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David Ensor's Closing Remarks at "Getting Beyond 2014 in Afghanistan"

VOA Director David Ensor (far left) moderates the panel discussion "The Future of Media in Afghanistan"
VOA Director David Ensor (far left) moderates the panel discussion "The Future of Media in Afghanistan"
[The following is the transcript of the closing remarks delivered by VOA Director David Ensor at the panel event “Getting Beyond 2014 in Afghanistan” held on February 28, 2014, at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C. The event was hosted by USIP, VOA, and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People. Ensor, who served for 17 months as Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, moderated a panel discussion on the future of media in Afghanistan, which can be watched in full here.]

Thanks to everyone for attending today’s discussions. I hope you found them thought-provoking and useful. I certainly did, and the world’s media is with us, so perhaps others outside of this room will, also.

Some of you may know that I spent 26 years as an American network television correspondent, many of them covering international news. Among many other adventures, I once rode a Soviet tank from Jalalabad to Kabul, covering the story as the Russians began their troop withdrawal.

I am proud of that work as a journalist, but I have to tell you that one of the bad raps on commercial television news has some truth to it. You’ve probably heard of the cynical view of TV news, that “if it bleeds, it leads”?

Well, it’s the nature of the business, as was mentioned earlier. And it’s human nature. Research consistently shows that people will switch channels during good- news stories more readily than during stories of tragedy, bloodshed, and drama. The networks know that. So do the wires, so do the newspapers. The news business thrives on conflict. And conflict there has been in Afghanistan.

On a day in Afghanistan, if a roadside bomb killed four soldiers, depending on what else was going on, that might make the news in this country. But on that same day, if five new schools, or if a maternal health clinic in Herat was opened, you almost certainly would not hear about that over here.

One network correspondent friend of mine used to come to Kabul every few months when I was working at the Embassy. He would do stories about the American troops, and what they were up to. Frankly, in the biz we call them “bang bang” stories, because they always had an explosion in them somewhere.

And my friend told me he knew that the international forces were only there to open up space for aid workers, NGOs, investors and, most of all, Afghans, to rebuild their country, their shattered economy, and to build some hope for the big generation that’s coming forward in Afghanistan. He understood that that was what they were here for. But, he said, that story is not sexy.

But as was noted in the previous panel, between 2001 and 2010, primary school enrollment rose from around one million to nearly seven million, a seven-fold increase in nine years. The proportion of girls went from virtually zero in school, to now close to 40 percent.

While serving at the Embassy in Kabul, I helped to arrange – and I’m terribly proud of this – to fund the launch of the Afghan version of Sesame Street, the children’s series that teaches reading and counting. We produced our program – and it is still being produced – in close consultation with the Afghan Ministry of Education. And there are some very clever people in that ministry who made it a very strong program. The project helps to educate Afghans from pre-school age and onward, frankly all the way up to adulthood in some cases. That program creates hope and it represents real change that matters.

But you haven’t heard about that much on the American media, because stories of American GIs and Taliban suicide bombers are just more compelling television. They are.

It’s not that American audiences and readers have been told anything that is not true about Afghanistan. There has been plenty of tragedy in Afghanistan, there is plenty of corruption, and plenty of opportunities have been squandered in the last few years. All legitimate news stories, and they have been written about. But in my view at least, the American public has not heard the other half of the story in a fully balanced way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the pessimism about Afghanistan’s future post-2014 is misplaced. There are many reasons for deep concern. It’s a rough neighborhood, as we’ve discussed. Some of the neighbors are seeking to keep Afghanistan weak for their own purposes, and the country has always had its own deep internal divisions, tribal, regional and so forth.

So yes, there is going to be trouble ahead, of course. No doubt about it. But the conventional wisdom seems to hold that Afghanistan is set now to revert to the bad old days.

So I think that it’s incumbent on people in the room here, and those of us who’ve spoken on the panels, and everyone else who is listening, to try to prove the conventional wisdom wrong.

Personally, I believe in the younger generation of Afghans: the young Afghans that I met in Kabul, Kandahar, Mazar and Herat, many of them highly motivated and very impressive. Of course, they’re going to need to be.

In any case, we Americans may be war weary, but our policymakers do know that Afghanistan will continue to matter for geo-strategic reasons both to the United States and to the West. And there’s no getting around that. It’s just a fact.

Speaking for the Voice of America, I can tell you that we plan to keep a robust presence on the air, in Dari and Pashto, on radio and on television, with our fine partner at RTA, and perhaps others. While the shape of our efforts may change a little bit, we and our sister organization, RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, are looking to maintain an important role for serving our audiences in Afghanistan.

I guess what I would like to close by saying is that, whatever happens, in terms of the military, the political, aid budgets, investment and so forth, I hope that one message to Afghans going forward comes from this conference. And it’s simply this: You have friends here. Thousands of us, who put some time into helping out in the past, and we have a special place in our hearts for your country.

Thank you very much.