April 27, 2002 - Washington Post: The Peace Corps Will Need Some Backup

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By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, April 29, 2002 - 3:58 pm: Edit Post

The Peace Corps Will Need Some Backup

Read and comment on this op-ed piece by a RPCV who served in Afghanistan advocating that the Peace Corps return to Afghanistan - but only if the administration agrees to extend the mandate of the international peacekeeping force there, and expand it to cover the provinces. Read the story at:

The Peace Corps Will Need Some Backup *

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

The Peace Corps Will Need Some Backup

By Anna Seleny Saturday, April 27, 2002; Page A21

If things go according to the Bush administration's plan, the Peace Corps will be back in Afghanistan soon. This makes sense; it could spur Afghan reconstruction while teaching idealistic young Americans about the realities of life in the developing world.

But these laudable aims can be accomplished only if the administration agrees to extend the mandate of the international peacekeeping force there, and expand it to cover the provinces. I speak from experience: I was the last Peace Corps volunteer evacuated from Afghanistan in 1979 before the Soviet invasion.

I arrived in Kabul in January 1978 and was assigned to work in a health clinic north of Mazar-e-Sharif, near the Uzbek border. Three months later bombs started to fall, as part of a Soviet-backed coup in which the Communist "People's Democratic Party" murdered President Mohammed Daoud, the last ruling member of the Mohammedzai dynasty. After several days of intense fighting, an eerie calm settled over a capital now under strict military curfew. My most vivid memory of the following weeks is of riding my bicycle past ever-lengthening lines of people waiting outside prisons for news of relatives who had disappeared. Many never got answers, and the new regime's duplicity and brutality were only the beginning of the country's long nightmare.

Like other Peace Corps volunteers, I was given the option of leaving without dishonor or continuing my work. About a dozen of us stayed (out of approximately 150). It was no longer considered safe to work in the provinces, so I was reassigned to the Afghan Institute of Technology in Kabul. As the new regime tightened its grip, some of my friends and colleagues began to distance themselves from anything American, for self-protection; one even adopted Marxist rhetoric overnight. Others overcame their fears and continued to insist that I come to their homes. Eventually, after the assassination of American Ambassador Adolph Dubs, the rest of us were withdrawn, along with all but a skeleton embassy staff.

Today, after more than two decades of war and poverty, most Afghans want U.S. help in restoring a measure of peace, prosperity and normality to their country. The Peace Corps can play an invaluable role in this delicate task: serving as goodwill ambassadors and helping communities provide basic services to a population in desperate need. For quite some time, however, the Peace Corps volunteers will have to go about their tasks in a highly unstable local and geopolitical context. Afghan internal rivalries are still erupting in fierce vendettas, and no national government can exercise credible authority, let alone punish the perpetrators of violence. Some regions of the country remain dominated by former warlords. Without an expanded international peacekeeping force, there could be a major conflagration between dominant groups holding power in Kabul and their provincial rivals.

The administration is right to stress the need for reconstruction aid. But it seems poised to repeat America's mistakes in the region: committing too few resources for too short a time, and thus ultimately failing to secure hard-won gains. Before angry groups in Afghanistan can cooperate to put their country back on its feet, the peace must be fully secured something beyond the power of the interim government, and probably the first post-conflict government as well. This is why the Afghans themselves have asked that the international peacekeeping force be significantly expanded in both time and scope.

Without some kind of force in place capable of maintaining order, moreover, any new Peace Corps volunteers will probably have to be withdrawn as things fall apart, just as we were in 1979. This would not only be a public relations disaster and a waste of substantial rhetorical, military and political capital; it would also be a historic lost opportunity.

Some speak of Afghanistan as if it had always been in turmoil, as if its ethnic and tribal groups had never reached a workable accommodation. Don't believe them. Before 1979 Afghanistan was miserably poor, but people did not starve. Daoud's government had serious flaws, but it was a moderate republic. There was increasing political and social pluralism, including enhanced freedoms and a range of professional careers for women. By the late 1970s Afghanistan had achieved a kind of rough tribal democracy that might well have developed into something better with time. The country also had a professional, multi-ethnic army of which many Afghans were justly proud, and a growing middle class.

The potential for a more prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan is there. The Peace Corps is at its best when helping distressed nations dig out from under. But for the Corps to do its job, somebody else must first keep the peace. And keeping the peace requires a firm commitment that, like the mission of the Peace Corps itself, conveys to Afghans and the world the patient determination that is the hallmark of true world leadership.

The writer teaches politics at Princeton University.

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This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; Special Reports - Afghanistan; Speaking Out; COS - Afghanistan



By caryn giles lawson on Tuesday, April 30, 2002 - 4:07 pm: Edit Post

Anna, I agree with most of your commentary but wish I could share your optimism about the potential for a return to to the "rough tribal democracy" that existed when you and I were Peace Corps volunteers. My pessimism stems from the fact that since the revolution in 1978, many tribal rifts that had begun to heal were rent open by everything that has befallen Afgahnistan since. Be it political differences, drought famine, war, Islamic fundamentalism or even the problem of poppy cultivation, the tenuous nature of that long ago democracy has been torn to shreds. That growing professional middle class that you mentioned, has for the most part emigrated to the west.I sincerely hope that as was once the case, the desire for national unity , however shaky, prevails.
Caryn Giles Lawson
RPCV Kabul 1977-79

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