Bruins Building Afghanistan
Published Jul 1, 2008 8:03 AM
We have hailed UCLA's heroes in Baghdad and Mosul. Little has been said, however, about those who serve in Afghanistan. And while it's unclear exactly how many Bruins are in that war-torn land, here are two who are making a difference — as diplomats.
Bennett Lowenthal M.A. '86 came to Afghanistan with 20 years of experience in the State Department's Foreign Service, having previously served in Brazil, Croatia, Denmark, Italy and Turkey. He is the director of the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in the newly created Panjshir province, a river valley that couldn't be conquered by the Soviets or the Taliban.
"Although they welcomed the PRT, they wanted it with a civilian face," Lowenthal says. "The Panjshiris basically said, 'We will protect you, and in return you won't need to ride around in your Humvees with guns blazing and military support and flak jackets.' Because of that, we are able to go out and because we can, we do."
Lowenthal's team advises the region's governors and serves as the liaison between foreign aid and public works projects, like the first road built last year from Panjshir to Kabul, the capital. One element of the job he finds most enjoyable is earning the respect of his intra-ethnic peers, which meant growing a beard the moment he left Naples. "It will not last long after my return," he predicts, but "I grew this specifically for my role, and it does help."
James "Palmer" Roseli '81 took a different route to Afghanistan. A CPA for two decades, Roseli was one of about 1,000 Americans to join the Foreign Service after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
He entered Afghanistan in September after two years in the Congo and a year in Iraq, where he guided U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton around Baghdad. He now serves as the political officer for the PRT in Herat, near the western border with Iran.
The region has a better economy — legal and illegal — than much of Afghanistan, and it is safe enough for Roseli to wander the open-air markets alone. But it's no vacation.
"You have people who are pretty tribal, very conservative; they've spent 30 years fighting each other, the Taliban and the Soviets, and now they are trying to rebuild their country," he says. "Illiteracy is very high, the country is mostly poor, there are problems everywhere — and they all need to be solved at once."
At least Roseli's found a way to utilize his old CPA skills. "Others find it morally offensive that they have to fill out paperwork," he says. "To me, it's pretty natural."