Last week I wrote a piece on Afghanistan stating there is a definite lack of accurate, in depth reporting on the goals and the efforts of the International Community to the people of Afghanistan. Somehow, the US assumes that if we know what we mean to do, they should know. Osmosis, I guess.
Those who plan our policies seem to forget that in places like Afghanistan there is a constant war of ideas going on. The Taliban, and now ISIL, are in the cities and villages, telling the people that the International Community are invaders who do not share their values. Additionally, tribal loyalties often outweigh the value of finding common ground and wars leave scars that perpetuate a devastating cycle of discouragement, violence and heartache.
If the US, as part of its foreign policy, would create a truly effective outreach campaign aimed at, and designed for, places like Afghanistan, it might make our involvement in those nations more successful. It would be tax dollars well spent because it would mean that the Afghans just might understand why we were there and why they might want to work with us. Providing basic information on what the plan is and how they fit in would also help to deconstruct the propaganda that the other side circulates.
When I arrived in Afghanistan in March 2003, the Taliban had been routed, “western foreigners” were everywhere, and the Afghan people were awakening from a nightmare to a glimpse a brighter future, as they liked to put it. But nobody could quite figure out how such a future could be secured, least of all the Afghans. What was needed was outreach to the people providing vital information on what modernization looked like and how it could make their lives better without compromising their basic beliefs. Such a direct, overarching campaign would have made it clear that we were not the enemy and that there was hope. Propaganda is not always a bad thing, especially if it is truthful. Maybe I know a little about such a concept. Let me explain.
I had the privilege of creating and administering a press service made up of Afghan journalists for seven years. It was a unique hybrid, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that was registered as an Afghan entity with the Ministry of Information and Culture. Such a strange partnership was possible because I had the extraordinary support of an engineer working on the electricty sector who saw that we should be given a chance. For that, I am eternally grateful to him. It was also possible because it operated under the great radar of bureaucracy.
Our funding was minuscule compared to the gigantic budgets of the infrastructure projects we were building or the cost of keeping the US Army in Afghanistan. However, our outcomes were disproportionate to our budget. Within a year, we had explained to the Afghan people how a modern electricity system worked, how much it cost, how long it would take to build and why they needed the “high priced foreign engineers” that they loved to complain about. We told them why the then Minister of Energy and Water could not possibly bring Kabul electricity in forty days, as he had been promising. We provided rather simplistic looking diagrams of how the electricity system worked, which parts were missing and why, after electricity was finally provided, the people would have to pay their bills and use their new energy wisely. Soon, we were hearing the Afghan media use the facts that we had provided to ask those in power to reconcile those facts to their bombastic claims. We saw real changes in attitudes and perspectives and just when the Afghan people began to be influenced by such accurate, positive news, the US decided that the small investment they had made in it was not worth it. We were defunded.
So what, you may say. Thing is, it’s an important and complex issue that is connected to our war on terror. We’ll talk more about this another day…. so, stay tuned……