The humanitarian and social crisis caused by the withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan and the almost instantaneous surrender of the Afghan army made headlines in September 2021.
By reading the various press releases in the light of the SIGAR report of 31 July (Special Inspector General for Aghanistan Reconstruction: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2021-07-30qr.pdf), we were able to extract and analyse some facts from the process of the troop withdrawal decision which have their parallel in the decision-making process of a company management.
SIGAR, just like project controlling in a company, has been confronted with the political priority, just as controlling has been confronted with the priority of its management. This management priority creates an environment disconnected from the field which is often detrimental to the proper conduct of projects.
Not listening to project managers and project controlling can therefore lead to a situation that is difficult to manage for the company’s brand image.
Over the past 20 years, the United States has spent about $83 billion to build and equip the Afghan army – modelled on its own armed forces. The US has not skimped on spending.
In its latest report to the US Congress, SIGAR wrote that the sophisticated weapons systems, vehicles and logistics of the Western army were beyond the capabilities of the largely illiterate and poorly trained Afghan forces.
The parallel with the business world is readily apparent. Many projects suffer from an under-trained or poorly trained workforce. It is also less and less rare that subcontractors or workers on a project do not share a common language with the client. This leads to poor workmanship, increased HSE risks and an increase in the project budget.
The case described by SIGAR highlights that despite well established processes in Western militaries, the use of new technologies or tools cannot be achieved without holistic training of the workforce for whom they are intended. This problem is often revealed in post-acquisition integrations, where the acquired company has to integrate new processes and technological tools but receives only brief training. This leads to a loss of self-confidence of the teams to be integrated, a loss of performance and unfortunately also to a growing disinterest, or even refusal, for the new methods put in place.
For months, Pentagon officials have talked about the Afghan army’s numerical superiority over the Taliban.
But the numbers have been massively inflated, according to the Counterterrorism Center at the US Military Academy at West Point. According to its July 2020 figures, only 185,000 of the 300,000 soldiers were under the control of the Afghan Ministry of Defense. Barely 60-percent of of these soldiers were trained in combat.
In addition, there would be massive losses due to the many deserters (approx. 25% of the personnel each year) – a permanent problem of the Afghan army, according to a SIGAR report.
While the number of personnel in a company is known to Human Resources, the direct and indirect FTE on a project is much more uncertain. Despite monitoring the hourly or daily work of the teams, a quick analysis of the hours can often reveal « inflations » or reallocations of hours from one project to another. Thus, the FTE invoiced is often higher than the FTE employed. This variable is not only irregular but also raises a compliance issue regarding possible overcharging of services or under/over-employment within the company. However, this practice does not mislead the company about the number of staff on a project but often gives management the impression of scalability of the available workforce. This impression of scalability leads in extreme cases to a multiplication and juxtaposition of external and internal projects, overwhelming the teams and generating general fatigue and increasing resignations.
Like the difficulties caused by the 25-percent annual desertion in the Afghan army, a high turnover in the company is also detrimental to its proper functioning. Lack of training, lack of perspective or even the assignment of tasks for which the employee is not prepared or trained often lead to premature departures. These departures are not only caused by frustration but are often rooted in the fear of not being able to do the job properly.
Many Afghan soldiers complained on social media that they had not been paid for months since the Afghan administration resumed processing salaries in April. In many cases, their units had not received any food or other support – not even munitions.
We will not dwell on the extremely exceptional cases of non-payment of salaries, but rather on the need to create the right environment for and provide the right tools to employees. Beyond the risk analysis of the workplace, it is the responsibility of management to create an environment of trust in which employees can express themselves and make their requests and proposals heard in order to increase the efficiency of the company. In addition, management must ensure that the tool provided is suitable for the task at hand and that it is usable through appropriate training.
Often, in the context of the project, management makes it difficult to provide information describing the reality on the ground; the lack of consideration of the information leads to errors of judgement and therefore of decision.
US officials have repeatedly given assurances that Washington will continue to support the Afghan army after the full US withdrawal on 31 August. The US Secretary of Defense, during his visit to Kabul in May, raised the possibility of supporting the Afghan Air Force with logistics described as « over-the-horizon ». This vague concept involved the use of virtual training sessions via video conferencing with zoom. The approach was made even more abstract by the fact that it requires computers and smartphones with very good Wi-Fi connections.
Team support must respect the 5 criteria of trust:
If these criteria are applied, then confidence and dynamism will be there; a decision or measure taken without consideration of these criteria leads to the teams’ distrust of management and therefore to a loss of confidence in themselves and in the company.
Finally, if the digitalsation of the company is an urgent necessity since 2020 and the COVID, it must necessarily be part of a holistic approach to business processes. The infrastructure on which digitalisation is based is often neglected by management, which focuses on the user’s tool more than on the structure enabling its use. Choosing the tool without taking into account the capabilities of the infrastructure often lead to frustration on the part of the user, whose tool is only partially or even totally unusable.
SIGAR, like project control, has fulfilled its role in providing the decision-making bodies with correct information. The accuracy of information is the basis for management decision-making. Just as in a company, management may decide not to follow the recommendations of its internal or external advisors and to take a completely different course of action for its own reasons.
However, we would like to draw attention to the consequences of decisions, which are also relevant today. The impact of a decision on brand, reputation, employer image, ESG, etc. are all parameters that must also be taken into account because, at the end of the day, leaders set the tone and pace of an organisation, must be committed to a clear strategic direction and, most importantly, must provide the necessary resources and be accountable.
Finally, let’s not forget that, like the military, the employee chooses his job, not his mission.