Into Iraq

Some civilian employees are eager to get into Iraq-if only their agencies would let them.

The report of the Iraq Study Group that was released with such fanfare in early December contained a pair of divergent recommendations concerning the U.S. presence in the country. With the situation "grave and deteriorating," the United States must begin the process of shifting troops out of Iraq, the venerable Washington hands who made up the panel said.

But at the same time, the group recommended, the Bush administration must make sure that it has sufficient civilian personnel in Iraq-if necessary, by ordering some employees to go to the country.

"The nature of the mission in Iraq is unfamiliar and dangerous, and the United States has had great difficulty filling civilian assignments in Iraq with sufficient numbers of properly trained personnel at the appropriate rank," the group said in its report. For example, panel members said, the United States still has "far too few Arab language-proficient" officials in the country.

To address the problem, the group recommended that the secretaries of State and Defense and the director of national intelligence put the "highest possible priority" on language and cultural training for military personnel and civilian employees about to be assigned to Iraq. And, the report said, if not enough of the latter volunteer to go to the country, "civilian agencies must fill those positions with directed assignments."

If agencies do so, the panel recommended, the federal government should take steps to address employees' financial hardships resulting from service in Iraq, such as providing the same tax breaks that military personnel stationed in the country receive.

Directed assignments are rare in government, but this isn't the first time an oversight organization has advocated their use to force civilians to accept unpopular positions overseas. In August, the Government Accountability Office recommended (GAO-06-894) that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice make more use of forced assignments to fill critical Foreign Service posts around the world that aren't attracting enough volunteers. (In State's case, ironically, GAO said such a move was needed because so many of the department's employees had taken assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan.) In comments on the report, State officials said they would take the proposal under consideration.

Doubtless many employees across government are apprehensive about the possibility of being ordered to serve in Iraq, especially at a time when the security situation is getting worse and the American military presence could shrink. And if civilians were ordered to deploy, they likely would want the same benefits as the military members alongside whom they would serve.

But it turns out that such concerns aren't standing in the way of some employees, who are eager to lend a hand with Iraq reconstruction. The problem is that their agencies don't want to lose them to overseas assignments.

"I would welcome an opportunity as a civilian to work in Iraq for our government," a Defense Finance and Accounting Service employee (and military service veteran) wrote to Government Executive after the Iraq Study Group released its report. "All I need to know is when my government would like me to go."

Unfortunately, some others already have received their answer to that question: Never. "I volunteered and was selected by the Army Corps of Engineers for a position in Iraq," another civilian wrote. "Finally the Corps withdrew my job offer. Why? My agency took too long to process my detail." What was the problem? The agency "claimed they might not get fully reimbursed for my pay and benefits."

Another civilian at DFAS, who works as an auditor-a position that one would think would be in high demand in Iraq given the hundreds of billions of dollars pouring into the country-also tried in vain to get an Army Corps detail assignment. Go ahead and take a full-time position with the Corps if you like, the agency said, but we're not approving the detail.

"I truly believed I could have been a great asset," the auditor wrote. "I was really surprised because I believed Iraq was the ultimate in customer support. It was sad because at that time, we had beefed up our office and the workload could have been distributed with little additional burden."

The solution to the problem of too few properly trained civilians in Iraq may not lie in ordering more of them to go, but in forcing their agencies to let them.

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