Afghanistan-Iraq-Pakistan Staffing Fills Up Fast But Pool of Volunteers Continues to Shrink; Longer Tours On the Table?

State OIG conducted an inspection of the  Office of the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (S/RAP) and the report was recently posted online. The inspectors conclude that the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (S/SRAP) has built an organization that meets the Secretary’s challenge. Below are some items that you may find interesting:

AIP Staffing Priority Fills Up Fast

Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan are the Department’s number one staffing priority. To further this goal, the Department now has two assignment seasons: June of each year for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and early fall for all other positions. This procedure, which allows the three priority missions to choose their candidates before the regular bidding season begins, has meant that a large percentage of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan positions are filled within a few months. By mid-March 2011, the bureau had filled 92 percent of the summer 2011 Afghanistan positions, 91 percent of the Iraq positions, and 95 percent of the Pakistan positions.

Af/Pak Staffing and Consequences

Staffing Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent Pakistan, is a challenge. The Department began the first of three phases in 2009 in what is termed a “civilian uplift.” This uplift was intended to increase the number of U.S. Government civilians from all agencies under Embassy Kabul chief of mission authority from 977 in 2009 to 1,396 in 2011, after which growth was projected to level off. These numbers are augmented by several hundred temporary duty employees. The Afghanistan and Pakistan desks and SCA/PPD aggressively recruit to fill these positions.

The Department is relying on a blended workforce – a mixture of Foreign Service, traditional Civil Service, 3161s, contractors, Presidential Management Fellows, interns, and retired diplomats – to staff both S/SRAP and the missions. Managing this blended workforce is a challenge. Also, as noted elsewhere, S/SRAP has a number of entry- level officers, many of whom have little if any previous experience either overseas or in the Department. Faced with a shortage of mid- level officers and having authority to hire new entry- level officers, the Bureau of Human Resources has been forced to fill mid- level positions in Washington with officers on their first or second tours, who require more training and supervision than experienced veterans. Even this source of stopgap staffing will be lost, if funding cuts force a reduction in the number of new officers hired. While the number of positions continues to increase, the pool of potential Foreign Service volunteers who have not yet served in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Iraq continues to shrink (emphasis added).

Embassies Kabul and Islamabad have requested that the Department consider increasing the length of tours from 1 year to 18 months or 2 years. While this would improve continuity, many working with Foreign Service assignments say it would decrease the number of people willing to volunteer to work in these extremely challenging missions.

A number of Civil Service employees have expressed interest in serving in Afghanistan or Pakistan. However, assignment rules allow Civil Service staff to be assigned to Foreign Service positions only if no Foreign Service officer has bid on the position. This can sometimes mean that no one fills the job at all, if the Foreign Service bidder subsequently goes elsewhere after logging the bid. The assignments offices within the bureau and in the Bureau of Human Resources have worked to mitigate this problem. As the pool of Foreign Service personnel who have not served in these missions shrinks, it may be necessary to increase the opportunities for Civil Service employees to fill positions there.

The New, New Normal: From One-Year Tours to 18 Months, 24 Months …

The 1-year tour-of-duty policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan has caused a lack of continuity with contacts and impeded efforts to build personal relationships with members of the local media. This discontinuity is a challenge for the embassies’ public affairs sections. At times, the S/SRAP director of communications and the staff have reached out directly by telephone to set up media events for high- level visiting U.S. officials. During the inspection, such difficulties occurred when the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee went to Pakistan to help resolve the Lahore incident described above.

The director of communications’ work for Senator Kerry’s visit was crucial to orchestrating and designing the media engagement plan in Lahore, which included a pooled television roundtable and a session with top Pakistani editors and columnists. The Urdu-speaking deputy director for outreach also got involved by telephone with the Pakistani media, to ensure successful media opportunities. In a society and in an industry where personal relationships are all- important, tours of duty longer than 12 months for the press attaché and public affairs section chief would be desirable, to give them time to build relationships and foster continuity. Already, Embassies Kabul and Islamabad encourage their chiefs of section and principal officers to commit to 2-year assignments; expanding this approach to apply to senior press officers and local language public spokespersons would be consistent with this already established model (emphasis added). It is worth noting that the officers would be more likely to make such a commitment if some accommodation were made to permit spouses to accompany them, at least on a case-by-case basis.

If Af/Pak principal officers and chiefs of sections have already been asked to commit to 2-year tours, the OIG recommendation that press officers extend their tours to 2 years is not a big leap.  Given the shrinking pool of volunteers to AIP assignments, how soon before this “model” will expand to the rest of the staff in Afghanistan and Pakistan is not a matter of if but when. 

Related item:
-06/30/11   Inspection of the Office of the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (ISP-I-11-48) June 2011  [474 Kb] 

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Mumbai: Three Blasts Kill 21, ConGen Mumbai Goes on Partial Reduction of Visa Operations

The US Consulate General in Mumbai released the following warden message yesterday after the three bombings in the city.  Reports indicate that the three explosions killed 21 individuals and wounded 141. The victims had been taken to 11 city hospitals, many of them in a serious condition. Although no Americans were reportedly killed in the attack, I expect that ConGen Mumbai’s staff is fanning across the city’s hospitals to confirm that we do not have citizens injured in the attack requiring assistance.

Indian authorities have confirmed that on July 13, 2011, at approximately 7:10 pm, three explosions were detonated in southern and central Mumbai.  The blasts are reported to have occurred at the Opera House district and Jhaveri Bazar in southern Mumbai, and at Dadar West in central Mumbai.  At this time, there is no reason to suspect that U.S. citizens were the target of the attacks, and there are no reports of U.S. citizens killed or injured as a result of these attacks.

Our security posture remains vigilant.  The U.S. Mission in India again reminds U.S. citizens to exercise prudence and continue to take active, personal responsibility for their security.  We suggest that U.S. citizens monitor news reports and follow the instructions of Indian authorities.  

Read the whole thing here.

The Consulate General has also posted a notice online that its visa operation will be “partially reduced.” suspended until further notice.

The Embassy will continue to process the visa applications of anyone who was interviewed prior to the suspension of visa services. 

Applicants who need to travel to the United States before resumption of full visa services in Damascus are welcome to apply for a nonimmigrant visa at any U.S. Embassy or consulate outside Syria which provides visa services.

Secretary Clinton’s Statement:

“We condemn these despicable acts of violence designed to provoke fear and division. Those who perpetrated them must know they cannot succeed. The Indian people have suffered from acts of terrorism before, and we have seen them respond with courage and resilience. We are continuing to monitor the situation, including the safety and security of American citizens. Our hearts are with the victims and their families, and we have reached out to the Indian Government to express our condolence and offer support.

I will be traveling to India next week as planned. I believe it is more important than ever that we stand with India, deepen our partnership, and reaffirm our commitment to the shared struggle against terrorism.”

President Obama’s Statement

“I strongly condemn the outrageous attacks in Mumbai, and my thoughts and prayers are with the wounded and those who have lost loved ones. The U.S. government continues to monitor the situation, including the safety and security of our citizens. India is a close friend and partner of the United States. The American people will stand with the Indian people in times of trial, and we will offer support to India’s efforts to bring the perpetrators of these terrible crimes to justice. During my trip to Mumbai, I saw firsthand the strength and resilience of the Indian people, and I have no doubt that India will overcome these deplorable terrorist attacks.”

 
 
 

AGNA PR: ArmorGroup North America Reaches Settlement and Oh, There Has Been No Finding or Admission of Liability

I have recently posted about the settlement reached by AGNA with the U.S. Government relating to allegations about its U.S. Embassy Kabul guard contract (read Armor Group North America (AGNA) and Affiliates Pay $7.5 Million to Resolve False Claims Act Allegations on US Embassy Kabul $189 Million Guard Contract | Friday, July 8, 2011).

AGNA has now released a statement about the settlement, not only disputing the Government’s assertion, but also says its former employee’s allegations lacked merit and points to the terms of the Settlement Agreement — that “is is entered by the parties to avoid costly and disruptive litigation – and that there has been no finding or admission of liability.”

Via PRNewswire:

ArmorGroup North America Reaches Settlement with Dept. of Justice Resolving Former Employee’s Allegations

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla., July 7, 2011 /PRNewswire/ — Today’s settlement with the Justice Department involves conduct by personnel of ArmorGroup North America (“AGNA”) prior to acquisition of ArmorGroup by G4S plc – and marks an end to the Government’s inquiries regarding AGNA’s performance of the US Embassy Kabul (“USEK”) contract.

We sharply dispute all the Justice Department’s assertions that there was a violation of the False Claims Act.  When G4S acquired ArmorGroup, it was aware that AGNA had difficulty in successfully performing the USEK contract.  Following the acquisition, WSI (a G4S subsidiary) took the necessary steps to improve AGNA’s performance on the USEK contract and to rectify any outstanding issues.  At all times, the Embassy was secure.  The company conducted an extensive investigation of AGNA’s pre-acquisition conduct – and worked closely with Justice Department lawyers, providing them thousands of pages of documents and the opportunity to interview ArmorGroup personnel.  We know that the evidence does not support the Government’s allegations of a False Claims Act violation. 

We are adamantly opposed to any form of human trafficking, including use of prostitutes.  The Government alleges that, in 2007, AGNA was four months late in implementing the specific anti-human trafficking policy required under federal regulations and claims that some unidentified AGNA personnel frequented prostitutes during this 4-month period.  At all times AGNA prohibited any form of human trafficking, and did not tolerate violations.  Importantly, the specific policy required by Federal regulations was implemented by AGNA prior to the ArmorGroup’s acquisition by G4S.  The sole individual confirmed to have frequented prostitutes was fired by AGNA in normal course when his conduct became known.   Further, the Government’s allegations regarding the hiring of third country national guards and AGNA’s compliance to FOCI requirements are not supported by the facts – nothing in AGNA’s conduct violated the False Claims Act.

This case involves allegations made by a former employee.  The company’s investigation and the investigation of the Government both confirmed that these allegations arose largely from a personal animosity of that former employee toward AGNA’s supervisor of the work at the Embassy – another former employee who is named specifically in the Complaint, Mr. Nick Du Plessis.  Based on the company’s review conducted as part of this case, Mr. Du Plessis was, in fact, an effective leader who played a key role in keeping the Embassy secure, and has been disparaged unfairly by the allegations.  The former employee’s allegations are set forth in a Complaint filed with the Court in 2009 and also in the Settlement Agreement released by the Government today.  The company’s investigation confirmed that the former employee’s allegations lacked merit. 

The Government declined to intervene generally in the former employee’s allegations.  Disappointingly, the Government decided that it would intervene in the case with regard to three specific issues which are narrowly described in the Settlement Agreement.  The settlement resolves with finality the three Government issues – and includes a release by the former employee of all of his allegations. 

The terms of the Settlement Agreement make clear that it is entered by the parties to avoid costly and disruptive litigation – and that there has been no finding or admission of liability.

Nick Schwellenbach, POGO’s Director of Investigations writes: “The settlement is a victory for accountability, but ultimately may be unsatisfying for critics of the government’s less-than-robust oversight of contractors. Can we really expect other contractors to see this settlement as a wake-up call? The State Department fell asleep at the switch with AGNA and still has yet to prove that it’s serious about contract oversight and enforcement of trafficking in persons regulations.”

Not sure I’d call it a wake up call.  Just that the “get out of court” card can be expensive.