Where is Obama's Big Ear for Afghanistan?

over the last eight years, the United States was one big mouth. We
lectured the world. We berated the world. We threatened and wheedled
and roared. From the world's perspective, however, the United States
was like the teacher in the Peanuts comic strip: an
incomprehensible wah-wah sound in the background. You generally ignored
this voice of authority - so predictable, so monotonous, so deafening -
unless it happened to pick on you.

Barack Obama has promised a different style of leadership. On election
night, he promised to listen to America in all of its many voices. In
dubbing the new president Listener-in-Chief, the Boston Globepraised
Obama's "healthy capacity to listen" and suggested that his oversized
ears, which editorial cartoonists love to exaggerate, ultimately work
in his favor.

capacity to listen is evident in Obama's books. Unusual for a
politician, Obama is able to reproduce the actual voices of other
people, recreating memorable characters from his earlier life. In a recent lecture,
novelist Zadie Smith suggested that Obama's ability to speak in tongues
is connected to his own multiracial makeup. Obama can, like Walt
Whitman in his poem "Song of Myself," legitimately claim to "contain multitudes." As a result, "the new president doesn't just speak for his people," Smith observed. "He can speak
them." Before this act of speaking in tongues, however, comes the act
of listening in tongues. Obama listens to the chorus in his head
(Kansas, Kenya, Hawaii, Indonesia), which enables him to hear the
chorus outside.

his first month in office, the Big Ear in the White House has deputized
his trusted advisors to listen on his behalf all over the world. Vice
President Joe Biden went off to Europe, Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton toured Asia, and envoys George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke
went off to their designated regions. These trips featured speeches, of
course, but they were also designed to make allies and even adversaries
feel listened to.

given all this new attention to the fine art of listening, why is
President Obama so unable to hear the word "quagmire" when he turns his
attention to Afghanistan? His ability to listen to people apparently
doesn't extend to Afghans, who aren't enthusiastic at all about the
increased number of U.S. troops heading to their country.

According to a recent BBC/ABC poll,
Afghan perceptions of the United States have dropped precipitously from
an 83% favorable rating in 2005 to a 47% favorable rating today. "In
more than a dozen interviews across the capital this week, Afghans said
that instead of helping to defeat the insurgents and quell the violence
that has engulfed their country, more foreign troops will exacerbate
the problem," The Washington Postreported over the weekend.

This week at Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), you can hear directly from Sakena Yacoobi, who heads up the Afghan Institute for Learning,
which has offices in Kabul and Herat as well as Peshawar, Pakistan. "If
the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would
tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources
to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the
people of Afghanistan and region," Yacoobi told
FPIF contributor Preeti Mangala Shekar and FPIF senior analyst
Christine Ahn in an interview. "If people have enough to eat, a job,
money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide
bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some
sort of national security - but most foreign troops are not primarily
focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the
enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral
damage in the process."

In their review of past U.S. mistakes in its Afghan policy, The U.S. and Afghan Tragedy,
FPIF contributor Khushal Arsala and FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes
conclude that "escalating the war, as National Security Advisor Jim
Jones has been encouraging, will likely make matters worse. At the same
time, simply abandoning the country - as the United States did after
the overthrow of Afghanistan's Communist government soon after the
Soviet withdrawal 20 years ago - would lead to another set of serious

is certainly much clamor from the political center that Afghanistan is
the right war to fight and the surge the right strategy to take. The
folks at Center for American Progress are spinning
the surge as not only the fulfillment of a campaign pledge but "the
beginning of the drawdown in Iraq, where these troops were originally
headed." If we view U.S. wars abroad as a zero-sum game - troops
withdrawn from one place only to be redeployed to another - then we'll
truly be locked in permanent global conflict.

Fortunately, the U.S. peace movement has been raising its voice on Afghanistan. Check out the commentary and analysis at GetAfghanistanRight.com. United for Peace and Justice has an Afghanistan Working Group. Peace Action is mobilizing against the surge. Friends Committee on National Legislation also has a new campaign up and running. If you want to get the word out more personally, join with loyal World Beat reader Alan McConnell and sell No Afghan War buttons. He's selling the buttons to raise money to buy and distribute yard signs with the same message.

eight years of deafness, the White House is now listening. When it
comes to Afghanistan, we just have to speak a little louder.

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