View Full Version : Cut-and-run is not in their vocabulary.

12-29-06, 09:08 AM
The Volunteers
Cut-and-run is not in their vocabulary.

Friday, December 29, 2006 12:01 a.m. EST

If someone this weekend says "Happy New Year" in Iraq or Afghanistan, would anyone in the world hear it? For many, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan have become like trees falling in an empty forest. The world doesn't want to hear it. Indeed, the one apparent accomplishment of the Baker-Hamilton report is that it freed people to say that Iraq is a "failure." Afghanistan, with fewer suicide bombings, never became much of a story in our domestic political wars, and so has largely receded into the mists.

It is ironic that despite the years of our daily engagement in these places, the "information age" has brought us so little knowledge about the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Psychologically, much of America has already cut and run from these two countries.

Some Americans, though, simply won't.

In April 2004, this column told the story of Spirit of America, organized by Jim Hake, to provide citizen-supported aid to the troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then in May 2005 this space was given over to an account of American businesswomen working to help women in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Here in the U.S., the political new year will fill up fast enough with politicians and pundits offering ways to unwind and spindle the commitments America made to Iraq and Afghanistan. So this seemed a good moment to revisit the folks running Spirit of America and the Business Council for Peace. They're not going to leave.

Spirit of America's experience in Iraq has followed the same rugged timeline of events as the war. Recall that in April 2004 it raised sufficient monies to rebuild TV stations in Al Anbar province, staffed by Iraqis, to counterbalance propaganda from the likes of al-Jazeera. Those TV stations were built. And they have been destroyed. A sewing center for Iraqi women was similarly destroyed.

This past year, the group got a request from the Army 451st Battalion to help restore the medical facilities at the Najaf Teaching Hospital. The Mahdi militia had occupied it for a time. Spirit of America sent seven cardiac monitors to the hospital's director, Safaa Hamedi. In October, gunmen killed Dr. Hamedi outside his home.

Still, requests from the Marines and Army continue to arrive at Spirit of America. An Army captain in Afghanistan's Parwan province asked for medical textbooks for local doctors. SoA sent bee serum to inoculate honey bees at a business in Iraq's Diyala region. Marine Lt. Jim Wilmott got camping equipment for 200 Iraqi Boy Scouts. At the request of U.S. Embassy personnel, SoA has sent clothing and school supplies for orphans in Baghdad and Basra. They've sent thousands of kids' backpacks and school supplies requested by soldiers around the country. With the SonoSite ultrasound company, SoA delivered handheld ultrasound machines to the primary hospital in Al Qaim, Iraq, near the Syrian border. "Before this," said Mr. Hake, "they were using seashells to listen to the sounds of a pregnant mother and baby; the Marines couldn't believe it."

Jim Hake says Spirit of America's contributions have fallen off since 2004 owing to general fatigue with Iraq, "but under the circumstances people continue to be quite generous." An end-of-the-year funding request raised more than $150,000. "The emails we send to donors are not a good-news operation," says Mr. Hake. "We don't want to put a happy face on it. But the information is more encouraging than what they typically hear. The destroyed projects are hardly good news, but there are lots of guys and gals in the military there who are not just marking time, who want to see this work."

It was about 19 months ago to the day that 13 women from Afghanistan were looking out the windows of the 29th floor of the Empire State Building in midtown Manhattan, brought there by a group of American businesswomen who call themselves the Business Council for Peace (Bpeace). One of the women remarked that New York looked "very new." The idea was to expose the Afghans, most of them college graduates, to basic business know-how. Bpeace had identified the Afghans as "fast runners," women with entrepreneurial instincts. Kate Bruggeln, a Council member and retailing specialist, just returned from Kabul, her fourth trip there. Three other Bpeace women were with her.

"These trips to Afghanistan always stagger you in the best way," she said this week. "Afghanistan is a longer road than our election cycle can endure, but these women are the future of Afghanistan. This isn't a replay of the last decade. Our group's been working with them for almost two years. They are making progress."

The big event on this trip was the preparations to open Rangeen Kaman Artisans, a for-profit cooperative run by 10 of the Bpeace "associates." Another associate, Afifa, has opened a fitness center for women; it shares electrical power with the RKA store. The Americans are also working with the Afghan Women's Business Federation to create a business-formation curriculum across the country.

"The thing Afghans fear most is that we're going to leave," Ms. Brugelln says. "Not only do they fear it, they predict it, because everyone has done it before. This fourth trip by our group was profoundly meaningful to them. In the face of all the instability, we showed up again. Bpeace won't be part of the downward spiral."

Could this determination be a variant of the much-mocked "stay the course"? It is at least an interesting irony that the people who have had their faces deepest in Iraq and Afghanistan the longest, as soldiers or volunteers like these, are the ones inclined to stick it out; while many here whose experience comes off the bloody front page every day are the ones looking for a way to--there is no other phrase--cut and run.

Groups such as the Spirit of America and the Business Council for Peace may yet be driven out. It is to this country's credit that early on, they voted with their feet to go in, and regret nothing.