February 3, 2002 - Seattle Intelligencer: New Peace Corps volunteers should head first to Afghanistan

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New Peace Corps volunteers should head first to Afghanistan

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New Peace Corps volunteers should head first to Afghanistan

Sunday, February 3, 2002


In 1971 a severe drought struck the rugged mountain kingdom of Afghanistan. Amid reports of widespread famine, the United States committed millions of dollars in aid to the Afghans. But it also sent a more valuable human resource: 200 Peace Corps volunteers.

The volunteers' experience reminds us why the Peace Corps still matters. In his State of the Union address, President Bush wisely called upon Congress to double the size of the agency -- and to send more volunteers into Islamic countries. Let's hope Afghanistan is the first one.

During the 1971 drought, Peace Corps volunteers delivered wheat to starving Afghans in exchange for labor on public work projects. By the following year, this "Food For Work" program had distributed 12,000 tons of wheat and had employed 180,000 people on more than 1,000 construction projects.

Other volunteers began an agricultural extension program to help Afghanistan increase wheat production and diversify into other crops. Still others addressed the devastating health consequences of the famine, promoting tuberculosis control as well as smallpox eradication.

Most of all, though, the Peace Corps introduced different ways of thinking. In a country wracked by ethnic violence and prejudice, volunteers went out of their way to treat all people equally. Afghans were especially surprised -- and sometimes annoyed -- to find Americans assisting the Hazaras, the oppressed and impoverished tribe that inhabited Afghanistan's barren central region.

Even more shocking, volunteers insisted upon the equality of women. The very presence of American female volunteers represented a not-so-subtle rebuke to Afghan culture, which had long relegated women to second-class status. Working in schools, hospitals and offices, Peace Corps women demonstrated "that women can think and stand by what they think," as one American official wrote.

The Peace Corps pulled out of Afghanistan in 1979 on the eve of the Soviet invasion. Two decades of war and horror ensued, capped by the recent American air attacks. Today, almost a third of public buildings and 40 percent of houses in Kabul have been leveled. Only 30 percent of its homes have drinking water.

Across the country, drought still afflicts Afghan agriculture. Unpaved roads and land mines make transportation difficult, if not deadly. Worst of all, the country's education system is in shambles. About half of its schoolhouses have been destroyed; almost none have chairs, desks or textbooks. Although the government recently hired 10,000 teachers, it still needs at least 20,000 more.

The United States has already committed almost $300 million to the "reconstruction" of this ravaged country. But money cannot substitute for human spirit. That's why Bush should send the first brigade of our renewed Peace Corps to Afghanistan.

On the domestic front, remember, Bush's party consistently reminds us that "throwing money" at social ills cannot cure them. Throwing money at Afghanistan won't solve its problems, either, unless we help provide the services that the country so desperately needs.

Second, a new volunteer force would show skeptical Afghans that Americans care about their welfare. Simply sending money won't do that; indeed, it might reinforce the widely held view of the United States as a wealthy manipulator. American volunteers would create lasting good will, which no amount of cash can possibly buy.

Finally, a Peace Corps unit in Afghanistan would give American civilians an opportunity to serve their own country. As many military analysts have noted, a secure America requires a stable Afghanistan. What better way to express our patriotism than to contribute our skills and time to the Afghan relief effort?

Of course, American civilians would face personal risks in Afghanistan -- or in any Islamic country. Rather than keeping volunteers away, however, we should work hard to keep them safe. A good start would be participation in the new Western peacekeeping force, which America has eschewed until now.

Would Americans answer the call for volunteers in Afghanistan? They've answered it before. Between 1962 and 1979, more than 1,500 Peace Corps volunteers served in Afghanistan. Americans would serve again, and serve proudly, if our leaders gave us the chance.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history in the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University. He served in the Peace Corps in Nepal from 1983 to 1985.

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