Feds at Work: Right-hand men to the Pentagon’s top officials
Working on defense and foreign policy, the Bajraktari brothers accompany their agency’s leaders on all international travel
It would seem highly unlikely that two Albanian brothers, displaced at one time from war-torn Pristina, Kosovo, would both rise to hold the same high-level position for the top two officials at the Department of Defense.
Yet that’s where Ylli and Ylber Bajraktari landed, on their unusual path to the Pentagon’s inner sanctum.
Both emigrated to the U.S. in their twenties, although they took different routes. Friends and acquaintances helped them find jobs and apply to U.S. universities. Eventually, they became American citizens.
Now they are in the thick of world issues, keeping their bosses informed daily on foreign policy issues and actions by combing the department, the White House, the intelligence community and elsewhere for the latest information.
“They have committed to helping shape America’s role in the world through defense and foreign policy,” said Carl Woog, the former senior advisor to the secretary of defense for strategic communications and now at the National Security Council.
“I have never heard of a story of two brothers playing such a critical behind-the-scenes role at the Pentagon.”
For Ylber (pronounced ill-BEAR), deputy chief of staff for policy to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, it means making sure the secretary has the most up-to-date information on national security and foreign policy, Ylber said.
He also helps department staff look inward to implement Carter’s requests and “where he wants to take things for the department, particularly on foreign policy,” said Ylber, the younger brother by two years. With a graduate degree from Princeton, he has also worked in Iraq with David Petraeus, the former CIA director, as well as on Iran at both Defense and the White House.
Workdays are unpredictable, he said. “Crises happen. It’s a very dynamic environment.”
With his desk in a Pentagon office a mere 25 steps from Carter’s, Ylber travels with the secretary to international destinations and attends all his Pentagon meetings on foreign policy matters.
One of his roles is to help the secretary have the best information when people from department components press him to make particular decisions on issues. “You are the last line of defense in many ways,” said Ylber. “You have to make sure before the secretary signs that it’s as airtight as possible.”
For Ylli (pronounced ill-lee), special assistant to Deputy Secretary Robert Work, toiling at the “biggest department in U.S. government [means] the issues our principle deals with are enormous.”
Referring to Carter and Work as “two really thoughtful, highly charged intellectuals,” he added. “We make sure their visions are being completed.”
A graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Ylli has worked on policy issues related to Afghanistan and India, and did a rotation on an advisory group for the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, focusing on policy and security issues before landing his current position.
Now he covers international security and policy-related issues, traveling everywhere with the deputy secretary.
“It’s a fascinating job,” Ylli said. “Everything that touches our desk has some kind of crisis angle related to it.”
Eric Rosenbach, Carter’s chief of staff, said, “They are two of the most dedicated people I know. They are defending U.S. interests and doing it in a way that brings a much more enlightened perspective about America’s role in the world.”
The Bajraktaris, who grew up speaking Serbian and Albanian, feel indebted to the United States and to the people who helped them along the way.
Ylber was able to come to the U.S. in 1999, deemed a victim of ethnic cleansing. Ylli returned to Kosovo after the war to help their displaced family settle back home. Three years later, he moved to the U.S. with his Kosovo-American wife.
Both express gratitude to U.S. military personnel who “played a critical role in saving Kosovo,” many of whom they now see in the Pentagon’s hallways, Ylli said. One, a colonel who was shot down during the NATO operations against Serbia, became the Air Force’s chief of staff on July 1.
“No day passes when we don’t meet someone who served in Kosovo or has been part of the NATO’s mission against Serbia,” Ylli said.
“The commitment we have toward this country, it’s kind of an obligation more. We feel privileged and honored to work here.”
(Photos courtesy of the Department of Defense)