Reading about the death of a promising young U.S. woman diplomat in Afghanistan on Saturday, I was reminded of the tough choices that foreign service officers have to make.
Anne Smedinghoff, 25, was killed by a Taliban car bomb while she was on a daytrip delivering books to schoolchildren in southern Zabul province. She was killed, along with her military escort of 3 U.S. soldiers, a DOD civilian, and several Afghans when they were walking a short distance from a small airbase to the school.
Many good foreign service personnel in troubled countries are frustrated by the security rules that keep them from mixing with locals, and getting a feel for the country. There is always a tension between the desire to escape the embassy fortress and the risk of attack.
The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, who was killed on 9/11 in Benghazi was a risk taker, because he knew the language and thought he knew the country. Chafing at embassy security rules, he chose to travel to dangerous Benghazi with a minimal security escort, but obviously didn’t expect the virulence of the 9/11 attack.
Humanitarian aid workers, along with those working for nongovernmental agencies (NGOs) have to make the same tough choices. Smedinghoff’s death reminds me of Andrea Parhamovich, 28, a devoted National Democratic Institute employee in Baghdad, who was killed in 2007 as she returned from teaching a class on democracy. She was riding in a convoy, but that didn’t save her. It also reminds me of Fern Holland, a dynamic young lawyer who was shot dead in her car in Iraq in 2004 while working to advance the rights of women.
And finally, her death reawakens memories of Linda Norgrove, a gutsy Scottish aid worker who ran a USAID project in Jallabad, Afghanistan. I traveled with Norgrove for 3 days in 2010 and wrote about her as a humanitarian who worked according to the highest standards, living outside the wire, mixing with local villagers, consulting them carefully to assure that projects she funded met their needs and would be viable when the aid stopped. A few months after I stayed with Norgrove, she was kidnapped by the Taliban and killed during a botched rescue attempt by U.S. special forces.
Now Smedinghoff’s death reminds us of the risks taken by those who want to serve and help in wartorn countries. They know the risks they are taking, and so should we.