Last week our School, the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech, lost one of our Ph D students in Afghanistan. Born in Egypt, Ragaei Abdelfattah was a naturalized American, devout Muslim and former master planner for Prince George’s County. Ragaei Abdelfattah was killed by a suicide bomber in eastern Konar province of Afghanistan, where he worked on building schools and hospitals as well as providing electricity as a USAID Foreign Service Officer. The attack also took the lives of three ISAF soldiers.
Ragaei entered the doctoral program (as a full-time student in Blacksburg) in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies in Fall 2003 to study planning and affordable housing. Earlier in his career he worked on international resort and eco-tourism development and on school development in Minneapolis. As a doctoral student in SPIA and research assistant at the Center for Housing Research, directed by Dr Ted Kobel, he contributed to improving services to the chronically homeless, redevelopment planning, and affordable housing. I did not know Ragaei personally but he sounds the very antithesis of another urban planner from Egypt, Mohammad Atta.
A brief note about him in the Washington Post is here; on the Facebook page there is a SPIA obituary. See also the article by Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy.
Ragaei’s heartbreaking death underscores the tragic condition of US foreign policy in Afghanistan at this moment. He was part of the ‘civilian surge’ and the ‘development’ leg of the ‘defense and diplomacy’ triad that Hillary Clinton spoke of when she became Secretary of State. It is an admirable effort yet it is caught in the contradictions of counter-insurgency which requires (i) trusted and credible local government partners on the ground, and in the presidential palace in Kabul, and (ii) the sustained commitment of financial and military resources to ‘stabilize, hold, and transfer.’ The first condition is variable at best while the second condition is disappearing. What will be left, what will endure is uncertain.
From the various books that have appeared on foreign policy debates inside the Obama White House, it is clear that Obama took the time to carefully delimit his Afghanistan policy, initially rejecting the narrow counter-terrorism mission vision of Biden and others in favor of a more expansive COIN related ‘surge’ on both the military and civilian side. But he moved up the timescale for this to wind down, and that is now upon us. The US is leaving Afghanistan (or, more precisely, dramatically reducing its military footprint), and from a grand strategy perspective, that is a positive thing as no state should be committed to expending precious resources in strategically marginal places. Getting to the point where the US could re-define Afghanistan in these terms has taken time, and the fading of the trauma of 9-11.
Biden spoke in Blacksburg yesterday in a moving way about our own 17 April 2007 tragedy. He’s been through this himself and brings an authenticity that no one can match in situations like this (Jules Witcover’s biography on him is an enjoyable read). Long may he remain ‘unchained’ to speak his mind.