Young Diplomat Killed in Afghanistan Is Called 'One of the Best'

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She was an unassuming young diplomat, only 25, who greeted journalists at the heavily fortified American Embassy gates in Kabul, escorting them to interviews and impressing them with her organization and her studied wish to build bridges between Afghan and American cultures.

Anne Smedinghoff arrived in Afghanistan in the middle of the summer heat last July. Tentative, even nervous about her relative inexperience in the war, she was nevertheless ambitious and eager to impress as a public diplomacy officer during her long hours fielding inquiries from journalists, chatting at parties around the city, and in trips to regions beyond Kabul.

One of her first breaks was to be selected from hundreds to be the on-the-ground control officer for the visit of Secretary of State John Kerry to Afghanistan last month, arranging logistics and publicity. The feeling at the embassy was that she had handled herself well, and was on her way.

But on Saturday, traveling in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan on a day trip to deliver books to schoolchildren, Ms. Smedinghoff's promise was cut short by a Taliban car bomb. She was killed along with three American soldiers, a Department of Defense civilian employee and several Afghans. Others in her group were injured.

They were attacked as they walked from a small air base to a school in Qalat, the provincial capital -- a walk that would normally have taken just a few minutes, but was still conducted wearing helmets and protective gear, and with a military escort, officials in Kabul said.

Her death has deeply shaken her colleagues, a diplomatic corps already kept in pressure-cooker conditions in the tightly secured embassy in Kabul.

At a service for her in Kabul on Monday, Ambassador James B. Cunningham said, "It was clear that she was one of the best," and that it was "indeed tragic that Anne's great, promising story ended too soon." And in a statement on Saturday, Mr. Kerry said, "She was everything a Foreign Service officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country and the difference she was making for the Afghan people."

Her dedication distinguished her early on, growing up in River Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Even in the midst of grief, and shock at the manner of her death, her family and friends unanimously shared a sense of pride that Ms. Smedinghoff's drive had taken her so far.

"We are so proud of what she was doing, so proud of her," said her father, Tom Smedinghoff, a lawyer, on Monday after visiting Dover Air Force Base, where his daughter's flag-draped coffin arrived back in the United States. "It was something that made a difference."

Her interest in foreign affairs grew early. Richard Borsch, associate principal at Fenwick High School, where Ms. Smedinghoff graduated, recalled her as a deeply involved, gifted student who "was almost a poster child for what we try to do when it comes to the whole child."

Even back then, a counselor described her in a recommendation as "a future public servant" who was highly respected at school and seemed destined to have an impact.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Ms. Smedinghoff focused on international relations and Spanish. She helped organize a speakers' symposium, inviting outside speakers to talk on international affairs. In 2007 she went to Madrid for a semester.

She had a close-knit group of friends, including Marissa Neto, one of 11 friends with whom she formed a Facebook group, and they kept in touch. "She was just so ambitious," said Ms. Neto, who went with her to Madrid. They talked a lot about what they were going to do in their lives and, when it came up, how a posting in Kabul would open doors and further her career.

"She was not going to change what she was going to do for anyone," Ms. Neto said.

After serving in Venezuela for nearly two years as a consular official, she arrived in Kabul in July. She dove straight into the "bull pen" -- the communications center deep in the embassy, one of four press officers answering calls from Afghan and international journalists sometimes 14 hours a day, six days a week. She immediately impressed, said colleagues who worked closely beside her, and her selection as the go-to person for Mr. Kerry's visit reflected her ability.

"She was the go-to person on the ground," said John Rhatigan, a spokesman who worked with her. "When you are selected for the job it tells you it is someone who is full of potential."

She did not have formal training in Dari, the language of the Afghan government, said Solmaz Sharifi, another colleague, but "in the bullpen she frequently wrote and defined impromptu Dari vocab words on the whiteboard. Anne's favorite phrase was 'salam watandar,' or 'hello, countrymen.'" Ms. Sharifi said Ms. Smedinghoff "copied down the Dari words we talked about in a notebook and tried to use words she had learned."

Ms. Smedinghoff made reminders of Chicago, including postcards and a Cubs T-shirt, a prominent part of her life in her living quarters, one of the stark single-housing units that otherwise contained little more than a bed, desk and bathroom.

"She was a Chicago girl," Ms. Sharifi said. She talked a lot about her family, and last fall, appearing on Afghanistan's Ariana television channel around Id al-Adha, the most important Muslim holiday, Ms. Smedinghoff emphasized to the Afghan audience the similarities with Thanksgiving and the importance of family in both celebrations.

The life of a Kabul diplomat is a tightly proscribed one, and trips beyond the embassy's walls are cherished. Ms. Smedinghoff's father recalled that even a one-off trip to Kabul's only bowling alley became a noteworthy occasion for her.

In her downtime, she would go running in the embassy gym, or pursue her passion for soccer. She organized the visit to Kabul of the former Olympic soccer player Lorrie Fair, and played right forward for the embassy women's team – on the rough grass soccer field in the international military coalition's compound in the summer, or in the gym there during colder weather.

She was helping to organize the annual Kabul marathon this month. And last month, during a break, she and four friends went on a week's cycling tour in Jordan. They were tentatively planning another trip, to Vietnam.

In Afghanistan, she went on regular official trips – to Herat, with Ambassador Cunningham last year for an art exhibition opening, for example, and this month on the day visit, accompanying Afghan journalists in Zabul to present a set of translated books to Afghan children, meant especially for girls, part of a program that has already delivered 1.9 million books around the country. Advancing Afghan women's rights was one of her passions, journalists said.

Her next posting was to be the information officer at the American Embassy in Algiers – another challenging assignment. She was to begin two years of Arabic training after her year was up in Kabul.

On Monday, some residents of River Forest tied white ribbons around their trees in her honor, the village president, John Rigas, said in a statement. The flag at Village Hall was to be flown at half-staff until her burial. Mr. Borsch, the associate principal, said the school planned a memorial Mass on Tuesday. She had returned home in December and had spoken to students about her experience.

The photographs she had shared with her family of her life abroad are especially treasured now. One of her in a helicopter wearing a helmet and heavy gear struck her father as oddly fitting for a woman often noted as having a soft touch. "She was quiet, but she was a force to be reckoned with," he said.

Another photograph showed her with Mr. Kerry during his recent visit. Her family passed it around, along with an e-mail from a superior who praised her work during that trip, at a family gathering in Illinois for Easter, just days before her death.

Her aunt, Cathy Tokarski, said the photo showed "such a smile of complete pride" on her face. She added, "I was just kind of in awe of her sometimes. She made these sorts of things seem easy."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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