As we meditate on the lessons of our failure in Afghanistan, one that’s easy to diagnose is the isolation of the American State Department presence there. In Afghanistan—and Iraq, Pakistan, and even in Libya, where it can be argued there is no threat to our personnel—American diplomats are unable to travel on short notice or using ordinary cars. Typically our consulates and embassies are highly fortified compounds in remote suburbs. Even for an American citizen, getting inside the Kabul embassy is a big deal, involving a quarter mile walk to the first checkpoint, an airport-style security check, and the surrender of one’s mobile phone at the security desk.
As for getting out—forget about it! Our diplomats are often required to travel by armored cars, usually in scarce supply, which makes it difficult for them to get outside and actually learn what’s going on in the country. In many places, they have to give travel plans to their security chief 48 hours in advance, making it almost impossible to react to events in real time, much less to shape them. While such constraints often hinder most nations’ diplomats, American officials face particularly stringent rules.
Luckily, a few of them seem inclined to do something about it.