Note: This article first appeared at In Military.
By James Thompson
The intrepid career of U.S. State Department’s Assiya Ashraf-Miller reads like a Hollywood script, though the missions she led are real and the stakes are incredibly high. Her previous assignments as a regional security officer (RSO) at embassies and consulates from Uzbekistan to Syria (to name a few) maintained a vital diplomatic front protecting U.S. interests in hotspot regions around the globe.
Today, Ashraf-Miller serves as a career member of State’s Senior Foreign Service team with the rank of Minister-Counselor, and is currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security. She oversees security and law enforcement policy and programs for over 250 U.S. diplomatic posts and is responsible for the worldwide direction of resources and personnel and budget oversight of over $2 billion.
“Our security of the (U.S.) homeland starts with embassies abroad,” Assiya explains, “it’s our global presence in DSS that sets us apart—we’re present everywhere.”
As part of the Diplomatic Security Service global team, the RSO serves as a key leader in 275 embassies and consulates to more than 170 countries. They’re senior special agents charged with managing all the security programs that keep the people, facilities, and information safe.
The right blend of critical thinking, cultural and diplomatic awareness, and a unique ability to manage complex teams—including Marines serving as the last barrier to a potential physical threat—is mandatory. And it requires a broad array of education, on-the-job training, and foreign experience and immersion, where no two posts are ever the same.
“I like a challenge. I always wanted to learn. My first assignment was in New Delhi, India, during the Pakistan nuclear crisis. We had to a drawdown of eligible family members and it was my first tour—with an infant and husband.”
Where most would shy away from raising a family in the midst of a geopolitical conflict pitting two nuclear-armed nations, Assiya flourished supporting embassy and consulate missions that work tirelessly to mitigate threats while maintaining sometimes tenuous diplomacy with the host nation. It requires constant collaboration, sometimes from unlikely sources.
“Most embassies have a country council” which “consists of diplomats, NGOs, academic institutions, multinational corporations like Google or Facebook.” Security isn’t limited to the facility. Often State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) is called upon to provide guidance and deploy additional human security assets and measures for major events like the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. DSS will be the government’s lead agency in safeguarding U.S. athletes abroad. When a sitting president or envoy visits for a summit, the RSO’s responsibility expands to protect that delegation.
As the principal law enforcement and security leader to the U.S. ambassador, the RSO function requires a unique balance of learning-by-doing experience, continual learning, and leadership that can effectively manage an extremely diverse team including Marines. “We work lockstep with DoD and the military,” she adds, “We have an affinity for Marine security guards.”
While they’re overseas RSOs aren’t exempt from the challenges of operating business-as-usual during the global COVID-19 pandemic. “RSOs are very proactive in implementing social distancing measures,” she says, “our guards are on the frontline engaging with the public.” Embassies are doing what they can to protect their workforce, with many currently located in areas where the pandemic is strong. Despite embassies and consulates adapting to teleworking to limit exposure to the virus, “the security apparatus carries on 24/7.”
While threat awareness and vigilance are a priority, the life of the ROS isn’t always white-knuckled. The path exposes State employees to diverse cultures, new learning experiences upon which to grow valuable career skills, and opportunities to build entirely different perspectives in unexpected places.
“I like to learn on the job—it propelled me.” Throughout her posts, she was exposed to architecture and its interrelation with security. Before, she admits not having prior knowledge of blueprints or embassy design. So, “I went to Uzbekistan and got into construction security—building the new embassy compound.”
The job includes unexpected places and experiences that provide professional and personal enrichment. “Oman is a hidden gem. It’s a lovely place to live and work.”
The life of the RSO is kinetic—always moving forward then on to the next mission. Each post is a building block of knowledge and experience that requires a relentless drive to execute the mission, but also to learn and grow.
“I love reading. I like getting things done. It’s been a great career.”