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Friday, March 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Lance Dickie / Seattle Times editorial columnist

Bringing hope to Afghanistan

One reason I have thought of Afghanistan every day for the past 12 months is safely back in Italy.

He is the son of Woodinville friends, and he might be mortified so many people have worried about him. U.S. Army airborne sergeants can be so touchy that way.

He had already been to Afghanistan twice and Iraq once with the 82nd Airborne. There is no getting used to the anxiety. On his first tour in Afghanistan, he humped around at 9,000 feet with a 100-pound pack on his back looking for Osama bin Laden. He had barely been with the 173rd Airborne long enough for an espresso in Italy before he was off to Afghanistan again. In 4 years in the Army, he has been deployed 29 months.

He is part of a long, thin line that keeps getting stretched tighter and tighter.

For most of us, Afghanistan falls off the radar unless there is a quick presidential visit or a U.S. casualty. More than 130 U.S. soldiers have died in action since the 2001 U.S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban.

An insurgency still percolates with Taliban and regional warlords. A broad coalition of international troops continues to suffer losses. Agence France Presse recently reported the deaths of a French officer and Canadian soldier. A separate NATO-led International Security Assistance Force with troops from 36 countries is also present and about to grow.

After 25 years of war, and with growing instability in the south and east, is there any cause for hope?

Yes, says Suzanne Griffin, someone I have written about before. She turned a leave of absence from a job as a South Seattle Community College administrator into a humanitarian calling.

In the summer of 2002, she returned to her Peace Corps roots to use her language skills — she speaks Dari — to work as a volunteer doing educational assessments. Her workload grew to include development of mid-level managers in Afghan government ministries.

By 2004, she had been working with International Medical Corps, eventually coordinating training programs at Rabia Balkhi Hospital and developing IMC programs countrywide.

Reconnecting via e-mail, I find she is acting country director for IMC, overseeing its mission of providing health-care services and health education for Afghans through clinics and hospitals. IMC also trains doctors, nurses and midwives.

Griffin's new duties and visibility, along with being an American female, make her a prime kidnapping target. She now has a driver and bodyguard, but generally does not feel security concerns are riskier than when she arrived.

On work trips into rural areas, whether in marked or unmarked cars, two vehicles make the trip, not one. For a clinic inspection to eastern Kundar Province, she was covered head-to-toe with a chadri. In Kabul, she dresses to conservative standards, varies her routes and shopping routines, and never walks alone.

War-weary residents struggle daily with sporadic water and electrical service, temperamental plumbing and garbage-filled streets. Life in a crowded, physically harsh environment at 5,900 feet is aggravated by fetid air from vehicle exhaust and generator fumes. A dry "Kabul cough" is a signature sound in the capital city.

She is upbeat about the progress of women in the culture. One major benchmark was having enough candidates running to fill the 25 percent of the seats set aside for women in both houses of parliament.

University attendance is up for women, and the Afghan Ministry of Education, with generous outside help, is building more girls' schools.

That is the good news on the urban side of a very real divide with rural conditions. New schools have been burned down in the conservative countryside. Still, Griffin reports groundbreaking opportunities in rural provinces. An IMC midwife program will graduate 30 women this month.

Griffin has very good things to say about the work of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, designed to improve security and facilitate rebuilding and economic development. Twenty-three PRT teams are in Afghanistan, and 12 are U.S.-led. Mostly, they are military personnel assigned to civilian reconstruction. Cooperation and collaboration by NGOs is sensitive, and impossible in areas hostile to anything associated with foreign troops.

Afghanistan's progress depends in part on the courage and tenacity of the peacekeepers and peacemakers. But Griffin's e-mails exude optimism inspired by the will of Afghans who have survived endless warfare and harsh exiles as unwelcome refugees.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is ldickie@seattletimes.com

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