US Embassy Iraq Staffing: To Slash or Not to Slash, That is the Question

A lesson in right-sizing exercise needed yesterday.

Tim Arango’s NYT piece about plans to slash the US Embassy staff in Iraq by as much as half has quotes from US Embassy Baghdad’s spokesman, Michael McClellan:

Michael W. McClellan, the embassy spokesman, said in a statement to the Times, “Over the last year and continuing this year the Department of State and the Embassy in Baghdad have been considering ways to appropriately reduce the size of the U.S. mission in Iraq, primarily by decreasing the number of contractors needed to support the embassy’s operations.”

McClellan said the number of diplomats was also “subject to adjustment as appropriate.”

The response from Foggy Bottom came swiftly. Below is part of the State Department’s push back via the official spokesperson, Victoria Nuland:

MS. NULAND: Well, we saw this reporting just as we were preparing to come down today. First, let me say that with regard to our diplomatic presence, there is no consideration being given to slashing our diplomats by half. What we are doing – and Deputy Secretary Nides is leading this process – is looking at how we can right-size our Embassy in Iraq and particularly how we can do more for that mission through the hiring of local employees rather than having to be as dependent as we’ve been in the past on very expensive contractors. So we’re trying to do our best to save the American taxpayer money in the way we support our diplomatic personnel.

We’re also looking to acquire more of the supporting things for the Embassy, including food supplies, et cetera, from the local economy, so trying to do more locally with local Iraqis and on the local economy and save the taxpayer money. So what ultimate numbers will result from this in reductions in contractors, we don’t know yet. This process has just begun, but we are trying to ensure that it is rigorous and that it gets us to a much more normal embassy, like some of our big embassies around the world.
QUESTION: So just talking about the diplomats for a moment, so you’re not considering slashing their numbers by a half?
MS. NULAND: Correct.
QUESTION: Are you considering slashing their numbers by 40 percent, by 30 percent, by 20 percent, by 2 percent, by zero? I mean —
MS. NULAND: Again, if we can find efficiencies, we will. Obviously we’re still working with the Iraqis on some of the programming that these diplomats are charged with managing. So with regard to whether we may be able to reduce some of the diplomatic staff, we will look at that. But I just wanted to make clear that we have a lot to do in Iraq, so some of these reportings about the level of diplomats is – were exaggerated.
QUESTION: You’re talking about a different time, but the Embassy only opened, I think, in early 2009 or at the – maybe it was 2008. It’s not that long ago. It’s only three years ago.
MS. NULAND: Well, we’ve had a diplomatic presence in Iraq all the way through, and it’s waxed and waned. But our view is that it is currently too dependent on contractors. We can do more with Iraqi staff. We can do more on the local economy, and it’ll make it cheaper.
QUESTION: Quick clarification on this. You said that you want to cut down in the contractors. Many of these contractors provide protection and security and so on. And you say that you want to hire local. So would you rely on Iraqis to provide security for the U.S. Embassy? Is that what you’re saying?
MS. NULAND: I’m not going to get into, in advance of Deputy Secretary Nides’s review and his recommendations to the Secretary, what functions might be able to be done locally. But we’re looking at the whole thing.

So to sum it up —

Yes, they are right-sizing the US Embassy Baghdad.

No, they’re not considering slashing the number of diplomats.

Yes, they’re slashing down those expensive contractors.

No one knows by how much.

Yes, they want to hire local.

No one knows if they’d rely on Iraqis to provide security.

So there you go, a briefing as clear as mud.

Just a couple of things for the good folks who may be reading this.

One of the most expensive part of Embassy Baghdad’s operation is security protection. So when the spokesperson says that the embassy is “currently too dependent on contractors” and that “we can do more with Iraqi staff” in one breath, one has to wonder if this includes having Iraqis provide local security protection for the embassy.   Are armed Iraqi guards protecting our unarmed diplomats around the Green Zone and across Iraq, an option on the right-sizing table?

See, if State slashes the number of expensive contractors but won’t slash the number of diplomats, who will perform the necessary security protection? I understand that there are 200 Diplomatic Security Agents assigned in Iraq (where a traditional embassy normally gets 2-3), but that number won’t be enough to provide security protection for 1,600-2,000 diplomats.

As an aside, we’ve been training and arming Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan who in turn have used the guns and the training we’ve provided them to kill our own soldiers and coalition forces.  And those are not isolated one or two cases. I just feel the need to mention that.

Another point on local hire, the Iraqi staff at the US Embassy only need a year of service before qualifying for special immigrant visas to the United States (in other places, local employees need 15-20 years of service before qualifying for SIVs). Which means American officials are not the only ones learning on the job with each new rotation into Iraq. Local employees, traditionally the backbone of an embassy operation, are on Iraq’s case, in a state of perpetual training. Just as soon as they learn their jobs, they’re off to a new life in the United States.  Then the embassy in Baghdad is off to recruiting and training new local employees to replaced the ones who left. Just like *hamsters on the titanic (*term borrowed from blog pal, It’s Always Sunny in Kabul).

Domani Spero

2 responses

  1. hotrod64,
    Thanks for leaving a note and the reminder. I’m not saying that Iraqis who work for the USG should not get SIVs. But it was dangerous for Iraqis to work for the Americans when the military was still in country. The way things are going there right now, it is no less dangerous for the Iraqis to work for Americans now that our troops are gone. So, where are we going to find Iraqis to replace the expensive contractors, and if we do find them, how long can they stay on their jobs without coming under personal threats.

    Granted that it takes 2-3 years to get them resettled out of Iraq on SIVs, it take years to create a stable LE staff. You can’t build that with LE staff immigrating to the US every 2-3 years. The current practice of rotating temporary duty LE staff from embassies all over the world into Baghdad is good at filling vacancies but does not help with continuity. It also adds to the logistical challenge of moving people in and out of Iraq.

    The point really is – if private contractors (not just security but life support) are slashed without reducing the number of diplomats assigned in Iraq, who will take over the contractor jobs and still keep the mission humming along?

  2. Just a reminder that Iraqis with a SIV do not leave the country quickly. Many have been waiting 2 to 3 years to resettle in the U.S. due to the stringent security checks.

    Many are being attacked and killed due to their employment with the U.S., but still cannot leave.