Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Afghan Plan: Dakota on Pay Cuts and Thoughts of Moving On

One of my favorite bloggers who happen to be deep in the sands of Afghanistan but currently on R&R in Africa has posted the item below sometime back. I have added this to my Love Letters to Congress collection but should have posted this here, too.  Well, here is the intrepid Dakota who luckily survived the visit to the god damn kill box (officially known as Farah prison) before departing for his R&R:    

I've committed to giving up two years of my life to live in Afghanistan. I'm not looking for thank-yous for it: I knew what I was getting in to when I signed up for this, and State has certainly incentivized my coming here. But to have Congress come back and say that giving up two years of my life to this place is worth 16 percent less than last year has weighed on me. A 16 percent pay cut is just the opposite of a thank-you; it's a direct statement that the work you do is not valued. It's hard to take it any other way, and it's particularly difficult to take when you're living on the edge of a rocky desert, 40 kilometers from combat operations and a thousand miles from nowhere.

Others in the Service are outraged about it, and there's been a flurry of well-written responses. My favorite, which I've re-read a thousand times, came from a friend of mine in Jordan. There's a movement to blanket congress with letters (I wrote mine, though not nearly as eloquently as others), though the Foreign Service undoubtedly lacks the numbers to make a difference. Even writing my Congresswoman felt futile, since I live in DC and my Representative in Congress has no vote.

My response has not been outrage so much as a lingering sadness; the entire ordeal (including some of the ugly, you're-probably-overpaid/stop-your-whining/if-you-complain-you're-not-a-patriot rhetoric it's stirred up) has made me question what I'm doing here. I had assumed upon signing up for this job that I'd have lots of these moments -- that I'd find myself questioning U.S. policy, or that we'd take repeated, terrifying incoming and I'd be unwilling to leave the base because of it, or that I'd miserable in the wake of casualties and question the logic of continuing on. But that none of that ever happened -- I've never wavered in my desire to be here or in my commitment to this place. At least until now, when the House voted to cut my pay. It really isn't the money (the bill is ambiguous and almost certainly won't pass the Senate or the President) -- it's the sentiment that goes along with it.

People have said that we're taking a pay cut because we enjoy our work too much, but that seems ridiculous -- like they should only pay people for working a job if it makes them miserable. The same cuts were recommended by the White House's Bipartisan Fiscal Commission, though budgetarily speaking, cutting 16 percent of 7,500 people's salary is not a significant figure, and it certainly doesn't explain why we alone were singled out. Moreover, the commission noted that even with the pay cuts, the Foreign Service will remain a highly competitive and sought after: some 25,000 people apply for 300 to 900 jobs annually. But I find that rationale to be wildly offensive -- that they can cut our pay with impunity because of how imminently replaceable we are.

I'm going on leave in a week, if the military can fix our runway so my plane can land. It's definitely time: we've been running ragged implementing a thousand different programs and hosting visitor after visitor, and an ugly internal fight with the maneuver unit over our housing has left all the civilians on edge; it will be good to get away for a few weeks. But it will also be good to get away and take a deep breath and re-examine all of this.

I like living in Farah and I love working with the military, and I don't feel like I'm done with my experience here. But the pay cut has engendered in me a significant homesickness, and made me focus on what I'm missing instead of what I'm gaining from this experience. I toyed briefly with leaving -- Afghanistan is what the Foreign Service calls a "no-fault curtail" posting, so you can cut your posting short at any time without any negative financial or career impacts -- but I think that impulse has passed and I'm back to committed.

I have been questioning, though, if instead of eking out time to study Pashto during the day, I should be eking out time to study for the GRE -- if it isn't time to reconsider this career and begin taking more concrete steps towards quitting and getting my PhD. I've heard others in the Foreign Service say similar things about moving on. I doubt that Congress's intention with this pay cut was to push us towards the door, but that may very well be what ends up happening.
Read the whole thing here.

By the time Dakota moves on to his next gig, a second year in Afghanistan based in Kabul, he would have spent two of his four tours in a war zone. His first two assignments were also at hardship posts in Pakistan and China.  Not one of his years in service so far had been spent in a "normal" post, where people are nice and not threatening to kill you or actively spying on you.

People who entered the service the last several years probably have similar career patterns. More than half all posts in the Foreign Service are now considered hardship assignments, then there are two war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the "almost" war zones of Pakistan and Mexico. I call them "almost" because they have not been officially declared as such despite evidence to the contrary.      

Meanwhile, I've seen folks who have had the language training but for some reason managed to successfully glue themselves at a desk in Foggy Bottom and skipped Assignment Iraq. And some (don't know what languages they speak) who even snagged ambassadorships after a perilous tour at Human Resources. Of course, service in the war zones is all-voluntary.  State do not want to send anybody there who don't want to be there.      

But if you start losing folks who run towards the fire, then Foggy B., you are in a pretty hot kimchi.   

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