Did this 25-year-old foreign service officer have to die?

Anne Smedinghoff's death in a suicide bombing has reignited debate over U.S. intervention in Afghanistan

Topics: GlobalPost, Anne Smedinghoff, Afghanistan, Zabul, The Middle East, Barack Obama,

Did this 25-year-old foreign service officer have to die?
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

Global Post BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — She was young and idealistic, caught in an old war that, for many, had long since lost its raison d’etre.

When 25-year-old Anne Smedinghoff died in a suicide bombing in the Afghan province of Zabul on Saturday, she sparked a painful and bitter debate about the meaning of the 11-year US intervention in Afghanistan.

On one side stand the State Department and the US Embassy in Kabul, along with the many friends and relatives of the young foreign service officer who are trying to find meaning in her death.

“She thought she could change the world,” said US Ambassador James Cunningham, speaking at a memorial service for Smedinghoff in Kabul on Monday. “Well, she’d made a good start, and in doing so changed us.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, who had met Smedinghoff while in Afghanistan last month, paid glowing tribute to her in a statement he issued Saturday.

“She was everything a foreign service officer should be: smart, capable, eager to serve, and deeply committed to our country and the difference she was making for the Afghan people,” read the statement.

The grieving parents, Tom and Mary Beth Smedinghoff, tried their best to find something positive to say.

“Working as a public diplomacy officer, she particularly enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with the Afghan people and was always looking for opportunities to reach out and help to make a difference in the lives of those living in a country ravaged by war,” read their statement to the media.

“We are consoled knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world.”

Smedinghoff was killed while on a public diplomacy mission to Zabul, a province in southern Afghanistan that remains one of the most unstable places in the country.

The young diplomat was escorting a contingent of Afghan journalists to a school in the provincial capital Qalat to document the handover of books donated for the education of Afghan children.

Three soldiers and a Defense Department civilian died too, along with at least one Afghan civilian.

More than 2,200 Americans have been killed so far in Operation Enduring Freedom, as the intervention in Afghanistan is known.

In addition, an unknown number of Afghans have also died; there are no reliable figures for Afghan casualties, and estimates vary by tens of thousands. One study gauges that up to 45,600 Afghans had been killed by 2011, but acknowledges that the number is almost certainly low.

On the day Smedinghoff was killed by a suicide bomber in Zabul, at least 10 Afghan childrenwere reported dead in a US airstrike in Kunar, in eastern Afghanistan.

But it is Smedinghoff’s loss that’s caught the popular imagination here, her obvious enthusiasm and infectious smile that have driven home to a weary and sometimes cynical public the tragedy of America’s longest war.

She was the first diplomat to die in this war; the first, in fact, since 1979, when the US Ambassador Adolph Dubs was kidnapped by militants and killed in a rescue attempt.

According to Peter Van Buren, a soon-to-be retired foreign service employee, Smedinghoff’s death was the result of an empty political gesture aimed mostly at public relations.

“While Smedinghoff’s death is tragic, what’s more tragic is why she was in Qalat at all,” he wrote in his blog. “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.”

The US mission in Afghanistan is winding down, with all combat troops scheduled to leave the country by the end of 2014. Afghanistan is facing an uncertain future, and many wonder what all the sacrifice has been for.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been vociferous in his condemnation of the US efforts in Afghanistan, recently suggesting that the US troops and the Taliban were working hand in glove to stoke fear in the Afghan population.

Van Buren, a 24-year veteran of the State Department, served for a year in Iraq, coming home to write the book “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.”

The State Department tried to terminate him after publication, but Van Buren successfully defended himself, and will be allowed to retire in September.

Still, his disillusionment with US adventures abroad is tangible.

In an open letter to the secretary of state on Sunday, Van Buren deplored what he termed the senseless sacrifice of such a promising officer.

“Anne’s presence in Afghanistan was about politics, her death delivering books was a political act (if not propaganda),” he said.

Van Buren reminds Kerry of his statement as a young officer back from Vietnam in 1971, when he addressed Congress, and quotes from Kerry’s testimony:

“Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we have made a mistake …. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake??”

The analogy with Afghanistan is too strong to ignore, Van Buren maintains.

“Mr. Secretary, are you the same brave man you were in 1971?” he asked. “And if so, will you not demand that American lives stop being wasted in Afghanistan and elsewhere on politics and bring them home?
 Mr. Secretary, will you work so that Anne is the last to die for a mistake?”

This is not a message that goes down well with active foreign service officers, or others currently working for the US government in Afghanistan.

“America does not and will not cower before terrorism,” said Kerry in a press conference in Turkey on Sunday. “We are going to forge on, we’re going to step up … We put ourselves in harm’s way because we believe in giving hope to our brothers and sisters all over the world, knowing that we share universal human values with people all over the world — the dignity of opportunity and progress.”

Kerry excoriated the “cowardly terrorist determined to bring darkness and death to total strangers,” and vowed that the attack would only strengthen “the resolve of the nation, the diplomatic corps, the military, all resources determined to continue the hard work of helping people to help themselves.”

No matter what Van Buren says, diplomacy is more important then ever in Afghanistan, said one official from the US Embassy in Kabul. The risks, while considerable, cannot and should not dissuade the United States from continuing its mission.

“It is places such as Afghanistan where diplomacy most matters. Regardless of the wisdom or morality of the war, or the effectiveness of our development efforts, diplomacy is about finding ways to live with others,” the official told GlobalPost.

But while US diplomats profess to have an undimmed commitment to Afghanistan and its future, Afghans themselves are not so sure.

There have been countless reports of property prices declining, the economy tanking, and Afghans looking to get out before the last US combat troops leave at the end of 2014.

One young Afghan seeking a study abroad program was quite clear about his goals.

“There is a lot of panic here,” he said, “optimism seems low. Some believe there is going to be a peace deal with the Taliban, the same old style of governing, an anarchic descent into deeper chaos.”

The government, he added, was “taking its last breaths,” and he, for one, was not going to be able to defend it.

“I am applying for all opportunities this year,” he said. “I want to be out of Afghanistan by 2014.”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 17
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    John Stanmeyer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Container City: Shipping containers, indispensable tool of the globalized consumer economy, reflect the skyline in Singapore, one of the world’s busiest ports.

    Lu Guang

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Man Covering His Mouth: A shepherd by the Yellow River cannot stand the smell, Inner Mongolia, China

    Carolyn Cole/LATimes

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Angry Crowd: People jostle for food relief distribution following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti

    Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    “Black Friday” Shoppers: Aggressive bargain hunters push through the front doors of the Boise Towne Square mall as they are opened at 1 a.m. Friday, Nov. 24, 2007, Boise, Idaho, USA

    Google Earth/NOAA, U.S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Suburban Sprawl: aerial view of landscape outside Miami, Florida, shows 13 golf courses amongst track homes on the edge of the Everglades.

    Garth Lentz

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Toxic Landscape: Aerial view of the tar sands region, where mining operations and tailings ponds are so vast they can be seen from outer space; Alberta, Canada

    Cotton Coulson/Keenpress

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Ice Waterfall: In both the Arctic and Antarctic regions, ice is retreating. Melting water on icecap, North East Land, Svalbard, Norway

    Yann Arthus-Bertrand

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Satellite Dishes: The rooftops of Aleppo, Syria, one of the world’s oldest cities, are covered with satellite dishes, linking residents to a globalized consumer culture.

    Stephanie Sinclair

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Child Brides: Tahani, 8, is seen with her husband Majed, 27, and her former classmate Ghada, 8, and her husband in Hajjah, Yemen, July 26, 2010.

    Mike Hedge

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Megalopolis: Shanghai, China, a sprawling megacity of 24 Million

    Google Earth/ 2014 Digital Globe

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Big Hole: The Mir Mine in Russia is the world’s largest diamond mine.

    Daniel Dancer

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Clear-cut: Industrial forestry degrading public lands, Willamette National Forest, Oregon

    Peter Essick

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Computer Dump: Massive quantities of waste from obsolete computers and other electronics are typically shipped to the developing world for sorting and/or disposal. Photo from Accra, Ghana.

    Daniel Beltra

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Oil Spill Fire: Aerial view of an oil fire following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, Gulf of Mexico

    Ian Wylie

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Slide 13

    Airplane Contrails: Globalized transportation networks, especially commercial aviation, are a major contributor of air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Photo of contrails in the west London sky over the River Thames, London, England.

    R.J. Sangosti/Denver Post

    Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot

    Fire: More frequent and more intense wildfires (such as this one in Colorado, USA) are another consequence of a warming planet.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>