibilities and strongly held views in Congress,” a senior administration official says. Despite the controls, some weapons still wound up on the wrong side.
And delays have also occurred in an international panel overseeing the effort.
 At meetings, the MOM [joint operations center] heard requests for ammunition and then deliberated, often for as long as two weeks. The panel included the CIA and intelligence services from countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
The article also claims we didn't pay as much as the bad guys.
Most CIA-backed fighters made $100 to $150 a month. Commanders made slightly more. Islamic State and Nusra often paid twice as much, making it harder for the trusted commanders to retain fighters.
 The U.S. program has multiple and hard to achieve goals, especially the vetting of "trusted commanders." A recent CRS study details the many conflicting provisions of administration and congressional proposals for the program. No wonder things have gone "awry."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

podium power as a congressional tool

We have today an excellent example of how the power game is played in Washington. As readers of the Constitution know, only the President can decide on the recognition of foreign governments, that is the exchange of ambassadors. It may come soon with Cuba, despite laws on the books imposing tight trade sanctions and other restrictions. Similarly, each house of Congress determines its own rules -- including the power to grant or deny permission to speak to a joint meeting. Remember just after the elections when some Republicans wanted to deny the President an opportunity to present his State of the Union message in person.

Congressional Republicans, with some Democratic support, are highly dubious of the value of a possible multinational deal with Iran to limit its nuclear programs. They want to pass a bill with increased sanctions despite a veto threat and other warnings that even prospective, conditional legislation could disrupt the talks and scuttle any agreement. [Even Israeli intelligence believes this.] Speaker Boehner consulted with the Israeli ambassador and decided to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu to speak to a joint meeting on the topic of Iran on Febraruy 11. The administration was angry because the normal procedure is for foreign dignitaries to work out their travel with the executive branch even if they also might be invited to address Congress.

The visit serves GOP interests by demonstrating its tools for influencing US policy toward Iran. And it cleverly serves Netanyahu's interests since he has called elections for March 17, where his party is roughly tied with the main opposition in the polls. Last week he inissted on walking in the front row with other foreign leaders in the Charlie Hebdo memorial march in Paris.

Congress loves to show support for Israel. As the NYTimes reported after Netanyahu's last speech there in 2011:

The speech was so well received that the New York Times said, “Netanyahu received so many standing ovations that at times it appeared that the lawmakers were listening to his speech standing up.”

Stay tuned...

Monday, January 19, 2015

the illusion of Pentagon reform

While the segment of the media that follows the Pentagon suggests that this is the year for reform of the weapons acquisition process, Alex Ward of War on the Rocks has a bracing reminder that not much is likely to happen. One of his key points:
Yet, it is important to note that, this Republican-led Congress will be friendlier to ending the financial constraints on the Department of Defense (the sigh of relief from American defense contractors is audible.) That still will not change the overall tone in Congress toward defense acquisition reform which is that it is too hard to fix, partially because it is very technical but mostly because the status quo brings money to the districts of many Congressmen. If the system changes, the money and the votes may go away. At best, then, we can expect Congress to point all the problems, but not legislation to finds solutions.
Changes in defense contracting are like changes in campaign rules and financing: winners under the current system are likely to oppose changes since change increases uncertainty and risk.

The other sad truth is that most of the touted changes are really just the other horn of a genuine dilemma.
-- Fixed price contracts seem better than cost-plus contracts, but each has real problems in practice.
-- Competition is good in theory, but keeping two contractors in a shrinking business is inefficient.
-- Preserving the industrial base has long term potential benefits and short run costs.
-- Giving contracts to innovators seems smart until the new companies screw up.
-- Fly before buy avoids some problems but delays availability of new technologies and makes it even harder to incorporate newer technologies.

There are no easy answers here.

Monday, January 12, 2015

mismanagement in Afghanistan

I want the Afghan government to succeed. I want the sacrifices in blood and treasure of the United States and other nations to succeed in nurturing  a country with security and human rights.

But I have worried all along that our nation-building plans were unsustainable, with too large a military force, too expensive a government, and too fragile an economy.

It is very hard to justify more of the same in terms of U.S. aid when these are the results,according to a new report on the Afghan National Police by the Special Inspector General:
Today, SIGAR released an audit of U.S.-funded salary payments for the Afghan National Police (ANP), which total $1.3 billion.

The audit found:

--The U.S. is spending over $300 million annually for ANP salaries with little assurance that these funds are going to active police personnel or that the amounts paid are correct.

--There are almost twice as many ANP identification cards in circulation as there are active police personnel.

--After 9 years of effort, an electronic human resources system has still not been successfully implemented.

--Reports have disclosed inflated police rosters, payments being made to more police personnel than are authorized in particular locations, and police personnel receiving inflated salaries.

--20% of ANP personnel are at risk of not receiving their full salaries because they are paid in cash by an MOI-appointed trusted agent, where as much as half of these payments are possibly diverted.

--U.S. officials confirmed that over the past year they accepted, without question, all personnel totals provided by the Afghan Ministry of Interior (MOI).

--UNDP's independent monitoring agent may have artificially inflated the percentage of successfully verified ANP personnel from 59% to as much as 84%.

--As U.S. forces draw down, the U.S. government will have increasingly limited visibility over ANP data collection

White House micromanaging

Several former officials, including Defense Secretary Bob Gates, have complained that the Obama White House "micromanages" the Pentagon and other parts of the national security complex. I suspect that those complaints are exaggerated.

Every White House seeks tight control of the subordinate bureaucracies, though few achieve it. Message discipline has always been tightly enforced. NSC staff have always probed the cabinet departments for information and have offered suggestions. Gates objected to a direct phone line between the NSC and a wartime combatant command. But former Defense Secretary Harold Brown told me of his outrage when a Carter NSC staffer tried to order a deployment of an aircraft carrier to a trouble zone. The Reagan NSC was criticized for running operations.

I'd like to get more evidence on the micromanagement charge,since I know the Obama NSC staff had frequent high-level meetings, sometimes two or three times a week, when all kinds of views could be aired prior to decisions. 

On Fox News, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was asked the question. Here's his answer:
On is the White House micromanaging the Pentagon?: "[I]t's the wrong metric in terms of defining the relationship between the military and our elected leaders. What I can tell you is the metric that we should be focused on is access and whether my advice —influences decisions… I feel no constraints in providing my advice to him and that my advice, over the past three-and-a-half years, has influenced his decisions. "You know, whether someone wants to characterize the desire, the almost insatiable appetite for information about complex issues as micromanaging, they can have at it. But for me, the metric is access and advice."
I agree.