Opinion: Ciattarelli misplays the Afghanistan card

Saladin Ambar | August 20, 2021 | Opinion
Criticizing the president’s handling of the U.S. troop withdrawal only serves to draw attention to most Americans’ ignorance and confusion about the Middle East
Saladin Ambar

Earlier this week, Republican candidate for governor of New Jersey Jack Ciattarelli, along with his running mate for lieutenant governor, Diane Allen, criticized President Joe Biden for his handling of the American troop withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ciattarelli’s statement was made standing next to his son Jake, a logistics officer in the 10th Mountain Division. Meanwhile, Allen’s criticism was linked to Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of women’s issues in the state. “The Biden surrender in Afghanistan,” she said, “means women and girls must surrender their dreams and hopes — and even their bodies.” It was a striking moment of foreign policy analysis emanating from Trenton. The political question is, to what end?

While gubernatorial races rarely center on foreign policy questions — and the race for New Jersey governor should be no different — the Ciattarelli campaign is hoping that Biden’s most searing policy and political failure to date will work to its benefit. It would seem Murphy has little to fear from these broadsides, as most Americans continue to favor Biden’s decision to withdraw American troops from the 20-year field of conflict.

As states count the cost of lives and wounded men and women who’ve sacrificed over these decades — New Jersey ranks near the bottom of those killed serving in Afghanistan at 44 — perhaps a better point of focus should be what, precisely, can any governor do about the situation in Afghanistan? The obvious answer is not much. But at the very least, one point of focus should be on what New Jerseyans ought to know about the rest of the world. For all the current debates about teaching critical race theory, perhaps both Ciattarelli and Murphy should be debating how much world history students are getting in the state’s public schools.

At a recent event, Ciattarelli made one of the most paradoxical and tone-deaf remarks about the type of education students should be getting. “I don’t believe that we should be teaching that America is a racist nation,” he said. “I believe that we should be teaching history.” It makes one wonder what history Ciattarelli has in mind that suggests America has been an antiracist, egalitarian country. A better question is, what ought students learn about Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa and parts of the world that are neglected at the altar of feel-good American history. We are after all, still struggling to figure out the proper use of “Afghan” and “afghani.” I won’t even go into most Americans’ knowledge of the geography, let alone the history, of the region, we are now turning our gaze toward, amid the chaos of a humiliating withdrawal.

If Ciattarelli is concerned about the future of democracy and human rights — and women’s rights in particular — he may wish to include women’s reproductive rights and voting rights in future debates with Murphy. Indeed, the question of the states’ role in overturning elections might also be a good place to start, along with an assessment of how to prevent another January 6th.

The truth of the matter is that Ciattarelli, like most politicians, has become Kabulcentric because he thinks it may give him some political edge. But this is part of what is wrong with our dysfunctional politics at the moment. Calling for more world history, foreign language education and education in world religions is anathema to most Republican leaders, and Ciattarelli is no exception. Yet, this is the best place to address Afghanistan in the states. Far greater attention needs to be paid to whether Americans can point out Afghanistan on a map, as opposed to whether or not they can recite talking points at a moment of international calamity, one driven, at least in part, by our collective ignorance of most of the nonwestern world.

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