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A Day in the Life: An American Diplomat in Kabul

A Marine stands guard in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001.
Paula Bronstein / Getty Images
Getty Images
A Marine stands guard in front of the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001.

Following is an essay from Ann Wright, the former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. She also served in senior posts at the embassies in Sierra Leone, Micronesia and Mongolia.

4:30 a.m. My workday begins at U.S. Embassy Kabul. The 100-person Marine detachment is changing shifts, communications officers are pulling the cable traffic from Washington, mullahs are calling Afghans to morning prayer, and first light is peeking over snow-capped mountains surrounding Kabul valley. Colorfully painted trucks, men in warm shawls on bicycles, boys pulling carts filled with everything from freshly slaughtered sheep to window glass are passing by the embassy.

8 a.m. Three Marines march to the flagpole and raise the American flag. No matter how many mornings I see this ceremony in Kabul -- ground zero for U.S. assistance to the Afghan people and potentially ground zero for al-Qaida retaliation for the war on terrorism -- the daily raising and lowering of the flag are moving. I came in with the first diplomats in December 2001, and I've been here on and off since then. One hundred miles south of here, the largest coalition military action in Afghanistan, Operation Anaconda, rages as coalition and Afghan forces pound a large concentration of al-Qaida fighters.

8:30 a.m. The U.S. country team meets to coordinate U.S. government activities (except for military operations) in Afghanistan. Chargé d'Affaires Ryan Crocker chairs the meeting. Humanitarian and developmental projects for Afghanistan are the focus of today's meeting. Military, U.S. Agency for International Development, and administrative section representatives quickly agree on a plan of action for two infrastructure projects in Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat. Embassy political officers update us on regional political happenings. The defense attaché comments on local militia factions.

9:30 a.m. I'm off to a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to go over a proposed schedule for an upcoming congressional delegation (CODEL) visit. We recently had CODELs on three consecutive days, and then on the fourth day Secretary of State Colin Powell arrived. The Afghan interim administration's tiny protocol office coordinates meetings with key Afghan officials for our delegations. With an ever-increasing number of diplomatic and international organization missions in Kabul, the protocol office must assist more and more official visitors. The protocol officers work nonstop, with few functional telephones, computers or fax machines to use.

We provide a proposed schedule of events and meetings, understanding that we will probably not get a response from the protocol office until the morning of the visit.

Congressional staffers will anxiously call numerous times to confirm the schedule, and we will reassure them that somehow the appointments will work out and the visit will be successful, but we can't say quite how -- yet. This is Afghanistan, and things work in their own mysterious manner.

10:30 a.m. Back at the embassy, we learn that the long-awaited support flight will arrive on the same day as the congressional delegation. No point in trying to change the date; we desperately need the office equipment and construction materials on the flight. The contracted Antonov aircraft is huge and carries an incredible amount of equipment. Many trucks, our entire local staff, plus additional hired laborers will be needed to offload the equipment and transport it to the embassy. Wait, new information. We hear from the administrative officer that Washington is now sending two Antonovs. It seems impossible to handle both flights in one day, but fortunately, Kabul International Airport is open. The six bomb craters on the runway have been repaired, which saves us the 90-minute drive north to Bagram Air Base, a trip we had to make almost daily for the first 60 days we were here. Unloading two planes in one day will stretch our staff to the limit, but we need the equipment, so we'll manage somehow.

11 a.m. The building begins to tremble. Another earthquake. This is the third earthquake since we returned to Embassy Kabul. We stay put until the building settles down, then run outside to count heads and determine if there are any injuries. None reported. Next we survey the damage to the chancery. Several sandbags have fallen from the Marine lookouts on top of the embassy and one wall in a basement room has collapsed. The 35-year-old building is strong. The people in the Afghan villages to the north were not so lucky; reports come in during the afternoon of many deaths and thousands of houses demolished. For the next several days, USAID and the U.S. military will help the Afghan government and international organizations assess the damage and determine how the U.S. can help. We call the State Department Operations Center to let them know that we came through okay. They tell us the U.S. Geological Survey is reporting a 5.8-level earthquake with an epicenter about 100 miles northeast of Kabul.

12:30 p.m. Time for a quick lunch. We have no cooking facilities at the chancery, so a local Afghan restaurant prepares lunch for us daily. Mutton kebabs with rice, chicken with rice, dumplings with rice, and rice with rice are our daily fare. The meal is served from the embassy's bunker, which was built five years ago to provide protection for the Afghan staff during rocket attacks. It now houses the only flush-toilet and working shower on the embassy compound. Today, due to the earthquake, we don't tarry long in the bunker and take our lunches outside to eat at picnic tables.

12:45 p.m. Yells come from the bunker. The drain in our one bathroom has smelly, vile ooze coming from it. One of the local staff casually comments that perhaps it's time to pump out the septic tank. The 100 Marines and 20 Foreign Service staff who share the toilet agree. Replumbing the chancery building is the highest priority for our maintenance team. Old pipes that have not been used for 12 years are proving hard to repair. Our heroes are the plumbers who deal daily with back-ups and blowouts of the most unimaginable mess!

2:30 p.m. We visit the United Nations mission to check on the status of delivery of office equipment, furniture and vehicles to the new government. The Taliban took everything they could transport, including the cash in the national treasury vault. When we leave the embassy, we do so in an armored car protected by the diplomatic security mobile security team. We pass through a meat market with sheep hanging from hooks and through a bicycle market where parts and tires are tacked to tree trucks and poles. We see big trucks bringing goods from Pakistan. Commercial life is returning to Kabul.

5 p.m. It's getting cold as the sun falls quickly. We return to the compound just in time for flag retreat. Then we head to the bunker for a bowl of hot vegetable soup from a huge caldron perched on a small stove in the narrow hallway. Soup and nan (flat bread) seem to satisfy most everyone at night. No one is gaining weight here, but no one complains of being hungry, either.

6:30 p.m. Washington is now awake, so it is time to call to report on the day's activities and write up reports on the earthquake and a proposed U.S. response. Some try to watch a little television, but we are still waiting for the satellite TV chip that will let us receive CNN and BBC via our satellite dish made from pounded soda cans. Until then, those who understand Arabic and Polish translate for the rest of us. Many read and chat with newfound friends for a while before heading off to sleep.

10:30 p.m. There's a flash-bang as a trip-wire on the compound wall explodes. We know to stay put until the Marine "react" team deploys to determine what triggered the explosion. Thirty minutes later they tell us another cat has snuck through the concertina wire and tripped the flash-bang. The cat was last seen high-tailing it across the compound.

11 p.m. Time to try to get back to sleep (hoping for no more earthquakes or flashbangs tonight) and get ready for another busy day in Kabul.

Excerpted from Inside a U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America, edited by Shawn Dorman, published by the American Foreign Service Association.

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Ann Wright