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Pres. Obama, Send Afghans a Humanitarian Surge

New America Media, Commentary, Richard Navarro Posted: Mar 03, 2009

Editor's Note: As the Obama Administration forges a new policy on Afghanistan, where the Taliban are now ascendant and conflict intensifies, it must not offer military solutions only when a humanitarian surge is profoundly needed to heal a people traumatized by three decades of war. Richard Navarro, former dean of the college of education at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, was UNICEF's senior project manager in Afghanistan in charge of rebuilding its education system.

Dear President Obama,

I understand that you are now reviewing our policies toward Afghanistan. I would like to offer some words of advice as a person who was persuaded to support you in the days of Iowa because to me, you had it right when it came to Afghanistan. You were right when you said that we got distracted before finishing the job in Afghanistan. You were right that we made a commitment to the Afghan people to help rebuild their country after 25 years of warfare, and the job is far from done. No one else was saying these things as clearly and as forcefully as you. No one else was saying what I had been seeing for the previous four years.

You see, Mr. Obama, like you, I am an idealist. I first went to Afghanistan in the summer of 2002 as a consultant to UNICEF to advise them on developing an in-service teacher development program. I had no idea what an impact that trip would have on me personally and professionally. As dean of a college of education in the California State University system and chair of a statewide commission on education, I was deeply entrenched in the education mainstream.

I still remember the aircraft and tank wreckage all around the Kabul airport, and the red painted rocks marking off areas with live landmines lining either side of the runway. Welcome to Kabul, the sign read. What a welcome! Dr. Ghafoori, a slight man aged well beyond his years, became my guide. He led the UNICEF effort to supply clandestine girls schools during the Taliban period, and I wanted learn as much as I could about education in Afghanistan during the two short weeks I was to be in Kabul. Dr. Ghafoori didnt want to tell me. He wanted to show me what education means in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to travel outside of Kabul to see the real differences in schooling, but coming from California, what I saw in Kabul was enough to move me.

We went to a teachers college located in buildings that had been bombed during the war, walls missing, roofs with holes, dirt floors and no furniture. Men slept in a cramped corner at night, cooking their food together on a stove made from a cooking oil tin, no running water, no bathroom facilities. Women traveled from their homes in the mornings to attend classes. All sat on plastic mats on the floor, their teacher an ancient-looking man with tobacco stained beard, lecturing from a booklet of yellowed handwritten notes bound together with string. Only the teacher had completed 12th grade and a couple of years of teachers college or pedagogical institute, as it was called during the Soviet occupation. His students had, at most, a 10th grade education.

Miriam was my guide to visit the girls school on the outskirts of Kabul. She was a widow whose husband was killed during the Mujahaddin civil war. Her brothers wanted her to become the second wife of one of her husbands brothers, but she insisted that she raise her three children alone. Her UNICEF job was her freedom. Miriam was considered well educated. She had her bachelors degree in chemistry in addition to teacher preparation. Surprisingly, conditions in this school were better than in the teachers college. Miriam told me that graduates of the school, like herself, had donated money for the school to be repaired. They were also successful in getting donations from NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and some international donors for furniture and school supplies. Teaching was also more active and students engaged in the lessons.

Miriam took me to another girls school that made a deep impression. Tents and stripped, skeletal buses there served as the classrooms for hundreds of girls, aged 6 to 16. They were wide-eyed, excited, timid, trying to learn, thirsty for an education, and anxious for change. This school was their ticket, they believed, to a different futurea future of hope, opportunity, and moderate Islam that regards women as fully enfranchised members of society.

Growing up in a working-class family in Sacramento, I understood their hopes and desires. Although my father had not gotten past the sixth grade, we learned early on that education was our ticket to the American dream. My career has been dedicated to the belief that education can make a difference in an individuals life, as it has in mine. So, when UNICEFs country representative asked me to lead UN efforts to assist the Transitional Government of Afghanistan to rebuild the education system, I took the offer seriously. I was being offered a once in lifetime opportunity to show what education can do, not just in the life of an individual, but the life of a nation.

I was not nave about the challenges or the dangers I would face. After all, during my interview, UNICEF offices were being evacuated due to a car bomb that had exploded in Kabul, killing scores of innocent Afghan civilians. A day later, President Karzais life would be threatened in an assassination attempt in Kandahar. But the faces of the children, the thirst for an education despite the harsh conditions and poor quality of teaching inspired me to turn my life upside down.

Now, Afghanistan is once again at the center of our attention, thanks to your election and, unfortunately, to the worsening security there. We must take our share of the blame. If we had stayed the course and finished the job in 2003 and 2004, with respect to the elimination of our enemies, we would not be talking about the latest military surge. But Afghans dont need just a military response. Afghanistan also needs a surge in humanitarian assistance. After more than 30 years of warfare, Afghanistan is a traumatized society. How many more generations must grow up knowing only violence and fear? We had a chance once before to replace that fear with hope and change. Instead, we invaded Iraq and became bogged down in a war of our own making. Afghanistan is not Iraq. We liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban and we were welcomed into their country.

President Obama, you ran on a campaign of hope and change. Afghanistan is your opportunity to fulfill our commitment as a country and your promises as a candidate to the people there.

Related Articles:

Could Afghanistan be the Next Guantanamo?

Iraq: Withdrawal Lite

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