The real tragedy in Zabul yesterday wasn’t just the death of Anne Smedinghoff.
Nor is it the deaths of the other Americans and the Afghan doctor killed in the same blast that took her life.
Those deaths are the terrible price too often paid by those who choose to put themselves in harm’s way. It’s a price those they leave behind must bear in the aftermath of a day like this. But that’s not the most tragic part of all.
The real tragedy is that it’s 2013, and we’re still doing book drops.
Anne Smedinghoff was in Qalat escorting Afghan journalists to watch US hand over books to boy’s school, State Dept official tells me
— Nick Schifrin (@nickschifrin) April 7, 2013
That after 12 years of American involvement in Afghanistan, we still don’t trust the Afghans to get the story “right.”
While Smedinghoff’s death is tragic, what’s more tragic is why she was in Qalat at all. She died on a mission meant to prop up the American people in the eyes of a country that doesn’t want us here anymore. Or at least prove to the American people that we are still doing G. W.’s good work, since the Afghan people aren’t buying it. From Karzai down to the “average” Afghan (who, not being as rich as a Karzai, only has the one name), the Afghan people have grown disillusioned as the early years of hope gave way to the understanding that the Americans were here to back a rogue’s gallery of war criminals and thugs, because, well, freedom. We were supposed to be different. To be better. But instead, we’ve replaced the old meritocracy with a new one, one that’s full of a lot of bad men.
And those bad men make it almost impossible to ensure that government functions like education will continue in places like Zabul. That the $6 million Sheik Mati School and its 240 students will be around once the Americans leave post-2014. True, we’re not leaving completely, but PRT Zabul, which has been largely responsible for the school from the beginning, certainly won’t be there anymore.
Smedinghoff was yet another casualty in the perception war, part of the “messaging” process, her role to ensure that the Afghans got the story that US Embassy Public Affairs needed them to get. That’s not cynicism, but a gross acknowledgment of the pragmatism that drives these kinds of photo ops. From what I can gather from those that have mourned her loss, this was someone who genuinely wanted to make a difference. Someone who wanted to see the Afghanistan outside the Embassy walls. But her mission there was in support of larger objectives well beyond her control.
Rather than ensuring that education officials in Zabul had the tools they needed to succeed, what happened instead was boilerplate Public Affairs/Public Diplomacy: get the press to the event, get the right pictures of the right kids and maybe get them saying the right things, then get the message out. In this case, the message is that the American people care deeply about the future of education for the Afghan people. It’s 2013: if we’re still having to hand out books for the photo op, we’re doing it wrong.
What should have happened instead? The PRT learns through its regular Key Leader Engagements (what humans call “meetings”) with Afghan government officials that there’s a need for books at Sheik Matil. The PRT then walks those same officials at the provincial level through the process for requesting those books. At some point they coordinate with counterpart mentors at the Ministry of Education, who walk their Afghan colleagues through the process of getting those books down to Zabul. And, at the end of the day (or years, more likely), Sheik Matil not only has books, but the process for getting those books is now part of a standardized practice that the Ministry of Education can then duplicate in other places.
Instead, because PRTs are only staffed in nine-month rotations, what happens is a flurry of book drives, donations from people at home, and a whole lot of Whites in Shining armour who get to feel like they helped an Afghan kid. Which, they do. For however long those books last, and the PRT goes away for good. Then who’s going to get them books?
It’s 2013: America’s legacy here post-2001 has already been written. There’s nothing a book drop can do to change that. Nothing we can do to rewrite the painful story the American involvement in Afghanistan. And now, there’s nothing we can do to bring Anne Smedinghoff back.
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