Chris Allbritton

Tonight, “Only the Dead,” a documentary by my old Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware premiers on HBO. I am both anticipating and dreading this documentary.

Ware was already well established as the guy with the sources in the insurgency by the time I started my second Iraq journey in early 2004. I met him in a hotel room in Baghdad and he struck me as someone deeply in love with the adrenaline of reporting on the insurgency, combat reporting, at continually cheating death. I was … not entranced, but deeply admiring. He’s a big guy, over six feet, with a build that reflects his days as a rugby player. His nose looks like he ran into a wall, picked himself up and did it again just to teach the wall a lesson. He was funny, profane, frightening and always ready with a good story. (It’s a shame I only have pictures of him at parties. I won’t post them, though. He’s been through enough.)

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Chris Allbritton

I just emailed the final bit of paperwork, at least for now, for my application for the Foreign Service of the United States State Department. For those who don’t know what that is, it’s the diplomatic corps of the United States. That’s right, I am hoping to become a representative of America.

Some have wondered what the process is, so I thought I’d use this blog to walk you through it and maybe answer some questions. To start, you sign up to take the written test, which is given a few times a year. The requirements to sign up are:

  • A U.S. citizen on the date the candidate submits the registration package
  • At least 20 years old and no older than 59 years of age on the day the candidate submits the registration
  • At least 21 years old and not yet 60 on the day the candidate is appointed as a Foreign Service Officer
  • Available for worldwide assignments, including Washington, D.C.

The next one is in June 2016. For some people this is a difficult test, quizzing you on your knowledge of U.S. history. world events, basic economics, management theory, and the like. I have taken it three times and passed it each time. The first time was in Sept 2001, shortly after 9/11, and I wanted to see if I could do it. I was invited to take the oral exams then, but I didn’t pursue a career then. I went overseas another way.

The second time was in 2013, while I was in Bogotá. I passed that one, too, but Foggy Bottom had made an addition to the process by requiring a series of mini-essays called personal narratives that are submitted to the Quality Evaluation Panel (QEP). This was changed to get a total picture of Foreign Service candidates, rather than just a bunch of underemployed history majors. It allowed the panel to look at the experience of candidates who had passed the test and make a determination to invite them to take the Orals. I passed the QEP and was invited to Washington in mid-2014, but I had taken a job in New York at The Daily Beast, and decided to concentrate on that.

After I left the Beast in July 2015, I took the written test a third time, passed it, and committed to taking the oral examination in Washington on Feb. 16. There’s not a lot I can tell you about the orals, because I signed an NDA, but I can tell you it’s devilishly difficult. It’s all day, starting at 7 a.m., in an office building near Foggy Bottom. You are tested against “13 Dimensions” the State Department has determined are vital for its diplomats. (They’re pretty good traits to have as a human being, really.)

The orals consist of three parts: the group exercise, the structured interview and the dreaded case management. The group exercise is meant to test how well you work with people, absorb, digest and present information, and oral communication. This is usually the most fun part of the day, as you get to do a little role-playing and interact with some really outstanding people.

After the group exercise, I went into the structured interview, which is pretty much like a job interview. They ask you about your motivations, ask how you would react in certain situations and probe your background. I didn’t think I did well on this part, but apparently I did better than I thought.

Finally, there’s the case management. This is a monster, with essentially a huge file of memos and emails dumped on you and you’re given 90 minutes to plow through it all, figure out the problem and then write a two-page memo that outlines some recommendations and alternatives. I thought, as a journalist used to writing under deadline, this would be my strongest part of the exam. Nope. Crashed and burned on this one.

However, my performance in the other two sections was strong enough to put me over the edge, and I passed the oral exam on my first try. You’re scored on each section on a scale from 1 to 7, and then all three section scores are tallied and weighted. You need an overall 5.25 to pass. Only seven out of 17 people taking it that day passed, and I was the only non-government candidate who did. Everyone else was either military, ex-military, or already an employee of the State Department.

So, I passed. Great. Now what? Well, I got a “conditional” offer of employment. What that means is I then had to fill out the security clearance form listing all the details of my life and my friends’ lives for the last 10 years. Since this involved a great deal of overseas travel, most people I’ve spoken to say my security clearance could take up to year to complete.

Then, I had to complete a medical clearance form, which involved my doctor shaking his head and clucking over how much the government wants to know about my LDL levels and hemoglobin. He then took about a quart of blood, hooked me up to an EKG machine and sent me off to get a chest x-ray. (All’s good, by the way.)

I'm just a billSo that brings me to today. I finished the security form a week ago and emailed my medical forms today. Now, I wait. What happens normally is that once people pass their security clearance check and the medical check, they are then evaluated by the Suitability Review Panel, which looks over everything and decides if you’re really State Department material. You can wipe out at this point and have to start the whole thing over again, like the sad Bill who got vetoed. If you pass, you’re then placed on a dynamic register based on your total score, derived from your oral exam, with possible veteran and language bonus points. It’s dynamic in the sense that if you have a score of 5.4, which is not bad, but not super great, people who score higher than you will be placed further ahead in line. And those slots are filled from the top as budget, attrition and need arise. It’s a complicated process and there’s no way to predict how deep into the bench the hiring process might go.

So you stay on that register and you wait some more. But only for 18 months. If you’re not offered a slot in an A-100 class within that time, you’re dropped from the roster and you have to start the whole process over again.

So that’s where I’m at right now: Waiting on clearances, the Suitability Review Panel and then Congress to appropriate enough funds to cover the yearly attrition of the Foreign Service. That means I probably have a couple of years before this whole process will have played out, one way or another. I may never get the call to represent the U.S. as a diplomat.

But that’s OK! I’m now done with the stuff I have to actively do, other than answer any questions the investigators may have, and now I can get back to looking for work, freelancing and obsessing over the 2016 presidential race.

Other questions? Contact me and I’ll try to answer them as best I can.

 

Chris Allbritton

It’s been a long time coming, but I am finally updating the site again! Why? Because I’m off to one of the places I’ve always wanted to go for a quick getaway: San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’ve never really been to the Caribbean, and certainly never to one of America’s favorite latin cities, so I’m pretty excited about this. A little relaxation, a little Spanish practice. I needed the break from New York and the job hunt.

I’ll have a full report when I return next week. Until then, ¡buen viaje!

Chris Allbritton

Way back in 2009, I shot the Karachi Fashion Week, a showpiece for Pakistan’s haute couture. Unfortunately, stories like this get overwhelmed by the news of bombs and murder, but there is a cheeky side of Pakistan.

Chris Allbritton

Today’s horrific attack in Peshawar on a military school, in which scores of children were killed by the Pakistani Taliban, should put Pakistan’s security choices over the last few decades in a stark light. And while the immediate reaction from the Pakistani military will no doubt be swift and terrible, Pakistan needs to think long and hard about what kind of country it wants to be when the initial retaliation is over.

Will it be one that continues to treat extremist groups as assets to use against its regional rivals? Or will this stomach-churning attack finally be the last straw that convinces the “establishment,” as it’s called, that playing with the fire of Islamic radicalism cannot continue.

“We’ve made huge sacrifices in the war on terror,” says Erum Haider, a Pakistani graduate student at Georgetown. “Whatever strategic interests there are or were in the region, the children and parents of Pakistan didn’t ask for them.”

History, geography, and the leaders of both the United States and Pakistan have conspired to make Pakistan a frontline state in the war on terror. And Pakistan has a long history of using non-state actors to project power beyond its borders. Driven by a deep sense of insecurity regarding Afghanistan and India, Pakistan has pursued a security strategy that incorporates conventional elements of deterrence—the world’s sixth largest army and the fastest-growing nuclear arsenal—with the use of militant groups that allow it to harass its rivals while maintaining a thin fiction of deniability.

As Saed Shah wrote in The Economist back in 2011, Pakistan feels it has no choice but to support jihadist groups. Archrival India has money to throw around, and Iran and Russia are also exerting influence in the region. So Pakistan, as a senior Pakistani official told Shah, is forced to play the latest version of the Great Game, too. “Except we have no money. All we have are the crazies. So the crazies it is.”

‘Pakistan needs to get out of denial that there are any jihadi groups that can be trusted or considered allies of the state,” he said. “However useful they might be for external purposes, they will always be dangerous internally.’  

The list of “crazies” supported by Pakistan is long: Lashkar-e-Taiba, which attacked Mumbai in 2008 with help from former members of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency; the Haqqani network, one of the most ruthless and effective groups operating in Afghanistan, which also was behind the 2011 bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul with the connivance of the ISI; and of course the Afghan Taliban, set up in the mid-1990s under the mentorship of the former director general of the ISI, Hamid Gul, who to this day spews anti-Western conspiracies on mainstream Pakistani television shows.

And that’s just the biggest crazies. There are Kashmiri separatist groups, groups that demand the slaughter of Shiites,  and—perhaps—al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, if you believe Carlotta Gall’s reporting.

The Pakistani Taliban, which has claimed credit for today’s attack, is not considered part of that toxic stew by the generals. It is “the bad Taliban,” as it’s often called, implying those other mass murderers are the good ones. And the reason it’s “good,” in the minds of the spy chiefs and generals, is because it does Pakistan’s bidding and doesn’t attack the state.

That’s a dangerous opinion to hold.

“While Pakistan might think that the Haqqani network is useful for Afghanistan, and in return that they will not attack inside Pakistan, the reality is that the Haqqani network can still provide support to Pakistani Taliban that can attack inside Pakistan,” said Husain Haqqani, director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., former Pakistani ambassador to the United States, and author of Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.

“Pakistan needs to get out of denial that there are any jihadi groups that can be trusted or considered allies of the state,” he said. “However useful they might be for external purposes, they will always be dangerous internally.”

Although it differs in its targets, the Pakistani Taliban, which calls itself Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), arose from the same ideological swamp as the other groups. The harsh Islamization of Pakistan, which started under Zulfikar Bhutto in the mid-1970s—when he forged tighter bonds with Saudi Arabia, declared the minority Muslim sect Ahmadis as non-Muslims, and banned the sale of alcohol, all for the political support of the religious class—only accelerated under the military rule of Zia-ul-Haq.

“Pakistan needs to get out of denial that there are any jihadi groups that can be trusted or considered allies of the state. However useful they might be for external purposes, they will always be dangerous internally.”
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Zia feared further Soviet aggression and worked with the United States and Saudi Arabia to bog down the Red Army, fostering the seven mujahideen groups—including what would become the Haqqani network—and encouraging the further Islamization of Pakistani society in the face of “atheistic and communist” aggression from Moscow.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union following its retreat from Afghanistan, Pakistan has helped, or at least not hindered, the rise of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Afghan Taliban, all of which were considered useful.

But why did the generals feel the need to rely on these groups, even after the Soviets left Afghanistan?

“Pakistan now has a nuclear deterrent, so therefore it does not have an external security challenge of the type that Pakistanis have consistently been brought up to fear,” Haqqani said. “Nobody can send in an army and occupy Pakistan anymore. So this should have been a time for Pakistan to feel more secure … and start building inwards.”

But instead, he said, driven by six decades of insecurity, the Pakistani deep state decided it wanted to be as powerful as India, a country more than six times the size of Pakistan and immeasurably wealthier.

“This pursuit of parity is what necessitates asymmetrical warfare capability, because that’s the only thing that gives them an advantage,” he said. “But events like this should make the Pakistani deep state realize that asymmetric warfare is never a good capability to have at the level we have developed.”

“As Hillary Clinton said, ‘You can’t nurture snakes in your backyard.’”

In short, Pakistan can’t quit its crazies.

“[Today’s attack] is a result of a sustained policy gone wrong,” Haqqani concluded. “And it can only be changed by a new, sustained policy.”

So what should be done? So many decades of pushing an anti-Western agenda in the media has made much of the Pakistani public—and certainly large swaths of its middle class—open to religious and nationalist appeals. There are many in Pakistan, for example, who consider the Taliban attack on Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai a CIA plot or a hoax, intended to undermine Islamic values. Many don’t, or can’t, believe that Osama in Laden was killed only a stone’s throw away from one of Pakistan’s most elite military academies. Instead, they spin dark theories that it was all a set-up to make Pakistan look bad.

“The extremist Islamist ideology has a domestic component as well,” said Haqqani. “There will always be extremists that say, ‘Why are women wearing Western dress? Why are girls going to school?’”

Speaking of schools, Pakistan’s textbooks are full of xenophobic, anti-Western and anti-Shiite sentiments, producing generations of students open to the extremists’ hateful rhetoric. Its blasphemy law, which carries the death penalty, is frequently invoked and just as frequently misused. Many of those accused are religious minorities, and more than 62 have been murdered since 1990, including the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer.

Haqqani says the military establishment, which can push whatever propaganda it wants through Pakistan’s media, must finally decide to change the message of victimization, threat, and paranoia.

Haqqani is hardly a disinterested observer, to be fair. In 2011-12, he was involved in a controversy when he was ambassador to the United States, in which he was accused of writing a memo to the Pentagon in the days immediately after the killing of bin Laden, asking the United States for help in staving off a military coup. The Pakistani military had been humiliated by the Abbottabad raid, and the mood in the capital, where I was working for Reuters at the time, was tense. A coup didn’t seem completely far-fetched.

In return for asking an ally for help in preserving Pakistan’s weak democracy, Haqqani was branded a traitor on every major television station, prevented from leaving the country, and confined to the prime minister’s residence out of fear for his safety. He was eventually allowed to leave, but he was forced to resign as ambassador and now lives in Washington, effectively in exile.

“Unless there’s a national narrative change, we will continue to have tragedies followed by anger and remorse,” he said. “Instead of cultivating only those elements in the Pakistani discourse that support the jihadi perspective, maybe it’s time for the Pakistani establishment to stop treating the anti-jihadists as its enemies.”

Originally appeared in The Daily Beast.