"No One Gets Killed on My Watch"

Stirring the pot on foreign assistance, war zone roles, and other stories…

If you work for USAID or State, you may need lots of sugar in your dark, bitter coffee before you read this. The House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing yesterday on the role of the U.S. military in foreign assistance. Former USAID Assistant Administrator Philip L. Christenson provided a testimony and had quite a bit to say. Click here to read the full 8-page testimony (pdf). Otherwise, read on for some rather sparkling comments excerpted from his prepared statement. He was the agency’s assistant administrator under George H.W. Bush (1989-1993).

On improving relationships by staying in the compound:

“It is hard to believe that having hundreds of State Department and USAID employees trapped in fortified bunkers cut off from the population in these countries contributes in any way to the success of our efforts there. The security measures when employees do leave the compound are so aggressive that it may well be that we improve our relationships with the local population by staying in the compound.”

On DOD’s AFRICOM @1300 v. State’s AF Bureau @ 100

“Many will argue that the first step should be to increase funding and add thousands of new employees to State and USAID to fend off what they perceive as encroachments onto State and USAID’s turf by DOD. Realistically, if this becomes a contest for whom can spend the most money, generate the most paperwork, and send the biggest team to interagency meetings, then State and USAID will lose every time. Just to give you an idea of the balance of forces, current plans call for AFRICOM to have a staff of 1,300 at its headquarters. The Bureau of African Affairs at the State Department has a staff of 100.”

On an ambassador’s policy in the war zone:

“One of the recent ambassadors in a war zones made his policy perfectly clear to his staff- “no one gets killed on my watch.”

On the civilian-ization of the battlefield:

“These programs lead some to claim there has been a militarization of civilian foreign aid program. If I could re-define the issue somewhat, the underlying issue may be more the “civilian-ization” of the battlefield as civilian foreign affairs agencies and the domestic agencies find themselves incorporated into DOD’s plans for the manpower needs of its military strategy of the two on-going wars and its plans for future conflicts.

DOD is not taking over State and USAID’s functions. Instead, State and USAID have been tasked with the responsibility to manage what were once traditional DOD functions. In the case of Germany and Japan, it was the United States Army that was the occupying government and it was the armed forces that performed the functions that DOD now designates as State and USAID functions.

The question we should ask ourselves is whether State and USAID are the proper agencies to assume these functions and whether, perhaps, we need a new and different entity is more equipped to provide the services that DOD counter-insurgency strategy needs.

Under what DOD now calls a “whole of government” concept of waging counter-insurgency war, it appears that DOD expects not just State and USAID, but the domestic departments and agencies to be permanently incorporated into a national security strategy of unlimited duration.”

On the State Department as an “all purpose staff augmentation contractor”:

“What we see is that State has been tasked to function in Iraq in a role not much different from the one DynCorp, MPRI, and hundreds of other contractors perform. State has become a general, all purpose staff augmentation contractor providing services to DOD. State has no particular expertise in this field and no one has providing a convincing explanation why State should be responsible for hiring these employees on its payroll instead of DOD hiring them on its own.

State and USAID may be a particularly inappropriate source of staff augmentation services. Both agencies adopted, in the aftermath of the Beirut embassy bombing, a zero tolerance policy toward employee safety risks overseas. One of the recent ambassadors in a war zones made his policy perfectly clear to his staff- “no one gets killed on my watch.”

On FS employees not as collateral damage but as prime targets:

“As a result, there is an extraordinarily heavy personnel security burden on any State or USAID operation in these war zones. I was in Saigon on TDY at the embassy in 1971 during the Vietnam War. The security problems in Iraq and Afghanistan make the Vietnam War era pale by comparison. Foreign Service officers have served in war zones for many decades. They were in London during the Blitz, in Vietnam and Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s, in Congo during the rebellion in 1960 and 1961. But until now, when Foreign Service employees served in combat zones, the risk was being killed as collateral damage. In Iraq and Afghanistan, our Foreign Service employees are prime targets, and that is a very different situation.”

On the Foreign Service version of assisted living:

“As a result of today’s stringent personal security requirements, State and USAID employees do not appear able to perform the functions that the counter-insurgency strategy calls for. The reports are that almost all the State and USAID employees in these war zones are confined to the Embassy or USAID compounds and rarely leave the compound. One USAID employee in Baghdad calls it the Foreign Service version of assisted living with your housing, the cafeteria, the gym and the office all there on the compound, and you are not allowed to leave.”

On the need for USAID to catch up with the 21st century:

“USAID also needs to catch up with the 21st Century. Much of its approach was adopted in the 1960s. The developing world has changed radically since USAID was first created. Country ownership where the democratically elected host government sets the priorities and specifies the project design criteria for contractors to bid on could save USAID considerable personnel resources now devoted to the development of new projects and could enhance project sustainability.”

On AFRICOM setting up shop in Africa:

“It is too early to assess AFRICOM’s development efforts since the organization is not fully launched, but it is clear there is a problem in meeting DOD’s expectations for how AFRICOM will be received in Africa. I think the resolution to this issue will depending on adopting a lower key approach to dealing with Africa. General Zinni as the CENTCOM used to describe himself as the Pro-Consul and traveled in a manner that did not contradict that description. It may work well in other areas, but in Africa is just too much. With a proposed staff for the AFRICOM Commander, there is no place in Africa where it could set up its headquarters because it would be just too large a presence.”

US Seabees inspect and remove debris from a bridge project in Aromo, Uganda, March 11, 2009.
The sailors are supporting Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa.
U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Erick S. Holmes

Well, I did warn you. If you know which ambo articulated that “policy” in the war zone would you let me know? Why — for no other reason than the fact that I am a curious cat …

What Mr. Christenson paints is not a pretty picture, but is there political will from our top leadership to rethink the views on development/foreign assistance?

What is the short/long term advantage of putting a military face on all foreign assistance?

Just because the military can, must it mean they should? How does one bridge the divide between foreign assistance work and the war fighting role of our military. Each calls for different skills and strengths; neither can be turned on with a switch …

If and when foreign assistance/development is fixed so that the various civilian arms of development are actually in sync, where does that leave the bigger and mightier DoD?

Howard Berman the committee chair complains that “We have heard the same explanation for this over and over again: DoD is filling a vacuum left by the State Department and USAID, which lack the capacity to carry out their diplomatic and development functions.” He cited the fact that USAID has only about 2,500 permanent staff today, compared to 4,300 in 1975. The agency is responsible for overseeing hundreds of infrastructure projects around the world, yet employs only five engineers. USAID has 29 education specialists to monitor programs in 87 countries.

That’s probably enough to make anyone cry, except well, Congress…