Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bear Metrics

A large part of what my office deals with are what the Army calls “RFI’s.” This is Army for “Request For Information” which translates to “questions.” The idea is, while there are plenty of routine reports that include all sorts of measurable information (called “metrics” by Army nerds*) on everything from fuel supplies to medical status, there are often bits and pieces of information that aren’t routinely reported. If they’re tiny bits and pieces, you just pick up the phone and ask someone who knows the answer. If they’re going to require any sort of lengthy study or investigation, a more formal and thorough version of asking questions must be brought into play. This process is the RFI.

I don’t know how it’s supposed to be done, but the way it’s done in my shop is some random staff officer comes in with a series of questions for us to forward to the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Before we blindly send these questions along, we do the sanity check. Is this really a question that the PRTs can answer? Is the answer already included in some sort of report which we already receive? Is this question vital enough to operational planning that it justifies having the folks in the field take time away from ongoing operations to find the answer? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, this is enough to get the staff officer with the questions to leave our office and go to wherever the answer is inside the headquarters. The rest of the time we’re stuck sending all sorts of random RFIs out and troubling the subordinate headquarters to find answers or dig them up among their subordinates.

On its face, this whole process makes a lot of sense. In practice though, not so much.
I’m not an Army guy. So when some Army colonel walks in and begins a conversation with “General So-and-So says we need to…” I’m at a bit of a loss. By my reasoning, it makes sense that an Army officer knows his way around an Army staff and understands which Army units are providing which Army information to which Army departments in whatever Army reports we get. If he’s coming to a naval officer who can push the “ask a question” shortcut button, I assume that’s because this is a question we don’t already get the answer to. I’ve learned through some small amount of pain that this is not always (or indeed not often) the case.

More often than not, rather than do the leg work themselves, these folks will walk into my office expecting to shortcut the normal reporting procedures and have us do their job for them. Here’s an extreme example: a few weeks back I was just getting ready to start my day when some colonel (we’ll call him Colonel X) came rushing into my office with a pressing question that COMISAF, the 4-star general responsible for running the entire war, had to have answered as soon as possible.

The question seemed pretty straightforward:

“Is there a shortage of medical facilities run by the Afghans in Khowst and Kunar Provinces, and is this because the ISAF forces are providing too much medical aid for the locals to see a need to build their own?”

I can say without hesitation that I personally don’t know the first damned thing about Afghan civilian medical facilities in these two provinces. I also don’t have any idea how often our people are going out into the field and offering medical services.** I’m not specifically responsible for tracking this sort of thing, so I don’t have to feel bad about my ignorance. But now that Colonel X is tasking me with finding out, it’s my job to become an expert.

Since I might quite likely end up briefing the answer to COMISAF himself, I have to be prepared with answers for any follow-on questions he might have as well. So I set to work thinking up questions I’ll need to answer. After a few minutes, I email my main point of contact in Regional Command-East (the headquarters subordinate to us that is responsible for those provinces) with a bunch of questions like these:

· How often are MEDCAP operations being conducted in Khowst and Kunar Province?
· How many patients are typically treated during one of these operations?
· How many locally-operated medical facilities are operating in Khost and Kunar Province?
· How many patients are these facilities capable of providing treatment for?
· Are MEDCAP operations conducted in districts which have their own functioning medical facilities?
· There were more, but I don’t remember them off the top of my head…

Within minutes I hear back from my main point of contact at the RC headquarters. He tells me that it’s their medical department that is keeping track of this sort of thing and that he is forwarding the message to them. A couple of hours later one of the staff medical officers writes back to tell me that these metrics are included in their regular report to ISAF headquarters. He goes on to tell me that he’ll forward the latest report to me, but that I should be checking with Commander C_____, the US Navy doctor on staff at HQ ISAF. Commander C____ is cc’ed on this email. A few more hours later Commander C_____ emails me to explain that he provided all of this information, to include color-coded maps showing which provinces have adequate or inadequate medical facilities as well as an overlay of where we are conducting MEDCAP operations.

These maps were included in a Powerpoint brief that Colonel X presented in front of COMISAF late the day before. So when COMISAF asked Colonel X the original questions (which he claimed ignorance of and then turned into most of an entire workday for me) the answers were in fact being projected onto the wall right next to him!

As a result of misadventures such as that one, I’ve gotten pretty good at saying “No” to a lot of fairly senior officers. I try really hard not to enjoy saying no, but sometimes it sneaks out.

It’s not always their fault though. Since the headquarters staff is so large and complex, and the various militaries represented tend to do things a bit differently, it’s amazing that we don’t have problems like this more often. Then there’s the potential confusion caused by the fact that the vast majority of the staff are non-native English speakers. They’re all highly educated folks with Master’s Degrees or Ph.D.’s and decades of experience, but because of their linguistic limitations, many of them are forced to communicate at a the level of a sixth-grader. So you can see why problems arise.

This is why it will be no surprise when some American general hears some banal or obvious question and snorts something like, “Does a bear shit in the woods?” and someone like Colonel X shows up at my desk with a list of questions designed to find out everything there is to know about bears, woods, and shit in Afghanistan (and to illustrate how brilliant the author is):

· Approximately how many bears are present, by district, within your Area of Responsibility?
· What is the total area (in hectares) of wooded area in each district within your AOR?
· On a typical patrol, how many ursine scatological samples (otherwise known as “bear shit”) are encountered in your AOR?
· What percentage of ursine scatological samples is found within reasonable boundaries of wooded areas?
· Are there a significant number of ursine scatological samples found far enough from wooded areas to suggest that these are more than occasional diarrhea-driven “emergency dumps?”
What is the approximate age of the average ursine scatological sample encountered? ·
· What is the average pH-level, by district, of ursine scatological samples found in your AOR?·
· Is there any evidence of opium poppies present in the poop?

· Has deforestation had an impact on bear constipation in any of the districts within your AOR?
· In the course of investigating ursine scatology in wooded areas within your districts, record any sightings of the Pope and/or papal scat samples as well. Amplifying questions to follow.

Being the kind of guy that I am, I’d probably forward it along just to see what king of replies I’d get. I could even come up with seemingly sound justifications like “the number of free-roaming bears has shown to be an accurate indicator of the overall health of the local ecosystem,” and “the presence of large predators such as bears proves the existence of a robust food chain…”

Of course it’d be just my luck that I’d find out that the Task Force Headquarters (under the Regional Command HQs) wouldn’t be able to get answers in a timely manner because they’d be busy sending out Special Forces teams to install covert listening devices in the wilderness as part of a Congressional mandate to determine if a tree falling in the forest still makes a sound when there’s nobody around to hear it.

*The Army has a lot of nerds. Who’d have guessed?
**This type of operation, called a MEDCAP, is one of our countless humanitarian operations in which military medical personnel will visit a village in the middle of nowhere and provide medical services free of charge. In many of the more remote areas of the countryside, this is the only medical attention the locals are ever able to get.

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