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Category: Politics, International

Delving Further into Foreign Policy in Afghanistan

| July 22, 2008

After a grueling 18-month primary campaign, the race for the president of the United States has begun. True to form the candidates have come out sparring.

The topic: experience in foreign policy. The focus: Afghanistan.

After the military reported that the June death toll in Afghanistan surpassed Iraq all eyes refocused further east. Along with an earlier McCain challenge, this new news gave Senator Obama the perfect opportunity to get himself packed up and off to learn more about what is happening in Kabul.

For seven years now, Afghanistan has been, in the words of many, “the forgotten war.” Sure there have been reports by news sources on “militants and insurgents” killed by coalition forces, but all too often the stories are piecemeal and the information, even cumulatively, barely enables us to judge a candidate’s knowledge on foreign policy.

With their large staffs and high security clearances, we can hope that both McCain and Obama listen to the many experts available to them and, unlike some, actually read the intelligence reports. Asking challenging questions would not hurt either.

Taking all of this into consideration, we voters who strive to pick the best candidate need to hone our knowledge as well. All too often we are only getting half of the story. In essence, it is essential to learn more than what the TV tells us.

Case in point, the day before I left Kabul, a massive car bomb exploded just blocks from my office. The target was the entrance of the Indian Embassy in Kabul. The Indian defense attaché died along with approximately 50 other people, mostly women and children shopping at a nearby market.

The explosion shook the heart of Kabul. People were dismayed and I found many Afghans apologizing to me, an American, while their own people, some 150 wounded in addition to those dead, were the ones suffering.

Upon my return to the United States on July 9, just two days later, barely anyone I spoke to heard about the incident. If they had heard, they had no details about the reason for the attack. Most people were at least concerned about the perceived increase in violence, but few really understood the significance of this bombing. Citing purely the rise of the Taliban is hardly an insight into the complexity of the country, the region, or what the impact of foreign military or the presence of some 60 donors is having on the nation.

In regard to this particular attack, there is a specific intricacy. It is the fierce competition between India and Pakistan that centers around the influence they can wield on Afghanistan. Reports missed this key factor on regional destabilization and its importance in the future of the entire area.

Case in point two, U.S. planes dropped several bombs on a wedding party in the eastern province of Kunduz. Twenty-seven Afghans were killed. Reportedly the dead consisted of 19 women and several children. The military claimed they were militants. There was no further investigation, but there was undeniable outrage.

All too often civilians are killed and they are not acknowledged. This attack was the second in ten days where there were civilian casualties. The Karzai government has complained repeatedly about civilian deaths mostly to deaf western ears. Nearly all news sources fail to even comment on how infuriated Afghans are that so many civilians are dying.

The International Committee of the Red Cross estimates that from July 2 to 8, 2008, paramilitary violence and coalition military action together killed at least 250 Afghan civilians. At that rate, approximately 19,000 Afghans will die this year alone, enough to cause the people of any country to become more violent against the invader.

As the election nears and our candidates continue to debate who has more foreign policy experience, we need to ask ourselves—are we getting enough information to judge?

If we the people wish to question our candidates and their knowledge about foreign policy, we cannot afford to rely on part of the story. Reading books on the region is the first step, perhaps Ahmed Rashid’s Decent into Chaos and Taliban or Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars. Magazines like the Economist or the Atlantic also provide excellent and more in-depth coverage. Sifting through some websites like Foreign Policy in Focus, to find out more information about donor failures and how they themselves have contributed to the current state of affairs, will help. These minor efforts will help to put the situation into better perspective while helping us to more clearly analyze a candidate’s platform.

The bottom line is that without quality information, we cannot know if the current solution of say adding more troops to the mix is the right one (which I would argue is not). Nor can we hold our candidates even remotely accountable for their “experience” in foreign policy.

So it is up to us to do our homework and that means delving just a bit further in to the subject, beyond what we hear on CNN.

Afghanistan is a uniquely complex situation. The United States absolutely needs an experienced leader to address it and all the other foreign policy challenges our nation faces. Americans must be knowledgeable as well or there will be no change in the status quo. The consequences being that we will no doubt find our children and their children in both Iraq and Afghanistan “for the next 100 years.”