When Richard Holbrooke became the Obama administration's Afghanistan point man in January 2009, Summer Coish was keen to join his civilian operation. She had the requisite credentials: a master's in public health and experience working on foreign development projects. For the previous five years, she had been splitting her time between New York and Kazakhstan, where she and a friend had started a glossy biannual magazine about Central Asia. Although she dug a little deeper into her savings to print each issue of Steppe, the publishing venture had swelled the list of contacts on her mobile phone. She knew more Afghan entrepreneurs -- from the founder of the country's most successful television station to the owner of the largest bottled-drinks company -- than anyone else seeking a job with USAID.
Coish, a tall blonde with a fondness for dangle earrings acquired in far-off bazaars, was just the sort of person Holbrooke desired for his Washington team. But she wanted to live in Afghanistan, so he introduced her to Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. He brought her to the swearing-in ceremony for the new USAID director in Kabul, who happened to be an old friend of Coish's from Kazakhstan. They talked about possible assignments for her and settled on a position in Kabul coordinating donations from other nations. It seemed a good fit with Holbrooke's goal of increasing international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
Coish arrived in Kabul 14 months later. (It took that long for the sclerotic State Department bureaucracy to process her application and provide her a security clearance -- a process that required her to list all of her travel outside the United States and every "foreign contact" she had had in the previous eight years.) When she finally got there, she expected to work with a team of fellow Americans committed to helping rebuild Afghanistan. Long gone were the days when the U.S. government had assembled postwar reconstruction teams based on political fidelity, questioning prospective hires about their views on Roe v. Wade and capital punishment, as the Bush administration had during the first year in Iraq. Now, Holbrooke was recruiting the best and brightest in Washington. Coish believed the same standards would apply in Kabul.
Within a day, she saw she'd been dreaming. She divided most of the people she met in the highly fortified embassy and USAID compound into three camps: those who had come to Afghanistan because they wanted to make a lot of money -- with hazard pay and bonuses, some staffers earned as much as $300,000 a year; those who were getting their tickets punched for a promotion or a posting to a comfortable embassy in Western Europe; and those who were seeking to escape a divorce, a foreclosed home, or some other personal calamity. "It's rare that you ever hear someone say they're here because they want to help the Afghans," she told me after she had been there for a few months.
Everyone seemed bent on departure. One itching-to-go staffer designed an Excel spreadsheet he called the "Circle of Freedom." You entered the date you arrived and the date you were scheduled to leave, and it told you, down to the second, how much time you had left in Kabul. A USAID employee took to listing his time to freedom in the signature line of his email messages.
Set on a closed street off a traffic circle named for the assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, the U.S. diplomatic compound in Kabul was ringed by tall walls topped with razor wire. Rifle-toting Nepalese guards -- Ghurkas for hire -- patrolled the perimeter and manned three separate checkpoints everyone had to pass through before entering the embassy grounds. More than 700 Americans lived and worked on the grounds. Several hundred Afghans joined them during the day to translate, perform administrative functions, and clean the buildings. Employees wore identification badges around their necks. Blue cards were reserved for Americans with security clearances. The Afghan support staff had yellow ones that restricted their movements and subjected them to additional screening. When USAID administrator Rajiv Shah came to Kabul for a visit, he thanked the Afghan staff for their bravery and commitment during a town hall meeting in the embassy atrium. They never heard his words because guards barred yellow-badged Afghan staffers from attending the event.
As far as prisons went, the compound wasn't all that grim. There were a swimming pool, a bar called the Duck and Cover, and an Afghan-run café that served sandwiches and smoothies. A small convenience store stocked potato chips, candy bars, and lots of alcohol. The senior staff lived in apartments with kitchens, living rooms, and flat-screen televisions. Coish got a "hooch" -- a trailer containing a twin bed, a small desk and armoire, a bathroom, and a telephone with a Maryland area code. The trailer was surrounded with sandbags. To accommodate the influx of new civilians, the hooches were stacked on top of each other, with metal ladders and catwalks to access the second story.