Category Archives: War

Peter Kaestner: One of World’s Top Birders and Our Man in Northern Afghanistan

– By Domani Spero

We have written previously about the US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif in September 2009 (see New US Consulates Opening in Afghanistan), in December 2009 (see US Consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif Moving Forward) and in May 2012 (See US Consulate Mazar-e-Sharif: $80 Million and Wishful Thinking Down the Drain, and Not a Brake Too Soon).

That $80 million did wonders to the Mazar Hotel, but in 2012, WaPo reported that “American officials say they have abandoned their plans, deeming the location for the proposed compound too dangerous.”  We sent an inquiry to US Embassy Kabul concerning plans for the consulate but our email got the loud silent treatment that we’ve come to expect from our public affairs professionals there.  We understand from other inside sources that the US Consulate in Mazar is continuing operation in its interim facility with no clear plans on what happens in 2014 in terms of new location, funding or staffing. For now, it appears that the consulate does not have a building to move into or even a website. It does have a Facebook page here. And we have senior diplomat Peter Kaestner as the State Department’s Senior Civilian Representative to Northern Afghanistan. Correct us if we’re wrong, but if our recollection is right, this position serves as Principal Officer of the consulate in Mazar-e-Sharif and concurrently as Senior Civilian Representative to the International Security Assistance Force’s Northern Regional Command.

Peter Kaestner, Senior Civilian Representative to Northern Afghanistan, visited Hairaton bridge on the border with Uzbekistan. During his visit he reviewed the Afghan Border Police barracks that had been renovated with U.S. funding and visited the Afghan side of the bridge to Uzbekistan, which will be renovated with U.S. financial support. (Photo via US Consulate Mazar/FB)

Peter Kaestner, Senior Civilian Representative to Northern Afghanistan, visited Hairaton bridge on the border with Uzbekistan. During his visit he reviewed the Afghan Border Police barracks that had been renovated with U.S. funding and visited the Afghan side of the bridge to Uzbekistan, which will be renovated with U.S. financial support.
(Photo via US Consulate Mazar/FB)

Besides being a diplomat, Mr. Kaestner is also a world-renowned birder. He has been birding since he was a child and now has one of the top ten world bird lists, having seen 8471 different species. He is recognized as the first person to see all the bird families, and he discovered a new species of bird when he was stationed in Colombia.  In Surfbirds World Bird Species Life List, Mr. Kaestner is ranked #8 and is one of only two Americans in the top 10 ranks. Last year, British birder, Tom Gullick, 81, become the first person in the world to officially see 9,000 species of bird.  For the North American Hollywood version of this competition, see The Big Year with Steve MartinJack Black and Owen Wilson.

Mr. Kaestner has not forgotten his birding even in Northern Afghanistan.  US Consulate Mazar’s FB post says that  in addition to his regular duties, Mr. Kaestner has been busy studying the birds around Mazar-e Sharif and sends out an invitation:  In the coming weeks and months, Peter will be sharing information about the birds that he has seen in Afghanistan. If you have any questions about birds you, please send them to us. If you have a photo, he will be able to help identify the species.

Mr. Kaestner made some quick posts on a few birds (bird emoticons used below are from here):

SCR Kaestner’s birding blog: One of the most characteristic birds of Mazar-e Sharif is the Kabooter Safed, or White Pigeon. Like the Blue Mosque where they live, the White Pigeons of Mazar have been associated with the city since the 12th century. Tradition says that the pigeons are white as a reflection of the peace and purity of the mosque – and that the pigeons that live at the Mosque become pure white. This must be true, because I saw a white pigeon near the Mazar Airport that was not pure white! The white pigeon is descended from the Rock Pigeon, a wild bird that lives in the rocky cliffs in the mountains of Balkh Province.

Image via USConsulate Mazar/FB

Image via USConsulate Mazar/FB

SCR Kaestner’s Birding Blog: One of the most attractive birds around Mazar is one that most people have never seen. The Goldfinch is a widespread bird in the Palearctic faunal zone, and very familiar in Europe. The Central Asian form of the Goldfinch lacks black on the head and has a much longer bill. It is possible that some day our Goldfinch will be recognized as a separate species by taxonomists (scientists who study the classification of living things). Birders appreciate when such changes are made, since it means another bird can be added to their bird total.

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CR Kaestner’s Birding blog: Birds that live near people are often characterized by their adaptability. The starling family has several species that have become familiar around human habitation, especially in cities. The Common Myna is an easy bird to identify, with its bare yellow face and large white wing patches. They often feed on the ground, and will eat most anything. A species of Myna in southern Asia, the Hill Myna, can be trained to talk! This forest species has become rare in some areas because they are trapped to be sold as pets. Birders can only count birds in their native environment, not in cages or zoos.

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SCR Kaestner’s Birding blog: Another family that does well around humans are the crows. The most common corvid in Mazar is the Eurasian Magpie. It is easily identified by its large size, long tail, and white wing feathers. Magpies are omnivorous, meaning that they eat a variety of things. Members of the crow family are renowned for their intelligence – a trait not usually associated with birds. Indeed, one crow (in New Caledonia) uses tools in nature, and has been shown to solve complex tasks. We’ll discuss crows and ravens later.

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More on Afghanistan birds here and here.  In 2009, researchers for the Wildlife Conservation Society discovered the breeding area of the large-billed reed warbler—dubbed in 2007 as “the world’s least known bird species”—in the remote and rugged Wakhan Corridor of the Pamir Mountains of north-eastern Afghanistan. According to WCS, the first specimen of the large-billed reed warbler was discovered in India in 1867; the next was not spotted until 2006, in Thailand. Isn’t it interesting that the bird that has been spotted just twice previously in over 100 years was found breeding in Afghanistan?

In June this year, BBC News reported that Afghanistan’s Environment Protection Agency, Mustafa Zahir, told a local TV news channel that nearly 5,000 birds are smuggled out of the country every year.  The birds include falcons and Houbara Bustards - the latter apparently, widely prized as quarry by hunters in the Gulf.

For some bird photos, see Afghanistan Birds on Pinterest, that European Bee Eater is  one showy and gorgeous bird!

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Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program To End on December 31, 2013

– Domani Spero

We previously posted about Iraqi SIVs in September. (See Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Nationals to End Sept 30, Or How to Save One Interpreter At a Time).  The Department of State’s authority to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Iraqi nationals under the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008 has now been extended until December 31, 2013.  The US Embassy in Iraq cautions that “No matter what stage of the process you are in, all selected and eligible applicants must obtain their visa by December 31, 2013. There is no guarantee that the SIV program authority will be extended; therefore, you are strongly encouraged to act quickly to ensure you have the best possible chance to complete your case by December 31, 2013.” US Mission Iraq has updated its information on the Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program with the following details:

  • Our authority to issue SIVs to principal applicants ends on December 31, 2013. We cannot issue SIVs to any principal applicants after this date.
  • Derivative family members (i.e., spouses, children) of principal applicants who were issued SIVs can still be issued SIVs after December 31, 2013.
  • Applicants are advised to check their email accounts and consult our website regularly for the most recent information regarding the SIV program.
  • Applicants whose cases are pending for additional documents are advised to send the required documents to our office immediately to the address listed in the instructions we provided to you.  Failure to do so may result in your visa not being issued before the December 31, 2013 deadline (principal applicants).
  • Applicants who have been scheduled for an interview are strongly encouraged to attend their appointment as scheduled.  Given the extremely high demand of appointments, we will be unable to reschedule your appointment, should you be unable to attend your interview.
  • The separate U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) for U.S.-affiliated Iraqis remains in place and will continue to be available after December 31, 2013 regardless of whether the Iraqi SIV program ends at that time.  The Embassy encourages SIV applicants to seek out information about the USRAP as the eligibility criteria are very similar to those of the SIV program.  For more information on USRAP, please visit:http://iraq.usembassy.gov/refugeesidpaffairs.html.

Click here for more details including frequently asked questions.

Unless extended by Congress, the State Department’s authority to issue Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghan nationals will also expire in September 2014.

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Snapshot: Afghan Opium Produced and Seized (2008-2012)

Via SIGAR

Screen Shot 2013-09-19

 

 

 

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US Consulate Herat Casualties: One Afghan Police, Eight Local Guards Killed

– By Domani Spero

On September 15, the US Embassy in Kabul released a statement by Jillian Burns, the Consul General of Consulate Herat. The statement noted the death of one Afghan policeman and eight guards from the Afghan Local Guard Force during the September 13 attack on the consulate but did not give any indication on how many were wounded.   It also announced Gene Young , her successor as Consul and Senior Civilian Representative in Herat.   Mr. Young until recently was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy Ljubljana, in Slovenia.

Related post: Suicide Bombers Target US Consulate Herat: Locals Reportedly Killed/Wounded,  No American Casualties. Also read The Skeptical Bureaucrat’s post U.S. Consulate Herat: Attack Defeated But Local Guards Killed

Photo via USConsulate Herat/FB

Photo via USConsulate Herat/FB

Statement by Jillian Burns, Consul General, U.S. Consulate Herat, Afghanistan | September 15, 2013

First, I want to express my personal condolences and those of the entire Consulate to the families of the eight Afghan Consulate guard staff and the one Afghan police officer who lost their lives defending our diplomatic facility against this senseless attack.

On September 11, I saw our local guards outside cheering joyfully with passersby on the occasion of Afghanistan’s win in the South Asia football championship, and I remarked to myself what a wonderful sign it was of normalcy returning to Afghanistan.  Two days later, those guards prevented insurgents from entering the Consulate.  These heroes, who work day and night to protect me and my American, Afghan, and third country national colleagues, train vigorously for the event we all hope will never happen.  We are forever grateful for the sacrifice these men made on our behalf.

We wish a speedy recovery to all those injured in the attack: guards; police; and civilians.  Many others suffered from broken property, downed power lines, and damage to one of Herat’s most important trade routes.

As terrible as the attack was, it could have been far worse.  Our security measures were effective. The attackers were quickly defeated; our internal perimeter was not breached.  The rapid reaction of our guard force, Afghan National Security Forces, and ISAF military units was critical in preventing further loss of life both inside and outside our Consulate walls.  We will never forget the sight of hundreds of security officials coming to our aid.  We have been heartened by the many calls and statements of support condemning this senseless act of violence, particularly from Herat Governor Syed Fazlullah Wahidi.  President Karzai and the United Nations Security Council also denounced the attack.

Even in these circumstances, the Consulate never closed, and we are now focused on the future.  I will remain in Herat with members of my team these last few days of my assignment here, and then welcome Gene Young as the new Consul and Senior Civilian Representative.  We are assessing the damage to our facility and making future plans.  Our mission has not changed –to strengthen ties between Afghanistan and the United States and to work with Afghans and the international community for Afghanistan’s political, social and economic development.  Anyone willing to commit murder to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a stable, prosperous nation should be condemned.  We will work with Afghan authorities to bring those responsible to justice and to save the lives of other innocents.   In the meantime, we pay tribute to the many heroes of Afghanistan who have given their lives to protect the lives of others.

The original statement is available here.

On September 13, delmarvanow.com carried an interview with Ms. Burns husband, David Burns, a professor in the Salisbury University department of communications.

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Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program for Iraqi Nationals to End Sept 30, Or How to Save One Interpreter At a Time

– By Domani Spero

In June this year, we blogged about the potential termination of the SIV program for Iraqis who have worked for or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq (See Iraqi Special Immigrant Visa Program: Potential Termination on September 30, 2013). The recent OIG inspection report on the US Embassy in Baghdad and it constituent posts indicate that the impending termination of Iraqi SIVs at the end of September this year has not been publicized because US Embassy Baghdad, and the Bureaus of Consular Affairs (CA), and Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) expect the program to be extended.

On September 12, USCIS sent a reminder and issued a statement that authorization for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqi nationals who worked for or on behalf of the United States government will expire on Sept. 30, 2013. Individuals applying under this program, including family members, must be admitted to the United States or adjust their statuses before Oct. 1, 2013.

The program was created by Section 1244 of Public Law 110-181, as amended by Public Law 110-242. It covers Iraqi nationals who—during the period between March 20, 2003, and the present—have been employed by or on behalf of the United States government in Iraq for a period of not less than one year. The expiration date also applies to spouses and unmarried child(ren) accompanying or following to join the principal applicant.

As announced at its inception, the Iraqi SIV program will expire on Sept. 30, 2013, at 11:59 p.m. EDT unless Congress extends the program. After Sept. 30, 2013, USCIS will reject any petitions or applications filed based on the Iraqi SIV program. Beginning Oct. 1, 2013, USCIS will suspend processing of any pending Form I-360, Petition for Amerasian, Widow(er), or Special Immigrant, or Form I-485, Application to Register Permanent Residence or Adjust Status, filed based on the Iraqi SIV program.

For updates, please check our website at www.uscis.gov or call the National Customer Service Center at 1-800-375-5283. You can also find useful information on the U.S Embassy in Iraq’s website at http://iraq.usembassy.gov/siv-special.html.

If the program will expire in three weeks, and the individual has to be admitted to the United States before October 1, 2013, the door is left with just a crack.  Who can get an SIV in three weeks and slip into that crack?

Matt Zeller,  a United States Army veteran of the Afghan War and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project writes about a specific visa case, under a similar program in Afghanistan:

From 2011 until July 2013, Janis waited for word that the State Department had approved his visa. Several times the US embassy in Kabul asked him to file additional paperwork and even appear for medical and personal interviews. At every appointment Janis would ask how much longer the process would take, but no one could ever give him a more specific answer other than “months to years.”[...] Going through this complicated process educated me beyond imagination. I’m convinced that the current visa program, while well intentioned, cannot succeed as designed. [...] for Janis to receive his visa, organizations such as the FBI, Homeland Security, and State Department all had to individually approve his visa application during their security background investigation, using their own individual opaque databases.

Read One Veteran’s Battle to Bring His Afghan Interpreter to the United States.

Something else Mr. Zeller did.  He started a Change.org petition and he and Janis did media interviews (by phone from Kabul). Yahoo! News reportedly published the first story about Janis on Sept. 6, and within hours the petition had thousands of signatures.  Here is the HuffPo Live video interview.

Mr. Zeller, a forceful advocate for the person who saved his life also asked supporters to contact their members of Congress and get these elected officials to write and call the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the State Department, and anyone else they thought could help expedite Janis’ visa for approval. Note that visa petitions are approved by DHS, once approved, only then can visas be issued by State.  By the time it was over, and 104,588 signatures later, Mr. Zeller won his campaign to secure a visa for Janis Shinwari, his interpreter while he was in Afghanistan.  Now he is on a mission to save his other interpreter, Ehsan.

We admire what Mr. Zeller is doing for his interpreters.   But we worry about applicants who qualify for SIVs both in Afghanistan and Iraq but do not have vocal advocates for their cases.   In a perfect world, we don’t need a Matt Zeller or a change.org for the US Embassy in Kabul or Baghdad to issue these visas.  But the fact that Janis received a visa after a change.org petition and after a lot of press noise, tells us something folks already know — the system is not working as it should but one person can make a difference.   If Mr. Zeller can  replicate this campaign with Ehsan’s case, we suspect that in short order, the State Department will be swamped with similar campaigns.

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What to do when different voices start delivering multiple démarches in your head?

-- By Domani Spero

 

Below is the State Department’s High Stress Assignment Outbrief Implementation Guide – the FSI/MED Model.

Background of the High Stress Outbrief Program via fbo.gov

The High Stress Assignment Outbrief program was developed after the first groups of employees began coming back from assignments to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003 – posts that would have beenin evacuation status in more normal times. Returnees asserted that coming back from those posts wasn’t at all like coming back from a regular foreign affairs community assignment – that theDepartment needed to help with this particular transition in some way. Med’s Office of Mental Health Services asked the Foreign Service Institute’s Transition Center to assist in the development of a prototype training event, which was piloted in 2003. MED/Mental Health convened an Iraq Out-briefing Conference on July 29 & 30, 2004 at the Foreign Service Institute. The Outbrief program was reviewedand discussed by the full cadre of RMO/Ps, Dr. Robert Ursano and Dr. James McCarroll, from theUniformed Services University for Health Sciences, Dr. Carol North, Washington University (St. Louis),with guest presentations by (then) Director General of the Foreign Service Amb. Robert Pearson and others.

The program was endorsed by MED leadership and has run as a partnership between the FSI’sTransition Center and MED/Mental Health Services since then. All subsequent Directors General of the Foreign Service have mandated that all returnees from Iraq (and later Afghanistan) who have served for 90 days or longer be required to attend either a group or individual Outbrief upon return to CONUS.The realities of the Foreign Service assignment system brought complications – many officers had TDY-ed to Iraq or Afghanistan and were returning directly to their former posts. Others PCS-ed directly to follow-on assignments around the world. Clearly, a purely Washington-based program would not be effective in providing the service to all of our employees. Furthermore, many participants did not fit traditional Foreign Service employee profiles – special hiring authority hires (3161s), civil service employees, and third country nationals all stepped up to serve in those war zones. RMO/Ps were instructed to deliver Outbriefs at posts or during post visits, and to communicate the name of the Outbrief participant, date, and place back to the Transition Center for entry into the Department’sofficial training registration database to certify compliance.

Read more below:

 

I’ve requested help in understanding the usefulness of the Outbrief session and received a few responses below:

Comment #1: (from a twice-deployed employee)

“I have taken that half-day course twice in 2009 and 2013.  The class was almost the exact same.  They basically tell you to get sleep and try to adjust back and if needed, see someone.  The class I took in 2013 was 8 months after I returned because HR would not pay to send me to DC before home leave then I was in language training for six months.  If it was really important, HR would allow people to take it as early as possible otherwise, it must not be that important.”

Comment #2 (a State Department employee who served in Iraq and Pakistan)

“The description of the outbrief program seems reasonably accurate – although it’s been a while since I attended (in 2008 after Iraq, but not subsequently after Pakistan).  There’s a certain value to spending a bit of time (three hours?) with people that have been through similar experiences – probably including someone that you knew or at least shared acquaintances with.  It gives you a chance to talk with people who better understand your experiences.   It’s possible that some of our feedback made it back to decision makers in aggregated form.  For example, one of the themes of our discussion was that the Department (USG?) was doing itself no favors by sending warm bodies that lacked core qualifications (e.g. basic competence and a desire to be there.)  I think that the Department is now requesting 360s [360 degree feedback] for everyone that they send – although that may just be part of the general trend towards requesting 360s.  My memory is a bit hazy, but I think a key element was describing what other resources (e.g. clinical/therapeutic) might be available for those that needed them.”

Comment #3 (somebody once posted in Iraq— added at 6:48 am PST)
The high stress outbrief  is, as you noted, just an example of CYA– look, we have a program! A couple of voluntary hours with some contractor at cozy FSI with no follow-up, and especially no mandatory individual session is worthless. Many symptoms of PTSD evolve over time, and many returning-to-DC-stresses only become apparent after you have in fact returned to work and gotten the lay of the land in a new office. Speaking out in front of a group is not a core FS trait, and not something any person with real problems does easily. Imperfect as it is, the military does require formal screening and a brief one-on-one session with a counselor. Follow up care (imperfect) is available. At State, you’re told to “get help” without much help in getting it. After all, MED is not responsible for healthcare in the U.S.
 
Still not sure? Check with officers who were MEDEVACed for anything, not necessarily PTSD, and see if any of them got any follow-on from MED other than a new, career-crushing clearance status.

One of our readers commenting on mental health support suggested the following:

“While I know it wouldn’t solve everything, I think that anyone coming out of a post with danger pay should have some sort of mandatory sessions with some sort of licensed therapist. That would take away the stigma of the therapy and maybe get some people some help before they take out their PTSD on themselves or someone else.”

 

Remember the US Embassy Malta road rage meltdown that made the news? (US Embassy Malta Gets a Viral Video But — Not the Kind You Want).  We don’t know this individual nor his story, or which post he previously came from. But assignments to European posts like Malta have typically gone to employees who did tours in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.   We don’t know if this individual came from an AIP posts. Even if he did, it’s not an excuse for such a behavior, but it might help us understand his demeanor.  American diplomats normally do not go around looking for a fight.

Our concern is simple. We are sending people out to the war/danger zones.  The State Department touts its mandatory High Stress Outbrief, an educational program that only requires presentation/delivery skills from whoever delivers the program.  Less than 60 percent of returnees attend the program, and there are no consequences for non-compliance.  Who does the follow-up? Anybody?

Is it fair to say that the State Department does no follow-up beyond the Outbrief session and expects employees to simply self-report any mental health issue? And because no one fears the social stigma of seeking mental health help and nobody suffers from the fear of losing one’s security clearance over a mental health issue, everyone in the Service can be counted on to self-report if/when different voices start delivering multiple démarches in one’s head?

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USAID’s First War-Zone Related Suicide – Michael C. Dempsey, Rest in Peace

– By Domani Spero

On September 5, Gordon Lubold writing for Foreign Policy reported on USAID’s first known war-zone-related suicide and asks if America is doing enough to assist its relief workers. Excerpt below:

On Aug. 15, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced that one of its employees had died suddenly. The agency didn’t mention that Michael C. Dempsey, a senior field program officer assigned as the leader of a civilian assistance team in eastern Afghanistan, killed himself four days earlier while home on extended medical leave. However, the medical examiner in Kent County, Michigan, confirmed to Foreign Policy that Dempsey had committed suicide by hanging himself in a hotel-room shower. His death is USAID’s first known suicide in a decade of work in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. And what makes the suicide particularly striking is that it came a year and three days after Dempsey’s close friend and colleague was killed in an improvised-explosive-device attack in Afghanistan.

Related posts:

More from Mr. Lobold’s A Death in the Family:

Shah left unspoken the issue of suicide that USAID must now confront. With Dempsey’s death as the first known suicide from either of USAID’s Afghanistan or Iraq programs, the suicide forces the agency to deal with an inescapable problem: how to help its employees who deploy to the same war zones as the military but who don’t always have access to the same kind of assistance. Civilian culture may not have the military’s taboo against seeking mental-health assistance, but unlike the Defense Department, which has struggled to arrest the vast suicide problem within its ranks, civilian agencies such as USAID and the State Department are governed by different privacy rules that hamstring those agencies as they try to help employees who may be suffering from post-traumatic anxiety, depression, or worse.
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USAID has deployed more than 2,000 “direct hires” through Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. Many of them, like Dempsey, are considered “foreign service limited” (FSL) officers. That means they enjoy many of the same benefits of Foreign Service officers, but can’t be promoted or moved to other offices or departments. About 150 FSL officers are in Afghanistan currently. After each deployment, each one gets a “high-stress outbrief,” but due to privacy concerns, USAID isn’t able to contact any of them after they leave federal service to ensure that they aren’t suffering from deployment-related issues or other maladies, like alcohol abuse or depression. After a deployment, supervisors may only hear about those kinds of problems unofficially, through the bureaucratic grapevine, because of the way privacy regulations govern civilian agencies. And even then, if a problem is identified, USAID, unlike the Defense Department, can’t force an employee to undergo treatment.

Click here for the memorial page of Michael Cameron Dempsey (May 26, 1980  -  August 11, 2013) where you may leave a note or share a photo with his family.

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Something about that “each one gets a “high-stress outbrief,” but due to privacy concerns, USAID isn’t able to contact any of them …” seem odd.

According to the State Department, Foreign Service and Civil Service employees from the State Department and USAID who have spent more than 90 days in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, or Libya are required to attend its High-stress Assignment Outbriefing Program. Any State employee serving at any high stress post is also highly encouraged to attend.

However, a review of the program by State/OIG in July 2010 indicates that fewer than 60 percent of returnees from Iraq and Afghanistan for whom this is mandatory attend the High Stress Assignment Outbrief.   Apparently, very few employees from other high stress posts for whom it is voluntary take it.  State/OIG also stated that “If efforts to increase attendance fail, the Department will need to adopt stronger measures and a follow-up mechanism.”  Now, why would State/OIG propose the adoption of stronger measures to increase the Outbrief attendance if there were “privacy concerns?”

In any case, the Outbrief is mandatory but more than 40% of returnees mandated to attend it do not take it. FSI’s Transition Center admits that “compliance remains a difficult issue:”

“Compliance remains a difficult issue. While the program has received support and validation from a number of internal and external stakeholders, the unique requirement of a post-deployment “de-brief” coupled with a cultural reluctance in the workforce to deal with mental health or stress related issues mitigate against full participation. Since the essence of the program is to provide help to returning employees – and their family members – more rigorous measures to ensure compliance were seen as undesirable (e.g., holding up onward assignments or limiting or temporarily suspending clearances) and counterproductive.”

In a recent document published in conjunction with a solicitation for a High Stress Assignment Outbrief provider also states that the Outbrief “is a two-way educational program” and it is “not a clinical session or intervention.”  Asked by potential provider about “sources/citations for the interviewing methodologies utilized in the High Stress Assignment Outbrief”, the official response is as follows:

“The interview methodology was developed by trainers and psychiatrists working for the Foreign Service Institute and the Office of Medical Services of the Department of State. The interview protocol is not designed as a therapeutic intervention; it’s purpose is to have participants reflect on their experiences, offer advice to the Department, and to provide a conduit for such aggregated information for Department decision makers.”

The Outbrief implementation guide posted by FSI’s Transition Center at fbo.gov also states that “the Department is responsible for keeping track of compliance” and that there is a need (for the selected provider) to make sure that “accurate records are kept of who attended, when, and where.”

In short –

The Outbrief is not/not a clinical session.

It is not/not a therapeutic intervention.

It is mandatory but not everyone attends it.

The Department kept accurate records of who attended it, where and when.

But due to “privacy concerns” USAID isn’t able to contact any of them to ensure that they are not suffering from deployment-related issues.

Also a new contract was awarded to a new Outbriefer in May 2013 for $46,400 (Base and Option Years Estimate).

You know, I’ve lost my brain today. I just don’t get this. If you’ve been through the Outbrief session would you kindly write me and help me understand how this is helpful to returnees from high stress-high threat assignments.

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Filed under Mental Health, Questions, Realities of the FS, State Department, U.S. Missions, USAID, War

War in Syria: Wading Into Chaos But What Happens After?

– By Domani Spero

A few days ago, in a letter to a member of Congress, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and President Obama’s chief military adviser reportedly writes that “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides,” he said. “It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not.”

Today, unnamed US officials told reporters military strikes on Syria could come “as early as Thursday.”  Syrians must appreciate the 48-hour heads up announced via unofficial press statements, and without a formal declaration of war.  Because we don’t do that anymore.  The last time we have formally declared war was World War II.

In this brave new world, warning now comes in a newsflash.  And the ‘we’re going to war’ news is on a furious march today. We we’re going to say this is not a matter of “if” but “when.” Oops, we’ve already been told the when — “as early as Thursday.”

McClatchy’s Michael Doyle explains Why the US won’t declare war on Syria.

Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic writes in A Brief Argument Against War in Syria:

Hawks are most interested in humanitarian causes that can be carried out by force. There is no reason the rest of us should share their world view, given how many times it has resulted in needless slaughter on a massive scale. It’s impossible to know for certain what war would bring. That is the strongest case against going to war.

Franklin C. Spinney in Counterpunch writes in Syria in the Crosshairs that the political marriage between coercive diplomacy and limited precision bombardment is a loser, and a lesson not learned:

However, instead of leading to a divorce, subsequent events in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia have reinforced Kosovo’s lesson not learned, and the result is what is now a clear psychopathic marriage of two fatally-flawed ideas.

1. Coercive diplomacy assumes that carefully calibrated doses of punishment will persuade any adversary, whether an individual  terrorist or a national government, to act in a way that we would define as acceptable.

2. Limited precision bombardment assumes we can administer those doses precisely on selected “high-value” targets using guided weapons, fired from a safe distance, with no friendly casualties, and little unintended damage.

This marriage of pop psychology and bombing lionizes war on the cheap, and it increases our country’s  addiction to strategically counterproductive drive-by shootings with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs.

Oh, and we’d love James Fallows more if he stop resisting the “double the proof” threshold from certain quarters.

[T]here should be a very strong burden of proof on people calling for strikes, to show that this is the only answer (not just the easiest one), and that it will do more good than harm. I will resist proposing that the burden of proof be doubled for people who recommended war in Iraq. 

Meanwhile, WH spokesman Jay Carney said this week via CNN that “…. the use of these weapons on a mass scale and a threat of proliferation is a threat to our national interests and a concern to the entire world.” 

Whatever happened to “… You don’t roll out new products in August?

Waiting for experts to tell us this is a “slam-dunk” case. Still waiting.

And — how do we get out, again?

We haven’t heard that one.

👀

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Baghdad Nights by Raymond Maxwell

✪ By Domani Spero

We have previously hosted Raymond Maxwell’s poem in this blog (see Raymond Maxwell: Former Deputy Asst Secretary Removed Over Benghazi Pens a Poem).  That was quite a riot.

What do you think about when you’re taking mortar rounds?

“Baghdad Nights” which originally appeared in FB and published here with Mr. Maxwell’s permission will not be quite so controversial but it stands out as a poem of stoic calm amidst the chaos of war.

We particularly like its auditory images which gives the poem a sense of place but also a sense of that specific moment in time.  A poem of faith or in a fatalistic sense of whatever will be, will be. A total acceptance of what is unknowable.  An inner freedom from fear in the face of a disorderly and dangerous external world.

According to his LinkdIn profile, Mr. Maxwell served in foreign service assignments in Guinea-Bissau, the U.K., Angola, Ghana, Egypt, Iraq and Syria.  In a previous 12-year career with the U.S. Navy, he “served division officer tours (auxiliary engineering and weapons systems) aboard the guided missile destroyer, USS Luce DDG-38 and enlisted engineering tours as a machinist’s mate on nuclear-powered submarines the USS Hammerhead SSN-663 and the USS Michigan SSBN-727 (B).”

 

Photo by US Embassy Baghdad

Baghdad Nights

© By Raymond Maxwell

Baghdad nights

It was a long-assed day.
We had dinner at the DFAC
and returned to the office.
Finally knocked off around 9pm.

The mandatory protective vest
weighs heavy on my already tired shoulders –
while the strap connecting the two sides
cuts into my waist as I try to balance
the weight on my already tired hips -

I lumber on to my tin-foil hootch
in Embassy Estates on the
the Republican Palace grounds…

It is late.  I take a shower and
turn on Fox News,
the only station that works.
“In California today, Senator Clinton says
President Johnson was more important
than Dr. King to getting the Civil Rights Bill
passed.”  Aw shit.  White House better stay white.

I fall asleep while reading “Certain to Win,”
one of those Army War College texts
from the Strategic Studies Masters program
I was falling further and further behind in
with each passing Baghdad day.

2am.  The witching hour.
Time for target practice.
I’m awakened by the sound
of the Duck and Cover alarm.
The concrete reinforced shelter is 100 meters
away from my tin-foil hootch –
100 meters as the crow flies…

Nope.  I’ll sit this one out – and pray –

Bong!  Bong!  Bong!  Bong! The alarm
sounds.  I hear people stumbling,
some drunkenly staggering –
to the safety of the shelter.

I shelter in place and
start my usual prayer
(I skip a lot of drills these days):

The Lord is my Shepherd,
I shall not want.
He maketh me ….

SWOOOOOOSH!

A mortar round flies over
the tin foil roof
of my tin foil hootch –

….lie down in green pastures.
He leadeth me
beside the Still Waters….–

THUMP.

The round hits the nearby ground.
Maybe it is another dud.
I continue my prayer:

….He restoreth my soul —

KABOOOOOM!

It was not a dud.
But I pinch myself and
I am not dead.

I finish my prayer:

And I will dwell in the House of the Lord,
forever.

Back to sleep.
Tomorrow is another Baghdad day.

🔥

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Filed under Foreign Service, FSOs, Iraq, Literature, Poetry, US Embassy Baghdad, War

Zabul Attack: Walking But Not Lost, More Details But Not Official; Plus Update on Kelly Hunt

On Friday, April 12, the AP citing a senior State Department “not authorized to speak to the news media” reported that the initial reports that members of the group were in vehicles, as well as subsequent media reports that they were lost, are incorrect.

The official reportedly provided the details on condition of anonymity.  This report contradicted the eyewitness account of an Afghan reporter cited by McClatchy news on Wednesday, April 10.

You may read the full AP report here.

Last weekend, The Skeptical Bureaucrat  (TSB) posted about this here:

It’s quite bad enough already, judging by the details that have come out so far. Let’s see … the book donation visit to the Sheik Baba Metti school by a team from the U.S. Embassy and PRT Zabul was announced to the press one day in advance. But, despite that lack of operational security, the team was allowed to walk to the school from the PRT’s base at FOB Smart rather than use protected vehicles. The roughly 100-meter long route to the school evidently wasn’t swept before the team’s walk, or blocked to traffic during the movement. The team’s military escort didn’t know which gate to use to enter the school – a school that the PRT itself funded and regularly visited – which required the team to double back to FOB Smart and further expose themselves to attack.

Lastly, the attack reportedly involved a roadside bomb as well as a suicide driver in a bomb-laden vehicle. If that’s true, it means that the Taliban were able to plant a command-detonated bomb in the street immediately outside FOB Smart despite the surveillance that street was undoubtedly under by both the U.S. and Afghan military.

There is reportedly an ongoing FBI investigation. The FBI investigates bombings in the U.S. and overseas where incidents were acts of terrorism against U.S. persons or interests. But this is the war zone. Was there also an FBI investigation on the suicide bombing that killed a USAID officer and wounded an FSO in Kunar Province last year? (Update: We’re told by a blog pal in Afghanistan that the FBI investigates a lot of different incidents in Afghanistan and that there is “nothing unusual” with them investigating the April 6 attack.  Was also asked about an ARB for Camp Bastion.  Camp is under military control so that’s a clear exception to ARB regs; nothing to keep DOD from pursuing its own inquiry but we haven’t heard anything moving on that direction. Read this piece by Rajiv Chandrasekaran on the Taliban attack that resulted in the deaths of two Marines and the largest loss of allied materiel in the 11-year-long Afghan war).

No way to tell right now if there will be an Accountability Review Board. As TSB pointed out, there is a limited exception for convening an ARB if the security incidents involving serious injury or loss of life occurs in Iraq or Afghanistan. We found an exemption for incidents between October 1, 2005-September 30, 2009. In December 2009, that exemption remained in effect through September 30, 2010.

Following the findings of “accountability” from the ARB on Benghazi, we are not holding our breath on an ARB on this latest incident. After not seeing any ARBs convened for several attacks on embassy properties with significant damages last year, we’re starting to think that an ARB in its current authority is not the best use of time/resources to assign accountability.

The notion that an ARB is convened to investigate security incidents that result in “serious injury, loss of life, or significant destruction of property” and then keep the result secret and the interviewees secret is absurd. Add to that the fact that the Secretary of State did not even convene an ARB for all the mob attacks last year which resulted in significant destruction of embassy properties, makes one think that the ARB on its present form is not as useful or effective as it should be.  It also leaves the recommendation on whether or not the Secretary of State should convene an ARB on the hands of the Permanent Coordinating Council in the State Department, staffed by people who answer to their chain of command.

So - we’d much rather see the FBI conduct these investigations.

Also last Thursday, Lt. Col. Justin Kraft, the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team commander released the following statement via FB:

We recently lost three of our nation’s finest warriors. They were sons, brothers, one was a father, and all were men who lived, served and died with honor. They gave to their country and their brothers and sisters in arms the last full measure of their courage. 

We are less for this loss. 

Please keep their families in your thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.

DOD identified the three soldiers killed in the April 6 attack but to-date the identity of the DOD civilian who perished in the same attack had not been released. Who was he/she? Did he/she leave behind a family?

On April 14, Staff Sgt. Chris Ward was buried at Oak Ridge. According to knoxnews.com, Maj. Gen. Jeffory Smith, commander of Fort Knox, Ky., presented  the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star to Ward’s mother. The passing of these casualties was heartbreaking  to their loved ones, fellow soldiers and largely ignored by the public. The death of  three  soldiers in the battlefield of Afghanistan … not much was said.

On April 18, knoxnews.com also reported that Kelly Hunt, the State Department employee wounded in the attack arrived earlier this week at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington.  Friends of Ms. Hunt at her home state are organizing a fund-raiser online to help the family.  You can check it out here. We have been looking but have not been able to find a contact email for the organizers.  The family Friends of Ms. Hunt have also put up a Facebook page – Kelly Hunt’s Road to Recovery , it includes updates from Dinah Hunt, Kelly’s mother.

 

– DS

 

Updated on April 22@1720 PST with info on ARB

Updated on April 22 @21:41 PST with FB page correction; page put up by friends not family.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Afghanistan, Foreign Service, FSOs, MED, Realities of the FS, Skeptical Bureaucrat, State Department, U.S. Missions, War