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US colonel blasts PowerPoint bureaucracy in Afghan HQ

'I have done nothing useful since I've been here'

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A US colonel serving at NATO's headquarters in Afghanistan has launched a blistering attack on the PowerPoint culture and top-heavy bureaucracy there.

"Fortunately little of substance is really done here, but that is a task we do well," writes Colonel Lawrence Sellin, who works at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, or IJC, the organisation nominally in control of the war in Afghanistan.

Sellin describes the IJC as "a stove-piped and bloated organization, top-heavy in rank" and says "you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a colonel". Rather than coordinating the war among the various regional NATO commands, Sellin says, IJC's primary purpose is "to provide some general a three-star command"1. He adds that even more superfluous brass hats are to be added to IJC next month because "an officer, who is currently without one, needs a staff of 35 people to create a big splash before his promotion board".

What do all these high-ranking staff brains actually do all day, then, sitting in their air-conditioned headquarters while combat troops sweat and bleed and die in the baking heat?

Well, not much, according to Sellin. He says he's been at IJC for two months now, and "during that time, I have not done anything productive".

Apparently the main activity for staff officers at IJC is the giving of PowerPoint briefings and - even worse - being made to sit through them. The theoretical purpose of the PowerPoint parades is to inform generals of what is going on, but it seems that the top commanders often don't bother to turn up.

"Skill in briefing resides in how you say it," complains Sellin. "It doesn't matter so much what you say or even if you are speaking Klingon."

Middle-ranking generals "listen to the [presentations] in a semi-comatose state ... It doesn't matter how inane or useless the briefing or meeting might be. Once it is part of the 'battle rhythm'2, it has the persistence of carbon 14."

Mere majors and colonels (on line command duty a US colonel would boss thousands of fighting troops, but on the staff he is small fry) are forced to go to all the meetings and briefs. It's no good playing truant, either: "they take roll - just like gym class".

The only thing which senior officers will actually notice in a PowerPoint brief is any deviation from their favoured, approved military style or language. Apparently "one tiny flaw in a slide can halt a general's thought processes as abruptly as a computer system's blue screen of death", which means that a staff officer's main activity becomes "endless tinkering with PowerPoint slides to conform with the idiosyncrasies of cognitively challenged generals".

Then, having been forced to attend interminable, pointless meetings and turgid Powerpoint presentations, a harried PONTI3 gets back to his desk - and it gets even worse.

Information is delivered as PowerPoint slides in e-mail at the flow rate of a fire hose. Standard operating procedure is to send everything that you have. Volume is considered the equivalent of quality.

Colonel Sellin's words ring true for anyone who has served on or dealt with a high-level military headquarters, or indeed any large and topheavy bureaucracy. The colonel is on his second Afghan tour and has previously served in Iraq, but it's always possible - having written all this for newswire UPI - that he'll find himself coming home soon.

"I have been known to walk that fine line between good taste and unemployment," he admits.

Which would perhaps be part of the solution - the US Army, like most, has far too many colonels4. But given the fact that Sellin is willing to tell the truth about the way our fighting boys and girls are being managed (one can't really say "led" or "commanded"), he at least might be something of a loss to the cause. ®

Bootnotes

1Officers above the rank of full colonel wear stars as their rank insignia in the US forces: from one star for a brigadier-general to five for a "general of the Army". The same use of numbers of stars to describe officers of equivalent ranks and jobs for them is common across NATO, particularly in the British forces, though actual rank insignia worn on national uniforms are different.

Five-star rank (US General-of-the-Army, British field-marshal) is disused in both the UK and US forces at the moment.

2Staff jargon for the regular repeating timetable of events (briefings, meetings etc) at a given HQ or staff. Military staff officers are at least as addicted to stupid doubletalk as the strategy boutiques of civvy street.

3Person Of No Tactical Importance. Frontline personnel sometimes use this abbreviation to refer to staff types.

4In the British Army there are few or no opportunities for a full colonel to command a real combat unit. However a lieutenant-colonel, one rank below, may command a UK regiment/battalion of around 700 troops. The British Army has approximately 100 such formations, once you include all the transport and maintenance and so on. It has almost 1800 lieutenant-colonels.

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