But How Will it Play in Puli Khumri?

A full Afghanistan debate would feature Afghanis

President Obama’s speech last night, concerning America’s path forward in Afghanistan, was primarily directed at a domestic audience. Obama had many tasks he hoped to accomplish with the speech, chief among them convincing his fellow citizens that our national interests mandate deepening and elongating a costly foreign involvement.

The nation’s ambivalent-at-best recent attitude to this war has been a staple of coverage through the review process leading up to last night’s speech. And in the coming days, we’ll no doubt see stories and polls that attempt to grapple with how opinion shifted in the wake of the speech.

But what about the opinions of the citizens of Afghanistan? Where is their voice in this discussion?

It wasn’t exactly absent from last night’s post-game analysis, but given that Afghanis are the ones in the middle of this war—without the ability to, like so many Americans, tune it out—their presence was rather scant. CBS, which of the big three networks gave the speech the most thorough coverage, did a remote with a correspondent at Bagram, who reported that most Afghanis fear that more troops mean more, not less, civilian casualties. But no actual Afghanis appeared on camera.

Which is a shame, because, as Spencer Ackerman of The Washington Independent pointed out in a piece published last night, “McChrystal has called the attitudes of Afghan civilians ‘strategically decisive’ in the war.”

That leads to some obvious, though admittedly complicated—and difficult—questions: Where exactly, are the opinions of Afghanis today? How flexible are their currently held positions, and what would the U.S. have to achieve or demonstrate to win their backing, cooperation, or acquiescence? In other words, how heavy of a lift is this?

The answers are important not only from a strategic hearts-and-minds perspective, but also because average Afghanis must have a voice in this debate that is, after all, shaping their country. And it’s a voice that Americans should hear as we make up our minds.

This morning, NPR’s Jackie Northam produced a quick turn-around report on the response from Kabul, quoting a general stationed on the Pakistan border, and an Afghani parliamentarian, both of whom support the troop increase.

That’s well and good and worth hearing, but official opinion doesn’t always track with public opinion, here or there. This was demonstrated when Northam featured a soundbite from an everyday Afghani citizen—a restaurant owner who was staunchly opposed to the troop increase.

“Many Afghans think that sending in more troops will only exacerbate the Taliban problem,” she narrated shortly before introducing his clip.

The Wall Street Journal’s response-from-Afghanistan mostly focused on officials, but closed with two word-on-the-street quotes.

The Journal found opinion divided at all levels, which is not hard to believe. It’s an extremely complicated discussion, sure to arouse complicated feelings among Afghanis. But that’s all the more reason Americans, and our press, should be listening in.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.