Dark Soldiers of the New Order

The Soviet Union's spies haven't disappeared, they're just wearing new clothes. An exclusive excerpt from Edward Lucas's new book, Deception.

The cold breath of the Communist secret police state blighted countless lives behind the Iron Curtain. But it also touched my own childhood in 1970s Oxford. Olgica, our Yugoslav lodger, had an exciting secret: Uncle Dušan. The poet Matthew Arnold described Oxford as "home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties." In Dušan's case, this was partly right: his surname (like those of most east European émigrés) if not exactly unpopular, was certainly baffling to British eyes and ears. I recall him as a glum, shadowy figure, with plenty to be glum about. His cause seemed irretrievably lost. He was a hero in his own twilight world, but in post-war Yugoslavia, the authorities denounced anti-communists like him as criminals and traitors. Many perished in mass graves or in the torture cells of the secret police. Dušan was one of the lucky ones. He had escaped to Britain, to a humble job as a mechanic and life in Crotch Crescent, a drab street in Oxford's outskirts -- a sad comedown for someone who in pre-war Yugoslavia had been a high-flying young civil servant.

But in one respect, Dušan did not fit Arnold's dictum. Despite his disappointments, he had not forsaken his beliefs: communism was evil and the people who ruled his homeland were usurpers. In fact, Yugoslavia's independent-minded communists had become mild by comparison with the much tougher regimes of the Soviet bloc. But they were still ruthless in their treatment of dissenters, particularly those with contacts with anti-communists abroad. Olgica's family maintained, at great risk, secret links with relatives abroad, flatly denying all knowledge of them under interrogation from the secret police. In Oxford, she visited her uncle each weekend. Had the authorities at home known that she was hobnobbing with a dangerous anti-communist émigré, her father's glittering medical career (which had even brought him, briefly, to Oxford) would end; her own future (she had stayed on to finish her schooling) would be jeopardized too. It could even be dangerous for her to return home, leaving her stranded in Britain as a teenage refugee.

My own childish preoccupations blundered into this grown-up world. Even before Olgica's arrival, my boyhood obsession had been Eastern Europe. I would spend hours looking at dusty atlases, and reading about the vanished kingdoms and republics of the pre-communist era, with their long-forgotten politicians, quaint postage stamps and exotic languages. Behind the Iron Curtain, they seemed as distant and unreal as Atlantis. In my early teens, I needed an example of communist propaganda for a school history project and decided to write to the Yugoslav embassy in London, asking for an official statement of how their government saw their defeated royalist rivals. That would, I thought, sit nicely alongside the other exhibits I had already assembled, including a passage from Winston Churchill's history of the war, a poignant account of life in Cambridge by the exiled Yugoslav boy-king Peter, and a sizzling history of a British military mission to his doomed soldiers.

I proudly announced my plan. To my consternation, Olgica turned white. My mother took me aside: didn't I understand that the Yugoslav embassy in London would at once hand over this letter to the secret police? (With its sinister-sounding acronym UDBA, the Uprava državne bezbednosti or Department of State Security was the bane of the regime's critics at home and abroad). It would be obvious that my childish inquiry came from the same Oxford address where the daughter of a top Yugoslav pediatrician was living while completing her A-levels. It was bad enough that the UDBA would instantly suspect her of propagandizing about the royalist past -- a crime in Yugoslavia. Worse, it would start checking up on her family history and might then discover her carefully concealed ties to the notorious inhabitant of Crotch Crescent. Her life could unravel in an instant.

This trivial episode taught me important lessons -- albeit in politics not history. First, that the power of the communist state was based on the relentless, intrusive, bureaucratic reach of the security and intelligence services, and their capacity to ruin the lives of those who displeased them. Secondly, that these agencies' reach extended far beyond their own grim dominions -- even to the seemingly safe and secure world of an English university town. The extraordinary idea that my actions could put me under scrutiny by hostile foreign officials sparked an interest that has gripped me for decades. In the years that followed I devoured spy literature, from defectors' memoirs to John le Carré's novels. I tracked down retired spies and quizzed them. I also kept a beady eye on contemporaries who were offered jobs by MI6, as Britain's Secret Intelligence Service, SIS, is colloquially known.

Even without knowing much about the intelligence world I was struck by the clumsiness of those approaches: on the same day a crop of identical government-issue buff envelopes would arrive in student pigeonholes. Some recipients ignored the strictures to keep silent. A friend even framed the letter and put it in his lavatory, so his friends could appreciate the unconvincing letterhead and the strangulated offer: "From time to time opportunities arise in government service overseas of a specialized and confidential nature." For those who did apply, the clumsy efforts of the vetting officers (also accompanied by dire warnings about secrecy) were similarly corrosive of confidence in the spooks' worldview. Did it really matter in the struggle against the Soviet empire, I wondered, if Tom had gay flings, if Dick smoked dope or if Harriet had a boyfriend in the Socialist Workers' Party?

I reckoned I could do more good on the outside, and searched for any Eastern European cause that would accept my help. Inspired by my father, who smuggled books to fellow-philosophers persecuted in Czechoslovakia, I helped organize a student campaign to support Poland's Solidarity movement, crushed by martial law in December 1981. I waved placards outside embassies and wrote letters of protest on behalf of political prisoners. I studied unfashionable languages like Polish, and practiced them by befriending bitter old émigrés in the dusty clubs and offices of west London -- the world of le Carré's Estonian "Colonel" in Smiley's People. Like the spy author's fictional émigrés, these real-life ones had been sponsored by Britain's spooks, then betrayed and dumped.

I would occasionally take the number 12 bus down Westminster Bridge Road in Lambeth, past the headquarters of Britain's MI6. The location was in those days, supposedly, a closely guarded official secret, though the bus conductor was prone to announce jovially "Century House -- all spies alight here." I never went inside. But I would gaze up at the grubby concrete structure, with a petrol station incongruously sited in its forecourt. Was this really our answer to the fearsome Soviet Lubyanka in Moscow? The imposing classical façade of the KGB citadel (originally an insurance company headquarters) would have suited the grandest streets in central London. But the MI6 building looked liked a scruffy Soviet tower block.

Spies, whether paid agents, idealistic volunteers, or professional intelligence officers, were foot soldiers in the struggle between east and west that shaped the lives of all postwar generations, including mine. They intrigued me as a student, activist, and journalist -- first in London and later behind the Iron Curtain. In the 1980s I rubbed shoulders and clinked glasses with spooks on both sides, dodging their blandishments while swapping jokes, jibes, arguments, and ideas. For a brief while, the collapse of communism looked set to doom the whole business. Now that the Soviet Union was gone, and with it the danger of the Cold War turning hot, what was left to spy on? But the champagne corks that spooks popped in Britain and America in August 1991 were as premature as the gloom in Lubyanka as the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky -- Lenin's secret-police chief -- was hauled away by a crane to the cheers of exuberant Muscovites. MI6, the CIA, and their partner services rejiggered their budgets and turned to new targets: rogue arms dealers, terrorists, gangsters, and cybercriminals. But new crime and old espionage soon proved to be overlapping phenomena; the crooks in the foreground were sometimes new, but in the background lurked, more often than not, the wily and ruthless figures of the old Soviet-bloc intelligence world.

They proved a good fit: dark partners in the new order. Far from being swept into the dustbin of history with the rubble of the old system, the communist-era spooks have evolved to match the new conditions. Some figures from the old days stayed undercover, gaining trusted roles in the new state structures. Others turned to business, where their foreign languages and knowledge of the outside world gave them a flying start in the new game. All across the former Soviet empire, assets of the Communist Party and its front organizations speedily melted away, often ending up in hands of the wily and well connected. So too did the operational funds of the KGB and its allied agencies. Estimates of the money squirreled away abroad during the collapse of the Soviet Union are in the tens of billions of dollars; a crop of still-unexplained suicides in the old system's dying days disposed of those in a position to blab. These caches of illicitly acquired cash were a financial springboard for the fleet-footed members of the old elite in their new business careers. In effect, they turned their power into wealth, and then back into power.

In Russia itself, Soviet-era spies, chief among them Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, now run the country. They are known as the Siloviki or "men of power." The old KGB was decapitated in 1991 amid the Soviet collapse, but not uprooted. Instead it renamed itself, just as so often in the past. (Under Vladimir Lenin it was the Cheka; later it became the OGPU, then the NKVD, and finally the KGB.) It is now split into two: the FSB, which has inherited the repressive domestic apparatus of the old system, and the SVR, which is the heir to the Soviet foreign intelligence service; alongside both works the separate GRU military intelligence agency.

Their most potent weapon in their deception is ordinariness. Just as Russian politicians and officials seem at first sight to hail from the same besuited and unremarkable caste as their counterparts in other industrialized countries, Russian spies appear neither glamorous nor sinister. They lead normal lives and work in normal jobs, moving effortlessly and inconspicuously among us. They are the kind of people you might meet at the school-gates, work alongside in an office, bump into on a business trip, or see mowing the lawn next door. Yet their real job is to penetrate our society, to influence it for their own ends, and to steal our secrets.

The best known of this new generation of Russian spies was Anna Chapman, the young redhead who was made a global superstar by her arrest and deportation in June 2010. She has become an intimate friend of Putin's, a prized asset of his political machine, a prominent figure in Russian finance, and a television celebrity. But her main talents in working abroad were not the highly honed skills of spy-school legend. She started her life here in the humdrum London suburb of Stoke Newington, to the outside eye just another hard-partying, quick-witted, young Russian woman with an English husband and an eye for the main chance, enjoying the safety and comfort of life in Britain. But her ordinariness was deceptive. She was well-placed to carry out her espionage assignments precisely because she seemed so inconspicuous. Her later transformation into a trophy superspy adds another dimension. It is proof of the skills of her imidzhmekeri (image-makers) and casts a revealing light on Russia itself.

The spy scandal that made Chapman famous was part of a larger picture. She was one of 10 people arrested in the United States in June 2010, all of whom lived unremarkable middle-class lives, seemingly far away from traditional espionage targets such as the Pentagon or State Department. She and another Russian lived there under their own names. Seven others had fraudulently obtained identities -- American, British, Canadian, Irish, and Uruguayan (the 10th was the latter's Peruvian spouse). One more suspect, a Russian called Pavel Kapustin, working under the alias of Christopher Metsos, was arrested in Cyprus but allowed to escape by the authorities there -- an episode, never satisfactorily explained, which still arouses fury in U.S. officialdom. (In a related case, a Russian who once worked at Microsoft was deported on immigration grounds in mid-July of that year).

Some people reacted with derision to the idea that Russia would send spies to suburbia, others with surprise. Both reactions were mistaken. This was not a new or foolish initiative by the Kremlin's spymasters, but the latest twist in an old and sinister one. Only two years previously in 2008, the case of Herman Simm had highlighted Russia's penetration of NATO. A portly Estonian ex-policeman who had become that country's top national-security official, he was exposed as a Russian agent after some able work by Western spycatchers. His case officer -- the career spy in charge of his activities -- was unmasked too. This was "Antonio": a Russian masquerading as a Portuguese businessman, under an elaborately constructed illegal identity. But the media furor over that case soon died down, leaving most people unaware of the effort that Russia, like the Soviet Union before it, still puts into deception, infiltration and subversion.

The international media frenzy surrounding Chapman trivialized espionage as a branch of show business. The mistake was easily made: pouting and haughty, the Russian firecracker could easily be a fictional character, not a real one. She would fit in neatly as the sultry sidekick to the arch-villain in a Bond movie. 007's relationship with "90-60-90" (Chapman's Russian nickname, which comes from the millimeters her shapely figure) would provide appropriately cheesy sexual tension. The lurid and seemingly pointless affair invited ridicule. New York magazine's headline was "Russian Spies Too Useless, Sexy to Prosecute." In London, the Guardian said confidently that "none of the 10 Russians had culled any secrets from their hideouts in US suburbia." A grand old man of Anglo-American journalism opined that the Russian illegals' operation was marked by "complete futility." As the detainees were swapped in Vienna for four people jailed in Russia for spying, David Cornwell, who under the pseudonym John le Carré so ably captured the dark intrigues of Cold War espionage, even suggested that out-of-control "rightists" in America's intelligence agencies were trying to jinx the improvement in Russian-American relations. He asked: "As we watch live in glorious Technicolor the greatest spy-swap of the twenty-first century, and hear in our memories the zither twanging out the Harry Lime theme, do the spies expect us to go scurrying back to our cold war shelters? Is that the cunning plan?"

With respect to Britain's greatest spy writer, and with rather less to other commentators, that is an oddly complacent approach. Spies need to seem as boring and inconspicuous as possible, to develop the capabilities that their real jobs require. If they are to be humble errand-runners, ferrying money, false documents, and other wherewithal to more glamorous operatives, then they need jobs that allow them to travel. George Smiley, le Carré's best-known character, spent the war years working undercover as an official (supposedly Swiss) of a Swedish shipping company -- the perfect background for someone needing a regular excuse to visit Hamburg or other German ports. For some the task is to gain jobs, hobbies, or lifestyles that give access to secret information. If the mission is identifying potential sources and the weaknesses that will enable their recruitment, they should be good networkers. If they are case officers, who recruit, direct, motivate, and check the agents, they need a lifestyle in which meeting a wide range of people arouses no suspicion. If they are moles, aiming to penetrate the other side's security or intelligence services, they need educational and career paths that will make them credible candidates for recruitment there.

Charles Crawford, a long-serving British diplomat in the region, explains it well on his blog. Espionage means finding out where highly sensitive and useful information is stored or circulated, then using the human or physical weaknesses in its protection to copy the information in an undetectable way. All this must be done without anyone noticing or suspecting, and repeated many times over. In such work invisibility is a prime advantage. Spycatchers can watch the every waking and sleeping hour of a diplomat suspected of spying. They can comb through visa applications to spot foreign visitors who may be more or less than they seem. They can put suspects on their own side under surveillance to see if they are having odd meetings with strange people. Such techniques may be effective in catching a spook disguised as a diplomat, or a careless traitor. But they have almost no chance of catching a properly trained and targeted "illegal" -- someone working under an acquired or stolen identity.

Russians do not trivialize or ridicule espionage. They take it rather seriously, both as a threat from abroad and as something that their country excels in. Admittedly, people everywhere find fictional spies glamorous. America has the amnesiac but indestructible Jason Bourne; Commander Bond's high jinks sprinkle stardust over the reputation of SIS. But real-life spies in Western countries have only modest privileges compared to their counterparts elsewhere. In Britain, for example, they retire at 55, earlier than the diplomatic colleagues whose cover they use. They have rather larger and more loosely scrutinized expense accounts than other officials, but on the whole enjoy the same lifestyle as any other middle-class professional.

The Soviet legacy, however, has left a distinctive aura around espionage in Russia. For officers of the KGB (such as Chapman's father, Vasily, or Putin and hundreds of thousands like them) life was markedly nicer than for fellow-inmates of the workers' paradise. Housed in the KGB's special accommodation, its officers had access to shops stocked with otherwise unavailable products. They holidayed at KGB resorts and were spared some of the system's petty restrictions on daily life. Those in the elite foreign-espionage division, the First Chief Directorate, and some colleagues in cryptography and counter-intelligence, could even be sent to work abroad -- perhaps even a posting to the fabled Western cornucopia that the class warriors both despised and envied.

Privileges aside, the KGB also enjoyed a mystique that still lingers over its successor organizations. People saw it (rather inaccurately) as efficient, knowledgeable and incorruptible. Its officers had a job that mattered, in an organization that worked, and were well rewarded for it. Few in the claustrophobic, ill-run, and bribe-plagued Soviet Union could boast as much. Like the space program and sporting heroes, the KGB also touched another emotional chord: patriotism. Though its ultimate loyalty was to the Communist Party, not the Soviet state (it described itself as the Party's "sword and shield") it basked in the reflected glory of the defeat of Nazi Germany. Rather as the Battle of Britain provides Britain's "finest hour," as the Resistance epitomizes France's national myth, and as the Normandy beaches exemplify America's commitment to the freedom of Europe, the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia) was the central plank in the Soviet Union's self-image -- and plays the same role in Russian identity today.

For all the heroism displayed by Soviet soldiers in defeating the Nazi invaders, the real role of the secret police in those years was a despicable mix of war crimes against the foe, ruthless pacification of "liberated" territories and persecution of real or imagined waverers on its own side. Yet Soviet wartime history mostly comes across in a quite different light: on the television screens later adorned by Chapman's lightweight program on unsolved mysteries, viewers used to watch the exploits of the best-known Soviet fictional spy, Max Otto von Stirlitz (to give him his German cover name). His wartime mission was to penetrate the Nazi high command. Unlike Bond, Stirlitz shuns gadgets, guns, and girls. His weapon is his mind, fuelled not by communist ideology but a plangent patriotism. Though implausible, books and films featuring his exploits were compelling and sympathetic by the hackneyed standards of Soviet propaganda. They so captivated one tough teenager in the backstreets of 1970s Leningrad that he took the unusual step of walking into the city's KGB headquarters and volunteering his services. But the young Vladimir Putin was told that the organization did not accept walk-ins; he should get an education first and wait to be approached.

The Soviet Union is gone, but the links between Russia's spies today and their dark and bloody past are real enough. Of course, the old and new are not identical. Chapman's Soviet-era predecessors wore ill-fitting grey suits and sought the shadows. She likes leather cat suits and the spotlight. They served a totalitarian superpower. She serves post-Soviet Russia, a country that is undeniably capitalist and claims to be democratic. But a lasting connection is privilege. The dispensations enjoyed by Russia's spooks now mean that they lead a life apart, just as KGB officers did in the Soviet era. The difference is not in salary and access to consumer goods, but in the privilege of living above and outside the law. The results range from the trivial to the monstrous. An officer of the FSB can drive while drunk (and mow down pedestrians) with impunity. A flash of his ID badge will intimidate any lesser official; he can triumph in any private legal or commercial dispute; he can ignore planning regulations when he builds his house in the country.

Chapman does not just hit the old Soviet buttons in the Russian psyche. She tickles its modern neuroses too. Her brand is based not on the steely Puritanism of the wartime Soviet military but on the sleazy glitz of modern Russia. Her role was to spy not on the hated Nazis of long ago, but on a new bugbear: Western countries such as Britain and America, which the Russian regime sees as duplicitous, arrogant, and greedy. Though the elite likes to shop, bank, frolic, and school their children in and around London, many of its members despise Britain -- just as they resent what they see as American hegemony and the bossiness of the European Union.

This hostility stems in part from an inferiority complex: for all the West's ills, it provides a quality of life that is missing in Russia. This is despite what many Russians see as its baffling weakness and indolence. Another reason is that Russians object to what they see as the West's political interference -- for example, by sponsoring media freedom and pro-democracy causes, and sheltering fugitives, who claim to be persecuted for their political beliefs, but are seen (at least by the authorities in Moscow) as mere swindlers and terrorists.

Despite the Putin Kremlin's lip-service to the free-market, the business community has been a frequent target as well. Few cases highlight the FSB's corruption and brutality better than the torture and death in 2009 of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer working for a British investor. He exposed a $230 million fraud by a criminal group led by the FSB and backed at the highest level in the regime. He paid for this discovery with his life; since his death, the authorities have tried to cover up his murder, and their fraud, with a mixture of bombast, lies, bullying, and evasion. The scandal exemplifies the overlap between gangsterdom and power in Russia, the abuse of the legal system, and the bravery of those Russians willing to defend the rule of law. The tentacles of FSB power stretch to the West too, not least because Russian officials have snooped on and intimidated Magnitsky's colleagues and defenders in London and elsewhere. The Magnitsky case shows that the ruling regime represents not just a tragedy for Russia: it is a direct threat to our own wellbeing and safety.

The passage of time and other priorities have eroded the expertise and institutional memory that in Cold War days helped spycatchers keep track of Soviet penetration attempts. Concerns for privacy have made vetting procedures flimsy. Officials can make money on the side, take lucrative jobs on retirement, take unexplained foreign trips, copy documents onto memory sticks from supposedly secure laptops, and carry an array of electronic gadgets that never come under scrutiny. A mistaken complacency has also surrounded the expansion of NATO to the ex-communist countries. It was right to enlarge the alliance (chiefly because of Russia's neo-imperialist saber-rattling) but intelligence and security services have grossly underestimated the Soviet-era shadow that still lies over the region. The liberation of 1989-1991 was intoxicating, but the effect was only skin-deep. Replacing the planned economy with free markets, state censorship with free media, and one-party rule with free elections were hugely important changes. But the transformation of the political and economic systems could not be matched by an instant change in the human beings that inhabit them. Millions of people in the region have grown up under communism and collaborated with it. The toxic legacy of secret police files, with the shabby compromises and sordid secrets they contain, still taints public life. It provides plenty of scope for blackmail of the guilty -- and the smearing of the innocent. Even those seen in the West as heroes, such as Poland's former president Lech Walesa, have come under a cloud of suspicion about past collaboration. Although not everything in the secret police files is true, and many true things are not in the files, the dirty secrets of the past, many of them spirited away to Russia in the dying days of the old regimes, create great possibilities for pressurizing anyone born before, roughly, 1970. In short, the collapse of communism left a series of human time-bombs all over the former empire -- with the Kremlin in charge of the remote controls.

Neither the Simm case, nor the exposure of Chapman and her colleagues, have properly woken up public opinion and officialdom to the fact that Russian spies' activities are not just a lingering spasm of old Soviet institutions, twitching like the tail of a dying dinosaur, but are part of a wider effort to penetrate and manipulate, which targets the weakest parts of our system: its open and trusting approach to outsiders and newcomers. Because this threat is underestimated or outright ignored, it is especially potent. It is part of a world, espionage, of which outsiders mostly know little and understand less.

The battle lines were more clearly drawn in the days of the Cold War, when the threat was of communist victory. The corrupt autocracy that rules Russia now is playing by capitalist rules -- and the threat is even more corrosive. However, Russia's new spies, like their Soviet predecessors, engage in the subversion, manipulation and penetration of the West. They also defend a regime that is tyrannical, criminal and even murderous. Some things never change.




Forget the best and brightest. Why did America send its C team to Afghanistan? An exclusive excerpt from the new book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan.

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.

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.

With off-campus trips a rarity, Coish's colleagues sought to have fun within the compound. Their email inboxes filled up with announcements of upcoming diversions:

RAMBO IN AFGHANISTAN: A screening of Rambo III at the Duck and Cover. "Wear a headband for $1 off drinks."

FIRST MEETING OF THE KABUL FLY FISHING FORUM: "Preliminary research reveals there are trout fishing opportunities in Afghanistan." [Of course, no embassy staffer was allowed off the compound for a fishing trip.]

WINE & SWINE PARTY: Held at the quarters of the Marines who guarded the embassy, the festivities would begin with afternoon volleyball matches and swimming. They advertised that "North Carolina BBQ experts" would be brought in "to cook these porkers." [Apparently nobody bothered to consider the cultural offense of roasting a pig in a Muslim country.]

HOLIDAY CRAFT MAKING!: "No talent is necessary! Just come and enjoy the day with holiday crafts, music, and sweets! Please bring scissors, tape, and glue sticks if you have them."

The amusements grew tiresome after a while. Some staffers retreated to their trailers to watch movies on their laptops. Others grew homesick and despondent. The embassy health clinic doled out increasing quantities of antidepressant pills, and when a State Department psychiatrist arrived in February 2010 for a month-long visit, there was a rush to make appointments.

The most common salve, however, was booze. For those not lucky enough to be invited to a private party in one of the apartments, the Duck and Cover -- whose logo featured a duck wearing a combat helmet perched atop sandbags -- was the place to go. On Thursday nights, staffers crammed shoulder to shoulder in the pub, downing cans of Heineken, glasses of cheap Australian white wine, and bottles of hard lemonade. The place remained hopping until last call at 2 in the morning, when everyone stumbled back to his or her hooch.

But such nights were tame compared with Mardi Gras in 2010, when the embassy's social committee threw the party that almost ended all parties. Hundreds of revelers, including thick-necked security contractors, raggedy aid workers, and suit- wearing diplomats from other countries, packed into a tent next to the main embassy office building. The organizers had procured more than enough liquor, but the partygoers had access to only two restrooms. The queue for the toilets grew so long that inebriated attendees began to relieve themselves elsewhere. The deputy Turkish ambassador urinated on the wall of the chancery building. So did two American men who worked at the embassy. A female staffer pulled off her underwear and squatted on a patch of grass near the flagpole. Eikenberry couldn't do anything about the Turk, but both of the American men were sent home. When the woman was hauled into her supervisor's office the following day and told she would be disciplined, she claimed to have a small bladder and threatened to lodge an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint. She was allowed to finish her tour in Kabul. The following week, the word came down that there would be no more blow-out parties until the Marine Corps birthday ball that fall, and alcohol purchases at the embassy convenience store would be limited to two bottles of wine or one bottle of spirits per person per day.


Coish may have hated her job, but she was lucky to have a specific assignment before she arrived. Many people who were sent to Afghanistan as part of the civilian surge had no idea what they would be doing until they reached Kabul and waited around, often for a few weeks, for marching orders from supervisors at the embassy or the USAID mission. The allocations were random. People who wanted to work in the field found themselves sitting in a Kabul office, and those who had expected hot showers, air-conditioning, and fresh food wound up in tents on forward operating bases, eating meals out of bags.

The civilian surge was supposed to place more diplomats and USAID officers in southern districts where recently deployed U.S. troops were conducting counterinsurgency operations. But most of the new arrivals wound up staying in Kabul. By late 2010, more than two-thirds of the 1,100 civilian U.S. government employees in Afghanistan were stationed in the capital to feed the mushrooming bureaucracy at the embassy and the USAID mission. Although there were plenty of Afghans in the city with whom to collaborate, most embassy and USAID staffers were required to sit at their desks. When Coish asked to work at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, which was a key player in reconstruction programs, her boss released her for only three days a week, and even that came with a condition -- that she come in to the USAID office those evenings to draft memos and proofread cables.

It was the ninth year of America's war in Afghanistan, but it often felt like the ninth version of the first year, save for the massive expansion of the compound. Most staffers stayed for only a year, and 90 percent of them arrived and departed over the summer --  because that's what Foreign Service officers do everywhere else in the world. By late August, the embassy and USAID mission had a whole new crop of people who lacked institutional memory. To Coish, who arrived in April and witnessed the 2010 summer transition, "It was as if someone had pushed a giant reset button on the entire place."

From the outset, the civilian surge was bedeviled by a lack of initiative and creativity in Washington. Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of President Barack Obama's national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options. The personnel office also sought out retirees. A 79-year-old man was sent to the reconstruction team office in Kandahar.

USAID eventually agreed to hire outsiders for yearlong tours in Afghanistan. But the human resources team did not call up experts in private companies, universities, and nonprofit organizations. It waited for résumés to come over the transom. Most were from contractors who had worked in Iraq, often on wasteful projects that had accomplished little.

The result was almost as embarrassing as the first year of the Iraq occupation, when the Coalition Provisional Authority had given a 24-year-old who had never worked in finance the job of reopening Baghdad's stock exchange. The USAID field officer sent to Musa Qala, in Helmand province, was reassigned after she got into a fight with the Marines because they would not give her an air-conditioned trailer. Nawa, which was one of the safest districts in Helmand, could not hold down a State Department representative. The first one went on leave and never returned. So did the second one, but not before revealing to colleagues that he did not know the term ANSF, the commonly used acronym for the Afghan national security forces. The third one, who had been fired from his previous job as a town manager in Virginia, stayed.

"We're past the B Team," said Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand. "We're at Team C."

It was not just rank-and-file civilians who did not acquit themselves well.

During his first meeting with Kandahar governor Tooryalai Wesa, Andrew Haviland, the top State Department official in Kandahar, boasted about how he had forged a close relationship with one of Wesa's predecessors, the strongman Gul Agha Sherzai, the longtime rival of the Karzai family. A little background reading would have revealed that Wesa hated Sherzai, who was constantly meddling in the province. Then Haviland lectured Wesa about the need to work with powerful tribal chieftains in Kandahar, though many other American officials had been urging the governor to do the opposite. Infuriated, Wesa threw Haviland out of his office. "I never want to see him here again," Wesa subsequently told a one-star Army general in Kandahar.

Haviland then proceeded to demolish his relationship with the military. Prior to his arrival, the top general in Kandahar had removed a chain-link fence between the military and civilian headquarters buildings on the Kandahar Airfield. But when the civilians moved into a new building 50 yards away, the regional security officer at the embassy in Kabul ordered that a new fence be erected. The gates were equipped with combination locks, and military officers on the general's command staff, who possessed higher-level security clearances than many of the civilians, assumed that they would get the code so they could easily interact with one another. But Haviland refused to divulge it. And he made his subordinates sign nondisclosure agreements subjecting them to sanctions if they shared the numbers. "Forget about everyone working together to fix Afghanistan. He wanted to be separate," one civilian who worked there told me. "It was not just embarrassing. It was idiotic."

In May 2010, I accompanied Chretien on a trip to Marja, the Taliban-controlled enclave that the Marines had invaded with much fanfare three months earlier, to observe how the civilians there were performing. There were five of them -- one from State, two from USAID, one from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and, because it was in Helmand, one stabilization advisor from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Given the stakes in Marja, they should all have been stars. One of the USAID men, a young New Englander, was indeed a model of dynamism and creativity. But the other USAID staffer seemed lost in the heat and dust. Chretien and I observed him one morning as he woke late and then did his laundry and puttered around. While he wandered the base, we chatted with a stream of residents who had come to see Haji Zahir, the ex-con district governor. One of them was the district health director, whom we peppered with questions about the state of Marja's clinics. That evening, we told the lost USAID officer about our conversation and asked him for his thoughts about the health director. He sheepishly admitted that he had never met the man. In his three weeks in Marja, he had not yet left the base, even though the Marines were driving and walking around every day.

The USAID officer in Marja left within a few months. And he wasn't alone. Forty percent of U.S. government civilians who were assigned to Helmand from July 2009 to June 2010 did not last six months. The churn complicated efforts to increase the number of civilians in the field. By late 2010, USAID was hiring 20 new people a month to go to Afghanistan, but it was losing seventeen.

When he returned to Camp Leatherneck, Chretien sent a note to the embassy about the staffing problems in Helmand. "It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we're getting the straphangers these days," he wrote. "Or as one wag put it, 'they're just along for the chow.' No need to go into details here -- let's just say that there's enough deadwood here that it's becoming a fire hazard."

Project On Government Oversight