Four members of the Moffat County High School speech and debate team sat at a table in the school library Friday.
In a few short weeks, they, along with another member of the team, will travel to Dallas, Texas to compete in the National Forensics League’s National Tournament.
The four students — Matt Balderston, Collin Dilldine, Ben East and Ryan Zehner — qualified for nationals for their work in the cross-examination category of speech and debate.
Cross-examination is different from other forms of debate for many reasons, most notably because they tackle one topic per year. While other categories, like public forum debates, delve into a broad spectrum of current events, CXers — as they’re known — spend an entire year researching and forming arguments about a single issue.
Arguably, they become experts in that subject.
“‘Experts’ might be a little much,” Dilldine said. “But, we have more knowledge than the common person.”
In years past, subjects have included green energies and social services.
This year, CXers across the nation studied U.S. troop levels in six foreign countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Turkey and South Korea.
Although the students must focus on one topic each year, they need to be prepared to argue for or against all sides of an issue.
For East, understanding an issue with such totality is what makes the extra-curricular activity so rewarding.
“The best thing about speech and debate is learning about the topic you’re debating. You’re not just saying, ‘This is bad,’ or ‘This is good.’ You learn everything — the background information.”
Their coach, Eric Hansen, agreed.
“They’re very specialized in their areas, and they know more about that than I do,” he said. “It’s amazing the amount of stuff these kids learn about a topic.”
Beginning in June 2010, the four students began learning about troop levels.
Zehner said the learning curve was steep.
“It felt really overwhelming at first, because there’s such a substantial amount of information to learn,” he said. “It’s infinite.”
Now, toward the end of a full-year of study, the four students said they have a firm grasp on the subject. And, now that they’ve argued from all sides, they also know which arguments are best positioned to win during competition. Those winning arguments, they contend, hew closest to the truth of the matter.
In other words, those arguments have morphed into personal opinion.
The four were asked what they would do differently if they held a position of power.
They said it’s time to reduce the U.S. Military presence in Afghanistan.
More than 100,000 troops are stationed there, that’s too many, Dilldine said.
“Lowering levels to 20,000 or 30,000 would be best,” he said. “I don’t think advocating a total withdrawal from Afghanistan would be the correct idea, but I don’t think we need 100,000 troops.”
The students claimed the approach to the war in Afghanistan is too broad, too unfocused. Instead of concentrating on the counter-insurgency operation, Zehner said the military should focus on its original goal, counter-terrorism.
“There’s a lot of evidence that says counter-terrorism, instead of (counter-insurgency), is a lot more effective. And, that’s kind of my opinion.”
Zehner said he and Dilldine — partners in CX — formed an alternative plan to the counter-insurgency. The plan, which they presented at many different meets throughout the state during the course of the school year, was a winner, Zehner said.
“One of the major objectives of (counter-insurgency) is to eradicate poppy fields to take away terrorist funding,” he said. Eradication, Dilldine said, creates more harm than good.
“It benefits Taliban recruitment when the West and American troops are burning their opium fields,” Dilldine said. “That’s their only income. If you’re a poor person, and the United States is burning your only income, it makes you want to join the Taliban.”
Zehner said he discovered an alternative to burning fields during his research.
“There was a lot of evidence talking about Turkey and India when they had poppy problems, and how the United States gave farms legal licenses to harvest poppy for morphine and for legal opiates,” Zehner said. “We made a counter plan that implemented this licensing for poppy farms and legalized the (Afghan) farms for (pharmaceutical) opiates.
“So, this would allow the farmers to profit just as much from us, if not more than, from the terrorists.”
Zehner said the U.S. currently imports 80 percent of pharmaceutical opiates from India and Turkey. He proposes the U.S. should include Afghan opiates in the mix of imports.
“There was a plethora of evidence that indicated that that funding alone — from legal opiates — would solve overall stability in Afghanistan.”
Without a major shift in strategy, the students said the war effort is in trouble.
“There’s a lot of evidence that says we are not winning the war in Afghanistan, and it’s pretty much impossible for us to win in Afghanistan,” Dilldine said.
Zehner said he’s come to the same conclusion.
“You can find enormous files — and we research it ourselves — that indicate that the war in Afghanistan is absolutely unwinnable,” he said. “It’s impossible because we don’t have the resources — even with 100,000 troops, and the 50,000-troop surge.
“It’s just impossible.”
Dilldine compared the war in Afghanistan to another U.S. war.
“A lot of people have compared it to Vietnam,” he said. “It’s a quagmire. We know that we’re probably not going to win, but we’re going to remain there.
“There is a deadline for Afghanistan, but almost everyone believes we’re going to be there longer. It’s just becoming something (that) we’re throwing billions and trillions of dollars at that we’re never going to win.”
The students said the killing of Osama bin Laden is a victory, but it doesn’t spell the end of the war.
“People talk about it being a game-changer in the war,” Dilldine said of bin Laden’s death. “I can see how it would have some effect, but al Qaeda isn’t a centralized operation anymore.”
Zehner offered a quick rejoinder.
“It didn’t make a bunch of terrorists quit their jobs,” he said.
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