16 December 2009: Troops can make a difference in Afghanistan

Troops can make a difference in Afghanistan

About this time eight years ago, a hopeful sign appeared in ancient and embattled Afghanistan: Women and girls stepped tenuously into a ray of sunshine of modernity. They removed veils, some the burka, allowing their faces smiling with hope and promise to be captured by photographers. It came as a result of the invasion by American and other NATO forces.

President Barack Obama last week accepted the Nobel Peace Prize despite upping the ante in Afghanistan with 30,000 more American troops. If that weren’t ironic enough, both transpired during the run-up to the annual peace-on-Earth season. If you love irony, it doesn’t get better.

But then, perhaps synchronicity and not irony is the better lens through which to see it. Could it be that increasing our footprint in Afghanistan is actually a significant step toward peace on Earth? And I don’t mean Dick Cheney’s bomb-into-oblivion idea of peace.

The question of Afghanistan might remain the most profound of Obama’s presidency. Aside from Cheney’s neo-con brethren, I suspect few relish being in Obama’s shoes, as it seems a no-win situation.

But is it? Like Captain Kirk in Star Trek who does not believe in no-win scenarios, Greg Mortenson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea” who has dedicated his life to fostering education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, does not believe in a no-win for those lands.

In an interview posted online with MSNBC reporter Marcia Stepanek, Mortenson does not voice opposition to Obama’s plan. While he is “glad a decision has been made,” his anger and disappointment is about the process. The one thing not considered, says Mortenson, “was what do the Afghan elders, or the shura, want?”

Or not want, like the bombings.

“The problem is that if you bomb, you kill civilians and if you do bomb, you need intelligence, and the only way you can have good intelligence is to have more boots on the ground.”

Mortenson believes the government hasn’t done a good job telling us that more than a third of the troops are trainers: “teachers, engineers, bankers, dentists, horticulturalists, civil engineers and veterans.”

Those are “in line with what the shura have been saying for years — that they don’t need firepower but brainpower.”

Mortenson points out that at the height of the Taliban in 2000, there were 800,000 kids in school, nearly all boys. “Today, there are 8.4 million children in school in Afghanistan, including 2.5 million females. So it’s the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history, and the goal is 13 million.”

As a good student of history, Mortenson argues democracies are built, “not plugged in,” and empowering women is crucial.

It’s “not only (about) education but also land ownership. You go into the district courts now in Afghanistan, and it’s mind-boggling how many women are going in and filing their titles for land ownership. Just imagine what could happen if we devoted serious effort over the next two to four years to help the people of Afghanistan.”

Ironically, perhaps, Mortenson sees the military as being ahead of diplomats. In “Three Cups of Tea,” mandatory reading for senior commanders and special forces deploying to Afghanistan, he acknowledges being “fairly critical of the military,” but now says they’re ahead of the diplomats and political leaders.

“Despite a steep learning curve on the part of the U.S. military, I now think the military gets it.”

After reading “Three Cups of Tea,” Gen. David Petraeus sent Mortenson an e-mail about “three lessons he wanted to impart to his troops: We need to listen more; we need to have respect, meaning we are there to serve the good people of Afghanistan; and we need to build relationships.

“Having spent a lot of time now with the troops, I feel the troops are just like our brothers and sisters. (T)here’s tremendous dedication in the military. I can’t speak for Iraq, but I know Afghanistan. Many of the troops have volunteered to keep going back three or four times.”

Mortenson says he has tremendous admiration for American soldiers “trying to be warriors and diplomats and humanitarians simultaneously” and believes they will be “our best ambassadors” on “the road for peace over there.”

Nonetheless, it is still about education. Mortenson “ferociously believes education should be our top priority, especially girls’ education. We can drop bombs and hand out condoms and build roads or put in electricity, but if we don’t educate girls, nothing will change in society.

“If you educate a boy, you educate an individual, but if you educate a girl, you educate a whole community. There is a proverb in Afghanistan that, roughly translated, says that the ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr. And I believe that. Education is our greatest weapon.”

So, if you are seeking a reason for hope, for that elusive peace on Earth, pick up “Three Cups of Tea” or his new book “Stones into Schools.”

Link to Marcia Stepanek’s interview

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