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]