There may be bombs going off across Afghanistan, a fraught relationship with President Hamid Karzai to preserve, and the small matter of restoring law and order before the troops go home and the money runs out. But diplomats with the US mission in Kabul have another problem on their hands: what to do about the cats.
This is the pressing issue confronting Ryan C Crocker, the new US ambassador to Kabul, and it's polarising opinion at one of the world's largest embassies, the Washington Post reports.
When one of the semi-domesticated cats living on the high-security premises mauled one of the staff earlier this year, health and safety ordered the extermination of the Embassy's feline population. Ever since, America's finest have been engaged in a fierce and escalating row over the fate of Gordo, Freckles, Dusty et al.
To understand how emotive the issue has become it's important to venture inside the claustrophobic atmosphere of the US Embassy in Kabul, where security protocols have not been designed to make diplomats' lives easy. Entrance is through a series of checkpoints and barred doors that can take 10 minute to navigate. Taking a turn in the garden is often off limits because of the persistent rocket and mortar threat.
"We basically can't go out at all," one diplomat confided. "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. It's as close as we come to normality." But set against the pro-cat lobby are the sticklers for the rules. "I'm not anti-cat," said one senior diplomat. "I'm pro-public health."
In April, one of the embassy's top diplomats, James Keith, set a 60-day deadline for staff members to adopt and ship the cats home– or leave them to their fate. The fight-back, led by the cat committee, did not take long to materialise. Pro-catters claimed an extermination order would do away with valuable mousers, paving the way for a new range of pests to invade the Embassy. These might include not just vermin and poisonous snakes but feral cats, unused to human contact and far more vicious than their predecessors.
Nor was that all. Unknown activists pinned a letter, Taliban-style, to the wall of the Embassy pub, 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 pro-catter secretly distributed flyers picturing a cat posing as Che Guevara. "Viva la revolucion," it read.
The other side fought back. One staff member wrote to Afghan Scene, a Kabul-based magazine aimed at expatriates. "In one of your publications I saw an NGO supporting the pets... We have cats that needs [sic] to be taken out from the compound. Can you please pass my email/contact info to them or ask them to contact me to talk about the project?" Meanwhile, rules allowing diplomats to keep small pets were quietly revised to exclude cats.
The signs are all that America has stumbled into another escalating stalemate in Afghanistan.