Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Letter from AFSA

This is an email sent out by our "union," which eloquently states many of the concerns both I and many of my collegues have voiced. The bolding is mine.

AFSANET: Implications of Directed Assignments: October 30, 2007

This is an update from AFSA President John Naland:

On October 26, 2007, the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources, Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr., announced to the news media (and later to employees via an ALDAC cable) that the well has finally run dry of State Department Foreign Service volunteers to serve in the war zone in Iraq. He announced that, if volunteers
could not be found for 48 remaining positions by November 12, then directed assignments would begin.

AFSA regrets this fateful turn of events. From 2003 through 2007, over 2,000 career Foreign Service members volunteered to serve in Iraq. Now, with the Foreign Service facing a fifth rotation into Iraq, the addition of 80 new positions to fill next summer at the giant U.S. mission in Baghdad and the expanding Provincial Reconstruction Teams around the country has pushed the strain on our ranks to the breaking point.

While there are many Foreign Service members who have not (yet) served in Iraq, only a small fraction possesses the regional, language, or other expertise that Ambassador Ryan Crocker says that he needs. And many members in that reduced group are now at, or have recently returned from, some other hardship assignment.

With 68 percent of the Foreign Service already “forward deployed” in 189 foreign countries (compared to 21 percent of the uniformed military stationed abroad), the Foreign Service has no bench strength with which to surge more personnel into Iraq. The State Department’s own September 2007 staffing data show a 1,015 position operational staffing deficit in the Foreign Service, plus an additional 1,079 position deficit in training and related needs. This 2,094 position deficit is documented in a blue-ribbon report released on October 15 by the Center for Strategic & International Studies

Yet, despite this huge deficit between the State Department’s mission and the resources available to carry out that mission, the Administration is seeking to add just 254 new positions in its still-pending FY-08 budget request. The prospects are uncertain for Congressional funding of even that inadequate request. That comes on top of Congressional refusal to fund 100 positions in FY-07 and 221 additional positions in FY-06 to narrow worldwide staffing gaps.

All of these factors have combined to deplete the well of potential Foreign Service volunteers for Iraq. Nevertheless, AFSA repeats its call for any Foreign Service member who has been considering a tour in Iraq to volunteer now. We also repeat our call for Foreign Service retirees with Middle East experience, particularly those with Arabic-language skills, to consider serving in Iraq. For both groups, the financial and other benefits are substantial. Obviously, there are also substantial physical and emotional risks.

At the same time, AFSA stands by our position that directed assignments of unarmed Foreign Service members into the war zone in Iraq would be detrimental to the individual, to the post, and to the Foreign Service as a whole.

This position has been questioned by some who point to the Foreign Service record during the Vietnam War. However, most Foreign Service veterans of that conflict with which AFSA has consulted draw sharp distinctions between Vietnam and Iraq. Without minimizing the courage
and sacrifices of their colleagues and themselves 40 years ago, they report that Saigon (except during the 1968 Tet Offensive) was rarely as dangerous as Baghdad has been and that the Viet Cong rarely targeted CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) personnel in the way that PRT members in Iraq are being targeted. They also note that the State Department today gives Iraq-bound Foreign Service members only around two weeks of pre-deployment training compared to the four to six month comprehensive training regimen provided to Vietnam-bound diplomats.

All this serves to underscore the remarkable dedication of Foreign Service volunteers in Iraq since 2003. The same is certainly true for Foreign Service volunteers in Afghanistan.

Thus, while AFSA acknowledges that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has legal authority to order Foreign Service members to Iraq, we continue to urge the State Department to find ways to staff a right-sized Embassy Baghdad with volunteers. Those ways, as AFSA has long suggested, could include substantially increasing the Involuntary Separate Maintenance Allowance, creating special incentives for those willing to serve two-year tours in Iraq, and actively recruiting Foreign Service retirees willing to serve in Iraq.

The announcement of directed assignments to the war zone in Iraq is a further blow to Foreign Service morale that is already depressed by a widely shared conclusion that the Administration in recent years has paid inadequate attention to securing the resources that diplomats need to
advance America’s vital interests worldwide.

In the online opinion survey of active duty State Department Foreign Service members being conducted by AFSA State Vice President Steve Kashkett (it began in mid-October and will run for one more week after which AFSA will report full results), only 15 percent of the over 3,700 respondents to date say that they believe that the Administration is doing a good job of securing resources for the Department. Only 12 percent believe that the Administration is doing a good job of convincing Congress to correct the overseas pay disparity. Only 20 percent believe that the Administration is doing a good job of defending the Foreign Service. This lack of support arguably weakens the State Department’s moral authority to order unarmed diplomats to serve in
the war zone in Iraq.

In the survey, a striking 45 percent say that “developments in the last few years have made me less likely to remain in the Foreign Service for a full career.” That last statistic is higher among entry level employees. AFSA has a request pending for updated Foreign Service attrition statistics.

The poll also shows that 68 percent of respondents oppose directed assignments to Iraq. And that snapshot of survey results was taken before directed assignments changed from being a future possibility to an immediate probability. In the last few days, AFSA has received an
avalanche of e-mails from members, many expressing hurt and disbelief that they and their families learned about this life-and-death announcement last weekend via the news media instead of directly from their employer.

In the days ahead, AFSA will continue to speak out on behalf of the Foreign Service on the issue of directed assignments to Iraq. In doing so, we will be guided by our responsibilities as the voice of the Foreign Service. We will also be guided by our new survey results showing that two thirds of respondents want AFSA to be more vocal and assertive, even at the cost of more friction with Management (one percent of respondents want us to be less vocal and assertive).

To conclude, AFSA salutes the over 2,000 career Foreign Service members who have volunteered since 2003 to serve in the war zone in Iraq. We encourage any Foreign Service member who has been considering a tour in Iraq to volunteer now. We also continue to strongly urge the State Department to find ways to staff a right-sized Embassy Baghdad with volunteers.

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