by Michael Hornblow
With pleasure we present another interesting account of a first-time-out assignment – an experience unique to each member of the Foreign Service.Let this serve as a personal invitation to you, members of the Foreign Service, active and retired, to write and submit to American Diplomacy your own First Post story. – Ed.
A first Foreign Service posting is transformative. It can set the stage for a future career or a hasty exit. It is almost always important, often exciting, and more often than not establishes a course or direction for the next twenty or thirty years. My tour in Kabul convinced me that that I wanted a Foreign Service career and was willing to spend much of it in what we then called “the night soil circuit.”
In the recent Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan titled “No Direction Home,” shown on PBS, the sixty-something Dylan looks back at and comments on the music and actions of his 1966 counterpart, with both being on the screen simultaneously. When I think back thirty-nine years of the 1966 version of me enroute to a first assignment in Kabul, there are no film clips or vinyl records to prompt a sometimes-recalcitrant memory; there is only memory, warped perhaps by the passage of time and informed, inevitably, by all that has happened to Afghanistan since. I think back to what was a good and optimistic time and realize that almost all the Afghans I knew are now dead, many murdered. The country has been ravaged over the last twenty-seven years, one tragedy after another – the “Great Game” turned deadly.
In September, 1966 as I boarded an Iran Air flight in Tehran my only concern was not to have a bloody nose upon arriving in Kabul. I had read that passengers landing at Kabul’s 6,000-foot high airport often descended from the plane with copious nosebleeds and I felt that would be an inelegant start to a Foreign Service career. I had therefore stuffed cotton and various ointments in my coat pockets just in case. The plane took off and the pilot announced we would land in Kabul in a couple of hour “N’Shallah (If God wills)”. This rather unnerved me, but the flight was smooth, my nose behaved and there to greet me at the airport was my first boss, the embassy general services officer, and another rotational officer, Robert A. Peck.
The American embassy in Kabul was a medium-sized, twenty-five percent hardship post. There was no ambassador at the time; the legendary Archer K. Blood was chargé d’affaires. There was an enormous USAID presence, about 100 Peace Corps volunteers, and the only State Department-run hospital in the world.
Since we were between ambassadors and the residence was vacant, I was installed there with a small army of servants at my command. The previous ambassador, Henry (Hank) Byroade, a noted lothario, had left several months previously with his bride, the former wife of the former general services officer, just one of his reputed conquests. At the residence the major domo known as “Big Sultan” noted that I spent many nights alone reading the Herald Tribune or a book and was concerned. “Ambassador Byroade had a different woman in here every night” he would say, “and you sit here alone reading your book.”
I was not sorry to leave the residence four months later when the new ambassador, Robert Neumann, and his wife, Marlene, arrived. I was supposed to show them around and introduce them to the staff who were all lined up in the driveway. Suddenly the small army became a larger army – people I had never seen before appeared in the line and I was able to introduce them only with the help of Big Sultan. (Ambassador Robert Neumann’s son, Ron, is our present ambassador to Afghanistan.)
At the Embassy there was another small army – carpenters, electricians, masons, plumbers etc. and I was their general. It was years before I would again have so many people working for me. There were over fifty houses to maintain and every morning I would go through a pile of work orders and make assignments. My first diplomatic challenges came in trying to deal with irate spouses who were dissatisfied with the work done by my army.
After several months the GSO felt it would be safe to take a vacation and he left everything in my hands. On the first day he left a fire broke out in one of our houses and I rushed over just as the Kabul fire department arrived. The house was made of a sort of reinforced mud. The fire was put out relatively fast, but the firemen kept the water pouring onto the house and to my horror I watched it begin to melt. Not much damage was done, however, and several months later I moved into that very same house, located, fortuitously, across the street from the royal yogurt maker.
At that time some eighty percent of the Embassy staff would come down with amoebic dysentery at least once during a tour, with the figure being over ninety percent for Peace Corps volunteers. The State Department hospital employed a lab technician whose principal job was to examine the stools of embassy and USAID employees for amoeba. At embassy parties he would tell amazing stories about his work, which included occasional small explosions.
I was one of his better customers, with four cases of amoebic dysentery my first year. It is a great way to lose weight, though that was not a problem for me thirty-nine years ago. My fortunes changed, however, when I moved across from the royal yogurt maker and started to consume royal yogurt. I never got sick again thanks to the splendid royal bacteria. But I believe the amoebas never really go away and that I still have a few mementos of Afghanistan deep inside.
Kabul in 1966 was an exciting place to be for a first tour officer. King Mohammed Zahir Shah after over thirty years on the throne had woken up and was personally directing political and economic reforms. Sessions of parliament were broadcast on the radio and there was a sense of real optimism about the future.
The Soviets and Americans were rivals, but friendly and cooperative ones. At the Kabul airport we built the control tower and they built the runways. Their north-south roads merged nicely with our east-west ones and their large KGB station kept a benign, but wary eye on our large CIA station, and vice versa.
The two station chiefs knew each other and decided it would be useful to institute “bi-national blasts.” Once a month our Foreign Service officers and theirs would meet either at their embassy or at one of our houses. The bi-national blasts at the Soviet Embassy were real tests of one’s bladder and ability to hold liquor. I would usually have a raw egg to coat my stomach before attending. Immediately upon entering the Soviet embassy the vodka would start flowing, followed by beer chasers and endless toasts to peace and friendship and good relations. After the blast we would all somehow manage to drive home and write up our memoranda of conversations. In 1968, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the bi-national blasts were discontinued.
At one of these gatherings I met Mikhail, a fifty-year-old Russian “vice consul” who insisted that he was my counterpart. We became friends and whenever we met he would call me “Mikhail” and I called him “Mike” and we laughed uproariously at our brilliant humor.
In early 1968 I was once again living temporarily in the ambassador’s residence while Ambassador and Mrs. Neumann were away. At a national day reception “Mike” oozed up to me and said “Mikhail, we have a group of beautiful, loving Aeroflot stewardesses who will be arriving next week. I understand you are living at your ambassador’s house so why don’t I come over with a stewardess for you and we can party.” I thanked him for the offer and said I would let him know.
The following day I reported this exchange to the political counselor and station chief. Both said they were thrilled that I had been offered this opportunity. “But not in the ambassador’s house,” they said, “they will just plant listening devices all over the place. Do what you want in your own house”.
I avoided Mikhail until after I had moved back to my own house. He did not repeat the offer.
Mikhail was not the only Soviet KGB officer after me. There were also Peter and Yuri, both mid-level careerists who always traveled together. Peter was a brilliant linguist, learned, funny and thoughtful. Yuri was a bloated Soviet Bubba. They seemed to know when I would be at home and would suddenly appear wanting some scotch and always parked about a block away, standard tradecraft. We became friends and in 1967 they invited me to spend a weekend with them and other Russians at a Soviet recreational camp, a place no American had previously visited.
Within the Embassy there were vigorous discussions about whether I should go and it was finally decided I should accept. The CIA provided me with a tape recorder and asked that I dictate everything upon returning. The weekend was uneventful, but I learned a lot. The only thing I remember now is that Peter on Saturday night, perhaps lubricated by vodka and freed temporarily from Yuri’s presence, opened up about his life and feelings. Year later I saw Peter in Tehran. He was then senior enough to be on his own and we drove around for several hours catching up. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan I saw him once on TV explaining why they had done it.
Meanwhile my rotations continued. After general services I had a few months in the economic section and six months in the political section. While in the political section anti-government demonstrations began and I remember covering them, walking among the demonstrators feeling perfectly safe because I was an American and Americans were loved and nobody would dare harm an American diplomat. That was perhaps true at the time, but looking back with thirty-nine years of hindsight, it seems terribly naïve.
Eventually the rotational program was discontinued due to budgetary problems and I became the designated consular officer. One day a man on crutches came into the consular section. He said that he, along with Martin Luther King, had led the march on Selma. I found him most engaging and interesting and we had several meals together. Peter and Yuri also found him of interest, wined and dined him, and tried to get him to make anti American statements to the media. He refused.
Every day we would receive scruffy American tourists who would approach the counter saying “We are taxpayers – we have run out of money.” On one memorable day a young man tried to enter the consular section with his pet baby wolf. I refused the wolf entry but allowed Douglas, thereafter known as “The Wolfman” into my office and listened to his story. He, like many, had set out for Kathmandu in search of Nirvana. Upon arriving in Kabul he had found all the hash he could want at reasonable prices, nice people, an interesting culture, and a cute little wolf. But he too had run out of money and needed funds from his relatives. We did all the paperwork, he left, and we contacted his relatives. Several days later he returned, distraught. The wolf had bit him and he was rabid. He was also destitute and had no place to stay and unfortunately no relatives were willing to assist. We got him started on rabies shots and I violated every consular rule in the book and put him up. As soon as his shots were finished we got him a repatriation loan and shipped him back to the U.S, as far away from our consular district as possible.
One of the great things about serving in Afghanistan was the ability to take trips outside Kabul. At that time it was perfectly safe to travel anywhere in the country. One memorable trip was to Mazar-i-Sharif with Mr. Blood in the Air Force attaché’s plane. The Soviets knew we were traveling. They had a large airport just across the border and used fake signals, pretending to be the Mazar-i-Sharif airport, attempting to lure us into Soviet airspace. This ruse worked for a while but fortunately the attaché soon caught on.
One of the books every American diplomat in Afghanistan had to read was James Michener’s Caravans. It told the story of a young and beautiful Bryn Marr graduate who has been abducted by a rugged Afghan chief. A young, single first tour American consular officer is sent to rescue this damsel in distress. He succeeds, but only after a harrowing crossing of the “Dashte Margo (desert of death) located in the south-central part of the country.
It happened that another rotational officer, L. Paul (Jerry) Bremer III, an embassy economic officer and an Afghan banker and I set out to visit the banker’s home town, Juwain, and from there to visit “Four by Four” in the remote town of Chahar Borjak located near where Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan meet. “Four by Four” was a perfectly square and amiable sheikh whose late father was called “Five by Five.” He owned the town, a smuggler’s paradise, and lived in great luxury attended to by his harem. The best way to return from Char Borjak to Kandahar was across the desert of death. We started across in our white jeep and quickly hit a blinding sand storm. Our driver, Mohammed, was not happy about anything and kept shouting curses about “infidels” as the wind roared and the sand bit into us. After a sleepless night the storm abated and we made it back to Kandahar and rushed to the nearest showers.
About twenty years later I met Mr. Michener at a reception and had occasion to tell him how accurate his description of the “Dashte Margo” had been.
Today the province of Pakthia is much in the news. My last trip while in Afghanistan was to Pakthia with the station chief and another junior officer. We brought a projector with us, rented a cinema, and arranged to show movies provided by the U.S. Information Service. We got a good crowd and started to thread the projector. We soon discovered the projector was broken and we could only show films backwards. A shot of a boy jumping off a diving board into a pool when reversed had him pulled up from the pool onto the diving board. The crowd roared its approval. I sometimes wonder if there were any boys in that crowd who later joined the Taliban.
I loved everything about Afghanistan. In 1977 I became the Afghan desk officer and watched as the first of many coups took place and the nation’s long nightmare began.
Mr. Hornblow is an associate editor of this journal.