Friday, August 29, 2014
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The risks they take

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.

The risks they take

This undated photo provided by Tom Smedinghoff, shows Anne Smedinghoff.  Anne Smedinghoff, 25,  was killed Saturday, April 6, 2013 in southern Afghanistan , the first American diplomat to die on the job since last year´s attack on the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Tom Smedinghoff)
This undated photo provided by Tom Smedinghoff, shows Anne Smedinghoff. Anne Smedinghoff, 25, was killed Saturday, April 6, 2013 in southern Afghanistan , the first American diplomat to die on the job since last year's attack on the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Tom Smedinghoff) AP

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.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
About this blog

Trudy Rubin’s Worldview column runs on Thursdays and Sundays. In 2009-2011 she has made four lengthy trips to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Over the past seven years, she visited Iraq eleven times, and also wrote from Iran, Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, China, and South Korea.

She is the author of Willful Blindness: the Bush Administration and Iraq, a book of her columns from 2002-2004. In 2001 she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in commentary and in 2008 she was awarded the Edward Weintal prize for international reporting. In 2010 she won the Arthur Ross award for international commentary from the Academy of American Diplomacy.

Reach Trudy at trubin@phillynews.com.

Trudy Rubin Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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