Once she started her job, she began to understand why her colleagues had no great love for their work. Meetings consumed much of the day. Her boss expected her to be at her desk until 10 at night to draft memos, cables, and talking points for senior officials to read at meetings with Afghans. Nobody wanted her to go out and talk to her Afghan contacts or to soak up the country. They simply wanted responses to their emails right away. Much of what she was asked to do could have been accomplished back in Washington -- at far less cost to American taxpayers. But then she wouldn't have been counted as part of the State Department's "civilian surge," which was intended to dramatically increase the ranks of diplomats and USAID personnel in Afghanistan in tandem with the military's troop surge.
Most of Coish's colleagues also spent all day in their cubicles, hunched over computers. Embassy rules prevented Americans from leaving the compound unless they had official business -- a meeting with an Afghan government official, dinner with a European diplomat, a visit to a U.S.-funded development project -- and even then they had to obtain permission from the security office, which allotted the armored cars in the motor pool. Restaurants and offices had to be on a list of approved locations. Staffers had to identify the people with whom they were meeting and then submit reports upon their return to the embassy compound detailing the substance of their discussions with any citizens of countries listed on the State Department's Security Environment Threat List, which, of course, included Afghanistan. Coish had enough friends outside the embassy to know that the regulations were needlessly onerous. American aid workers and journalists regularly drove around in unarmored Toyota Corollas. Being kidnapped or shot was always a possibility, but Kabul was far safer than Baghdad, especially if you kept a low profile. If it wouldn't have been a firing offense, she would have summoned a taxi to pick her up from Massoud Circle and take her for a night on the town. Every evening brought another invitation: an exhibition at an art gallery, drinks at a journalist's house, dinner with an Afghan tycoon, a party hosted by expatriates working for nongovernmental organizations. She figured all of them were places to glean information. She eventually managed to leave nearly every night, but doing so often required creative obfuscation on her security forms to get an exit pass and an embassy vehicle. If her vehicle ever struck pedestrians or another car, the security office did not want her driver to stop and check on those who had been hit. "Attempt to put as much space between yourself and the accident site as possible," the office urged.
The most powerful person on the embassy compound was not the ambassador but the head of the security office. His goal was to ensure that nobody working for the embassy was killed or wounded, which resulted in a near-zero-risk policy that kept diplomats and USAID officers from doing their jobs most effectively. Meetings and trips could be canceled, often with little notice, if the officer deemed the journey too dangerous, even if it was of vital importance. Reward was rarely balanced against risk. To several staffers, it seemed as if those in the security office didn't share everyone else's goal of winning the war against the Taliban. The security office "has turned us into women and children on the Titanic," one embassy official groused.
A near-daily flurry of alarmist warnings from the security office sowed fear among embassy staffers: A suicide car bomber was driving around the city looking for Americans to target; a crowd of disabled veterans was protesting in the circle, causing dangerous traffic jams; Afghans posing as visa seekers planned to attack one of the checkpoints. The security office sent embassy-wide emails urging everyone to keep a copy of the DS-3088 Bomb Threat Report Form near their telephones. "In the event that a threatening call is received," the office wrote, the employee "should calmly begin taking notes on the form, obtaining as much information as possible and asking the questions contained therein." Some staffers took to traveling from the embassy to the USAID compound by an underground tunnel, even though the street was blocked off for 200 yards in either direction. Most of Coish's colleagues assumed that she was risking near-certain death or abduction by hopping the wall every night. An FBI agent whom she met in the dining hall became so concerned about her travels that he eventually grabbed her mobile phone, pulled out the battery, and copied down the serial number -- so his buddies could track her if she was kidnapped.
For those who lacked paranoia or Coish's gift for bending the rules, there were furloughs every few months sponsored by the embassy's morale officer. The offers came by email.
One began with the tantalizing subject line "Magical Mystery Excursion!" It opened with a picture of a caged dog and two other forlorn mutts.
Do you wonder what Afghanistan is really like?
Worried that you'll never see anything except the airport?
Are your only photographs of sandbags?
Then respond quickly.
It ended with three photos of frolicking dogs.
There were only 15 spaces. All were claimed within a minute. The destination, it turned out, was the Gardens of Babur, a historic park in Kabul that hundreds of Afghan families strolled through every weekend. The embassy personnel were escorted by Filipino contract security guards.