KABUL, Afghanistan -- 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, whod 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.
Smedinghoffs 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."
Smedinghoffs 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. Thats why she was chosen from among the hundreds of Foreign Service officers at the embassy to ensure that every detail of Kerrys 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 Talibans target list. Its heavily guarded and heavily fortified, and many embassy workers rarely leave it.