"What was supposed to be a sleepy job turned out to be very different," Huddle said in a mid-March phone interview.
Huddle landed in Tajikistan in mid-October, less than a week after the U.S. launched air strikes against the Taliban. Since then he has negotiated with Tajikistan's president and foreign minister to base plane-refueling operations and military personnel there and has coordinated the movement of humanitarian aid and military supplies headed for Afghanistan. He has inspected sites for new bridges on the Afghan border and is directing the rebuilding and expansion of the U.S. embassy, which was evacuated after the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Eventually Huddle expects to focus on curbing the heroin traffic from Afghanistan through Tajikistan on its way to Europe and Russia.
Huddle describes his living situation as "embassy arrest." Because of the constant threat of terrorism, he travels the mountainous Central Asian terrain in a convoy of armored cars. Before he can leave his SUV, guards must secure the location. Huddle estimates that since arriving in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, he has walked the city's streets only twice - both trips to homes just yards from his apartment, which is a converted storeroom above a garage. It's a far cry from the maharaja's palace in which he lived as consul general in Bombay.
Huddle grew up in Providence, the son of a Brown English instructor. But it was from his mother, a geographer, and his grandmother, a world traveler, that he caught his wanderlust. After graduation Huddle worked for two years as a National Geographic photographer before getting a Ph.D. from Harvard in history and Middle Eastern studies, with a specialty in Central Asia. He then joined the Foreign Service as an analyst focusing on Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Over the years he has been posted in Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, and Burma. He says he turned down a posting in Iran during the late 1970s, after warning his superiors that the country was on the verge of disintegration.
In Bombay and during a subsequent posting to Toronto as consul general, Huddle mostly worked on trade and other economic issues. But that doesn't mean his career has been uneventful. In November 1996, while en route to a safari vacation in Kenya, he and his wife, Pom, were on an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed into the Indian Ocean after terrorists forced the pilots to fly until they ran out of fuel. Fewer than a third of the 175 passengers survived. Huddle credits a last-minute upgrade to business class with saving him and his wife.
Despite the material deprivations of his new post, Huddle clearly enjoys his increased visibility. Normally the swearing-in of an ambassador to a country like Tajikistan, a resource-starved country the size of Wisconsin, would pass unnoticed, but Huddle was sworn in by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. In Tajikistan he has hosted visits from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman.
"You don't get that in the normal run of life as 'Joe Six-Pack,' " Huddle says.