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Skype Session with Afghan Students Offers Lesson in Public Diplomacy

On the morning of January 22, about 30 Beaver upper school students and global history department chair Kader Adjout welcomed Under Secretary McHale and two of her staff to the Rogers Room to participate in the third in a series of Skype video chats held this year with students from two high schools in Jalalabad City. The chats are part of the U.S. Department of State’s Global Connections and Exchange Program (link).

The students took turns posing and responding to questions about the role of NATO troops in restoring political stability and peace in the region. The session was streamed live, and a recorded version remains online at http://www.livestream.com/bcdslive. Between their meetings online, the two groups of students have been sharing their perspectives on a blog maintained by Mr. Adjout.

When Under Secretary McHale introduced herself onscreen, the Afghan group presented her, virtually, with a bouquet of flowers. Touched, she told them that she hopes to collect her bouquet in person when she visits Afghanistan this spring.

The Afghan students said they support NATO’s presence as peacekeepers involved in training Afghan security forces and in the country’s reconstruction, but that NATO should first consult with the Afghan government before taking any military action in order to avoid killing non-combatants. They suggested that NATO troops would be more effective in fighting terrorism if they rooted out the terrorists based in Pakistan, rather than conducting raids in Afghan villages that endanger innocent civilians. The Afghan students also stressed that NATO troops must show more respect for Afghan culture, language and religion if they are to win the people’s trust as peacekeepers.

Under Secretary McHale thanked the students for inviting her to participate and said she is always looking for ways to open dialogs among the young people who will be our future leaders. She said that what she notices most in these exchanges is that, “The things that bring us together far outnumber those that divide us.”

Asked if she believes President Obama’s goal of reducing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in 2011 is achievable, she expressed cautious optimism, acknowledging that, “in war you can never predict the future.” But, based on the weekly briefings she attends with senior U.S. officials, she said she has been encouraged by the continued progress toward training the Afghan military to take the lead in ensuring the people’s safety.

As the hour-long conference concluded, Under Secretary McHale promised to relay the Afghan students’ concerns about civilian casualties up the chain of command, and reassured the students that U.S. forces are being trained to be more sensitive to the customs and traditions of their Afghan allies.

Certainly, more of these free and open exchanges would seem to be a good first step in preparing the next generation of world leaders to work effectively together to solve global problems through peaceful means. Under Secretary McHale expressed hope that she would be able to meet the Afghan students and take part in a future Skype session with Beaver from Jalalabad. Stay tuned!

Read an article Hayley Yudelman ’10 wrote about the discussion, “A Different Perspective on NATO and the Taliban.”

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