Argument

Why U.S. Consulates Are More Dangerous Than War Zones

Our military provides comprehensive care and support to its troops and families. They should do the same for the civilians we send into harm's way.

Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images
Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images

In the 11 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, more than 2.4 million members of the armed forces have served in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is slightly less than the number (2.6 million) who served in Vietnam, and far more than the numbers who served in Korea, the first Gulf War, and the myriad deployments of the 1990s. We rightly venerate these veterans and provide them with care and benefits to bind their wounds and assist them as they transition from the military to civil society.

But as this week’s events in Libya, Egypt, and Yemen show, we don’t just send our soldiers into harm’s way. We also send legions of diplomats, development specialists, intelligence officers, and other civilian government employees. Although these civilians face many of the same dangers and hardships as our troops, we provide them with far less support. And this highlights a gap in our foreign policy. Our national security strategy calls for a "whole of government" approach, relying on military and civilian agencies to be the leading edge of U.S. foreign policy. However, our government only fully supports the military personnel who deploy, failing to fully recognize or support the sacrifices made by the civilians we ask to represent and serve us abroad.

In combat, and particularly in counterinsurgency efforts like Iraq and Afghanistan, we now deploy a blended force that includes soldiers, civilians, and contractors, often operating side-by-side with little distinction between them. The much-lauded, State Department-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq and Afghanistan operated with a mix of civilian and military personnel. The U.S. Agency for International Development deploys thousands of civilians and contractors (including many locals) in Afghanistan and Pakistan to support its efforts there. Our adviser teams working with Afghan security forces include military, contractor and civilian personnel, with civilians leading the efforts focused on police, corrections, and other civilian functions. The Drug Enforcement Agency leads counter-narcotics enforcement, a critical component of our Afghan strategy. Its agents, in turn, work closely with civilians from the Treasury Department and Justice Department who are fighting related problems, such as corruption and money-laundering that is supporting the Taliban. And beneath the radar, our intelligence agencies have deployed thousands of personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan, often putting the first boots on the ground in these countries and conducting some of the most dangerous missions there.

Although we have incomplete data on the size of these civilian deployments, we do know the human toll has been steep. According to recent studies and reports, civilian and contractor deaths in Afghanistan exceeded U.S. military combat deaths in 2011. In Iraq, where the number of contractors and civilian government employees exceeded the number of military personnel at the height of the war, civilian casualties generally exceeded those suffered by the military. According to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, civilians (including Iraqis and foreign nationals) were twice as likely to be killed while engaged in reconstruction activities as U.S. military personnel.

However, these large deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan tell only part of the story. Today’s State Department maintains a constant presence around the world in unstable places such as Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, Mexico, and Egypt. As a recent study by the Center for a New American Security reports, that presence is likely to increase in coming years as the U.S. appetite for large-scale military deployments diminishes and we depend more on civilian agencies to represent American foreign policy abroad.

In many ways, these deployments may be even more dangerous than those to Iraq and Afghanistan. In those two war zones, civilian personnel and contractors could leverage the tremendous capacity of the U.S. military, including everything from military convoys for protection to military helicopters for medical evacuation. In countries like Libya and Yemen, none of this exists. Diplomats, development specialists, and intelligence officers operate instead from austere diplomatic compounds and safehouses, using a less robust security force, relying on local infrastructure and commercial travel options. And although they do not face the dangers of combat on the scale of Fallujah or Helmand Province, civilians in these cities can be ambushed, as in Mexico City; attacked in compounds, as in Libya or Yemen; kidnapped, as in Pakistan or Lebanon; or bombed by international terrorists, as in Kenya and Tanzania.

Despite these dangers, we provide nowhere near the level of care and support to our civilian government employees and contractors that we do to our servicemembers.

As my former Pentagon colleague Rosa Brooks recently noted on these pages, our military provides comprehensive medical care and support to its troops and families. This care extends into combat zones, ensuring that soldiers get rapid care almost instantaneously when wounded, helping to create the highest survival rates of any war in history. Military personnel have access to the generous Servicemembers Group Life Insurance program, which pays out a $400,000 death benefit, on top of a $100,000 death benefit from the federal government, for deaths in the line of duty. When our troops come home, they have access to the vast resources of the Department of Veterans Affairs, which will spend $140 billion in 2013 to provide veterans with health care, disability compensation, educational benefits, vocational training, and other assistance.

Unfortunately, very little of this support exists for the civilians we send into harm’s way, and what support that does exist varies widely by agencies. The State Department and USAID offer roughly the same benefits packages to its officers in danger zones (like those killed in Libya) as those stateside. These diplomats can purchase federal group life insurance and obtain medical insurance, but nothing on the order of the benefits that support our troops. Intelligence officers obtain roughly the same benefits from their agencies, with some receiving additional support (such as pre- and post-deployment care from the CIA’s in-house medical office), but they also have no equivalent to the VA for care after service.

To a large extent, these civilian agencies also rely heavily on contractors to augment their forces and serve overseas alongside their personnel. USAID, for instance, uses both "personal services contractors," who are individual consultants to the agency, and large corporate contractors for its workforce in places like Pakistan and Sudan. The terms of support vary widely for these personnel, but in general they must purchase their care and benefits on the private market, receiving nothing like the comprehensive care provided by the Defense Department and VA to our troops.

To be sure, there remains an important distinction between our troops and our civilians. We do not force civilians to deploy overseas, and cannot prosecute them if they refuse to do so, as we do for military personnel. For the most part, we do not ask civilians to engage in direct combat; combat is an incidental risk of the civilians’ mission, it is not their raison d’etre, as it is for the military. And there remains something qualitatively different about military service, and the unique burdens and sacrifices thereof, that does not exist for diplomats or other civilians, even those who serve in the most arduous of postings. For these reasons and others, we should probably stop short of describing our civilians overseas as "veterans," and from opening up all veterans benefits to them.

Nonetheless, there are some measures we can take immediately to support the civilians who serve in dangerous places. The State Department and other civilian agencies should work with Congress to extend eligibility for Servicemembers Group Life Insurance to cover their civilian personnel who work in conflict zones. These agencies should also dramatically expand their medical and mental health resources and consider mandatory counseling, support groups, and resilience training, all of which have helped military personnel cope with the stresses of their repeated deployments and have also helped to reduce the institutional stigma associated with deployment stress. Our civilian agencies should also build better support networks for families than exist today. And across the interagency, the U.S. government should assess whether the current support systems that exist for civilian contractors are adequate for the types of missions we plan in decades to come.

Fortunately, most diplomats, development workers, intelligence officers, and other civilians return safely from their deployments, just as most soldiers do. But as this week’s events in Libya and Egypt show, not all do, and many others come home bearing scars and stresses from their deployments that are similar to those brought home by our troops. If we plan to deploy a "whole of government" to conflict zones around the world, then we should provide every agency’s personnel with appropriate care and support, serving them as well as they serve us.

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