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Overworked U.S. Embassy in Kabul straining to meet administration's demands

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010; A19

The U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, which may soon overtake its counterpart in Iraq as the world's biggest diplomatic mission, is overworked, underappreciated and struggling to meet the demands placed on it by President Obama's new strategy, according to the State Department's inspector general.

A report released last week praised the embassy's leaders for "impressive progress implementing the Administration's plans for a massive civilian plus up to support the large increases in assistance programs." The embassy's work last year was particularly notable, the report said, because it took place amid an almost 100 percent turnover in staff, Afghanistan's troubled presidential election and the months-long White House strategy review in the fall.

Nevertheless, it said, "Embassy Kabul faces serious challenges in meeting the Administration's deadline for 'success' in Afghanistan."

The report said the unprecedented expansion of the embassy's staff from 320 U.S. federal civilian employees early last year to more than 1,000 this spring had further strained the housing, food, security and transportation support services. Total staff strength is projected to reach 1,300 by the end of 2010.

The jump in civilian staff numbers is designed to match a rapid increase in military deployments to Afghanistan and to create a "vibrant civ-mil partnership." But "new staff is arriving in Afghanistan before the Embassy can prepare position descriptions, ready housing, and office space, or adequate onsite supervision for the subject matter experts" hired under a special program for temporary Foreign Service officers, "many of whom have never worked in the government," the report said.

When inspectors visited in September and October, the report said, no officer in the embassy's political section had been on the job more than two months: "Almost all except the counselor and deputy were on their first political reporting tour. Many had not received a handover memo from their predecessor, and most did not receive an orientation to the section's work."

The ongoing demand for more personnel has meant that hiring orders are sometimes approved without designated jobs. In one case the inspectors cited, an agency had requested authorization "to create up to ten full-time positions in Afghanistan but had not yet decided what those positions would do when the employees actually arrived in country."

Inspectors also noted "a lack of planning on how to link new, generously funded programs with an appropriate number of implementing officers and with sufficient officers to provide the requisite oversight."

The report described overall morale at the embassy as "challenged" by routine 80-hour workweeks that left many sleep-deprived. A constant stream of visitors -- on trips described as "war tourism" by unnamed embassy staffers -- included dozens of congressional delegations that made difficult, last-minute demands and required extensive arrangements. Although it noted that such trips are important to build support for administration policy, the report said "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."

Washington officials, it said, also appeared oblivious to the 9 1/2 -hour time difference with Kabul. In addition to requesting overnight responses to lengthy questions, "Washington's often preferred time for video conferences or telephone calls is at the end of [Washington's] day."

In Baghdad, the new embassy compound still crowds 1,100 people into 700 one-bedroom apartments. Christopher R. Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said during a recent visit to Washington that those accommodations are better than the boxlike trailers where most civilian embassy personnel were previously housed.

"But in the long run," Hill said, "we're not going to be able to attract people when they're two to a one-bedroom apartment. . . . It's like college. And, you know, I didn't have that great a time in college."

The Baghdad embassy, set to take over hundreds of tasks now assigned to U.S. military forces departing Iraq, is due to expand to 1,300 "in the short run before it comes down in the longer run," Hill said.

In Afghanistan, the existing embassy compound has been expanded into adjoining property now packed with trailers. Regardless of whether officials are based in Kabul or in provincial reconstruction teams paired with military units outside the capital, security concerns often prevent them from developing relations with Afghans. That problem, the report said, is exacerbated by the rapid turnover of personnel. Standard one-year tours of duty include two months of rest time outside Afghanistan.

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