Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Kabul Conference and Clinton

So, Clinton was here.

The Secretary walking in with Ambassador Eikenberry. Probably not my strongest photography ever.

Let's try a different shot.

This photo is perhaps even worse than the last one.

So, despite my not so good photography of the event (I'm sure my parents are thrilled that they dropped a bazillion dollars at Christmas to get me the camera that recorded that moment for posterity), it was still cool to see Clinton. I'd like to think she came just to see me, but the reality of it is that she came for the Kabul conference, the single largest donor conference to take place in Afghanistan in a good fistful of decades. The whole world was here, it seemed -- Clinton comes with an understandably large staff, and and there were Foreign Ministers from dozens of countries, each with their own entourage.

(Through a series of coincidences, a buddy of mine ended up sharing a car with the Egyptian Foreign Minister. "Did you talk to him?" we asked over dinner last night. "A little," she said, "but what was I going to say? Lecture him on bringing democracy to the Middle East?" She, tasked with note taking but inappropriately badged to get past the hordes of security, spent the majority of the conference in the parking lot).

The conference basically shut down Kabul, including the US Embassy. Most of our local staff were off and consequently most non-essential/non-conference support sections were closed. The commissary and coffee shop on compound were likewise shut and the Embassy felt like a ghost town: everyone was sucked into working.

The conference is the reason I'm still in Kabul. I was slated to fly out to the field more or less ASAP on a regularly scheduled Embassy flight, but all of our planes were grounded for the big event.

(The Embassy, through the offices of USAID -- the Agency for International Development -- owns and operates an airline for domestic flights in Afghanistan. Formerly known as PRT Air (Provincial Reconstruction Team Air), Embassy Air owns and runs over ten aircraft and operates in all provinces of Afghanistan on both a regular schedule and charter basis).

I had exactly nothing to do with the Kabul Conference. I kept waiting to be tapped on the shoulder and asked to go take notes, but it never happened. That's not hugely surprising -- as a field officer, I'm assigned to a section of the Embassy (IPA, or Inter-Provincial Affairs) that had nothing to do with the conference, and it's rare for one section to poach from another. And I was in the check-in process, which is somewhat sacred since if you don't do it, you can't function in your job -- you'll lack computer access, and info on who to contact for what, and your pay won't be right, and what have you. On top of all that, about half the world was flown in TDY (that is, on a temporary basis), so there were plenty of hands on deck besides mine.

But I did get to hear Clinton speak, in the main lobby of the chancery. She thanked the Ambassador for his hospitality ("Ambassador Eikenberry," she clarified jokingly. "I mean, you guys have a whole STABLE of Ambassadors here." She's not kidding -- there are five people of Ambassador rank at the Embassy, with six if you also count SRAP Richard Holbrooke, the President's Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan).

She thanked the Americans working in Afghanistan and then gave a special thanks to the Afghans who work at the Embassy, recognizing that doing so often puts them at risk. She joked about conditions at the Embassy -- she seemed to know that housing is the number one morale issue at post -- and gave us a quick rundown of her participation in the Kabul Conference and the document that Karzai had presented to chart the way forward.

In short, her brief remarks (maybe five minutes total) made her seem both extraordinarily competent (she's clearly up on all things Afghanistan, as one would expect) as well as extremely dialed in to what's going on for all of us on the ground. Little things like acknowledging the housing situation and thanking our local staff for putting themselves in harms way made it clear that she wasn't giving a standard set of remarks. Bottom line: I remain completely enamored of my boss.

That's all I've got for now (more on the process of checking in at the Embassy in a day or two). But in clearing off those photos of Clinton from my memory card, I also came across a few photos of me from training, including this awesome shot in body armor, so I'll close with that.

Both rugged AND enthusiastic. Perfect for Oh yes.