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Afghanistan: Looking Back at the “Year of Decision” in Kabul

By Donald M. Bishop

Before I left Washington for Kabul, Richard Holbrooke told me that 2009-10 must be the “year of decision,” so Public Diplomacy would receive $72 million for FY-10 and more than $100 million in FY-11. This money surge was staggering, but a surge of people was promised too. Within a few months, David Ensor arrived as “Uber.” He was an excellent choice.

Very junior PDO’s worked crushing hours to send more and more Afghan Fulbrighters, IVs, and other exchange program participants to the U.S. Two successive English language fellows spun up a huge program. More Lincoln Learning Centers in key cities and universities were established. Cultural heritage programs grew. ECA well supported these traditional PD programs.

PAS funded a Government Media Information Center (GMIC) as a media venue for Afghan government principals. Ministers learned how dealing with the media is part of governance. GMIC trained spokespersons and journalists.

The information unit worked on steroids: statements, clearances, events, ceremonies, week-long tours for European media, translations – the works. So great were the demands of the American, international, and local media, however, that a unit twice as large could not have met their insatiable demands. At the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), we needed full spectrum BPAOs, but what commanders wanted were full-time press officers.

The Public Affairs Section also launched a wide variety of what we called “strategic” public diplomacy initiatives, ranging from Paywast, a social media forum in Dari and Pashto that became–for a time–far larger than Facebook or Twitter in Afghanistan, to bringing Sesame Street to Afghan TV–teaching basic alphabet and numbers to small children, and many of their parents, too. We funded a reality TV show about the Afghan army that increased recruiting–and a highly popular fictional cops show set in Kabul that showed what justice could be. The magnificent Kabul national museum–ransacked under the Taliban’s first rule–was given stout new external security walls, funds to train young curators, and a funded exchange relationship for scholarship in antiquities with a major U.S. university. A program working with the Afghan Ministry of Haj and Endowments took scores of young Afghan mullahs and mayors on mind-broadening trips to important centers of moderate Islamic learning such as Cairo and Jakarta. Other strategic programs helped provide new possibilities for women in the media, higher education, and the arts.

There were frictions. We were initially given “complete discretion” to approve $5000 grants, but anything more needed Washington approval from the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) or SCA/PD. May I be undiplomatic? This was crazy. Our 20 Americans running the largest PD program in the world were allocated $4000 in representation funds – another absurdity. Months went by before the promised millions and the promised people with large grant warrants arrived. More time was lost writing a soon forgotten “Afghanistan Communications Plan.” And bright people in Washington had pet ideas; most were energy sponges.

I confess, then, to mixed emotions about PD in Afghanistan in that “year of decision.” Everyone in Kabul worked exhausting hours. SCA/PD jumped high hurdles for us in Washington. We opened new futures for many Afghans. By their nature, however, traditional PD programs help strengthen and change a society over the long term. They “shape.” But other developments in Afghanistan cut the time short.

That I could help guide our PD Americans and local employees to achieve so much was very gratifying. That all the work has turned to ashes will pain the rest of my years.¤


Former PAO in Kabul Donald M. Bishop, now retired from the Foreign Service, is currently Krulak Center Distinguished Fellow at Marine Corps University in Quantico.

 

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