Illuminating the question marks: Afghanistan

| Staff Columnist

For several years, the situation in the Middle East has been one giant question mark for Americans. Why are certain groups in power? How are elections being corrupted? Why are we at war with Afghanistan and Iraq when a Saudi ordered the Sept. 11 attacks?

In an event sponsored by Amnesty International and the Wash. U. Peace Coalition, professor Robert Canfield led a discussion on Tuesday night called “Afghanistan: Why Are We There?” In his lecture, Canfield illuminated the current crisis occurring in the conflicted region. It quickly became clear that even among the most highly educated, many questions still linger.

The problem that arises when Americans discuss the Middle East is that we are largely uninformed about the political, cultural and religious sentiments of the region. In the United States, the Taliban and al-Qaida are synonymous, Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden are interchangeable villains, and Kashmir is a type of sweater.

Professor Canfield’s lecture initially focused on the historical and geographical factors that have created such conflict in Afghanistan. Held in an intimate classroom setting on the bottom floor of Eliot Hall, the event succeeded in making the complex topic accessible to an audience of overscheduled, sleep-deprived college students. The most significant achievement of the evening, however, was Canfield’s ability to engage the room in a dynamic question-and-answer session. That evening, one group of intelligent, educated Americans was able to make the humbling admission that “we don’t know what’s going on.”

By acknowledging the question marks we all have, we were able to begin addressing the issues in a more coherent light. We realized that sometimes, asking questions is all we can do.

“I don’t have the answers,” Professor Canfield admitted again and again. “You’re all asking really good questions, and I don’t have the answers.”

There were questions about Islamic history, questions about oil pipelines and questions about the future. There were questions about America’s true intentions in the region, which Canfield often referred to as “strategic” because of the abundance of oil and gas reserves.

“I think we have an interest in authentic democracy in that part of the world,” Canfield said, but then there were questions about what “authentic democracy” even means.

There were questions about what is happening now, about what President Obama is going to do next. About how he could have won a Nobel Peace Prize when there is still no peace. About how the Nobel committee was rewarding nothing more than words and promises. Question marks.

But that, somewhat indirectly, was also illuminated by the event; maybe President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize is a bit of a question mark, too. Maybe no one really does have the answers, and all we have are really good questions. Maybe all we can do is reward ideas, encourage talk and figure out the rest as we go.

Maybe nothing was really answered in the basement of Eliot Hall. Maybe that’s just the place to start.

Kate is a freshman in Arts & Sciecnces. She can be reached via e-mail at kemarcal@wustl.edu.