The Afghan Plan: Dakota on Pay Cuts and Thoughts of Moving On

One of my favorite bloggers who happen to be deep in the sands of Afghanistan but currently on R&R in Africa has posted the item below sometime back. I have added this to my Love Letters to Congress collection but should have posted this here, too.  Well, here is the intrepid Dakota who luckily survived the visit to the god damn kill box (officially known as Farah prison) before departing for his R&R:    

I’ve committed to giving up two years of my life to live in Afghanistan. I’m not looking for thank-yous for it: I knew what I was getting in to when I signed up for this, and State has certainly incentivized my coming here. But to have Congress come back and say that giving up two years of my life to this place is worth 16 percent less than last year has weighed on me. A 16 percent pay cut is just the opposite of a thank-you; it’s a direct statement that the work you do is not valued. It’s hard to take it any other way, and it’s particularly difficult to take when you’re living on the edge of a rocky desert, 40 kilometers from combat operations and a thousand miles from nowhere.

Others in the Service are outraged about it, and there’s been a flurry of well-written responses. My favorite, which I’ve re-read a thousand times, came from a friend of mine in Jordan. There’s a movement to blanket congress with letters (I wrote mine, though not nearly as eloquently as others), though the Foreign Service undoubtedly lacks the numbers to make a difference. Even writing my Congresswoman felt futile, since I live in DC and my Representative in Congress has no vote.

My response has not been outrage so much as a lingering sadness; the entire ordeal (including some of the ugly, you’re-probably-overpaid/stop-your-whining/if-you-complain-you’re-not-a-patriot rhetoric it’s stirred up) has made me question what I’m doing here. I had assumed upon signing up for this job that I’d have lots of these moments — that I’d find myself questioning U.S. policy, or that we’d take repeated, terrifying incoming and I’d be unwilling to leave the base because of it, or that I’d miserable in the wake of casualties and question the logic of continuing on. But that none of that ever happened — I’ve never wavered in my desire to be here or in my commitment to this place. At least until now, when the House voted to cut my pay. It really isn’t the money (the bill is ambiguous and almost certainly won’t pass the Senate or the President) — it’s the sentiment that goes along with it.

People have said that we’re taking a pay cut because we enjoy our work too much, but that seems ridiculous — like they should only pay people for working a job if it makes them miserable. The same cuts were recommended by the White House’s Bipartisan Fiscal Commission, though budgetarily speaking, cutting 16 percent of 7,500 people’s salary is not a significant figure, and it certainly doesn’t explain why we alone were singled out. Moreover, the commission noted that even with the pay cuts, the Foreign Service will remain a highly competitive and sought after: some 25,000 people apply for 300 to 900 jobs annually. But I find that rationale to be wildly offensive — that they can cut our pay with impunity because of how imminently replaceable we are.

I’m going on leave in a week, if the military can fix our runway so my plane can land. It’s definitely time: we’ve been running ragged implementing a thousand different programs and hosting visitor after visitor, and an ugly internal fight with the maneuver unit over our housing has left all the civilians on edge; it will be good to get away for a few weeks. But it will also be good to get away and take a deep breath and re-examine all of this.

I like living in Farah and I love working with the military, and I don’t feel like I’m done with my experience here. But the pay cut has engendered in me a significant homesickness, and made me focus on what I’m missing instead of what I’m gaining from this experience. I toyed briefly with leaving — Afghanistan is what the Foreign Service calls a “no-fault curtail” posting, so you can cut your posting short at any time without any negative financial or career impacts — but I think that impulse has passed and I’m back to committed.

I have been questioning, though, if instead of eking out time to study Pashto during the day, I should be eking out time to study for the GRE — if it isn’t time to reconsider this career and begin taking more concrete steps towards quitting and getting my PhD. I’ve heard others in the Foreign Service say similar things about moving on. I doubt that Congress’s intention with this pay cut was to push us towards the door, but that may very well be what ends up happening.

Read the whole thing here.

By the time Dakota moves on to his next gig, a second year in Afghanistan based in Kabul, he would have spent two of his four tours in a war zone. His first two assignments were also at hardship posts in Pakistan and China.  Not one of his years in service so far had been spent in a “normal” post, where people are nice and not threatening to kill you or actively spying on you.

People who entered the service the last several years probably have similar career patterns. More than half all posts in the Foreign Service are now considered hardship assignments, then there are two war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the “almost” war zones of Pakistan and Mexico. I call them “almost” because they have not been officially declared as such despite evidence to the contrary.      

Meanwhile, I’ve seen folks who have had the language training but for some reason managed to successfully glue themselves at a desk in Foggy Bottom and skipped Assignment Iraq. And some (don’t know what languages they speak) who even snagged ambassadorships after a perilous tour at Human Resources. Of course, service in the war zones is all-voluntary.  State do not want to send anybody there who don’t want to be there.       

But if you start losing folks who run towards the fire, then Foggy B., you are in a pretty hot kimchi.   










The political game of "non-security" spending …. because we all know that foreign aid recipients do not/not vote

Official photo of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT)Image via Wikipedia

The following is a long excerpt from Senator Patrick Leahy’s statement on the House Budget allocations from February 8, 2011:

[…] I want to speak briefly about the impact the House action would have on the Department of State and foreign operations.

It is notable that the House defines diplomacy and development as “non-security” spending, even though the integral part they both play in promoting our national interests and protecting our security around the globe was explicitly recognized by the Bush Administration, which even viewed the HIV/AIDS pandemic as a national security threat because of its destabilizing impact on the world’s poorest countries.

The notion that the only budget functions that relate to national security are Defense, Veterans Affairs, Military Construction, and Homeland Security is bewildering.  It flies in the face of the complexities of the world today and ignores the strongly held views of current and former – Republican and Democratic – Presidents, Secretaries of Defense and State, senior U.S. military commanders, National Security Advisors, and Administrators of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

According to the House, we might as well shutter our embassies and fire our diplomats, particularly in the Middle East, South Asia, Mexico, Indonesia and other regions where U.S. security interests are threatened, because if they are not there to help protect those interests why do we need them?  We should also curtail our aid programs in countries like Israel, Colombia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, because the House apparently sees no relation between these programs and our security either.

Of course, that is absurd.  Our Republican friends in the House know that we cannot counter the influence of al Qaeda and other violent extremists through military force alone.  They know that helping countries rebuild after conflict, building stable, democratic institutions, preventing the trafficking of nuclear material and other weapons, educating and providing jobs for youth who would otherwise be fodder for terrorist recruiters, combating the corrosive influence of organized crime, preventing the spread of deadly viruses, supporting NATO, the International Atomic Energy Commission, and United Nations peacekeeping, are all about our national security.  And it is the diplomats here and abroad, and the funds they administer, that make it possible.

There is no mystery to the House’s decision to lump the Department of State and foreign operations with other “non-security” domestic functions.  Since those are the programs the House leadership has targeted for the deepest cuts, and there is little domestic constituency for the Department of State and foreign operations, it is an easy target.

In fact, most Americans are under the mistaken impression that these programs comprise 15 to 20 percent of the Federal budget, when they actually comprise 1 percent.  Rather than set the record straight, that misimpression is a convenient excuse for House Republicans to slash these programs without having to worry about complaints from voters in their home districts.

Click on image to see larger view

I doubt they will call attention to the fact that in doing so they will be cutting funding for programs to promote U.S. exports which are the fastest growing sector of the U.S. economy, especially small businesses, which face fierce competition from China.  In fact, I doubt they will call attention to China at all, since the Chinese long ago recognized that its security is directly tied to its foreign relations, and its investments, on other continents.

Mr. President, no function or program in the Federal budget should ever be immune from budget cuts.  I have no doubt that we can find programs within the Department of State and foreign operations budget that are not performing, just as we can within the Defense budget or any other function.  Some programs succeed, some do not.

But we cannot ignore what our allies, competitors and adversaries have clearly recognized – the threats and challenges we face around the world are increasing.  Why else do you suppose that in Great Britain a conservative government that is slashing spending exempted international aid?  They recognized that it is a critical national security investment, for both the immediate and long term.

The House would cut funding for the Department of State and foreign operations 17 percent below the President’s budget request, and 7.5 percent below the current Continuing Resolution that expires on March 4.  The irony of the House’s action is that while cutting foreign aid will cost lives and weaken our influence around the world, it will do virtually nothing to reduce the deficit.
  • Does anyone doubt that helping rebuild Haiti – a country of 9 million desperate people a short distance from our shore – is in our national security interest?
  • Does anyone doubt that supporting the international body that monitors nuclear testing is in our national security interest?
  • Does anyone doubt that averting widespread hunger in Africa, and the violence and instability and massive displacement of people it could cause, is in our national security interest?
  • Does anyone doubt that helping to mitigate an environmental and humanitarian calamity caused by melting glaciers, widespread drought, and rising sea levels, is in our national security interest?
  • Does anyone doubt that helping Mexico, with which we share a 2,000 mile border, build a professional, accountable police force and justice system that can uphold the rule of law in the face of drug cartels and other criminal gangs that have infiltrated every facet of Mexican society, is in our national security interest?
  • Does anyone doubt that averting the resurgence of polio and other diseases that can easily cross national borders and threaten the lives of hundreds of millions of children, including Americans, but can be prevented with low cost vaccines, is in our national interest?

Budget cutting should not be a numbers game.  Nor should it be a political game that fails to acknowledge what is at stake.  At the very least, the American people should know the consequences.  No matter what they call it – security or non-security – or how they attempt to justify it, the House allocation for the Department of State and foreign operations would require drastic cuts in critical programs that are essential to maintaining U.S. global leadership and protecting our security.

Read the whole thing here.

Budget Spin? Is That Like White Lies for Dark Times? says that President Obama and the Republicans give different — and less-than-factual — takes on the president’s 2012 budget. Excerpt:

Democrats and Republicans disagree strongly about elements of President Obama’s 2012 budget, but they are alike in one respect: Both sides are misrepresenting important facts.

  • Obama claimed that by the middle of this decade his budget “will not be adding more to the national debt.” But that’s not true. The debt will continue to grow by more than $600 billion even in 2015, the year with the least red ink projected.
  • The president also claims that the “discretionary” budget is only 12 percent of the total. It’s actually 36 percent. Obama, like President Bush before him, is referring to “non-security” spending that excludes not only the Pentagon but the Department of Homeland Security and veterans’ benefits.
  • Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the Budget Committee, repeated a false claim that Obama has increased domestic discretionary spending by 84 percent over the last two years. He hasn’t. That spending went up 27 percent, even counting stimulus spending, according to the official tally from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
  • Ryan’s committee also claims that Obama’s budget contains $1.6 trillion in “new taxes.” Actually, 44 percent of that total is made up of increases scheduled under current law, not proposed in the budget. And one big proposed increase is offset by Obama holding down a scheduled rise in the Alternative Minimum Tax.
We found several other false claims, too. Speaker Boehner claimed Obama has added 200,000 federal workers, when official figures put the total at 58,000, and Sarah Palin claimed in a bogus Twitter message that Obama’s cuts are only 0.1 percent of the deficit, when the true figure is 20 times higher. For the full story on those and more, please read on to the Analysis section.

You can read the whole unhappy thing here. is a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. UPenn is a 501(c)3 organization and your contribution is deductible from U.S. federal income taxes to the full extent allowed by law. You can donate here.

US Embassy #Japan: Potassium Iodide (KI) Available to USG Employees/Dependents as a Precautionary Measure

No-one should take KI at this time

The US Embassy Japan indicates that its staffing level has increased by 30 percent because employees from across the US government have volunteered to come help at the mission. About 96 US government employees from outside of Japan have reportedly volunteered and are in the country to help provide assistance around the clock.  In addition, the Department of Energy has 36 personnel and 12 Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff in Japan to focus on the nuclear plant incident.  The authorized departure that was recently ordered only affected dependents of US personnel at limited posts in Japan, and all employees assigned in country are still there.

In its Fact Sheet dated March 22, 8:30 a.m. JST, the US Embassy was also careful to explain that the voluntary departure of dependents was taken “out of an abundance of caution” and that staffing level at the mission is larger now than it was prior to the earthquake.

Departure of Embassy Family Members: Given the extraordinary circumstances, the State Department and Department of Defense (DOD) on March 16 authorized the voluntary departure of eligible family members and non-emergency DOD civilians from Tokyo, Nagoya, Yokohama and the prefectures of Aichi, Chiba, Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki, Iwate, Kanagawa, Miyagi, Nagano, Niigata, Saitama, Shizouka, Tochigi, Yamagata, and Yamanashi. Separately, voluntary departure was authorized for eligible family members at Misawa AB (Aomori Prefecture). We took this step out of an abundance of caution, and in order to enable U.S. government officials and the uniformed military to concentrate on the tasks at hand. Our employees remain in country, and we are absolutely open for business – in fact, the number of people working at the Embassy now is much larger than before the earthquake due to the number of experts who have arrived from the United States to augment our operations in these difficult times. We look forward to our dependents returning to Japan once the situation has eased.

Its updated Travel Warning for Japan dated March 21, the embassy also announced it has provided  Potassium Iodide (KI) as a precautionary measure for United States Government personnel and dependents residing in certain districts but that “No-one should take KI at this time.”

This Travel Warning replaces the Travel Warning dated March 18, 2011, in response to the situation at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the Department of Energy, and other technical experts in the U.S. Government have reviewed the scientific and technical information they have collected from assets in country, as well as what the Government of Japan has disseminated. Consistent with the NRC guidelines that would apply to such a situation in the United States, we are recommending, as a precaution, that U.S. citizens within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant evacuate the area or to take shelter indoors if safe evacuation is not practical.

On March 21, 2011, consistent with NRC guidelines that apply to such a situation in the United States, the U.S. Government is making available Potassium Iodide (KI) as a precautionary measure for United States Government personnel and dependents residing within Nagoya (Aichi Prefecture), Tokyo (Tokyo Capital Region), Yokohama (Kanagawa Prefecture), and the prefectures of Akita, Aomori, Chiba, Fukushima, Gunma, Ibaraki, Iwate, Miyagi, Nagano, Niigata, Saitama, Shizouka, Tochigi, Yamagata, and Yamanashi. The KI should only be consumed after specific instruction from the United States Government. While there is no indication that it will become advisable to take KI, out of an abundance of caution the United States Government is making it available to its personnel and family members to be used only upon direction if a change in circumstances were to warrant. No-one should take KI at this time. In the event of a radiological release, sheltering in place or departing the affected area remain the primary means of protection.

Read more here.

CDC: Potassium Iodide (KI) | Key Facts

  • You should only take potassium idodide (KI) on the advice of emergency management officials, public health officials, or your doctor.
  • There are health risks associated with taking KI.

What does KI do?

Following a radiological or nuclear event, radioactive iodine may be released into the air and then be breathed into the lungs. Radioactive iodine may also contaminate the local food supply and get into the body through food or through drink. When radioactive materials get into the body through breathing, eating, or drinking, we say that “internal contamination” has occurred. In the case of internal contamination with radioactive iodine, the thyroid gland quickly absorbs this chemical. Radioactive iodine absorbed by the thyroid can then injure the gland. Because non-radioactive KI acts to block radioactive iodine from being taken into the thyroid gland, it can help protect this gland from injury.

What KI cannot do?

Knowing what KI cannot do is also important. KI cannot prevent radioactive iodine from entering the body. KI can protect only the thyroid from radioactive iodine, not other parts of the body. KI cannot reverse the health effects caused by radioactive iodine once damage to the thyroid has occurred. KI cannotprotect the body from radioactive elements other than radioactive iodine—if radioactive iodine is not present, taking KI is not protective.

How does KI work?

The thyroid gland cannot tell the difference between stable and radioactive iodine and will absorb both. KI works by blocking radioactive iodine from entering the thyroid. When a person takes KI, the stable iodine in the medicine gets absorbed by the thyroid. Because KI contains so much stable iodine, the thyroid gland becomes “full” and cannot absorb any more iodine—either stable or radioactive—for the next 24 hours.

Iodized table salt also contains iodine; iodized table salt contains enough iodine to keep most people healthy under normal conditions. However, table salt does not contain enough iodine to block radioactive iodine from getting into your thyroid gland. You should not use table salt as a substitute for KI.

Read more here.