Monday, March 8, 2010

On War Tourism, 80-Hour Work Week, Institutional Lobotomy and More....

Please tell me that US Embassy Kabul is not beginning to look a lot like US Embassy Baghdad ...

You probably have seen this in the news already.  The OIG has released its inspection report of US Embassy Kabul.  I've been speed reading here but a few things jump out of this 100+ page report and crashes with smoke:
“Even with the able leadership of Kabul’s senior officers, the best of intentions, and the most dedicated efforts, Embassy Kabul faces serious challenges in meeting the Administration’s deadline for “success” in Afghanistan. The unprecedented pace and scope of the civilian buildup, the need for these new officers to arrive in Kabul before support infrastructure expansions have been completed, and the complexity of establishing arrangements to equip the new subject matter experts for success in the field will constrain the ability of these new officers in the short-term to promote stability, good governance, and rule of law (ROL) in Afghanistan.”

The Civilian Surge is Coming, Yo!
As of September 28, 2009, Embassy Kabul had 558 U.S. direct hires, including 3161s, 548 LE staff, and approximately 100 other U.S. staff hired through various other personnel mechanisms. U.S. development assistance in FY 2009 totaled approximately $2.9 billion.

[T]he Embassy is trebling its U.S. staff from 320 to approximately 900 countrywide and across agency lines by early 2010; this new number represents a quadrupling of U.S. staff at the provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) and forward operating bases. In addition to the assignment of Foreign Service officers to the embassy and to the PRTs, the Department also uses a mechanism authorized by Title 5, Section 3161 of the U.S. Code to hire subject matter experts (commonly called 3161s) to support its ambitious reconstruction and stability agenda. Most of these 3161s come from outside the U.S. Government and are assigned to PRTs where they are expected to work semi-autonomously. The Embassy is also experiencing growing difficulties in recruiting local staff in certain specialties to support this rapid U.S. direct-hire plus up.

Institutional Lobotomy: Lessons Not Learned from Iraq
The need to expand the already over-burdened life support systems (housing, food, security, transport) in Kabul and in the field to support the new staff has itself become a major short-term challenge. Some PRT staff is housed in makeshift lodgings with no heat or running water, while TDY staff in Kabul may occupy 65-bed dormitory-style containers with common bath facilities for months at a time. There are multiple permanent and temporary construction projects underway or in the pipeline, and efforts to relocate work and living spaces while those projects disrupt normal operations occupies much of the Embassy’s energy and resources. The Embassy will also soon stand up consulates in Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. Meanwhile, the Embassy has already presented a follow-on proposal for an additional 307 U.S. direct-hires and 362 locally employed (LE) staff positions in the next two years. Because the majority of assignments to Kabul are for only one year with multiple R&R breaks, most U.S. staff spend approximately two months of their one-year tours on leave. The one-year assignment scenario limits the development of expertise, contributes to a lack of continuity, requires a higher number of officers to achieve the Administration’s strategic goals, and results in what one former ambassador calls “an institutional lobotomy.” 1

 War Tourism is Hot!
The Embassy’s prodigious official visitor support workload taxes the same military and civilian assets that would otherwise be deployed in the vital counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts that the visitors seek to evaluate.

As of October 1, 2009, the Embassy had supported approximately 100 groups of visitors, totaling over 700 individuals, and accounting for over 30,000 bed nights. Approximately a dozen more Congressional delegations were expected before the end of 2009 (see housing section of this report for a description of availability and suitability of living conditions.) Although Congressional and other VIP travel builds crucial support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, it also taxes the same military and civilian assets that would otherwise be deployed in the vital counterinsurgency and reconstruction efforts that the visitors seek to evaluate. Official travelers often visit dangerous or remote areas. Travel to conflictive zones obviously increases the exposure of those visitors, as well as the Embassy and military personnel who support them, to insurgent attacks. It is not unusual for the Embassy to host multiple groups of Congressional visitors in one week, replete with individual tours of the war zone, separate representational events, and sequential meetings with the same Afghan Government representatives. The production of briefing materials and the performance of control officer duties cuts into the limited time that officers have to work with their Afghan counterparts outside the embassy walls.

80-Hour Work Week and those "Graveyard Shift" Conference Calls 
[M]uch of the embassy staff already works extraordinarily long hours in support of core initiatives. Continual 80-hour work weeks, even with periodic R&Rs, may, in fact, reduce productivity as staff reaches the half-way point in their tours of duty. The time difference between Kabul and Washington regularly extends Kabul’s workday with a flurry of late night requests to clear briefers, or provide information for Washington’s consumption first thing in the morning, Washington time. In addition, Washington’s often preferred time for video conferences or telephone calls is at the end of their day, which equates with 2:00 a.m. or 3:00 a.m. Kabul time. Last-minute requests that Kabul be prepared to participate in information sharing meetings or policy discussions in the middle of the night sap the energy of the senior staff, disrupt the next day’s meeting or travel schedule, and add to already long work days.

The SRAP Bureau, a League of Its Own

Even at the height of the Iraq War, Baghdad was not moved to separate bureau of its own. Nobody may call the SRAP operation a bureau, but it looks like one and  if its not -- well, it's probably the most important non-bureau right now in Foggy Bottom’s universe. The one with the most brains, the one with the most muscle,money, etc., etc.. And where anyone not working 80-hour week (including those in Kabul)  are probably considered deadwood. Perhaps we should just call it the I'AfPak bureau, throw in the US Embassy Baghdad in there, then we can keep the Big3 in a straight line.    

Embassy Kabul no longer reports to the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs but rather reports directly to S/SRAP, although it still receives administrative support from the regional bureau’s executive office. S/SRAP is composed of a brain trust of subject matter experts who have played a key role in the design and development of the integrated civ-mil plan for Afghanistan. There is constant interaction between Embassy Kabul and the staff of S/SRAP, but a significant number of these transactions involve S/SRAP staff tasking the Embassy to draft or review products, often on a very short fuse and literally in the middle of the night Kabul time. A number of Kabul officers interviewed noted that they have not been able to get assistance from S/SRAP staff nor do S/SRAP staff members routinely keep their embassy counterparts well briefed on Washington policy developments relevant to Embassy Kabul’s responsibilities.

Your one day off is when you’re not/not really off:
Embassy Kabul has a de facto six-day workweek. (See the management section of this report for a discussion of premium pay and overtime issues.) The Embassy participates in frequent conference calls and digital video conferences each week, many stretching into the early evening. During the course of the inspection it was clear that the weekly S/SRAP video conferences are scheduled during Embassy Kabul’s one day off from work, forcing those officers who must support the Embassy’s participation in these interactions to work on their only day off. In addition, while the OIG team was in Kabul, the Ambassador and the DCM, on top of a very long workday, were called to participate in a series of video conferences scheduled by S/ SRAP and the National Security Council between the hours of midnight and 4:00 a.m. Kabul time. While recognizing that emergent issues will need to be dealt with immediately, and sometimes in the middle of the night Kabul time, the inspectors believe that the Department and other Washington entities must pay greater attention to the time difference in Kabul.

What’s with the involuntary curtailments?
[T]he involuntary curtailments of several recently arrived officers led some staff to perceive that any misstep would result in their own removal. The short-term impact of the expansion of the executive office from the traditional ambassador and DCM to four ambassadorial-level positions to include the Ambassador, the DCM, the assistant COM, and the CDDEA – each of whom plays a role in policy development, tasking of work, and clearance of all products -- has also had a negative impact on morale.  

The report indicates that this inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 8 and October 9, 2009 and in Kabul, Afghanistan between October 15 and November 13, 2009. The OIG website also indicates that this report was posted on February 26, 2010. I know this was not up on February 26.

There’s a lot more in it. Probably “must-read” material for those going off to Afghanistan. Report is below, feel free to browse.

It occurred to me as I read through this quickly, that although the officers technically are in Afghanistan for only 10 months of their 12 month tours (multiple R&Rs apparently equivalent to 2 months), they are also working 80 hours workweek. And they are lucky if their one day off in a six-day workweek is actually a day off. When you put that all together, it would seem that a one-year tour in Afghanistan actually takes 2 years of your life. Take away the two months on R&R and you’d still have 10 months with 80-hour not 40-hour workweek. So isn’t that like 20 months of actual work, compressed?  

The other thought I have has to do with bright bulbs. Even the brightest ones, if constantly on, will also burn out.     

Related Items:

OIG_Inspection Report US Embassy Kabul_Feb2010

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