Monday, April 5, 2010

Why did Obama visit Afghanistan?

As I was thinking about my post for The Afghanistan Project, I kept coming back to one central question: why did President Obama visit Afghanistan last week? What goals did he have for his trip, which was just six hours long? One possible answer came in the form of a Taliban message mocking Obama's visit. According to The Washington Post, a message from the Taliban said that Obama's visit proves he hasn't made any real progress in Afghanistan:
"By making a six-hour unannounced trip to Afghanistan ..., Obama proved that his military strategy and surge of 30,000 troops, his morale-boosting propaganda, have all failed to make a dent" Taliban website
Even if we set aside the group's obvious anti-war bias, the message might have a point. By appearing before troops stationed at Bagram air base, President Obama both brings a smile to troops' faces and shows that he's still interested in the situation in Afghanistan. This point was echoed by New York Times photojournalist Stephen Crowley:
"The president’s six-hour visit was intended in part to shore up morale as American and Afghan forces prepare for an all-out assault on Taliban militants in the southern province of Kandahar" Stephen Crowley
And finally, here's what The New York Times had to say:
"Mr. Obama’s visit... included a boisterous pep rally with American troops. It was his first trip as president to the scene of an eight-year-old war he has stamped as his own" The New York Times
It seems fairly evident that Obama's visit was a sort of PR stunt intended to rally support around the war both for Americans at home and troops stationed in Afghanistan. By talking to troops and showing he's willing to travel to the war-torn country, Obama shows he is interested in the war that he has "stamped as his own."

Eight years on and the war in Afghanistan doesn't look like it's coming to a close. It's tough to keep Americans interested—few other American conflicts have lasted so long. More important still is keeping American soliders motivated as the conflict continues to be extremely deadly. As Penelope wrote in her blog post, the number of troops killed in Afghanistan is about double what it was at this point in 2009.

There's another benefit: it got the U.S. (and world!) media to cover Afghanistan. As the war drags on, news from Afghanistan has definitely dropped off the front page and the nightly news. In fact, Representative Patrick Kennedy (D-RI) ranted against the U.S. media's apparent lack of interest in the war. He was angry that the press hadn't shown up to cover a Congressional debate over a resolution to withdraw troops from Afghanistan:
"It's despicable, the national press corps right now... We're talking about war and peace, three billion dollars, 1,000 lives and no press! No press!" Patrick Kennedy
Instead, Kennedy said the media were voraciously covering allegations of sexual abuse by Congressman Eric Massa (D-NY). Once again, the press had chosen to focus on a timely scandal rather than on the ongoing war that's killing hundreds of Americans every year. The sex scandal is breaking news that's happening now; the war is eight years old with little new information. And in the web-connected, 24-hour news cycle, the newest buzz always wins out.

So President Obama's trip most likely had two goals. Firstly, to raise morale and support for the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Secondly, to make people pay attention to the war. And we really should pay attention, because we're sending millions of dollars and scores of young Americans there every single day.

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