• Why Leave Well Enough Alone in Jerusalem?

    December 13, 2017 // 39 Comments »

    “Today we finally acknowledge the obvious: that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital,” President Donald Trump said. “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” Trump’s formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital, reversing some seven decades of American policy, is arguably the most unnecessary decision of his time in office, and the clearest one to date to have consequences that will linger far past his tenure. The decision may yield some domestic political advantage for the president, but at irrational expense globally.
    Apart from the short-term violence likely to ensue, understanding the depth of Trump’s mistake requires digging a bit into how diplomacy works. There are many facets (I served as a diplomat with the United States Department of State for 24 years) that can seem almost silly to outsiders but are in fact a very necessary.

    Jerusalem is where Israel’s President presides, and where the Parliament, Supreme Court, and most government ministries are located. In practical terms, the capital. Unlike in nearly ever other nation, however, the United States maintains its formal embassy elsewhere, in the city of Tel Aviv. It keeps a consulate in West Jerusalem, claimed by Israel since 1948, a consular annex in East Jerusalem, the Old City annexed by Israel in 1967 and sought by many Palestinians as the future site of their own capital, and an office in the neighborhood between East and West Jerusalem, directly on the so-called Green Line, the 1949 armistice line between Israel and Jordan. Diplomats from all nations, as well as Israeli officials, understand that in formal terms an embassy is the head office located in the capital, and a consulate is a kind of branch located outside the capital. But they also know from experience in Israel which door to knock on when you need to get business done, regardless of what the nameplate reads out front.

    And to an outsider that might seem like a lot of wasted effort. But diplomats are required to represent the position of their country, and to place that at times in front of “reality” itself. If the sign on the door in Jerusalem says “embassy” then the reality is everyone must slam on the brakes. Everything else may need to wait while the big picture is settled. But as long as the sign says “consulate,” well, we can agree this business about where the capital of Israel is located is complex, but anyway, there are some important matters that need to be discussed…
    This kind of thing is not unique to Israel. A similar system has been in place in Taiwan since 1979 and has kept the peace there.

    In 1979 the United States recognized the reality of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital, and shifted formal relations from Taiwan. Instead of an embassy in Taipei, the United States established the American Institute in Taiwan, officially not a part of the American government. An actual registered non-governmental organization, with offices in a nondescript office building in Virginia, the Institute benefits from the Department of State “ providing “a large part of funding and guidance in its operations.”

    Because United States policy is there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of it, there is no ambassador at the Institute; the chief representative is called the director. People who work for what anyone else would call the Taiwan government are “authorities,” not “officials.” A whole sitcom worth of name changes and diplomatic parlor tricks keeps the enterprise in Taipei not an embassy of the United States.

    But what seems childish actually allows all sides — Washington, Taipei, and Beijing — to focus on the practical, day-to-day work of relations without having to address the never-gonna-resolve-it-in-our-lifetimes geopolitical questions first. That’s why these things matter. They matter because appearance and symbols matter, in East Asia, and especially in the Middle East. That’s why Trump’s decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and potentially relocate the embassy pulls down the curtain, turns on the lights, and spray paints day-glo yellow the 500 pound gorilla in the room. It will vastly complicate nearly everything.


    In the case of the United States and Jerusalem, the kabuki which has more or less maintained the status quo is the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995. That law required the United States to relocate its embassy to Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999, and said Congress would withhold 50 percent of the funds appropriated to the State Department for overseas building operations if the deadline wasn’t met. The Act also called for Jerusalem to be recognized as the capital.

    The thing is that the Act left open a politically-expedient loophole, allowing the president to repeatedly issue a waiver of the requirements every six months if he determines that is necessary for national security. Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama dutifully issued the waiver. Trump also reluctantly did it a few months ago, and then again just after announcing his recognition of Jerusalem to give the State Department some bureaucratic breathing room. Though as stated by the mayor of Jerusalem, “They just take the symbol of the consulate and switch it to the embassy symbol — two American Marines can do it in two minutes.” That would make the American Embassy the only embassy in Jerusalem. Reports say Trump will not designate an existing facility as the embassy and instead plans to build a new structure somewhere in Jerusalem, a process that will take years.

    Under the Jerusalem Embassy Act, the American embassy stayed in Tel Aviv, business was done in Jerusalem as needed, and everyone with a hand in the complex politics of the Middle East could look the other way, whichever other way best fit their needs. It was an imperfect solution, not the failed plan that did not lead to formal peace between the Palestinians and Israel as Trump characterized. The shadowplay status of Jerusalem worked.


    No more. Trump’s action in recognizing Jerusalem demands all of the players set aside whatever other issues they have in Israel, not the least of which is the Palestinian peace process, and now take a stand on America’s changed position.

    Of immediate concern will be America’s relationship with Jordan. Jordan has thrown in heavily with the United States, allowing its territory to be used as an entry point into Syria for American aid. The United States and Jordan more broadly have a robust and multi-layered security relationship, working well together in the war on Islamic State and in the peace process. It has been a steady relationship, albeit one based on personal ties more than formal agreements.

    Yet following Trump’s announcement, Jordanian King Abdullah bin Al-Hussein warned of “dangerous repercussions on the stability and security of the region.” Beyond modern geopolitics, the issue of Jerusalem runs deep in Jordan: it was Abdullah’s father, King Hussein bin Talal, who lost the city to Israel in the 1967 war, and Abdullah himself is officially the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Even as protests broke out in areas of Jordan’s capital inhabited by Palestinian refugees, American diplomats working in Amman will find every facet of the relationship colored and their skills tested — no Arab ruler can be seen being publically pushed around, perhaps humiliated, by the United States.


    A second body blow could come in America’s relationship with Egypt. Even more so than Jordan, Egypt’s rulers must act in awareness of public opinion, with memories of the Arab Spring still fresh. In response to Trump’s announcement, Egyptian parliamentarians called for a boycott of American products, including weapons. Egypt is also no stranger to the dangers of Islamic fundamentalism, and one Egyptian minister warned Trump’s decision would shift focus from fighting terrorists to inflaming them; the symbolic role retaking Jerusalem places in the radical Islamic canon cannot be under estimated. All of this comes at a sensitive time: Cairo, for the first time since 1973, has reached a preliminary agreement to allow Russian military jets to use Egyptain airspace and bases.
    In the coming days there will very likely be acts of violence, street protests, and announcements globally condemning Trump’s decision. But long after the tear gas clears from Cairo’s side streets or Amman’s public squares, American diplomats will find themselves hamstrung, entering negotiations on a full range of issues having to first somehow address the action taken by President Trump. This one was not an unnecessarily bombastic tweet that runs off the bottom of the page, or a crude remark likely to fade with the next news cycle: this time the president overturned an American policy of nearly seven decades’ standing which will have consequences far beyond his own tenure.


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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Obama: US ‘Will Not Retreat’ from World (unless we do)

    September 19, 2012 // 8 Comments »

    Your president said just a few days ago, following the deaths in Libya, “the United States of America will never retreat from the world.”

    Now of course since then, the US Embassy in Libya announced its consular services closure through Saturday, September 29. The US Consulate in Benghazi has been burnt out and is thus closed.

    US Mission Pakistan announced the temporary suspension of consular services in Islamabad, Lahore, and Karachi on September 17-19. U.S. government employees can now undertake essential travel only, including within the cities of Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, and Peshawar, due to possible demonstrations moving along major routes.

    US Embassy Tunisia announced that the embassy will be closed to public access on September 17, 2012. All dependents and non-essential State Department personnel have been evacuated back to the US.

    US Embassy Sudan announced that the embassy will be closed to public access. All dependents and non-essential State Department personnel have been evacuated back to the US.

    US Mission India announced that due to planned demonstrations in New Delhi and Kolkata on September 18, 2012, the American Center including the library and USIEF in the two cities will be closed. All dependents and non-essential State Department personnel have been evacuated.

    US Embassy Kabul is closed for routine services.

    Even the US Consulate in Amsterdam closed to the public for a day.

    In many other countries, the US Embassy is advising Americans to avoid, well, the US Embassy, as it will be the target of demonstrations that could get dangerously out of hand.

    (Updates on any more closures)

    I don’t doubt the prudence of closing these embassies and consulates to the public, or withdrawing dependents and non-essential personnel. Safety matters and lives are important.

    I just wish the president would stop saying stupid crap like “America will never retreat from the world” when it is butt obvious that we have to.

    BONUS: US bails out GM with a gazillion tax dollars, then files complaint with WTO over China subsidizing its auto parts industry.

    BONUS BONUS: Susan Rice, UN ambassador and lifetime HUBBA recipient, says Libya attacks were unplanned. Two days later the White House says Libya attacks “may” have been planned.

    BONUS BONUS BONUS: If you do a Google search for “Susan Rice Libya” but mistype it as “Susan Rice Labya” and Google auto-corrects that to “Susan Rice Labia”, for the love of God and all things sacred don’t look at the image results.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    What Video of the Attack on Our Embassy in Yemen Reveals

    September 14, 2012 // 7 Comments »

    It’s not good.

    Video is afloat on the internet showing the attack on America’s Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen. Any casual look tells you this is not a good thing, but there is more on display than first meets the eye.

    OK, Embassy vehicles on fire, people trying to bust through the protective glass, which actually is doing its job and taking a l-o-n-g time to give in. That’s what it is supposed to do, delay attackers to give anyone inside time to get away. Such glass, as well as Embassy doors and safes, all come with three time ratings: how long it will take an average person to bust it, how long for a determined/skilled person or persons, and how long for someone with the right tools or explosives. If it was your home’s front door, (made up numbers), the rating might be 10-5-2, ten minutes for some jerk pounding the door, five minutes for a group kicking at the hinges, and two minutes for a guy with a crowbar.

    But what don’t you see? Any Yemeni cops around? Any host country forces trying to restore order? Nope. Let’s look at another clip; watch towards the end, around 0:54:

    There’s the Yemeni security guy, a soldier or a cop. He’d been watching the whole time. He only fired his 20mm cannon– into the air– when the mob seemed to get too close to him. He and whatever colleagues of his were around did not intercede to stop the riot.

    Most people do not know that foreign embassies and consulates are protected primarily by the host country, the local security forces. It’s that way in the US, in Tokyo, in Yemen. No country wants lots of foreign troops hanging around and that, plus diplomatic tradition, places the burden of security on the locals. US Embassies do traditionally have a US Marine detachment, but except under extraordinary circumstances, even at large embassies, that might still only be 20 or so troops armed with light weapons. They are the last ditch internal defense force, not a full spectrum defense. Almost all US Consulates, branch offices of the embassy if you will, have no US Marine presence. Like in Benghazi, Libya. When more help is needed, such as now in Tripoli, the Marines can send in a FAST team, maybe another 50 men, specially trained for embassy work.

    The video shows that the Yemeni security forces either can’t, or more likely, wouldn’t, defend the US Embassy from the mob. This is bad, really bad. It could mean the Yemeni government is on the side of the mob, or, more likely, that the Yemeni government is more afraid of the mob than the US. That as far as we can tell from these videos the Yemenis stood by and let the mob ransack the Embassy is a very, very ominous sign for the future.

    UPDATE: The day after the events shown above, likely under US-pressure, the Yemeni police did engage the mob, killing four. Twenty-four security force members were reported injured, as were 11 protesters, according to Yemen’s Defense Ministry, security officials and eyewitnesses. SecState Clinton said “All governments have a responsibility to protect those spaces and people, because to attack an embassy is to attack the idea that we can work together to build understanding and a better future.”

    BONUS UPDATE: State Department Spokesdrone Victoria Nuland confirmed her lack of connection with reality by saying “We determined that the security at Benghazi was appropriate for what we knew.”

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    New Afghan PRT Book: The Valley’s Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Taliban

    November 19, 2011 // 1 Comment »

    Though I have not yet read it, I wanted get out in front and tell you about a new book covering the “mid-years” of reconstruction work in Afghanistan (2005-2006), The Valley’s Edge: A Year with the Pashtuns in the Heartland of the Talibanby Dan Green.

    Amazon says:

    In this gripping, firsthand account, Daniel Green tells the story of U.S. efforts to oust the Taliban insurgency from the desolate southern Afghan province of Uruzgan.

    Green, who served in Uruzgan from 2005 to 2006 as a Department of State political adviser to a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), reveals how unrealistic expectations, a superficial understanding of the Afghans, and a lack of resources contributed to the Taliban’s resurgence in the area. He discusses the PRT’s good-governance efforts, its reconstruction and development projects, the violence of the insurgency, and the PRT’s attempts to manage its complex relationship with the local warlord cum governor of the province.

    Upon returning to Afghanistan in 2009 with the U.S. military and while working at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul until 2010, Green discovered that although many improvements had been made since he had last served in the country, the problems he had experienced in Uruzgan continued despite the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration.

    Sounds like worthy reading.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Six Degrees of Condi Rice

    November 3, 2011 // 3 Comments »

    Condi wrote a book (mostly) about the Iraq War.

    I wrote a book (mostly) about the Iraq War.

    Condi is using the media to sell her book. She was on the Daily Show the other night.

    I am using the media to sell my book. I was on a small NPR station the other night.

    Condi says that she was right about the war, and that she is proud she pushed the State Department into the field for Iraq’s reconstruction.

    I say she was a lying scab about the war, and that she helped destroy the State Department by sinking too many of her limited staff into the sucking pit of the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad and neglecting America’s foreign relations with the rest of the planet.

    Condi is always welcome at the State Department.

    I am banned from entering the State Department building.

    Condi helped start a war that has, so far, killed 4479 Americans, over 100,000 Iraqis and cost America trillions of dollars. She sits on the board of Chevron and has an appointment at Stanford.

    I have never started a war and never killed anyone. The State Department is trying to fire me.

    Let’s break the pattern here:

    Please don’t read Condi’s book.

    Please read my book.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Sadr: US Embassy Employees Occupiers to be Fought

    October 24, 2011 // Comments Off on Sadr: US Embassy Employees Occupiers to be Fought

    Ruh roh. This won’t work out well.

    Muqtada Al Sadr, leader of the Sadrist militias and all around bad guy, said that he considers all US Embassy employees in Baghdad as “occupiers”, and stressed that resisting them after 2011 is an “obligation.”

    In response to a query of one of his followers about the increase of embassy employees from 5000 to 15000 after the US military withdraws at the end of 2011, Sadr said “they are all occupiers and resisting them after the end of the agreement is an obligation.”

    Almost all of the new employees of the World’s Largest Embassy (c) will be contract mercenaries hired to defend the building and protect the diplomats inside.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Paralysis Hits the Iraqi Parliament

    October 8, 2011 // Comments Off on Paralysis Hits the Iraqi Parliament

    Reidar Visser writes excellent political commentary about Iraq, Iran and the MidEast at his Gulf Analysis blog. One of my beloved $200,000+ a year State Department contractor brothers in Iraq turned in word-for-word copies of Reidar’s analysis to his boss for six months, before he got caught (he was not fired). It took six months to catch the plagiarism because a) Reider’s work is so good and b) Baghdad Embassy people are taught not to read widely, as it upsets their stomachs.

    Reidar was also perhaps the last educated person on earth who still believed that the Iraqi government functioned according to some set of rules (a “constitution”) and perhaps, through its Parliament, had a chance at democracy. That’s over now. He writes today:

    Today’s developments in the Iraqi parliament served as yet another indication of the growing disconnect between parliamentary politics and government in the country.

    There is no official report from the session because the legal quorum (163 deputies) was never reached. Of course, the Iraqi parliament is rarely filled above the two-thirds level, but today attendance was particularly poor thanks to additional politically-motivated abstentions… there has still been no decision on the validity of the parliamentary membership of several deputies whose credentials are in doubt. And once more the parliamentary bylaws have also been dropped from the agenda.

    There is a real danger that the Iraqi parliament is becoming unable to reach decisions except on matters that are so petty and insignificant that few will notice anyway. Arab Spring enthusiasts in search of a model democracy please look elsewhere.

    The sad thing is that earlier this week Iraq’s prime minister offered to help Libya, a country with a shared history of dictatorship, build its fledgling democracy during a meeting with Libya’s visiting prime minister. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told his Libyan counterpart, Mahmoud Jibril, who was on a one-day visit to Iraq, that Baghdad is will to ready to lend support on writing a constitution and holding elections.

    Of course, the US government views it all differently, perhaps due to uncleaned bong strainers.

    “We have given them freedom and liberty that they’ve never known, and we have given them the potential to have a democracy in this part of the world … where it would be a unique institution,” Army Maj. Gen. David G. Perkins, commander of U.S. Division-North and the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, told Pentagon reporters.

    Want to know more about the workings of the Iraqi Parliament? They have their own website, conveniently in English so American Occupiers can read it. One problem: the last update was July 2009.

    None of this matters, as The World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad prepares to take over running the occupation of Iraq and realizing the democracy that now forms the last desperate reason for the sacrifice of 100,000 Iraqis, 4474 Americans and several trillion bucks. It should all go smoothly, unless you believe the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting, which said that billions of your taxpayer dollars had been squandered in Iraq, and charged that the State Department hadn’t made the necessary reforms in its contracting operation.

    “Therefore, significant additional waste — and mission degradation to the point of failure — can be expected as State continues with the daunting task of transition in Iraq,” it warned.

    So, it’s Spring Break in Baghdad for 2012!!!!!!!

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    How to Get Drunk in Iraq

    September 19, 2011 // 6 Comments »

    Huffington Post has an excellent article about the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in America’s 51st State, Baghdad, and the crazy money being spent in Iraq for, whatever.

    The photo shows one dedicated State Department official hard at work inside Baghdaddy’s, the Embassy’ s own bar, built as part of the $1 billion compound with your tax dollars. Isn’t it good that your tax dollars paid for a bar to be built in Iraq so our diplomats could get blind freaking drunk? Isn’t it good that we celebrate our Muslim hosts by drinking like thirsty fish inside the Embassy? Look at him– he smells like… victory. Remember, fat drunk and stupid is no way to go through life, son.

    The book has a whole chapter about Baghdaddy’s so look for it.

    The HuffPo people were nice enough in their article to quote me as saying:

    “The Embassy is a fortress designed to keep both people and reality out. Entering the Embassy from the field is one of the most surreal experiences that’s available without pharmaceuticals.”

    Read the whole article here. Last time I checked the article had over 3000 comments. It shows you care.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Security in Iraq: We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help

    September 14, 2011 // Comments Off on Security in Iraq: We’re from the Government and We’re Here to Help

    This won’t hurt a bit. After eight years of victories in Iraq, here’s what the State Department had to say in its September 13 travel warning for Iraq:

    The Department of State warns US citizens against all but essential travel to Iraq given the dangerous security situation. Civilian air and road travel within Iraq remains dangerous… violence and threats against U.S. citizens persist and no region should be considered safe from dangerous conditions. Attacks against military and civilian targets throughout Iraq continue, including in the International (or “Green”) Zone (IZ).

    The US Embassy is located in the International Zone (IZ) in Baghdad. The IZ is a restricted access area. As of June 30, 2009, Iraqi authorities assumed responsibility for control of the IZ. Travelers to the IZ should be aware that Iraqi authorities may require special identification to enter the IZ or may issue IZ-specific access badges. Some terrorist or extremist groups continue to target US citizens for kidnapping.

    State Department guidance to US businesses in Iraq advises the use of protective security details. Detailed security information is available at the US Embassy website

    Hmmm. So, after eight years and 4474 dead Americans, Iraq still unsafe. Check. Iraq controls Green Zone which Americans call the International Zone so you can’t even get to the Embassy for help as an American unless the Iraqis approve. Check. Detailed info on the Embassy website. Check.

    OK, motoring over to the Embassy website for some detailed info. Front page features Hillary and a “soft” power story on woodworking. No detailed security information. OK, how about clicking on Emergency Messages. Sounds important.

    Under Emergency Messages the last Iraq-specific message is dated July 15, some two months old and that just repeats the heads-up that Americans can be kidnapped in Iraq. Check. Another kidnapping message is there, this one from May, which starts with the line “As the United States has stated publicly, Iraq continues to make significant progress on security with the assistance of American Forces” and then goes on to say you’ll be kidnapped for money and refers back to the main State website for details, which refers you back to the Embassy web site, which refers you back to the main State website… You get it.

    Not much help, so let’s click on Local Resources, then Security Companies. Ah hah, here is the meaty goodness we have been looking for. The US Embassy helpfully lists twelve firms that can supply you with your own mercenaries to accompany you on a jaunt through Iraq. It is unclear which if any of these are front companies for Blackwater, but it is odd that for the US Embassy, all but two of the firms listed are outside the United States. Most are in Britain or Dubai. What up American Embassy? Aren’t American mercenaries good enough for your freaking website? Show a little Flag people, help create jobs in America. Our mercenaries are as good as any foreign merc, except for those accents, which are kind of sexy.

    Clicked on a few links to these security companies, but no one lists prices. What does a mercenary cost these days anyway? Nothing on Angie’s List either. A promising one is AKE, which provides secure lodging in Iraq for you, featuring free WiFi (!) and “a bar with good atmosphere.” Lots of email addresses; I sent a few off, asking what the going rate for killing an Iraqi on my command might be, but so far no response.

    And that’s about it for the detailed information promised to travelers by the State Department. Travelers, please note that the World’s Largest Embassy (c) in Baghdad is closed both US and Iraqi holidays (so as not to miss a day off, the Embassy helpfully advises that “In keeping with the spirit of the Monday Holiday Bill, the intention of which is to provide three-day holiday weekends, US holidays covered by the Monday Holiday Bill will be observed on Sundays”, so if you are kidnapped on Columbus Day, please wait until the next business day to call and plead for your life.

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    Where’s My $132 Million Dude?

    April 25, 2011 // Comments Off on Where’s My $132 Million Dude?

    Scrooge McDuck in BaghdadAlways-entertaining blog Diplopundit wonders what happened to a $132 million refund due after the OIG found construction deficiencies at Embassy Baghdad. The world’s most expensive Embassy was built primarily by a Kuwaiti contractor because every single American firm was busy working on their Facebook pages at the time.

    At a time when Congress keeps pecking away at the carcass of State’s budget, wouldn’t it look good for the Department to show it had collected on the $132 million due?

    Wouldn’t it look bad if they had not?

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump

    What is a PRT?

    April 5, 2011 // Comments Off on What is a PRT?

    My year in Iraq, and our efforts to reach the hearts and minds of Iraqis, was focused on the work of the PRTs, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Some stood alone, with their own security and administrative staff, some were embedded and dependent on the military (ePRT).

    Here’s what Embassy Baghdad has to say about what a PRT is.

    But you better also read what former PRT staffer and now Adjunct Professor at the National Defense University Blake Stone has to say before you sign up.

    Fancy a turn on the Baghdad Embassy’s golf driving range? Read all about it.

    Don’t worry– there are still plenty of PRT jobs available in Afghanistan. Search USAJobs.gov for “PRT.”

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    Posted in Embassy/State, Trump