The young U.S. State Department official who was killed Saturday in a suicide truck bombing in southern Afghanistan had been escorting Afghan journalists from Kabul who were planning to cover American officials donating books to a school, colleagues said in interviews Monday.
The State Department declined to detail how Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old assistant press officer in the U.S. embassy in Kabul, had been selected for the assignment, which involved leaving the relative safety of Kabul for violent Zabul province and its capital, Qalat, about 220 miles to the south.
Her death, the first of a U.S. diplomat killed in Afghanistan in more than 11 years of warfare, was a reminder of the risk that American civilians may face on official assignments since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In previous eras, State Department employees generally were excluded from war zones. Since 9/11, however, American foreign policy has stressed placing diplomats in conflicted countries, an evolution that was brought home last September when assailants stormed a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, killing U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and State Department computer specialist Sean Smith. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to die in the line of duty since 1979.
Smedinghoff, who’d been chosen last month from among hundreds of embassy employees to help shepherd Secretary of State John Kerry through a brief visit to Kabul, was an energetic "superstar" and an irrepressible force that held her department together, her colleagues said.
Smedinghoff’s enthusiasm and abilities were so obvious that they left an impression even on those who met her only briefly. That included Kerry, who while speaking at an unrelated news conference Sunday in Istanbul became emotional as he called Smedinghoff selfless, idealistic, bright and brave.
"I want to emphasize," he said, choking up, "that Anne was everything that is right about our Foreign Service. She was smart and capable, committed to our country. I had the privilege of meeting her just a few days ago. . . . She was someone who worked hard and put her life on the line so that others could live a better life."
Smedinghoff’s formal title was assistant information officer. She worked closely with reporters from Afghan and international news organizations, and was known to particularly relish success stories that involved regular Afghans.
The embassy was in mourning Monday. During a memorial ceremony, one colleague said that if Smedinghoff could be summed up in a single word, it would be "authentic."
Smedinghoff was charismatic, always graceful and calm, and kept her sense of humor under pressure, vital for a tough assignment such as Kabul, said Solmaz Sharifi, a colleague.
"She was really the rock of our team, and held us together in so many ways," Sharifi said.
Smedinghoff was widely known for being able to do essentially anything, and do it well. That’s why she was chosen from among the hundreds of Foreign Service officers at the embassy to ensure that every detail of Kerry’s visit went smoothly, said John Rhatigan, another colleague.
"She was picked out of everyone here. Just think about that," he said.
The embassy compound in Kabul – along with those who work in it – is high on the Taliban’s target list. It’s heavily guarded and heavily fortified, and many embassy workers rarely leave it.
Smedinghoff’s father, Tom Smedinghoff, told the Chicago Tribune that his daughter always was looking for ways to get out of the compound and do things to help Afghans. He told ABC that she was eager to travel throughout the country. Her family was coping in part by the reminder that she’d died doing what she loved, he said.
Zabul, which borders the Taliban haven of Pakistan and the birthplace of the Afghan insurgency, Kandahar province, is among the most dangerous places in the country for foreigners and Afghan security forces, and the warm-months fighting season has just begun. NATO forces have lost 110 troops there since 2001, and the violent nature of the province was underscored Saturday. In addition to Smedinghoff, three U.S. soldiers and a civilian Defense Department employee died in the suicide bombing. Their identities haven’t yet been released.
According to local officials in Zabul, the bomber detonated his explosives-laden car as a convoy that was carrying the provincial governor passed en route to the school for the donation ceremony. The Americans apparently were in another convoy headed for the school and had emerged from their base just as the governor passed.
The State Department says the attack is under investigation. Tom Smedinghoff told the Chicago Tribune that the attacker either had rammed the vehicle his daughter was in or was close to it when the bomb exploded.
In a statement emailed to McClatchy, a Taliban spokesman took credit for the attack and said the bomber had hoped to target the governor or the Americans and that the Taliban were pleased that he’d been able to hit both.
Four other State Department officials were among those wounded in the blast, one of them critically. The governor escaped injury, but several people in his convoy were hurt. An Afghan doctor who died was in front of a hospital that was near the blast.
Smedinghoff grew up in the Chicago suburb of River Forest and attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she majored in international studies.
She joined the State Department immediately after college and had served in Venezuela before volunteering for a stint in Afghanistan, according to a statement her parents issued. She already had been preparing for her next assignment: two years in Algeria.