State Dept. Paying Record Bonuses for Iraq, Afghanistan

The State Department has received approval to bump up bonus pay for Iraq and Afghanistan to record levels in order to help recruit officers for duty in those hot spots, reports WaPo’s Bradley Graham.

To help recruit U.S. government civilians for duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department has boosted the pay allowances for both hardship and danger to the highest levels ever granted, department officials said. Starting this month, U.S. government civilians serving in Iraq and in Afghanistan outside of Kabul are receiving an extra 35 percent above their base salaries for hardship and another 35 percent for danger. Previously, they were paid 25 percent extra for each category, the limits the government had set decades ago for any foreign post.

Because a number of other overseas posts had also been receiving the 25 percent maximums, government authorities were under pressure from Foreign Service representatives to adjust the allowance system and differentiate the most difficult assignments from the rest. The new record-high rates underscore the especially poor security and stressful working conditions faced by U.S. government employees in Iraq and Afghanistan, even as the Bush administration continues to emphasize signs of progress there.


State Department officials stressed that the revised allowances were not based on any reassessment of conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather, they said, the changes involved taking previous survey data and awarding more compensation to the worst cases. “Over the years there had been a real compression of posts at the 25 percent level,” said J. Anthony Holmes, president of the American Foreign Service Association, which pushed for the increases. “To maintain a system in which everyone is volunteering for the places they go, you want to provide incentives that reflect the true range of conditions.”

Base salaries for the more than 300 State Department members working in Iraq range from about $35,000 to $155,000, according to department figures. With word of the new hardship and danger rates still filtering through government ranks, officials said it was too early to assess the impact on attracting fresh volunteers for Iraq or Afghanistan or persuading those there to extend their assignments.

The duty involves not only very long work days and weeks but also cramped living quarters in heavily guarded compounds. A recent survey of active-duty Foreign Service officers with experience in Iraq, published this month in the Foreign Service Journal, quoted many respondents describing the working conditions as “extreme” and the security requirements as enormously constraining. At the same time, many played down financial incentives as a consideration in volunteering for Iraq duty and instead cited a desire to serve where most needed or to boost their chances for promotion.

State Department figures show that 87 percent to 94 percent of its jobs in Iraq are being filled, with the biggest recruiting challenge coming in finding staff for reconstruction assignments because, in the words of one official involved in Iraq policy, “they’re in the most dangerous positions, they’re the ones out in the field.”

It makes good sense to pay people working in the most inhospitable conditions more, although I am a bit skeptical that a few extra bucks will make these assignments more desirable. FSOs, like military officers, get assigned based on the needs of the government and there is already plenty of incentive to volunteer for assignments that help punch one’s ticket.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    I wish I could be as sanguine as you about the “incentive to volunteer (to) punch one’s ticket.”

    That was the old foreign service. Today’s foreign service seems to be populated largely by those who want quiet, safe, and fun careers. Magic–or connections–will pull them to the top of the heap, with no major sweating being involved.

    Hardship posts–never mind dangerous hardship posts–are almost never fully staffed.

    The administration has put its foot down, to some extent, over Iraq and Afghanistan, but not very hard. All the assignments are brief because it would be both hazardous to the officer and present an undue hardship for families (who can’t accompany the officer, of course).

    Sexy assignments in difficult places used to be the way to get noticed and to climb the ladder more quickly. It appears that most junior officers–and mid-level ones as well–just don’t want to do the heavy lifting anymore.

    That’s a real pity, not to mention a disciplinary disaster. In this regard, State is not like the military.

    But as you said, if ordered to go, the choice is to go or to quit (State doesn’t have courts martial). Most go, but there’s sure a hell of a lot of bitching going on about it.