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Vice Mayor Lippman Recounts His Latest Trip to Afghanistan

City of Falls Church Vice Mayor Hal Lippman was not present for some big votes on the City Council this month, but the outcomes were not affected by his absence and it is hard to argue that what he was doing instead was not considerably more important.

For the fourth time since 2003, Mr. Lippman was in Afghanistan, playing a major role in sustaining U.S. educational and infrastructural development efforts there, efforts that will ultimately bring peace and stability to the region as U.S. military involvement withdraws over time.

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Falls Church Vice Mayor Hal Lippman back from his fourth trip to Afghanistan since 2003. (News-Press photo)

A long-time City resident, former elected member of the school board and in his second term on the City Council, Lippman is like many others in the Little City who are, metaphorically speaking, “mild mannered reporter” types around their home community by day, but veritable, world-saving “Superman” figures by night.

Proximity to the nation’s capital and its corridors of power tends to cause that to happen more often here than in other places.

Few people watching Lippman at a City Council meeting anguish over a vote on the date of Falls Church City elections would picture him operating in harm’s way on the dusty 95-mile highway linking Kabul to Jalalabad halfway around the world, protecting vital U.S. national interests.

Lippman’s tours to Afghanistan have all been in his role as a consultant for an entity contracted by the the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). His assignments have been to provide independent expertise in evaluating the effectiveness of key U.S. educational and water/agricultural development assistance programs.

This month’s three-week stint brought Lippman closer to deadly violence than any of the others, as on the morning of Dec. 15, a suicide bomber detonated a device a half-mile away from his location, and even at that distance, the sound of the explosion was, he said, “as if someone had slammed the heavy door on the compound building where we were working.” Running outside, he saw the white smoke from the explosion followed by black smoke of the fire it caused.

Later that day, he said, he learned that eight people were killed in the blast, and 40 more injured. “It was the first time something like that happened directly ‘in my world,'” Lippman wrote in a letter about his trip that he shared with many of his friends in Falls Church. “It was too close for comfort and spooked me.” (The complete text of Lippman’s letter is available here, www.fcnp.com.)

After any blast like that, he said, the drill is that no one goes outside for the next two hours. “But then,” he went on, “by the next day, things returned to the regular routine. We had a full schedule of appointments in Kabul and simply went about our business. While thoughts of the incident lingered at the start of the day, they quickly receded as we went from place to place. This is what foreigners who live and work [t]here simply refer to as the surreal part of everyday life in Afghanistan.”

Lippman said that, as before, his main concern for the region is the mistreatment of and subordinate role of women in the culture. After he provoked a heated discussion on the subject with three Afghan members of his staff, two men and a woman, he explained further to the woman how much he detests the way women are treated in Afghanistan.

“She answered with tears in her eyes that she too felt that way but still loved her country,” he recounted. “She added that she’d experienced mistreatment as a woman her whole life and always resented it.”

Yet, he added, as one of five children, four daughters and a son, she was the first woman in her family to have gone to college. She said her father strongly opposed this. “She then explained that her other three sisters had followed her in completing college,” Lippman recalled, “and when I asked what her father now thought about this, she smiled and said he’s proud of all of them.”

Lippman said the purpose of one leg of his trip “was to monitor the data gathering procedures and gauge the progress of two current U.S. AID agricultural projects,” one working to rebuild and improve the quality of education in Afghanistan’s 16 university agriculture faculties, and the other focused on more efficient use of water resources and irrigation to improve agricultural production and farmers’ livihoods.

It meant spending time at Nangarhar University, on the outskirts of Jalalabad, and at irrigation canals and farm demonstration plots in the countryside.

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