Anne Smedinghoff

When I first heard about the collapse of the Afghan government and military, my first thought was for the women of Afghanistan. My second thought was for Anne Smedinghoff, the U.S. Foreign Service public diplomacy officer, who was killed in 2013 at the age of 25 by a suicide bomber while delivering textbooks to a school for girls in Afghanistan. The Taliban claimed responsibility.

Smedinghoff, a graduate of Fenwick High School, grew up in River Forest. She majored in international studies at Johns Hopkins University then joined the State Department right out of college. One of her favorite projects in Afghanistan, according to her obituary, was promoting the Afghan national women’s soccer team. But empowering girls through education was her true cause. 

In the aftermath of the Afghan government’s total capitulation, the apparent fraud that was our 20-year nation-building project was laid bare. One of the few bright spots of our occupation of that distant land — through the temporary bubble created by our military presence — was education for Afghan women. An entire generation of girls grew up without the stranglehold of the Taliban. The American military’s presence allowed a 20-year breathing space during which that generation could be schooled, which may turn out to be the only hopeful outcome in this sorry saga for which so many Americans sacrificed life and limb.

Anne Smedinghoff played a small but important role in that story. The question is whether the women of Afghanistan will become a force for real change — like Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani woman who survived a Taliban bullet to her head and became a change agent, appearing before the U.N. in 2013 to promote the importance of education for girls. N.Y. Times columnist Nicholas Kristof distilled her message as, “A girl with a schoolbook studying under a tree or in a mosque … will, on average, have fewer children, be more likely to hold a job and exercise more influence; her brothers and her children will be less likely to join the Taliban.”

As Yousafzai said during her United Nations address: “We cannot all succeed if half of us are held back.”

The Taliban is probably incapable of governing Afghanistan. In the past, they could only terrorize people into submission. Will they recognize that they need these educated Afghan women if they hope to run a country? Or will they return to the same old oppression, which didn’t work and never will? We won’t know the answer for some time.

Still, I can’t help hoping that something good might come of all this awfulness — for the sake of the service men and women who sacrificed so much, as well as their families, and for Anne Smedinghoff and her family. 

I have very little respect for the blame-layers back here unfairly heaping scorn on the Biden administration. Most of these critics haven’t given Afghanistan a second thought for the past 20 years, yet from the arrogance of their easy-chair ignorance, now fancy themselves experts in extracting citizens from a war zone, which only exposes their shallow, callow thinking.

I’m not qualified to comment on this 20-year chapter either, but Anne Smedinghoff made Afghanistan real for me. She was one of us, a talented, idealistic young woman who had the courage to put herself in harm’s way for her principles. She did not survive but those principles do. I have thought of her and her family often whenever I pass her house in River Forest, and I want her sacrifice to have real meaning. I’m sure the families of those who fought and died in Afghanistan feel the same, as do all of those who served over there, valiantly, with the best of intentions.

I believe their efforts do have meaning; it’s just hard to see that right now. But if any good can come from our Afghanistan involvement, it will come from the education and empowerment of women in this land of toxic patriarchy and murderous feudalism. Our country, meanwhile, has its own toxic patriarchy to work through. Anne Smedinghoff’s legacy can serve as inspiration in that work as well. 

“The world lost a truly beautiful soul today,” Tom and Mary Beth Smedinghoff posted on April 6, 2013, the day she died. “Our daughter, Anne, a U.S. Foreign Service officer, died in the service of her country as she was traveling with a group to deliver books to a local school in the Zabul Province of Afghanistan. … 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. 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.”

Anne Smedinghoff left home to help make a better world. She brought that mission home to us when she died, a potentially better world where half of us will no longer be held back. 

As for the blame blatherers who seem so eager to show off just how little they understand that world, a little humility is in order. We all need to learn from the mistakes this country made over the past 20 years in our rush to vengeance following 9/11. Propping up governments with military might doesn’t work. 

It has never worked. It never will. We did the best we could. 

It wasn’t enough. It has always been up to the people of Afghanistan to build a nation. 

I dearly hope the women of Afghanistan will teach that lesson to the rest of the world before the end of this story is finally written.

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