However, on May 13, the last day of his visit, Karzai and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not only took questions, they had a public discussion before an audience of hundreds–both in person and on the web. The United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted the conversation between Clinton and Karzai, moderated by William Taylor, vice president of the organization’s Center for Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations.
Not only was the structure of the event more casual than any of the events earlier in his visit, it was open and on display. The government-affiliated organization estimates that an audience of approximately 180 in-person attendees and hundreds of viewers of the real-time webcast of the event were party to the discussion.
“I think using the webcast was hugely important,” said Dida Atasi, online communications specialist at USIP. “[Karzai] having agreed to speak at a think-tank like USIP opens up [the conversation of peace] to begin with. Online is one small part. Proliferating that through different channels- reporters, people tweeting, members of the Afghan delegation watching- these factors come together to make it communication.”
Member of USIP were also live-tweeting the event. Many of the organization’s Twitter followers posted and re-tweeted questions and comments about the discussion and began analyzing and criticizing the conversation as it happened, and USIP was listening.
“People were interacting real-time on Twitter,” Atasi said. “When our moderator mentioned a report and we immediately put up a link to that report and sent it out through Twitter. A lot of people were re-tweeting and putting in their own commentary.”
Atasi said the online engagement was a really interesting way for people to feel engaged in discussions of peace strategy instead of watching from the outside. From issues of womens’ rights in Afghan culture to the controversial issue of reintegrating Taliban fighters into Afghan society, Twitter users across the web interacted with the conversation as it happened in DC.
“Short answer: they’re good boys, really! they were just misled! I think I saw this movie. It was called ‘west side story’,” said one commenter of Taliban reintegration. The comment spurred several responses and criticism.
“If you’re flipping through a channel and you see Karzai, you don’t think there’s anything you can do about it,” Atasi said. “When people see they can participate without having to leave their chair they do.”
USIP plans to continue providing webcasts of its events in the hope of providing a forum for a peace-centric discussion of national security. Their website http://www.usip.org/events has links to upcoming events and they can be found on Twitter at @USIP.