Cat fight at U.S. Embassy in Kabul


One of the 30 or so cats that populate the grounds of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Daniel Wilkinson)
August 3, 2011

Veteran diplomat Ryan C. Crocker can handle Islamist insurgencies, hostile heads of state and management of some of the world’s largest embassies. But what’s he going to do about the cats?

The new leader of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has probably already walked past (and possibly petted?) Gordo, Freckles, Dusty, Ferdinand and Maria Teresa or any of the other 25 to 30 felines that populate the downtown diplomatic campus. But in case he has not been briefed on the bizarre battle over their fate (kill them! save them! fly them to Berkeley!), here are the basics.

Somewhere in the murky past, at least one, if not two, embassy staffers were bitten and/or scratched by the somewhat-feral cats that wander the grounds. Security of all forms is sacred here, so red flags went up, warnings went out, rabies vaccines went in. “I’m not anti-cat,” one senior diplomat explained. “I’m pro-public health.”

The writing was on the wall. The cats’ days were numbered.  “That meant exterminate,” one staffer recalled.

Enter the cat committee, which perhaps unsurprisingly is made up of people who love cats. But that doesn’t fully explain them. Working in Kabul is not easy. Staffers endure endless hours and monotonous food, walled off from the city where they work and a world away from their loved ones. Plus there’s the nagging threat that people want to kill them. The embassy bar is called the Duck and Cover.


Another of the 30 or so catsat the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. (Daniel Wilkinson)

“We basically can’t go out at all. We can’t walk across the street; we have to take a tunnel. There are no kids, no families, and basically what we have is the cats,” said one member of the committee. “It’s as close as we come to normality.”

In April, one of the embassy’s top diplomats, James Keith, convened a town hall to discuss the extermination order. Cat lovers came out in force to vent, but Keith stood his ground. The proposal that emerged would allow diplomats 60 days to adopt and ship out the cats they wanted, and the rest would meet some unspecified, but presumably unfortunate, end.

This did not assuage all concerns. As per a May 26 e-mail from a USAID staffer (Importance: High), the anti-cat crowd’s solution would do nothing for public health. Many of the cats, domesticated and immunized, it read, are “fiercely territorial” and, therefore, keep out feral cats, as well as vermin, poisonous snakes, rats and mice, “which certainly are more of a health risk to the Embassy Community.”

Sixty days passed. The debate went on. Amid the diplomatic politesse of meetings and draft proposals, some interesting guerrilla tactics emerged. Taking a page from the Taliban’s book, someone taped a night letter on the wall of the Duck and Cover. “Warning,” it read, above an image of two insurgent cats toting AK-47s, “we will break out our fellow comrades from your compound.”

Another flier that popped up in USAID offices pictured a cat in a Guevaraesque beret: “Viva la revolucion,” signed El Gato.

A more sensitive soul composed an ode under the nom de plume Bacon and the Katz. It began: “Why oh why must we die?”

“Most of you will return to the US where the living is easy and good / We apologize if our actions (purring and eating) have been misunderstood. / Please do not despise us nor wish for our demise / We cannot help it that we have cat’s eyes.”

The humane-removal advocates had a few tricks up their own oxford-cloth sleeves.

Until recently, embassy staffers who lived in a trailer (officially: containerized housing unit, or CHU) were allowed to keep a non-dog. “Small pets (mainly cats) are permitted in the CHUs” was the policy as outlined by the “welcome to post” cable given to arriving diplomats earlier this year. A more recent version, officials said, quietly omits the language permitting cats.

Witnesses have spotted fewer cats these days. Embassy officials insist no cats have been killed. Some remain safely housed in trailers and apartments. Staffers are putting together a name-and-picture-book cat census for those that stay. Evacuation plans have also begun. One committee member has found shelters in Berkeley, Calif., willing to take in what one person called “Afghan refugee cats.”

Who knows where this will lead. Surely a diplomat of Crocker’s caliber can find a solution. If not, the cat fight may very well continue.   

Joshua Partlow is The Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.
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