Where Citizen Diplomacy Means the Most: Technology, Council Bluffs, Herat, & Karadah

Contributed by Rick Burns, Founder & President of the Karadah Project and member of the Council Bluffs Sister Cities Association

LTC Burns gives state flag to Karadah District CHairman Mohammad al Rubaye

As one who has played a small part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a soldier, I have often thought of General Dwight D. Eisenhower and his monumental task as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II — an assignment with enormous physical and mental stress. He knew all too well the consequences of most of his decisions; the best that could be hoped for was to reduce the number of casualties. War is a horrible task master. In a moment of reflection, he said: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.”

President Eisenhower, then, faced all of the stresses of an evolving Cold War threat and a world still not ripe for peace after the horrors of World War II. The accumulation of experiences surely weighed heavily on his mind as he negotiated the unknowns and policy decisions of his presidency. He must have thought deeply about solutions that went well beyond war and diplomatic chess games.

At a 1956 summit on citizen diplomacy, President Eisenhower said citizen diplomacy “is the most worthwhile purpose in the world today: to help build the road to peace, to help build the road to an enduring peace.” While all of our Sister Cities partnerships are important, each an investment in the future, I think as Eisenhower contemplated all that he had experienced he had in mind partnerships in places where peace is so desperately sought and always just out of reach, like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Palestine, South Sudan, and others. These are places where partnerships are hard and challenging, but where the hope of Sister Cities’ mission shines brightest — where the need is greatest and the impact is felt deeply. These are places where the work is challenging, but the rewards are sweetest.

Members of the Karadah District Council witness the signing of the Sister Cities partnership

The Council Bluffs (Iowa) Sister Cities Association is one organization that has taken on this challenge. In 2008, the Association signed a Sister Cities partnership with Karadah, one of nine political districts within the Baghdad municipality. In Baghdad, the signing required a maze of checkpoints and security checks to get members of the Karadah District Council inside the Baghdad Green Zone and into the video conferencing facility. It took planning and patience — a virtue Iraqis have developed over decades of war, embargoes, instability, and an environment very much outside their control. On the Iowa side, the challenge was much less, but required a degree of coordination to insure a linkage into the Iowa Communications Network (ICN) system at the Council Bluffs Public Library.

This signing, while unique, had all of the hallmarks of an in-person signing. Each side had an opportunity to meet, ask questions, and get to know each other. Each side signed several sets of documents and exchanged flags. During the signing, Karadah District Chairman Mohammad al Rubaye leaned over to me and said, with great pride, “We are the first district council to sign a Sister Cities partnership.” The Council Bluffs side felt equally proud to have signed a partnership with the Karadah District, opening new and exciting citizen diplomacy opportunities.

Citizen diplomacy efforts are particularly valuable in strengthening educational institutions on both sides of the partnership. Technology provides an excellent medium for discussions when circumstances prevent the actual exchange of people on the ground. Shortly after signing the Karadah-Council Bluffs partnership agreement, faculty and leadership from the Baghdad Technical College and Iowa Western Community College linked up via an Internet connection. The two colleges have similar missions to train students in technical skills that can be applied immediately in the workplace or as a foundation for further education at a four year university.

Faculty members from Baghdad and Creighton Dental Schools

In 2010, the dean and assistant dean from the Baghdad College of Dentistry visited the Creighton University School of Dentistry just across the Missouri River from Council Bluffs. This week-long visit came about after planning conducted via various digital mediums between the Army unit on the ground in Karadah, US Embassy-Baghdad, Iraq Ministry of Higher Education, Baghdad Dental College, and the Council Bluffs Sister Cities Association. These types of engagements offer the opportunity to give participating institutions a forum for improving their organizations and strengthening relationships that create resiliency in insecure areas of the world.

Herat-Council Bluffs planning meeting with participants in Herat, Kabul, and Council BLuffs

In the summer of 2016, Herat, Afghanistan and Council Bluffs signed a Sister Cities partnership. The process, however, began the year before with preparations for a delegation visit to the Sister Cities International conference in Washington, D. C. and a signing ceremony in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The planning included multiple meetings via several programs such as Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. Meetings included discussions about the interests of our Herati friends while in the United States, schedules, visa applications, funding, flights, airport pickups, hotels, host families, partnership agreement content and translations, and a plethora of other details. All of this was made possible, easier and more effective because of our ongoing and regular virtual face-to-face discussions.

“My Sister’s Smile” exhibition at Iowa Western Community College

During our time together in the summer of 2016, the Herat-Council Bluffs Sister Cities committees discussed how to get the biggest impact from our partnership during our first year. We settled on a joint exhibition of women’s photography from Herat and the Council Bluffs area. We determined to launch a simultaneous exhibition, “My Sister’s Smile,” on International Women’s Day, March 7, 2017. This project required the relatively inexpensive digital transfer of thirty vetted photographs from each city. Each city organization planned an event and broadcasted it via Facebook as simultaneously as a 10.5 hour time zone differential allowed. Herat University hosted the Herat event, which was extended due to its popularity. Iowa Western Community College hosted the opening of the month-long exhibit in Council Bluffs. The opening ceremonies included exchanged video messages from the US Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador Hugo Llorens in Kabul and local government and Sister Cities leaders.

One of the greatest citizen diplomacy opportunities is to influence young people, the next generation of leaders. Our current high school partnership is overcoming obstacles to allow students to learn more about the world in which we live through technology. Increased access to the wider world in places like Iraq and Afghanistan through the Internet, satellite television, and expanded travel opportunities have given students and young professionals a much more intimate relationship with places that are inaccessible otherwise. This intimacy is changing the way these young people look at and experience the world, and the same is happening for young people in America. When the bridge is created between diverse cultures we have a unique opportunity to truly change the world.

Faculty and teachers from Herat and Council Bluffs discussing their high school partnership

This is not to say that there are not difficulties along the way. Internet and electricity outages and miscommunications require rescheduled meetings. Recently, I had three different scheduled meetings in one week that failed to include all necessary people on the same video conference call. We did what we could with those present, followed up with emails, and scheduled a new meeting.

In situations like this, persistence and innovation win the day. In a recent video conference we lost sound with one of two people in Baghdad. One of our Baghdad partners got the other person on a cell phone and relayed messages between us. During our first-year partnership between a girls’ high school in Herat and a public high school in Council Bluffs, we learned that we have limited windows of opportunity to have our students engage with each other while schools are in session (we discovered that Iowa schools take a summer vacation and Herat’s schools take a winter vacation). Time zone differences also cause scheduling challenges. These, like all other problems, are just small challenges compared to the great rewards available if we have the patience and persistence to work through them. As an Army officer, I learned there is nothing more innovative than a soldier in the field. I think the same can be said of Sister Cities’ citizen diplomats.

Karadah and Council Bluffs community leaders meet virtually

It is too easy to say that there are areas of the world that are simply too far away to reach; or that there is too much chaos and insecurity to establish a lasting and meaningful partnership. This underestimates the capacity of people to reach out to each other in significant ways. It ignores the multiplier effect of technology that continues to reach deeper and deeper into the shadows of the world. It denies the intent behind the powerful and world-changing mission of Sister Cities International. Citizen diplomacy in its most formidable form requires that we reach out to people in places in greatest need of support.

The Council Bluffs Sister Cities Association is committed to engaging the most challenging areas of the world. To this end, we are currently working with the mayor of Kandahar, Afghanistan to sign a partnership agreement with his great city. We are working on projects that will allow us to join all of our sister cities in joint projects that focus on youth, strengthening peace and stability efforts, and learning from each other. We will continue to use evolving technology to improve and strengthen our partnerships. Citizen diplomacy in the most insecure areas of the world will never be convenient or easy, but it is where the greatest rewards are to be found.

To learn more about this partnership, visit The Karadah Project website at http://www.karadahproject.com/sister-cities-international-friendship

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