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Bomb in Afghanistan claims rising US diplomat

Embassy worker was taking books to village

Anne Smedinghoff, 25, was the first US diplomat killed on the job since last year in Libya.

TOM SMEDINGHOFF VIA AP

Anne Smedinghoff, 25, was the first US diplomat killed on the job since last year in Libya.

She was an unassuming young diplomat, only 25, who greeted journalists at the heavily fortified US Embassy gates in Kabul, escorting them to interviews and impressing them with her organization and her studied wish to build bridges between Afghan and American cultures.

Anne Smedinghoff arrived in Afghanistan in the middle of the summer heat last July. Tentative, even nervous about her relative inexperience in the war, she was nevertheless ambitious and eager to impress as a public diplomacy officer during her long hours fielding inquiries from journalists, chatting at parties around the city, and in trips to regions beyond Kabul.

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One of her first breaks was to be selected from hundreds to be the on-the-ground control officer for the visit of Secretary of State John Kerry last month, arranging logistics and publicity. The feeling at the embassy was that she had handled herself well, and was on her way.

But Saturday, as she traveled in Zabul Province in southern Afghanistan on a day trip to deliver books to schoolchildren, Smedinghoff’s promise was cut short by a Taliban car bomb. She was killed along with three US soldiers, a Department of Defense civilian employee, and several Afghans. Others in her group were injured.

The bomb exploded as the group walked from a small air base to a school in Qalat, the provincial capital. The walk would normally take just a few minutes, but the visitors were wearing helmets and other protective gear, and had a military escort, officials in Kabul said.

Her death has deeply shaken her colleagues, a diplomatic corps already kept in pressure-cooker conditions in Kabul.

At a service for her in Kabul on Monday, Ambassador James B. Cunningham said, ‘‘It was clear that she was one of the best,’’ and that it was ‘‘indeed tragic that Anne’s great, promising story ended too soon.’’

In a statement on Saturday, Kerry said, ‘‘She was everything a Foreign Service officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country and the difference she was making for the Afghan people.’’

Her dedication distinguished her early on, growing up in River Forest, Ill., a Chicago suburb. Even in the midst of grief and shock at the manner of her death, her family and friends unanimously shared a sense of pride that Smedinghoff’s drive had taken her so far.

‘‘We are so proud of what she was doing, so proud of her,’’ her father, Tom Smedinghoff, a lawyer, said Monday after visiting Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the arrival of his daughter’s flag-draped coffin. ‘‘It was something that made a difference.’’

Her interest in foreign affairs grew early. Richard Borsch, associate principal at Fenwick High, where Smedinghoff graduated, recalled her as a deeply involved, gifted student who ‘‘was almost a poster child for what we try to do when it comes to the whole child.’’

Even back then, a school counselor described her in a recommendation as ‘‘a future public servant’’ who seemed destined to have an impact.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Smedinghoff focused on international relations and Spanish. She helped organize a speakers’ symposium on international affairs. In 2007 she spent a semester in Madrid.

She had a close-knit group of friends, and they kept in touch. ‘‘She was just so ambitious,’’ said Marissa Neto, who went with her to Madrid. They talked a lot about what they were going to do in their lives, and, when it came up, how a posting in Kabul would open doors and advance her career.

“She was not going to change what she was going to do for anyone,’’ Neto said.

After serving in Venezuela for nearly two years as a consular official, Smedinghoff arrived in Kabul in July. She dove straight into the ‘‘bull pen’’ — the communications center deep in the embassy, serving as one of four officers answering calls from Afghan and international journalists sometimes 14 hours a day, six days a week. She immediately impressed, and her selection as the go-to person for Kerry’s visit reflected her ability, colleagues said.

‘‘When you are selected for the job, it tells you it is someone who is full of potential,’’ said embassy spokesman John Rhatigan.

In her downtime, she would go running in the embassy gym or pursue her passion for soccer. She organized the visit to Kabul of a former Olympic soccer player, Lorrie Fair, and played right forward for the embassy women’s team, using the rough grass field in the international military coalition’s compound in the summer, or in its gym during colder weather.

She was helping to organize the annual Kabul marathon this month. And last month, she and four friends went on a week’s cycling tour in Jordan.

On her official trip to Zabul last weekend, she was accompanying Afghan journalists to present a set of translated books to local children, meant especially for girls. Advancing Afghan women’s rights was one of her passions, journalists said.

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