Ching Eikenberry: Letter from Kabul

As the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan comes under fire, his wife, Ching Eikenberry, says she’s grown to love her life in Kabul—and writes about the Afghanistan that few Americans see.

American Embassy Kabul

Generals and diplomats come and go, armies attack and inevitably retreat, insiders indulge in political intrigue. But Afghanistan remains its indomitable, ornery self. There is much more to the hard-scrabble, poverty-stricken and largely illiterate country than the latest media firestorm—which is why The Daily Beast invited Ching Eikenberry, wife of U.S. ambassador Karl Eikenberry, to share her perspective.

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When Karl was picked by President Obama to be the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan in January, 2009, we both were extremely honored. At the time, Karl was a career Army officer serving our country as the Deputy Chairman of the Military Committee at NATO headquarters in Brussels; I was a freelance journalist who had been following this man, to whom I said “I do” decades ago, wherever in the world his career took him.

I never thought I would come to a war-torn Afghanistan and gain a family here. But this is what has happened.

Being a Chinese-American, I have often said I have two mothers: Mother China gave me life and Mother America gave me soul. Coming to the United States in the late 1960s, I witnessed the greatness of this country, its democracy and liberty available to all. So when my husband accepted the nomination, I raised my hand to accompany him and became the first ambassador’s spouse to live in Kabul since the fall of Taliban.

Before we departed for Afghanistan, I said goodbye to our families and updated my will. I told our two grown daughters that, should something happen to me, they shouldn’t grieve but instead burn red candles to celebrate my life. “You can take my daughter to Afghanistan, but bring us back bin Laden,” my 88-year-old mother told Karl in Mandarin.

“Mom, he is not a soldier now!” I reminded her.

“I know,” Mom said, winking. “But I don’t like bin Laden.”

According to State Department policy, spouses of those assigned to Kabul can accompany their mates if they are hired as an “Eligible Family Member.” As a former journalist, I was allowed to work in the Public Affairs office at USAID, and my life suddenly swung from living in leisurely European contentment to an intense war-fighting environment. But as a colleague said, “We don’t come to Afghanistan for comfort.”

The work in the U.S. Embassy is enormously demanding. We grew from an embassy of around 300 Americans to over 1,000 in just a few months, and we are constantly building and expanding to accommodate the mounting needs.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that Karl actually has two jobs: One is Kabul, one is Washington, and I am constantly brewing coffee in the kitchen for him at one or two in the morning while he is on the phone with Washington, watching his once-dark brown hair turn grayer by the week.

In other ways, too, life has changed. This is the first time since our two daughters left home that we’ve had such a full house. We have turned our living room into a dining hall, and the kitchen constantly cooks up breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and numerous Afghan tea shuras for our steady stream of visitors.

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I never thought I would come to a war-torn Afghanistan and gain a family here. But this is what has happened. Among the family members are Jawid, resident manager, Jamshid, the chef, and Hassan, the housekeeper.

“KoKo” Hassan has earned his title—uncle—because of his age and seniority. He has served five ambassadors, and is an honest, diligent, dependable man. His thin, white hair and missing teeth make him look much older than the age he claims, which is closer to 50.

When we moved to Afghanistan, I brought the book, Obama, the Historic Journey, figuring our Afghan friends would be interested to learn more about our new president. As I was taking the book out of the box, Koko Hassan walked by.

“Do you know who this person is?” I asked him.

“Yes, he is Mr. Obama.”

Mistakenly, I had presumed that an illiterate man, living in an area with limited electricity, may not have kept up with world events.

But what Koko Hassan said next stunned me.

“I met Mr. Obama. He gave me $50.”

“What?” I looked at Koko Hassan in amazement.

Koko Hassan said that “Senator” Obama had stayed in this residence when he visited Afghanistan in July 2008. The next morning he asked for orange juice and coffee, and tipped Koko Hassan $50 when he delivered them to his room.

“What did you do with the $50?” I asked.

“Oh, Masha Allah!” he said. “The money was good. My son had no money for school. Now I paid. I also paid the rent.”

Jawid is a tall, slender 25-year-old man with dark eyes and a gentle demeanor. He does his job with pride—always dressed in crisp suits and carrying himself with dignity.

He always carries a wallet stuffed with five or ten dollar bills, and one day, when I teased him he carries more money than I do, he looked at me quite seriously and said: “I have to. There are so many places I need to bribe my way to get things done every day.”

“What about people who don’t have the money?” I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, either they will wait for a long time, or things just don’t get done!”

Jamshid, the third person in our household, is a swift 23-year-old; a fabulous cook and fast learner. After graduating from high school, Jamshid took an English class and quickly learned to speak and write. His big dream is to go to college and explore the world, and, to help him on his way, we hired another cook to help out. Jamshid is now a diligent student at a local college, studying English and beginning his journey.

I never thought I would come to a war-torn country and gain a family here. A year ago, I could not have dreamed what my life would be like in Afghanistan. Little did I know that it has been so enriched by sharing “hearts and minds” with the Afghans. It is my hope that many years later, when our grandchildren read the history of 2010, they are be delighted to learn that their grandparents had picked up a few rocks at a time, and helped move the mountain.

Ching Eikenberry, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, was a panel speaker at the Women in the World Summit which The Daily Beast hosted in March 2010.