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America’s robotic response to immigrants

Jul 04. 2017
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By The Nation

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Six Afghani girls skilled at building robots are denied visas to compete in the US, but far more is being denied here

An all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan was counting on competing with their cagey machines in the upcoming First Global Challenge in Washington – but their visa applications were rejected.

The six girls were devastated on hearing the news. They’d been working on their robot creations for months. The competition’s aim is to encourage youngsters around the world to develop skills in engineering and technology. Even if barred from the US, the girls’ efforts should serve as inspiration for young people everywhere, especially given what Afghani female students are up against in their homeland, a society more male-dominated than most.

Instead, all that is evident is not their achievement but yet another diplomatic blunder on the part of the US government, this time in denying visas to these would-be visitors. Relatively insignificant as a visit of the six girls from Haret in western Afghanistan might seem, it could have reminded Americans about the state of people-to-people relations between the two countries 16 years after President George W Bush ordered his invasion.

This visit was an opportunity to put human faces – six of them – on the continuing conflict. America’s sons and daughters are still being sent in uniform to “liberate” the people of Afghanistan from the fanatical Taleban rulers who barred women and girls from schools and workplaces in the name of misguided religious beliefs.

Billions of dollars have been spent on that war and on reconstruction and development in the country, and yet last week US officials still couldn’t see the public-relations opportunity knocking at their door.

The girls had twice travelled from Herat to Kabul to apply for their US visas. In building their robots, they’d had to make do with whatever materials they could find at home because the parts they ordered from overseas never made it to Herat due to security concerns. With a handful of stamped visas, America could have easily made the extra efforts worthwhile and rewarded them for all their hard work. Their visit could have been touted as evidence of the progress Afghanistan has made thanks to (rather than despite) American 

intervention.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis was in Brussels recently trying to convince Nato allies to send 3,000 more troops to Afghanistan to match America’s commitment of up to 5,000 more. Currently there are 8,500 Americans there and 5,000 soldiers from other Nato countries. Their objective remains training and assisting Afghan forces to break what the current US commander, General John Nicholson, has called a “stalemate”. “We are not winning in Afghanistan,” Mattis concurred last month, “but we will correct this as soon as possible.” 

“Winning” will not be easy even with revived Nato interest. The Taleban still has al-Qaeda operatives on its side and Islamic State fighters are waging their own battle there. If history offers any lessons, the 

likelihood of foreign troops imposing peace on Afghanistan is slim indeed. History would proscribe continued military expense. With Osama Bin Laden long gone, America’s true intentions in Afghanistan are something of a mystery. Does it seek to simply win the war at any cost, or is there genuine interest in helping the country develop and improving its people’s lives?

Or does the answer lie elsewhere? While we worry and speculate, another blow is delivered to valuable diplomacy. Those young robot makers should have been given a chance to play their part.

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