Or put it another way:
Mr. Mortenson says that $243 million is needed to fund all higher education in Afghanistan this year. He suggests that America hold a press conference here in Kabul and put just 243 of our 100,000 soldiers (each costing $1 million per year) on planes home. Then the U.S. could take the savings and hand over a check to pay for Afghanistan’s universities.
Mr. Mortensen is Greg Mortensen, best known here for his book Three Cups of Tea, which is about his efforts to build schools in Afghanistan. The figures are from Dr. Greg and Afghanistan, today's New York Times column by Pulitzer-Prize winner Nicholas Kristof.
At at time when the Afghan government and the Taliban may be about to come to some kind of agreement, and even if they don't, there is wisdom to be learned from what Mortensen and others have been able to achieve in Taliban-controlled areas of a country in which we are still seen as occupiers.
Which is why you should read the column.
Perhaps you have not yet read the column. You should. Let me offer some more insights from it.
Mortensen and some of the other aid groups working in Afghanistan have learned the importance of working through locals so that their efforts not be seen as aspects of an occupation. Those who have read either of his books (the 2nd is called Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan) know that Mortensen takes this seriously, and himself dresses like the Afghanis when he is wout in the countryside. He and his organization take the time to build relationships with the local elders, respecting the traditions and organization of the society.
Kristof begins by noting that one who visits the country outside the security bubble provided by the Americans will quickly realize that Obama's decision to triple the size of the American military force has largely resulted in more dead, both American and Afghan. Kristof thinks we should pay more attention to the experience of Mortensen and those like him.
The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.
By working through the local communities, Mortensen has their support for his schools, literacy centers, and vocational training centers. Without military protection (which the villagers do not want) they survive
because local people feel "ownership" rather than "occupation."
Kristof tells of one school the Taliban wanted to shut down but when the villagers protested they backed off, because they are concerned with hearts and minds.
"Aid can be done anywhere, including where Taliban are," Mr. Mortenson said. "But it’s imperative the elders are consulted, and that the development staff is all local, with no foreigners."
It is not just the elders. There has been less objection to educating girls before puberty, yet Kristof tells us of a school with 320 girls, still expanding, with some already 16 or 17.
It survives because it is run by the imam of the mosque, and he overcomes Taliban protests by framing it as a madrassa, not a school. That seems less alien to fundamentalists and gives them a face-saving excuse to look the other way.
In Uruzgan Province, Mr. Mortenson and Mr. Karimi are beginning to pay imams to hold classes for girls in their mosques. That puts a divine stamp on girls’ education.
Wakil Karimi leads the in-country team working on Mortensen's efforts.
I admit I was struck by what could be done for the cost of one soldier. Each American soldier deployed to Afghanistan cost $1 million annually. That is a huge amount of money in a nation whose countryside is still largely undeveloped. A part of me wishes some of that money would be redirected at education in the United States - that could pay salary and benefits for more than a dozen highly skilled and experienced teachers in an urban school, and even more in some rural schools.
Kristof has long made the case that empowering women is one way of avoiding the kind of violence that leads to dominance by groups like the Taliban. He is also strongly in favor of a peace deal between Karzai and the Taliban, backed by Pakistan, which may be in the works - when key Talibani leaders are being flown to meetings by the military, something is in the works.
Mortensen is not the only one doing this work. Government schools get burned down because they are seen as alien, built by outsiders, and thus representative of occupation.
In contrast, CARE runs 300 schools in Afghanistan and not one has been burned down, the aid organization says. The Afghan Institute of Learning, run by a redoubtable Afghan woman named Sakena Yacoobi, has supported more than 300 schools and none have been burned, the institute says. Another great aid organization, BRAC, runs schools, clinics and microfinance programs — and operates in every single province in Afghanistan.
Then there’s the Global Partnership for Afghanistan, which is based in New York and helps Afghan villagers improve agricultural yields in the most unstable parts of the country. Some Taliban commanders have even sent word inviting the group into their areas.
In reading this column I was somehow reminded of some footage from "The Killing Fields." Dith Pran, played in an oscar-winning performance by Dr. Haing Ngor, is entrusted with the son of one of the Khmer Rouge leaders, who wants something different and better for his child. Even in those dedicated to a revolutionary cause, parental instincts remain very much alive. I remember in reading Mortensen's books of one scene where local Taliban decided to support a school because they wanted their daughters to be educated, at least in basic things.
I believe in education. It is important here, for all of our young people. I look at the words of my current sig, from John Dewey, that what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community and extend that to the global community. I then read the final paragraph of this column:
Is this talk of schools and development naïve? Military power is essential, but it’s limited in what it can achieve. There’s abundant evidence that while bombs harden hearts, schooling, over time, can transform them. That’s just being pragmatic.
while bombs harden hearts, schooling, over time, can transform them
I hope key figures in this administration are paying attention. For the sake of our young people, something about which I was reminded very recently when a former student deployed to Afghanistan for 6 months. For the sake of the people of Afghanistan, of whom far too many are being killed and maimed, their communities destroyed by the violence that accompanies our military endeavors. For the people of this nation, whose treasure is greatly needed to revive our economy and our hopes here at home.
Each month, Mr. Mortenson’s team gets another 50 requests from villages seeking their own schools. And for the cost of a single American soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year, it’s possible to build 20 schools.
Ghere is also a far more basic reason. Killing should never be our first recourse, but rather our last. It is not only more practical and less expensive, it is a far more moral course of action.