On March 17th, 2017 the Trump Administration put forth its first budget outline. Along with beefing up military spending and cutting back on government size, this initial budget asks for a 28 percent, or $10.9 billion, cut to the State Department’s funding and international programming. Leaders, such Senator Murkowski, saw this cut to global programs, as having the potential to bring forth a new instability internationally. Others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, criticized the priorities the Trump Administration seems to have, saying that these budget cuts and increases, “come at the expense of national security”.
In this Trump era, especially with this new budget that increases America’s already swollen military budget, it is evermore important to operate abroad in a way that will satisfy our alliances, while working on our reputation with countries that may not look upon us too fondly. Continuing to build upon the relationships that we have with friendly countries abroad, while fostering new relationships, can work in the interest of American foreign policy initiatives by setting up new areas of allegiance in case of issues that may arise. Here I will discuss the example of Afghanistan to show how working with the population on a local issue can in fact better our relationship with the country, and benefit U.S. foreign policy in the long run.
Afghanistan has been ravaged by wars for decades, which has in turn heavily depleted Afghanistan’s water supply, and has destroyed most of the country’s infrastructure. Consequently, less than half of the people in Afghanistan have access to clean drinking water. What is more, more than 20 percent of the rural population practices open defecation in the same rivers where they get their drinking water, this leads to sickness and plays a role in the high infant mortality rate and relatively low average life expectancy that plagues the country. (Afghanistan’s Water Crisis, 2013)
The major advantage of the United States working with the Afghani people to help solve this issue would definitely be to help better the relationship between Afghanistan and the United States. This could become beneficial in the fight against ISIS in the future, by having more support from native people in the region. Especially if this support is bolstered using soft power methods, the Afghani population could be potential persuaded to work with the U.S. not out of fear but out of trust. Historically, the winner in guerilla warfare is usually determined by the support of the local communities. However, sentiment towards the U.S. is still low in the country, especially since one of the wars that ravaged the infrastructure and helped lead to the water crisis the country is currently in was one waged by America. With this in mind, one proposed solution to the crisis would be working with the rural populations, through village and town leaders, to educate the masses about the importance of water sanitation.
USAID Afghan Sustainable Water Supply and Sanitation (SWSS) agents could meet with these local leaders and provide them with the information and training they would need to educate those whom they lead. The aim would to hopefully disseminate information about the safety issues related to unsanitary water consumption. By working through Afghani local leaders, the hope would be that we could earn the trust of the heads of villages, while also ensuring the message gets through to people, as it would be coming from leaders they trust, instead of Americans. Another option, of course, would be a top-down approach that works with the leaders of the country to disseminate information about water sanitation over the radio. However, this would require jumping through the loops of their media censorship by the Afghani government, and the restraints and requirements that would have to be met would probably render this plan not worth the cost.
SWSS had a program similar to this from 2009 through 2012, where they met with village leaders, assisted in education of those in rural areas, helped build bathrooms in villages that lacked them, and worked to achieve better access to clean water for Afghani’s in general. These programs have proven to better the health of the local populations. However, this program ended after 36 months. While it was beneficial, another campaign, like the one mentioned above, would only continue to help foster pro-American sentiment in the country, and assist those Afghanis who still, even after the great work SWSS did from 2009 through 2012, have limited drinking water access.
Campaigns, such as the two described above, may seem loosely connected to public diplomacy; however, these are huge opportunities to allow state department officials, and professionals in the public diplomacy field, to reach out to populations in order to bolster the reputation of the United States. This could be achieved by grassroots campaigns where officials reach out to local leaders, who can then voice public support for the programs: through this channel work to establish credibility in towns and communities throughout the country. This could be advantageous, especially under the current administration, where so many of America’s past policy stances are being questioned, and the way that the United States interacts with the world has the potential to change drastically. Grassroots projects where local leaders are invited to advocate for American policy of water sanitization in Afghanistan and spread the word locally in tandem with public diplomacy professionals is one of the best ways to protect the reputation of our country, and ensure support in other endeavors from foreign nations.