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Music to Our Ears: Failing in Afghanistan as We Did in Iraq

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Kids and music go together beautifully. Free from pretensions, children play from their hearts. Put that beauty into an international setting -- in this case, young people from war-torn Afghanistan coming to the U.S. to perform traditional songs at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall -- and it becomes something of poetry, a breath of peace, a vision of a better world.

"Normally, Afghan girls are not picking traditional instruments," one young musician said in an interview. "I am one of the first. It's an honor to play with the orchestra and to act as an ambassador for Afghan music and culture." "Music can play a role in bringing about social changes and breaking taboos," said another child.

Unless it is all garbage.

Exploitation 'R Us

This week 47 young Afghans are coming to the U.S. to play music. Their trip is being paid for mostly by the U.S. Department of State. Their school was started and paid for by the U.S. Government and sympathetic U.S. donors, as well as the World Bank. While the pure of heart might imagine those young girls' sentiments about social change and women's rights are coming from somewhere deep inside of their souls, they more than likely were fed to them by their handlers at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Not that the Embassy is trying to hide either its true intentions.

"The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is an example of how far education, culture and youth have advanced since the fall of the Taliban," said Eileen O'Connor, director of communications and public diplomacy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. "We wanted Americans to understand the difference their tax dollars have made in building a better future for young people, which translates into reduced threats from extremists in the region."

I'd heard this song before; we did the same thing in Iraq. Take the story of Operation Little Yasser. We singled out one orphan and built a whole phony project around him, something about bringing a greenhouse to an orphanage so the kids could heal by growing squash. The kid, Yasser, was just a prop for the media to write stories about, describing him as a "sweet, fragile child, whose soulful eyes reveal some of the heartbreak he's endured." The kid did not get anything out of his exploitation, kids rarely do, but the Embassy sure got some PR miles out of Yasser's crummy life. Who knows if the orphanage ever got the greenhouse?

Bottom line: The State Department is sending these young Afghans to the U.S. to perform for Americans so that those Americans can see "the difference their tax dollars have made." That's a pretty bold statement given how progress in Afghanistan over the course of the twelve years of U.S.-initiated war has been "uneven" at the very best. One is left with the distinct sense that one is being played, not unlike those traditional instruments, with cute kids and soothing music used to sell a meme that is blatantly untrue and make us feel better that the United States is still engaged in nation-building abroad despite the president's promises to do it at home.

The selling of that meme is also expensive. The two-week tour of the 47 kids is going to cost $500,000, $350,000 of which is being paid by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul using American tax dollars. That works out to more than $10,000 per kid, suggesting either some pretty swanky accommodations or a subcontractor getting rich. Like the war itself, propaganda isn't cheap.

It's Actually Worse

While doing the same kind of development work in Iraq, chronicled in my book We Meant Well: How I Lost the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I saw the U.S. spend money on cultural projects, translations of American classic novels into Arabic, pastry lessons for widows, producing plays with deep moral messages, sponsoring art shows and paintings. None of it helped Iraq in the end. What I learned is that while using U.S. tax money to propagandize Americans is bad, and exploiting children for political purposes is worse, the waste of money on such feel-good projects as the Afghan children's music tour has an even darker side.

The thing most folks say about this sort of cultural spending is that it is wasteful (yes, but by small amounts when the overall war costs one billion a week) but that really, at the end of the day, what was the harm? If someone enjoyed a play or some music, or a widow baked some wonderful date tarts, what was the harm? What's wrong with helping a few kids?

While there is nothing inherently wrong with helping children, the harm of these programs is this: We wanted to leave Iraq (and soon, Afghanistan) stable and safe. But how did we advance those goals when we spent our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most people lacked access to clean water, or regular electricity, or hospitals? Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, "At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory 'thank you,' followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power." How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? Spending money on plays and art shows must have seemed like insanity, or stupidity, or corruption, or all three. As one Iraqi told me, "It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked."

What will become of these young Afghan musicians when the U.S., searching for a new propaganda meme or just tired of Afghanistan in general, turns off the money tap? Why isn't the Afghan government building such music schools themselves? Why, after twelve years of war, is the only thing we can think of to do in Afghanistan is to spend $500,000 on a propaganda tour? Indeed, to what life will these 47 young musicians return when the U.S. government no longer has a need for them? There, sadly, lies the long-term harm, long after the music has faded.

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