CLOSING OUT AFGHANISTAN

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ASSUMPTION OF DUTIES: ACC-A assumed command from Army Reserve Element on October 22, 2021 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. ACC-A is responsible for closing out the contracts supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan. (Photos by Sgt. Roxanne Olivares, 160th Signal Brigade)

 

 

 

As the government collapsed and the U.S. departed, ACC-A established over-the-horizon support and came up with novel solutions to pay the Army’s bills.

by Maj. Justin Berry and Maj. Matthew Szarzynski

The world watched in sheer disbelief as it witnessed the fall of Afghanistan on August 15, 2021. The government collapsed so quickly that U.S. forces on the ground were racing to evacuate personnel and equipment to various safe havens. What the world didn’t see were the many second- and third-order effects of the rapid collapse and withdrawal. One of those was what happened to all the contracts awarded over the past 20 years to enable combat operations in Afghanistan.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. Army quickly deployed into Afghanistan to begin combat operations. That speed placed a great demand on U.S. military logistics systems to support these deployed combat forces.

The U.S. Army has a robust and capable logistics system, but there are limitations to what it can provide organically. During contingency operations there is an urgent need to use contracting capabilities that provide flexible and innovative solutions outside the traditional supply chain to accomplish its mission. The military relied on government contracting support throughout the war in Afghanistan to help fill capability gaps that the logistics system could not organically provide.

When coalition forces first started operations in Afghanistan, there was a small logistics footprint because of the hostile environment within the country. An immediate and urgent need arose to establish contracts with local vendors to provide support for ongoing military operations. These early contracts included necessities such as bottled water, power generation, dining facilities, and fuel for both ground and air assets. As these areas became more stable and become a more permissive environment, contracting enabled the establishment of base camps that provided robust services.

Each country or area of operations was assigned to a deployed contracting unit. Afghanistan was aligned to Army Contracting Command – Afghanistan (ACC-A), the contracting support brigade responsible for developing, administering and ultimately closing out the contracts supporting U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

ACC-A and the local military unit, also known as the requiring activity, had to work together to identify mission requirements that could only be solved through contracting. Together, they determined what vendors could execute the multitude of contracts that were required to continue the mission. The vendor base in Afghanistan varied greatly throughout the course of the war. As a general example, local Afghan vendors provided basic services and supplies such as construction materials, gravel and bottled water. At the other end of the contracting spectrum were the large multinational corporations, names unrecognizable to most Americans, but that provided fuel and basic life support such as lodging, food, water, electricity, heating and air conditioning. ACC-A built and maintained a list of local vendors that could be quickly mobilized in case of an emerging contracting requirement.

As is true with all contracting for goods and services, the requiring activity had to forecast its potential contracting needs and coordinate these requirements through its own internal validation process. After the validated requirements were approved by the local command, the requirements package was then routed to the appropriate contracting office that supports the area of operations. The designated contracting office reviews the requirements package and coordinates with the resourcing manager to ensure there is available funding to execute the contract action. The local contracting office follows its internal procedures to award the contract and the available funding is obligated at that time to cover the anticipated costs of the contract. The local contract unit either generates a task order on an existing contract vehicle or writes a new solicitation and eventual contract award.

END OF AN ERA: The ACC-A team poses for a group photo at the conclusion of their deployment in February 2022 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.

As a contract is executed, a background process occurs to ensure the contract is completed to standard within the terms and conditions of the contract. A designated government representative, also known as a contracting officer representative, monitors contract performance and ensures that the contractor adheres to the terms and conditions of the contract. When the terms and conditions are fully met, the contracting officer reviews the contractor’s invoice and submits payment to finance. Finance then pays the vendor using the originally set aside amount.

Following payment, the contracting officer then verifies that the vendor was fully paid for the services rendered. The government tends to award large contracts for commodities such as fuel and obligated a large amount of funds in advance. These funds are attached to these contracts and cannot be used for any other requirements until it is fully paid out. The obligated contract funding is checked for consistency after final payment and any unspent funds are returned to the U.S. government for other requirements. This background process is referred to as contract closeout. If all of these processes take place, then a contracting officer completes an administrative action to close out the contract. Closed contracts are archived for a period of six years, as required by law, in case a vendor submits a future claim, which is a written assertion from a vendor seeking relief, monetary or otherwise.

This system in place worked for normal steady state operations. Following the collapse of Afghanistan, the requiring activity redeployed and had no need for new goods or services. ACC-A was now charged with both identifying which contracts were still needed and which ones needed to be closed as soon as possible to avoid incurring additional costs to the government. ACC-A also had to identify which contracts were fully performed and which vendors were owed money for services rendered.

THE CONTRACTING UNIT

ACC-A was originally located in Bagram, Afghanistan, but because of the changing situation through the summer of 2021, the command relocated to Qatar and performed over-the-horizon support from there. The team was comprised of Department of the Army civilians and Soldiers.

Following the collapse of the Afghan government, the mission of ACC-A changed from executing contracts for emerging requirements to quickly closing out the contracts that were in place supporting over 20 years of war. Because of this situation, the Army had to take immediate action to ensure that all vendors were paid what they were owed by the U.S. government and close all available contracts as soon as possible. Because of this unusual situation, the small 15-member team had to work together to develop novel processes and procedures to get after this unique problem set.

PROBLEMS, PROBLEMS

The first problem we faced was to determine how many contracts were remaining to close-out. The Headquarters of Army Contracting Command located in Huntsville, Alabama was instrumental in doing research into digital contract files across 20 years to determine workload. This research resulted in the identification of over 30,000 contracts requiring closeout. An automated closeout script for contracts over six years old was executed by Army Contracting Command which reduced this workload down to 1,000 contracts. This closeout script assisted greatly but there needed to be a tracking mechanism for the remaining 1,000 contracts.

We developed a master contract tracker that provided status by category for each contract action. This tracker provided the dollar amount of the contract, past payments made by finance, and provided updates on where the contract was at in the closeout process. This document was shared with all relevant key stakeholders to show the progression of the mission and quickly identify friction points. As the mission matured, it was identified that some actions would not be properly closed with the vendor being paid in full. This situation was a result of the contractor being unresponsive or that the contractor filed a claim with the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA). The ASBCA claims process is lengthy and causes a long litigation period to be fully adjudicated. The contract tracker not only kept an ongoing common operating picture, but it also served as an archive for incoming contracting officers.

IN THE KNOW: Master Sgt. Kerry Dubose, ACC-A contracting officer, provides a detailed hands-on demonstration of contracting systems to the Defense Security Cooperation Management Office – Afghanistan Director, Brig. Gen. John Reim, in February 2022.

The second problem was currency conversion. Following Afghanistan’s collapse the U.S. Treasury placed the Taliban on the Office of Foreign Assets Control Sanction List, making it impossible to pay Afghan contractors in their local currency, Afghanis, via electronic fund transfer. This change meant that we could no longer pay local vendors in their local currency and these vendors would have to establish banks outside of Afghanistan to receive contract payments. Many vendors faced obstacles as many foreign banks were resistant to setting up accounts for Afghan businesses. We streamlined this process by creating a tutorial on setting up bank accounts in other countries and provided a list of countries with banking institutions that would work with Afghanistan registered businesses.

The third problem was the communication between finance, resource management and the contracting office. Geographic separation between finance, located in the United States, and the contracting office initially caused confusion and delays that prevented vendors being paid. We stood up the fiscal triad which included legal, contracting and resource management to work through these issues. Weekly meetings with the finance office led to resolution of ongoing payment issues and provided instructions to the vendors to ensure timely payment. Once this coordination and communication occurred, there were far fewer payment issues and contracts rapidly closed.

The fourth problem that we faced was the enduring workload. As the mission evolved it became clear that we would not be able to close all of the enduring workload due to their complexity or the possibility of a future claim. The addition of an enduring tracker to the master tracker detailed all contract actions that would require future work from the gaining contracting unit. The contract tracker not only kept an ongoing common operating picture, but it again served as an archive for incoming contracting officers.

“The novel challenges we faced made this an exciting mission, with a fast pace. We overcame many hurdles head-on as we crushed the workload and passed the baton,” said Lt. Col. Jay S. Vandenbos, Regional Contacting Center-Afghanistan and 900th Contracting Battalion commander.

TRANSFER OF RESPONSIBILITY: ACC-A officially de-activates as a unit and the colors are cased prior to deploying home on March 10, 2022 at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. ACC-A was deactivated after a successful mission handover to the 408th Contracting Support Brigade.

CONCLUSION

Col. Frankie J. Cruz, ACC-A and 414th Contracting Brigade commander said: “Our team was successful during this historic deployment in closing theater support contracts with direct integration with DSCMO-A [Defense Security Cooperation Management Office – Afghanistan] and due to the support and collaboration across the joint and Department of the Army staff, U.S. Army Finance Command, and Army Contracting Command headquarters staff assistance to resolve unique challenges resulting from the fall of Afghanistan.”

This unique mission allowed for us to capture many lessons learned and best practices for the acquisition workforce to use in the future. One example of that is the development of a 10-step process that detailed how to enable contracting systems to change from local currency to U.S. dollars. ACC-A shared this technical 10-step process with the greater contracting community and was submitted to the Joint Staff Lessons Learned Information System as part of their best practices.

This mission also validated the ability for a contracting unit to provide over-the-horizon support. Having the customer collocated with both the contracting office and resource managers allowed for this model’s success. If the operational environment does not allow for contracting forces on the ground, there is the possibility for contracting professionals to provide support to an area from other locations.

Because of the unique and unprecedented situation of the collapse, we developed many novel processes and procedures to accomplish our mission. As a result, our team closed over 950 contracts in only six months. The remaining contracts were transferred over to the 408th Contracting Support Brigade, located in Kuwait, who will finish the contract closeout for Afghanistan. ACC-A was deactivated on March 10, 2022 upon the successful mission handover with the 408th Contracting Support Brigade.


 

For more information, go to https://www.army.mil/article/254964/acc_afghanistan_successfully_completes_contracting_mission .                                                  

MAJ. JUSTIN BERRY served as the executive officer and operations officer for ACC-Afghanistan from October 2021 to March 2022. He serves as the logistics civil augmentation program team leader for 414th Contracting Support Brigade located in Vicenza, Italy. He received his MBA from Trident University International in 2012. Justin is a Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act certified Contracting Professional and Program Management Practitioner.  

MAJ. MATTHEW SZARZYNSKI served as a contracting officer and executive officer for RCC-Afghanistan from September 2021 to March 2022. He serves as an assistant program manager within the Program Executive Office for Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. He received his Masters of Geological Engineering from Missouri University of Science and Tech in 2014. Matt is a Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act certified Contracting Professional.     



Read the full article in the Winter 2023 issue of Army AL&T magazine. 
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