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Originally published Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 4:53 PM

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Signs of progress behind the headlines from Afghanistan

A Seattle educator has spent a decade in Afghanistan leading education programs from rural school projects to training for university administrators. Suzanne Griffin is guardedly optimistic about progress behind the headlines.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

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Parsing the headlines about Afghanistan gets more difficult as U.S. and NATO troops inch toward the exits, and violence spikes in cities.

Meanwhile, dozens of donor nations met in Tokyo last month to pledge $16 billion in development aid over the next four years. Yet others are blowing the dust off old arguments to suggest Afghanistan remains an unexploited treasure of rare and exotic minerals. As in, why leave it all behind?

A valued source of perspective is catching her breath in Seattle before she returns to Herat, in western Afghanistan on the Iranian border, to continue promoting English-language instruction in universities. In particular, English for specific purposes, such as engineering and medical training.

Suzanne Griffin saw a three-month sabbatical from her post as dean of instruction at South Seattle Community College turn into a decade of educational and humanitarian endeavors in Afghanistan.

She put her Peace Corps roots in the country, her Dari language skills, and her Ph.D. from the University of Washington into a mission to expand access to learning, from rural schools to university medical training.

Griffin offers what might be called experience-based optimism about Afghanistan. She has seen vast improvements. When she arrived in the country in 2002, there were 800,000 children in school and they were all boys. By 2011, enrollment was 8.4 million, and 39 percent were girls.

But then other realities have not changed. She is very proud her Emerald City Rotary Club which, under the fundraising leadership of Paul Anderson and Joel Petersen, raised most of the $90,000 required to build a school for girls in a rural area. To keep the school from being burned down, boys were included. Griffin cautions against identifying its location. Making a point of the American money involved invites trouble.

Likewise the Seattle-based Ayni Education International, led by Executive Director Ginna Brelsford, sponsors a women's literacy program in a rural area of Kabul province. Security concerns preclude naming the district.

In 2006, Griffin moved from Kabul to Shiberghan, in the north of Afghanistan along the border with the old Soviet Union. She spent two years in charge of a teacher-training project. Back in Kabul in 2008, she survived a suicide bombing that killed 11 people. Lots of other close calls since then.

Security concerns in Herat dictate the most conservative gender- and nationality-obscuring garments.

She is working to train principals, headmasters and university administrators how to manage their schools, budgets, staffs and programs. The training is not available locally, and it is a good fit with her Ph.D. in educational assessment.

Online language training is a huge undertaking and a practical reality of too few English language instructors. Internet access on campus is key. A private Internet connection in Kabul is $250 a month for service from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m., the cheap rate. Cybercafes exist, but are for men only.

What will happen when the U.S. leaves? The question draws a chuckle. The presumed departures are combat troops, she said. The U.S. is not leaving. She has seen multiple expansions of the U.S. embassy and consulates. NATO is leaving behind airfields, and the promise of regional connections.

Griffin is guardedly optimistic. Confidence is building in local security forces, and would be higher if they were paid enough to resist bribes. Contrary to myth, parents want their children educated.

She draws confidence from Afghans returning from overseas to invest at home. People recognize what they lost under the Taliban. New, unknown access to medical care — with improved infant and maternal survival — is valued. Armed residents defend rural health clinics.

Griffin sees progress behind the headlines.

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

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