The hiring freeze that President Donald Trump slapped on the federal government his first week in office was meant to signal that serious change was coming to how the government is run. But according to some Afghanistan hands, it’s the kind of change that could leave the U.S. effort in that country understaffed and end up costing Washington more money in the long run.
The U.S. military mission has steadily declined from a high of about 100,000 in 2011 to 8,400 by the end of last year. And as those troops left — but the Taliban threat remained constant — many of the jobs in intelligence collection, security screening, other critical non-combat specialties were handed over to a small U.S. government civilian workforce.
But there have long been serious gaps in civilian staffing, and by the start of 2017 there were about 160 empty positions among the approximately 700 slots in the country. Under the hiring freeze, which also bars federal workers from moving to new positions, those positions will remain unfilled even though volunteers were getting ready to deploy over the next several weeks, a defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.
The empty slots, if those workers aren’t granted a waiver, will make the already serious shortage of engineers and intelligence analysts even worse and could have a damaging effect on the war effort, the official said.
It’s long been difficult to fill positions in Kabul with civilian government employees, as they have to volunteer to deploy for up to a year — no government worker can be forced to deploy — and their supervisors can veto their request.
But now that those volunteers are barred from traveling to Afghanistan, and their bosses stateside are likely unable to fill their jobs even if they were given permission to deploy. The official said the executive order will likely have “a chilling effect on volunteerism and getting people to deploy” to Afghanistan.
“The force and management are already spooked by the hiring freeze,” the official said, “unless something changes we’re in a death spin” given all of the empty desks.
At the time the executive order was signed, there were approximately 67,700 vacant civilian positions across the Defense Department, according to Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesperson. Those jobs will likely have to remain empty while managers and Pentagon officials figure out solution.
Overall, the new rule looks like it will hit veterans particularly hard, since vets make up about 30 percent of the more than 2.8 million employees in the federal workforce. According to statistics provided by the Office of Personnel and Management, the federal government hired 221,000 workers in fiscal 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
One way to fill the empty slots is with contractors, adding to the 33,000 private contractors already working in Afghanistan.
When former president Barack Obama announced in July of last year that troop numbers would level off at 8,400 by the end of December, “we started downsizing,” the official said. “And the plan was for the civilians to replace the military, but in actuality we weren’t able to get the civilians in the proper numbers and the proper skill sets to fill in the gaps,” so contracts were signed with companies such as DynCorp and Fluor to fill some jobs with contractors.
The deal to bring in some 200 contractors came to work under deals worth about $84 million, and “if more civilians can’t deploy, requirements will likely go empty or be filled by more contractors at a cost of $400,000 a per person,” the official added.
There might be a reprieve, however. Officials at the Pentagon are working on getting waivers to the executive order to allow the 160 employees to deploy to Afghanistan. But it’s uncertain if their superiors will still allow them to go, since they’re barred from filling their empty positions at home under the new rule.
Fifteen years into the country’s longest war, the campaign still is managed as an ad-hoc endeavor, with a short-term outlook, cobbled together month-to-month, year-to-year.
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