Tom Eblen: Lexington couple watch election in Afghanistan with personal interest

Herald-Leader columnist,Tom EblenApril 1, 2014 

Judie and Bill Schiffbauer of Lexington pose in 2009 in front of what s left of the house in Kabul, Afghanistan, where they lived as Peace Corps workers in the 1970s. A photo from that era shows a beautiful stucco home with big picture windows and awnings. They spent 14 years living in Afghanistan since the 1970s. Photo provided

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When Afghanistan needed rebuilding in 2002 after the U.S. invasion overthrew the Taliban, Bill and Judie Schiffbauer were eager to return to the country where they lived in the 1960s and 1970s.

Now they worry that their 14 years of work there could be undone if war-weary Americans walk away from that complex and confounding corner of the world.

Bill Schiffbauer's biggest fear is a bloodbath as sectarian extremists and ambitious neighbors fight for control. "If we leave, the worst case is ethnic cleansing," he said. "What are we willing to stand by and watch from a moral point of view?"

A lot could depend on Afghanistan's presidential election Saturday, which has been preceded by high levels of violence. Insurgents have targeted foreign civilians, including journalists and Christian missionaries, in an apparent attempt to discredit the election, according to the New York Times.

U.S. combat forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan this year, and so far there is no agreement for a continued American military training and support presence. But that could depend on which of the 11 presidential candidates replaces Hamid Karzai.

"The stabilizing force is education, agriculture and health care," Schiffbauer said. "I think that's the long-term solution. The short-term problem is a lack of security and all the people who want to interfere there."

Afghanistan has been an embattled crossroads of the Muslim world for centuries.

Eight invasions and sectarian strife over the past two and half centuries has left many of the 30 million people living in that unforgiving landscape poor and uneducated.

The Schiffbauers first went to Afghanistan in 1966 to teach high school English in Baghlan as Peace Corps volunteers. Like most Americans, then and now, they knew little about the country when they were assigned there. "Every atlas you go to, it's in the crack on the map," he said.

After two years, Schiffbauer was offered a Peace Corps staff job in Kandahar, supervising 60 volunteers scattered across two-thirds of Afghanistan's rugged geography. Over the next three years, he traveled more than 200,000 miles within the country.

The Schiffbauers returned home to Pennsylvania for graduate school in 1970, but they were back in Afghanistan within three years. They lived two years in Kabul, the capital, where Bill worked with non-governmental organizations.

The couple moved to Lexington in 1975. Judie taught English at the University of Kentucky and he was a salesman in the coal industry. While they were here, Afghanistan suffered hard times: Russia's invasion and nine-year occupation and power struggles among extremist Muslim factions.

When the Schiffbauers returned to Afghanistan in May 2002, Bill became an operations director with U.S. organizations helping the country's health ministry get back in business with international aid. Working with Afghan crews, he rebuilt many buildings damaged in the war.

"The country was torn apart," he said. "It was one of the world's poorest countries when we went there in 1966, and it's still one of the poorest countries after 30 years of war."

Judie Schiffbauer became one of the first faculty members at the American University of Afghanistan, which recently suspended classes during the presidential campaign and encouraged faculty members to travel abroad.

The Schiffbauers have been back in Lexington since 2009, where their home is filled with beautiful carpets and furniture from Afghanistan. They read the news and worry about what will happen to the little-understood country they love.

"The Muslim world is a strange place, and Afghanistan is ever stranger," Bill said. "The fight with the Russians brought all kinds of not nice folks into Afghanistan and Pakistan."

Still, he said, "There are a lot of smart Afghans dedicated to their country. There's something about the average Afghan. Aside from Australians, I can't think of anyone who has a collective personality more like us."

American politicians are always willing to spend billions on war, but they begrudge every dollar that goes to diplomacy and foreign aid — even though that often would save lives and treasure in the long run.

The United States now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Bill Schiffbauer thinks some kind of continued military presence is essential for keeping the country from descending into a chaos we would pay for in the future.

He noted that America still has 40,000 troops in Germany and 50,000 in Japan. "How long have those wars been over?" he asked.

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415.Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblenBlog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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