Owlers: "Particularly Qualified" Letters Sent to Diplomats

Oriental Bay Owl (Bay Owl) Phodilus badius (Ho...Image via Wikipedia

Last week, President Obama signed the Presidential Memorandum on Federal Benefits and Non-Discrimination, followed by Secretary Clinton’s statement on the granting of benefits to same-sex partners of Foreign Service employees. H.R. 2346 (which grants overseas comparability pay to Foreign Service employees class 1 or below) also cleared Congress late last week and just awaiting the President’s signature …

In related news that might just be as interesting …

I understand that the owl mail started hitting workstations last week. I received a tip that Career Development Officers (CDOs) have sent out DG-drafted letters late last week to Foreign Service officers deemed “particularly qualified” for service in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

One officer who received the targeted recruitment letter was quite surprised. Why? Well, because the job this officer was targeted for requires a specific language proficiency (which this FSO does not have) and reporting on economic conditions (FSO had no previous experience in the country nor in writing economic reports). The last time we’ve seen similar letters was about two years ago when State was staffing the diplomatic surge in Iraq, and diplomats were under threat of being sent on directed assignments.

The letter was received via unclassified email with no other restriction; it says in part:

[…]I am writing to inform you that the Department considers you among those particularly well qualified for the following XX positions and is asking you to seriously consider volunteering for an opportunity to tackle one of our nation’s top foreign policy priorities by bidding on:

XXXX (Country)(Post) XXX XXXX

[…] You are considered well qualified because your record of achievement indicates that you have the knowledge, skills and experience, as defined by the Embassy, to be successful in these positions.[…]

The targeted recruitment letter says that the goal is 100% volunteer but it includes a short blurb — if positions remained unfilled, the recipient would be in a pool of qualified individuals potentially subject to identification. Identification for a directed assignment, that is, although those two words are not found anywhere in the letter.

I don’t know if anyone should really be surprised by this. The military is expected to draw down soon in Iraq but there is no corresponding expectation for the draw down of US diplomatic presence there. So even as the State Department ramps up its diplomatic surge in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the demand for FS personnel in Iraq will not abate.

As an aside — I am presuming that the push is still there to staff these critical posts first before all other mission staffing will be considered. So now — you have the Iraq tax, and the Af/Pak tax. Personnel destined for assignments to other missions now have also reportedly either curtailed or have changed assignments to go to Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan this summer. Which is good, except that the losing posts won’t necessarily find replacements for those personnel even with projected increased hiring this summer/fall. I am told that in a couple of posts, an FSO is quad-hatted (is that the term?) working as the human resource officer, financial management officer, and general services officer in addition to his/her full-time job.

This is of course, for next year’s assignment cycle. But would volunteers continue to step up year after year? We’re on Year 6 going on 7 in Iraq, plus Year 1 going on 4, at least in Af/Pak (under new policy). I’m not sure how long you can keep recycling the same volunteers (who are language qualified or with reporting or stabilization experience) into the war zones or into critical post. Aren’t there folks doing their third tour in Iraq? (I should note that the most recent DCM coming out of Iraq is tapped for Sri Lanka; and the most recent DCM coming out of Kabul is going to Kosovo).

In the big hullabaloo back in 2007, the outgoing Director General, Harry Thomas was quoted by TWP as saying that in the future, “everyone in the Foreign Service is going to have to do one out of three tours in a hardship post.” Those who have not served in hardship assignments in the past will not be punished, but they all have to realize that there are “different conditions” now than in the past, he said.

If what he said holds true, that’ll be 3 years every 9 years spent in a hardship post. The problem with that calculation is from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, the number of hardship posts seems to be expanding year after year.