21 October 2009: 21st-century thinking needed in Afghanistan

21st-century thinking is needed in Afghanistan

Without a doubt, a cool, wet autumn day is best to immerse oneself into a book that tells a captivating story. Sipping more than three cups of steaming tea, I finally got to do that reading Three Cups of Tea.

The story is about Greg Mortenson’s work to establish schools first in Pakistan and subsequently in Afghanistan for every child—boys AND girls—in the hinterlands whose only opportunity for “education” is in the madrassas, fundamentalist religious training grounds for developing jihadists.

Since literally stumbling upon Korphe, one of the poorest and most remote Pakistani villages after a failed attempt to summit the world’s second highest mountain K2, Mortenson has dedicated his life to “fighting terrorism one school at a time.”

The book title draws on the symbolic cultural practice of sharing tea. Haji Ali, a wise elder of Korphe, tells Mortenson the first time you share a cup you are a stranger; the second, honored guest; the third, family.

The story is timely and timeless three years after its publishing.

The Newsweek cover story of October 5, “The Mind of the Taliban,” probes into what drives the men, often teenage “graduates” of madrassas and followers of Wahhabism, an ultra fundamentalist sect of Islam to which Osama bin Laden belongs.

In Pakistan alone, it is estimated there are over 20,000 Saudi-funded madrassas indoctrinating some 1.5 million Pakistani boys annually.

Taliban leader Mullah Aga Mohammad explains from his perspective the reason for resurgence of the Taliban: “American operations that harassed villagers, bombings that killed civilians, and [President Hamid] Karzai’s corrupt police and officials were alienating villagers and turning them in our favor.”

Mohammad might be right in his assessment of the immediate reasons for the Taliban resurgence, but grinding poverty, illiteracy, and lack of hope make that area of the world fertile ground for religious extremism. As it can everywhere, even in America, fear and despair when unaddressed morph into anger, and when that happens, death happens.

The symbolism of sharing tea is a powerful message, so what struck me re-reading the Newsweek article was a statement by Mohammad: “We came openly. When they saw us, they started preparing green tea and food for us.” It seems the Taliban is family.

Given the impatience and short-term attention span of Americans, time is the ingredient in the recipe that can make our efforts a disaster. In the section of the piece subtitled “You have the watches, we have the time,” Mohammad frames it succinctly: “We never worry about time. We are prepared for a long and tireless jihad. We were born here. We will die here. We aren’t going anywhere.”

There is a commonality poorly educated Muslims share with poorly educated followers of every religion: eliminating causes of strife/war starts with secular education.

A corollary to that principle: educating girls is paramount because it is the girls who stay or return to take care of their community.

The website (www.ikat.org ) of Mortenson’s organization, the Central Asia Institute, calls it the Girl Effect. “Adolescent girls are uniquely capable of raising the standard of living in the developing world. Girls are the most likely agents of change, but they are often invisible in their societies and in our media.”

President Obama is nearing a decision about troop levels in Afghanistan, and some argue if Obama chooses not to increase them, we would be abandoning Afghanistan once again, as we did under the first President Bush after the Soviets were routed and ousted. To which I suggest they should consider that potential decision to be the third abandonment: the second having occurred under the second President Bush when he opted to attack Iraq rather than complete the mission in Afghanistan.

In the novel, Pakistani Brigadier General Bashir Baz roars, “You have to attack the source of your enemy’s strength. In America’s case that’s not Osama or Saddam or anyone else. The enemy is ignorance.”

Four words—the enemy is ignorance—is what we must keep in mind. Until we address the roots causes that keep girls faceless and impotent and inflame young men to become jihadists, bin Laden is a place holder. A charismatic, deranged religious fanatic is now training to take his place.

Universal education—not faith—can engender peace on earth when it reaches every child and its mission centers on skill development and not religious indoctrination. It’s about giving every future adult realistic hope that through their efforts they can make a difference in improving the harsh circumstances of their community.

Baz states, “The only way to defeat [ignorance] is to build relationships with these people, to draw them into the modern world with education and business. Otherwise the fight will go on forever.”

That is true 21st-century thinking. Answering bombs with bombs—20th-century thinking—along with economic imperialism got us here in the first place. Unless we build schools as an option to the madrassas, we are ceding the ground and conceding defeat.


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