Officials deny claims State Department not doing enough in Iraq
October 18, 2007
WASHINGTON — State Department leaders insist their agency is handling a fair share of reconstruction work in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite criticism from military officials that too few civilian experts have volunteered for posts in combat zones.
Harry Thomas, director general of the State Department, on Tuesday told members of a House Armed Services subcommittee that officials have placed a heavy emphasis on putting foreign service officers in those countries with evolving pay and promotion incentives.
“Every year we have filled our positions in Iraq and Afghanistan with volunteers,” said Thomas. “I don’t know where this urban legend that we’re unable to fill positions is coming from.”
But Thomas and representatives from the departments of Treasury, Agriculture and Justice acknowledged that the pool of available volunteers is shrinking, and could present staffing problems in coming years.
Tuesday’s hearing was designed to look at the numbers of nonmilitary experts deploying overseas, and whether pay and benefits policies are working.
Congressmen on the committee repeated their stance that military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will not be enough alone to stabilize the region, and that civilian agencies must take a broader role in reconstruction.
Earlier this month, retired generals John Abizaid and Ricardo Sanchez, both former top commanders in Iraq, said U.S. civilian experts from agencies like the State Department haven’t done enough to help with rebuilding and stabilization efforts in the country.
And last month Gen. David Petraeus, the current commander of Multi-National Force – Iraq, said he was pushing both military and civilian agency leaders to find more ways to get nonmilitary personnel involved overseas.
But Thomas said his department’s role remains limited in both Iraq and Afghanistan, with about 230 current posts in provincial reconstruction teams in both countries combined.
The departments of Treasury, Agriculture, and U.S. Agency for International Development workers have had a near constant presence in both countries since the start of military operations, but combined total fewer than 100 employees in either place.
State Department employees who volunteer for work in a combat zone receive a 70 percent pay increase, extra vacation time based on their overseas tour, and assignment and promotion advantages for future moves. The package is typical of that offered by other nonmilitary agencies.
Witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing backed plans for the civilian service corps, a reserve-style pool of specialists such as urban planners and foreign language experts, proposed by President Bush earlier this year. The idea has stalled in Congress, and no clear plans on forming or funding the proposal have been outlined by the White House.