I was invited to attend a small gathering of Afghanistan officials in the U.S. to explore the working relationship between our government and news media. We were struck by what one senior member of the delegation said was his group's biggest surprise:
"We thought that the United States had in-depth information, that there was great knowledge among the American population about Afghanistan. But we find the opposite is true, that people of the U.S. seem to have no information about Afghanistan and its people."
He's right. Research shows that Americans – including many political leaders – know very little about foreign affairs. Despite fighting there for ten years, Afghanistan for most Americans is an abstractly convoluted mess of wars and radicals, confusing policies and political posturing.
The Afghan official's observation underscores an important question. What's the bigger dilemma: That Americans are largely oblivious about a country in which they spend billions of dollars and thousands of lives? Or that many leaders in that country think Americans know far more about their people and problems than they actually do?
Obviously neither situation is acceptable. In the short term, however, it seems critical for Afghanistan's official communicators – the people who must make their government a credible source of truth – to get the idea across that America's citizenry does not operate from a position of universal, much less accurate, understanding.
It is up to America to understand Afghanistan's strategic relevance to the nation's future. Our ignorance is costing lives. We know that.
But it is up to Afghanistan to earn that relevance. This is the message that its leadership and pro-democracy media must communicate. They must convey to their people that only the credibility of action will rise above the deafening clutter of American mass media, to deliver the message that Afghanistan is committed to become a nation of rights, and that it has the resources to pay its own way if given the ability.
Show, don't tell. This is how you get the attention of ignorant Americans.
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(Photo: Afghanistan's Ministry of Information and Culture behind barbed wire.)