Mr. Kerry, how do you ask a woman to be the last to die in Afghanistan?

A familiar question for the US secretary of State following the death of US diplomat Anne Smedinghoff.

Courtesy of Tom Smedinghoff/AP
Anne Smedinghoff, 25, was killed Saturday, in southern Afghanistan, the first American diplomat to die on the job since last year's attack on the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya.

Once again, history thrust John Kerry today in front of microphones to speak about American youths who are cut down in the waning days of an unpopular war.

Mr. Kerry, now US secretary of State, urged Americans to “forge on” against terrorism in the wake of yesterday’s killing of Anne Smedinghoff, a 25-year-old US diplomat serving in Afghanistan. In 1971, a younger Kerry challenged Congress to stop elongating a fruitless war. He asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”

Kerry’s famous question, posed in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came on behalf of fellow soldiers he had recently served with in Vietnam. Today’s remarks also came from a personal place: He had just met Ms. Smedinghoff when she assisted him on his visit to Afghanistan two weeks ago.

An explosion killed the Chicago native while on a mission to deliver textbooks to students in a wartorn part of southeastern Afghanistan.  Three US soldiers, a civilian Defense Department employee, and an Afghan doctor also died in the attack, which may have been aimed at the governor of the province. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, according to the Associated Press.  

Kerry, speaking in Turkey, described Anne as “a selfless, idealistic young woman who woke up yesterday morning and set out to bring textbooks to schoolchildren, to bring them knowledge, children she had never met, to help them to be able to build a future.”

Smedinghoff’s parents released a heartbreaking statement highlighting their daughter’s enthusiasm for a post she volunteered to take: “We are consoled knowing that she was doing what she loved, and that she was serving her country by helping to make a positive difference in the world.”

The fact that the young diplomat volunteered for the post, and that US forces have similarly not been drafted into service, are important differences from Vietnam. But there are uncomfortable similarities in how the two wars limped painfully toward a very extended conclusion.

Most US troops will come home in 2014, President Obama promises. In the meantime, the US is trying to hand off responsibilities to Afghans.

In 1971, the White House was similarly trying to transition the war effort to the locals. The young Kerry saw it as an elongated effort to avoid the embarrassment of defeat at the cost of young Americans’ lives.

In a section of his testimony labeled “What was found and learned in Vietnam,” Kerry laid out the ground truths that made him a skeptic. The parallels to Afghanistan are legion – from villagers siding with whichever force is present at the time, to the difficulty of training local forces to “take up the fight against the threat we were supposedly saving them from,” to American tax money feeding “a corrupt dictatorial regime.”

Smedinghoff should be honored for taking the risks that the US asked of her. But her death should raise some questions about the long handover in Afghanistan. Is the Afghan government not capable of delivering textbooks to schools? If it is, then why are we getting in the way of Afghans running Afghan affairs? If not, will Hamid Karzai’s corrupt government be ready in a year’s time, when most US forces are set to depart?

It's these questions about whether this is time well spent that would prompt a younger Mr. Kerry to ask his older self: How do you ask a woman to be the last woman to die in Afghanistan?

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