Insider Quote: Everything Rushing at You at 110 Miles an Hour

Below is an excerpt from a USIP interview on lessons learned from the PRTs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The interviewee, a Foreign Service Officer, served as the senior public diplomacy (PD) officer at Baghdad PRT, Iraq, from November 2009 to November 2010.

Q. Are there any other comments you would like to share about your experience at the PRT, how it worked, and how it could have been made more effective?

A. I don’t think I’ll ever have another experience in the Foreign Service quite like it. I know it’s not normal State Department life. In some ways there were good aspects to it, and in some ways I always felt a fish out of water. Some of the anti-State biases that you would see, I didn’t let them bother me, but other people were bothered by them. Those who had DOD and different military backgrounds would get frustrated by us and our consensus style of approaching a problem, rather than a top-down style.

The only other thing I would say about it is to compare it to my first tour in Africa where we were junior officers supervising other junior officers and doing consular work and economic work without a lot of supervision. Everything was just rushing at you at 110 miles an hour, and you’re doing the best you can to handle the problems as well as you can within regulations that you’re presented. Invariably you missed things and picked things up and developed bad habits. Then you go into a second tour in (a western European country) where your local staff had been there 30 years and they know the FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual) better than you do, and they know exactly how everything should be done, and you unlearn your bad mistakes, and you correct things you were doing wrong and you do certain other things better and broaden your experience.

To me the PRT was kind of like that first experience, where everything is coming at you at 110 miles an hour, and you have colleagues that don’t know what public diplomacy is, who didn’t have an officer at their PRT asking them “What are you doing?” so that we can help promote it or talk about it, either back home or in the local media. They didn’t know what to think of me. I was an alien to them – “Leave me alone and let me do my projects and stop bothering me.” It took a while to develop those relationships.

Just the work itself is different, and so going forward to another assignment in an embassy with a normal structure and a public affairs officer and two assistants working, I think I’ll unlearn my bad mistakes and bad habits and see things in a more normal environment, but I’ll always have a favorable view of my time in Iraq. It had its frustrations, but I think in the end it was rewarding and I’m glad I went.

— Foreign Service Officer (INTERVIEW #128)
Senior Public Diplomacy (PD) Officer
Baghdad PRT, Iraq (November 2009 to November 2010)
Interview date: Jan. 20, 2011 PDF

Domani Spero

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Insider Quote: AIP Fatigue and a Little Hostility

The following is an extract from an interview conducted by the U.S. Institute of Peace for its lessons learned project from the PRTs in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The previous years, USIP did similar interviews as part of its oral history project. The interviewee, a State Department Foreign Service Officer, was the team leader of PRT Wasit, Iraq, from March 2010 to March 2011. The interview notes say “He understood the PRT mission to be one of serving as a mini-consulate while pursuing capacity building in governance, rule of law and agricultural development. He was the last team leader as the PRT was closing out soon after his departure.”

Q. In closing let ask you if there any other comments you want to make? Any ideas that you want to share about your experience with the PRT, how it worked and how it could have been made more effective or how other PRTs in other countries could be made more effective?

Senior Agricultural Advisor for the Wasit, Iraq Provincial Reconstruction Team George Stickels from Arlington, Va., surveys a field in the Al Abara village in the Badra District of Wasit, Iraq to see where a center pivot irrigation system should be placed into the field to help in the growing of crops, Nov. 20, 2010. The Wasit PRT and 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment are in Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn.
(Photo by Spc. Charles Willingham via dvidshub.net)

A. What a great management/leadership experience! [But] our system is bad when it comes to vetting people for assignments like this. I think that old adage about playing nicely with others is particularly important in a high pressure, kind of “out there” assignment like a PRT. It’s not a place to send screw-ups, it’s not a place to send people looking to rehabilitate bad careers. I think it’s important to be choosy even when there are assignments where you are maybe a little desperate about “will I get this job filled?” So I think that is important, I think the people who can deal with the pressure, who have got a good sense of humor, who are versatile, who like working with the military, who can function well in a environment where State is a tiny minority, all of that is important and I think that improves the effectiveness of your PRT.

I don’t know whether this is what you are after, but I thought the financial incentives were quite good and certainly worthwhile. I thought the system did a horrendously poor job of taking care of many of us with follow on assignments. I’m very happy with my follow on, ultimately, but I spent an inordinate amount of time during my tour chasing a follow on assignment. I mean time that was robbed from me focusing on PRT-related stuff. That is not something specific to Iraq tours; I think that speaks more to the general breakdown in our assignments process.

A more general observation, not PRT specific – I think we are at a real crossroads in these sorts of assignments. I think there are those of us — a third or a quarter of the Foreign Service — who have done them. And I think there are a lot of people who haven’t, don’t want to, don’t want to be reminded that there are those of us out there who’ve done them, don’t feel like they should be disadvantaged in any way because they haven’t done them, or don’t want to do them. I sense there is a what I like to call AIP (Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan) fatigue out there and even a little hostility towards those of us who have done these assignments. I’m not necessarily advocating — because I know there are some people who aren’t that good at doing these assignments and I don’t want to advocate that we should all be given our absolute priority assignments and our top two choice assignments and instant promotion—but I think this is a stated top priority goal of the Secretary of State and reiterated by the DG (Director General) and that is not always reflected in the way the system reacted to those of us who’ve done these assignments.

— Foreign Service Officer (Interview #152)
Team Leader of PRT Wasit, Iraq (2010-2011)
Excerpt from Iraq/Afghanistan Provincial Reconstruction Teams: Lessons Learned, USIP
Interview date: April 15, 2011

We certainly can understand the AIP fatigue but have you heard about that “little hostility” he’s talking about?  You’d think that if there is some kind of hostility or resentment, it would come from those who have been pressed for more than one tours to Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan, instead of the other way around.  All assignments are voluntary, of course, even those who are left with no other option on their lists but Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. Or the reverse hostility is for getting first dibs on assignments (AIP assignments have its own cycle), getting priority/onward assignments, breaking current assignments to relocate to any AIP posts, etc.etc.?

Are there really folks who “don’t feel like they should be disadvantaged in any way because they haven’t done” the war zone tours?

Domani Spero