974 to Afghanistan for the Civilian Surge

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Last month, Jack Lew, the State Department’s Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources, visited Camp Atterbury-Muscatatuck Center for Complex Operations in Indiana and had a town hall.

Here is part of what he said:

“This is really important work. It’s really hard work. We have a lot of confidence in all of you as you go out to Afghanistan to be able to make a difference. And here in a week and a day, when it’s a new beginning for the government there, it’s a time of hope for the people there, we can’t lose sight of the challenges. You’re going to be dealing with bureaucratic challenges, political challenges, security challenges, and people who may not always be motivated the way we would want them to be motivated. I have confidence that each of you can make a difference in the work you do, and I hope the training here has helped prepare you to go out and be as effective as we know you can be.”

They had a Q&A for about 10 minutes with about half a dozen questions. One question on expanding participating agencies, another one on program continuity, excerpted below:

QUESTION: Thank you, sir, for the opportunity. My question is related to the participating agencies in the mission. Are there any plans to expand the number of participating agencies, i.e., Department of Transportation?

The Department of Transportation is already helping out with a number of functions, so they’re in the – not a great number, but there’s a handful of people from the Department of Transportation.
We didn’t sit down and say, we need X, Y, and Z agencies involved. We identified – ultimately the 974 positions that we’re now filling are 974 specific position descriptions. Each of you was recruited because you have a core capability to help with one of those, or a number – a set of those missions. And that’s what makes it challenging to recruit civilians, because you don’t – you can’t just ask for a team of a hundred people who do agricultural work or a team of a hundred people who do rule of law work. If there’s more work for the Department of Transportation, my conversations with the Department of Transportation lead me to believe that they are fully prepared to be part of the effort.

[…] But in this short a time, I wouldn’t think it will be effective enough to complete the mission. And I myself hate that I’ll start something and leave it in the middle and then come back and somebody else will come after me, start from the beginning again.

One of the challenges in crisis and post-crisis missions is continuity of program. These are not programs where you have decades to do it, so you have to work intensely in a short period of time, but we have deployments that have not traditionally been long enough. One of the things about the mission, and what all of you have signed onto, is a longer assignment than, historically, civilians have been taking. The fact that you have made commitments for a year is a huge improvement in terms of continuity, from a situation where we would send civilians out for three months at a time. People can do a lot of good work in three months, but the number of transitions makes continuity very challenging.

So the fact that we’re in the process of building a civilian force from 320 to almost a thousand, and that will be, for the most part, full-year commitments addresses that issue right off the bat. I don’t think that we’ll get most people to sign up for two and three years, but we are encouraging people to make multi-year commitments.

I think we have to be realistic that these are difficult assignments, and if we make the standard that you can only do this work if you do it for two or three years, that will artificially limit the effectiveness of our ability to get people in the right place at the right time. On the other hand, we are very much going to encourage and support multi-year commitments.

We’re also going to try and stagger the turnover. We’re going to try and not have it be that everyone comes and goes on the same day. Part of the challenge in these transitions and the continuity is that the hand-off – it’s kind of like being in an American hospital on July 4th weekend. Everybody’s new. You don’t want to be sick in America on July 4th.

A lot of the turnover in programs like this has tended, because of the schedule of Foreign Service assignments – has been all at once, partially because we’ve been staffing up gradually over an extensive period. People’s years will end at different times. And we’re very conscious of it, and building in with Kabul – with our Embassy in Kabul – a plan to not have the kind of sudden transition that really does create a problem in continuity. The military has been very effective in a lot of places, and Foreign Service has been very effective in a lot of places with these kinds of short-term but very intense assignments.

I think going to a year for the basic assignment is a huge step forward. Having the transitions be smoother is a second one. And I think you put your finger on what is a critical challenge. These are not 12-month projects. The – many of the development projects that we’re going to be undertaking in the traditional development context take many years. We don’t have many years to show progress, because it’s a situation where if we can’t show progress quickly, the political reality on the ground won’t be there where it needs to be to keep moving forward.

But that doesn’t mean you finish the job. Showing progress and finishing the job are different. We need to be able to show progress quickly, and then have a realistic trajectory towards the kinds of objectives, and ultimately the transfer of responsibility, from international and American staff and military, to Afghans.

Read the whole Town Hall transcript here.

On a side note — the November 20 issue of WaPo had a piece on this training site: In Indiana, practice for ‘civilian surge’ in Afghanistan by Karen DeYoung, in case you missed that.

In any case, at the HFAC the other day, Secretary Clinton also mentioned the magic number of 974 for the civilian surge in Afghanistan:

“The civilian effort is bearing fruit. Civilian experts and advisors are helping to craft policy inside government ministries, providing development assistance in the field, and when our marines went into Nawa province this last July, we had civilians on the ground with them to coordinate assistance the very next day. As our operations progress, our civ-mil coordination will grow even stronger. We are on track to triple the number of civilian positions to 974 by early in January. On average, each of these civilians leverages 10 partners ranging from locally employed staff to experts with U.S.-funded NGOs.”

You might remember that in the October 26 briefing that D/Secretary Lew did on the civilian hiring in Afghanistan, one reporter inquired about the sector-wise breakdown of this 974 figure. It was not available at that time, and I have not seen a follow up post on the solicited information from PA. The briefing did indicate that out of the 974 people, 64 will come from the Department of Agriculture and 128 positions will come from the Department of Justice. State has a total of 423 while USAID’s total number will be 333.

D/Secretary Lew also said this: “So we’re doing pretty well in terms of identifying candidates. We’re not seeing that there’s a lack – we’re seeing a great deal of enthusiasm and interest in going to post. I think that it speaks again both to the – how critical the mission is, and that it’s seen as joining a team that’s doing very important work.”

So there’s no talk about going through that silly exercise called “Prime Candidate” again (real life not reality show) as was done previously. Thank goodness! But I am still curious about the breakdown of the 974 figure agency and sector-wise and most particularly interested on the composition of the 756 personnel coming from both State/USAID.

  • How many of the 756 are coming from the regular Foreign Service? Regular USAID?
  • How many are 5 U.S.C. 3161 employees? More here.
  • How many are professional contractors?
  • How many are on Limited Non-Career Appointments (LNA) like Matthew Hoh?
  • How many are When Actually Employed (WAE) employees (retired Foreign Service personnel with limited work hours)?
  • How many are Foreign Service National (FSNs or LES) employees from other US Missions, borrowed for temporary duty in Afghanistan?

The 974 number is for Afghanistan alone. By the way, nobody is even talking very much these days about the staffing need at US Embassy Baghdad post-military drawdown or the staffing need at US Mission Pakistan with the expected expansion there. Also not discussed during these briefings are the number of life support personnel who will accompany the deployment of the 974 individuals.

Anyway — the core question is a simple one — how much of this specific civilian surge has the State Department been able to grow on its own? And perhaps, more importantly, how much will be outsourced, since almost nothing can be done anywhere anymore these days without contractors.

I am also interested for one other reason. Although additional hiring has been authorized recently for the Foreign Service, the demand still outpaces the supply at this point. Which means that if — the entire 473 personnel going to Afghanistan are coming from the regular Foreign Service, there will be 473 slots at home and at 265 embassies/consulates that will go unfilled. Unfilled until new people are brought in, trained and sent off as replacements and all that will not happen overnight. In addition, some 450+ personnel most certainly will be needed for the inbound rotation to Afghanistan in fiscal year 2011. Beyond that, who knows?