This story provides a good example of how arbitrary and capricious the Government can be. I was serving in Afghanistan as the Chief of Contracting on one of the major bases in Helmand Province. It was the summer of 2011 and President Obama’s ‘Afghan Surge’ was in full swing. However, the timeline for withdrawal was also proceeding apace and the first troop drawdowns would begin the following spring.
Even though we were deployed in a combat zone, the colors of money still count, and we were obligating mostly O&M (Operations & Maintenance) funds. Which meant that as summer passed, the end of the fiscal year loomed, and we had to obligate the money or lose it forever, then wait for FY2012 dollars to be released for expenditure. In a combat zone, the finality of the FY doesn’t carry the same weight as at home station, because budgets are pretty wide open – at most, the lost FY2011 dollars would be replaced by FY2012 dollars in a matter of weeks. At home station, it’s a different story, as the budget officer, comptroller, contracting officer, and various and sundry associates would have to explain why precious dollars expired without obligation, and “how in all that is holy are we going to get that money allocated again?”
In this particular case, the Marine HQs in charge of the camp had decided to execute the ‘Surge’ plan to the full extent, and wanted to expand the camp, construct semi-permanent facilities, and improve the overall quality of life for the camp and its occupants. That plan revolved around four Pre-Engineered Buildings (PEBs), valued at approximately $600,000 apiece. So we are talking about $2.5 Million – in Afghanistan, that was truly a rounding error – the US forces there spent upwards of $1 Billion per week, so a couple million hardly raised an eyebrow. But Marines are known for their combat prowess, not necessarily their procurement savvy. So the process to get the procurement planned, approved, and funded, and then the contract solicited and awarded, took us right up to the end of September. If I recall correctly, the contract was signed on about the 26th. By this time, the writing was on the wall from the higher headquarters in Kabul, and from the Pentagon, that the ‘Surge’ was winding down, withdrawal of forces would commence, and there would be no lasting need for these semi-permanent buildings, because the camp would either soon be closed or turned over to the Afghan forces.
So, on the 3rd of October, literally a week after finally signing the contract that had taken almost 9 months from initial request and requirements definition to contract award, the Marine HQs notified my contracting staff that the PEBs were no longer required, and could we please terminate the contract?
It’s funny now, except for when you consider the fact that US forces are once again increasing in Afghanistan to combat the resurgent Taliban. But at the time, it was pretty disheartening to witness first-hand the lack of coordination of political, military, and financial priorities that wasted hundreds of man-hours on procurement planning and execution.
Of course, what should have happened is the several layers of HQs should have held a huddle and status review on all pending projects, and made the decision before proceeding to contract award. Fortunately, the contractor had not commenced work, or incurred any costs, so there were no termination costs to negotiate. It all just got erased, and we focused on the new FY and a new slate of requirements aimed at reducing, and eventually eliminating, our presence in that sector. As they say on neighborhood basketball courts, ‘no harm, no foul.’
Anyway, I am writing this to try to offer some insights into how literal the phrase ‘terminate for convenience’ can be, as the US Government changed its mind within days, and yanked the rug out from under a contractor that had landed $2.5 Million worth of work.