Risk for Diplomats, Aid Workers in Conflict Zones: Setting the Bar

Thursday, November 6, 2014
Linwood Ham

Experienced current and former diplomats, aid officials and military officers made the case at a recent USIP conference that civilian agencies must embrace calculated risk as an essential element of work in the field, and then better communicate those decisions to Congress and the American people. 

Time Magazine correspondent Michael Crowley (left) and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral Jim Stavridis listen to Ambassador Jim Jeffrey discuss risk to foreign civilians working in conflict zones.

The Oct. 24 event, co-hosted with the U.S. Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy, the Truman National Security Project and the McCain Institute for International Leadership, focused on risk as it impacts U.S. government civilians conducting diplomacy and development missions in conflict zones and fragile states.  The event underscored three essential points: 

  • Risk is inherent and should be managed before, during, and after civilian deployments.
  • Diplomats and development professionals accept that risk comes with the job in in conflict zones.
  • Leaders must explain to Congress and the American people why such risks must be taken and what is done to minimize, though not eliminate, dangers to civilians in the advancement of essential public diplomacy. 

One panel discussed the challenge of balancing risk assessments with mission requirements and security-mitigation efforts as the threat profile shifts from day to day, and from place to place.  Jean Manes, the State Department’s principal deputy coordinator for international information programs, described the balancing act she managed every day in Afghanistan, weighing the effect of rigorous security measures on the routine business of public diplomacy.

“We under-prepare, and we overprotect.” 

“What was the mission? What were we trying to accomplish? And what was every single movement that was leading up to the accomplishment of that mission?” she said.  Such precision and analysis for any public diplomacy engagement certainly reduces the freedom of movement that embassy teams in non-conflict countries take for granted. Access to local officials, activists and citizens becomes a significant challenge, whether it involves leaving an embassy or bringing them to the compound. And since embassies in conflict zones tend to be deliberately inaccessible, bringing local contacts to the compound might be off-putting anyway.

One innovative solution to access that embassy personnel employed in Afghanistan was partnering with non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) like the Asia Society to either follow up with those who could not come to the compound, or convene meetings outside of the embassy in a location that was safe, secure and accessible to all. Such risk-mitigation tactics afforded greater movement for civilian personnel in spite of the threat environment. 

Panelists agreed that more must be done to prepare civilians for deployments to violent conflict zones.  There is a remarkable willingness for civilians to take risks to advance foreign policy and/or humanitarian missions, but civilian agencies aren’t identifying the right people often enough to perform these difficult assignments, nor is training sufficiently preparing these frontline civilians to be successful once deployed. 

Stan Byers, a former senior advisor in the office of Afghanistan and Pakistan affairs at the U.S. Agency for International Development, put it succinctly: ”We under-prepare, and we overprotect.” 

This comment challenges agencies to improve in two important ways. The first is preparing deploying civilians beforehand and giving them tools to do their jobs while mitigating the risks.  The second is effectively identifying the right people to send into conflict zones.  Not everyone can function in this environment, regardless of the amount of training received and risk-management systems put in place.  This has implications for the current crop of diplomats and development professionals, and the ones that the State Department and USAID will recruit and bring into the Foreign Service.  As long as the U.S. will continue to operate posts in conflict zones, recruitment of civilians for deployment must become more strategic.

Retired Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, a former Army infantry officer who served as a U.S. diplomat in Iraq, Turkey and Albania, said the U.S. can live with high levels of risk as long as the “strategic mission,” or foreign policy objective, warrants that level of activity.  He advocated for greater collaboration between the U.S. mission and other decision makers and offices involved, such as the National Security Council staff; senior officials at the State Department, USAID and the Defense Department; and the intelligence community, so that the chief of mission can make the most-informed risk judgments. 

Jeffrey cautioned, however, against “missionary diplomacy,” or U.S. civilians pursuing relationships, information and access with local figures in the same way that journalists or non-governmental workers might.  He suggests such mission creep may imperil the mission and the safety of the civilians performing this work. 

Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Jim Stavridis said the limitations of the U.S. military’s hard edge in influencing foreign populations makes the expertise of civilian diplomats and aid workers that much more vital.  The risks they take should be acknowledged and rewarded, and they must be trained sufficiently to cope with the perils.  

Despite much talk about “21st Century diplomacy,” there isn’t a lot of clarity about what that means or its ramifications. Participants echoed a theme that recently retired Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns outlined in a recent article in Foreign Policy magazine: “We live and work in a dangerous world. Demanding zero security risk means achieving zero diplomatic results.” 

The discussions at USIP revealed the greatest problems lie with changing the culture of a zero-risk foreign operations approach both within agencies and with Congress.  Tragedies like the September 2011 attacks on the U.S. compounds in Benghazi, Libya, paralyze U.S. policy implementation to the detriment of the mission. 

Retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and a host of other conflict zones, said, "If we are going to be the Foreign and Civilian Service for the most powerful nation on earth, we need to change our mindset and culture for risk-taking.”

This is a generational undertaking, but many steps can be taken to begin the culture change by adopting risk management practices so both the chief of mission and key decisions makers are able to draw on field input and mitigate and manage risk, so their personnel can function effectively with a reasonable amount of safety.   

Based on research that includes the USIP discussions, the U.S. Advisory Commission will produce a report that will be delivered to Congress, the White House, the State Department and USAID.

Linwood Ham is USIP’s director of Intergovernmental Affairs.