Afghanistan schools for girls?

By Tom Putnam | Nov 11, 2010

Are schools more effective in reconciling a nation than invading armed forces?

Would the Taliban tolerate the education of women? Is the Taliban worthy of respect by Afghans?

Answers to these questions might provide a solution to America’s withdrawal from that tribal country. In July, I suggested that the U.S. should pull out of Afghanistan and allow intelligence agents and drone missiles carry on the battle against Al Qaeda, which continues to be sheltered by the Taliban in Pakistan. But maybe there might be an alternative solution.

On the op-ed page of the New York Times, Oct. 21, there is an excellent article by Nicholas Kristof. I first became aware of Kristof when I read a book of his: “China Wakes: the Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power," which was published by him and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, in 1995. I enjoyed the book immensely as it revealed China’s progress from the Communist Party’s subjugation of the Chinese masses to the gradual adoption of Deng Xiaoping’s alleged missive: To get rich is glorious! China was starting down the road of economic reforms, which led to where she is heading today. Kristof is a little to the left of my thinking, but I always like to read his columns in the Times.

His column cited above is entitled: "Dr. Greg and Afghanistan." He, of course, is referring to Greg Mortenson, author of “Three Cups of Tea."

My wife came across that book shortly after it was published in 2007. She recognized Mortenson’s name as being the husband of the daughter of personal friends from Cincinnati. She was enthralled by his account of building a school for children in Afghanistan. It detailed his raising the monies, working with tribal leaders in Afghanistan, building roads and bridges to get the materials to their location, and the erection of the building and successful development of the school. She recommended the book to me, which I gratefully read. Mortenson continued those efforts in Afghanistan and Kristof believes his successes offer a different road map to success in reconciling Afghanistan to her neighbors and also to the Western world.

To quote Kristof: “The conventional wisdom is that education and development are impossible in insecure parts of Afghanistan that the Taliban control. That view is wrong.”

Kristof explains that Mortenson has set up an organization, the Central Asian Institute, that has built a number of schools in Taliban-controlled areas. Kristof has visited some of those elementary schools, literacy centers and vocational training schools. He recognized that those schools are desired and surviving in Taliban controlled areas because the people and their tribal elders feel ownership of them. They do not believe they have to suffer occupation by a foreign power in order to have such resources. Mortenson states that for success, the tribal elders must be consulted and then control all development. This means that the schools are built by the local tribes under the guidance of their elders. No foreigners are involved.

One amazing observation involves a primary and middle school for girls, some of whom are 17 or 18 years old in Kunar Province. When you consider the 1990s, when the Taliban were in power after the Russians were run out of the country, girls were not to receive formal education. This truly is an awesome change of behavior. That Kunar Province school is expanding and currently has 320 girls enrolled. The school is run by the Imam of the local mosque and he allays the Taliban’s fears by labeling the school a madrassa. In Uruzgan Province, Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute is beginning to pay Imams to teach girls in their mosques, thereby providing a divine cover for their education.

In his Times article ,Kristof continues that each month, 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, 20 schools could be built!”

His advice? Pull out our soldiers, leaving a few to help protect Kabul and certain select cities; train the Afghan National Army; and turn our attention entirely to Al Qaeda. In addition, actively support a peace-deal between the government in Kabul and the Taliban. Finally take the money saved from our troop withdrawals and use those sums to support the education of the Afghan population. There are also other similar organizations involved with building schools in Afghanistan and performing other services. These observations would seem to hold real promise that there could be the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

The concept of letting the Afghan people develop schools and other social organizations under the leadership of their tribal elders merits support. Who knows, they may be starting down the path that the Chinese did when Deng became influential in China after Chairman Mao’s death.

In July, I was pessimistic about our continued military presence in Afghanistan. I remember from reading Rory Stewart’s “Places In Between” that Afghanistan is a tribal country and all other tribes resented the Taliban tribes and their power and apparent corruption.

There was elation by many Pakistanis when the U.S., assisted by northern tribes, ousted the Taliban from power following Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 attacks on the Twin Trade Towers in New York City. Strict Islamic rule was modulated, women became freer. We believed that western democracy could then be taken to that country and citizens would enjoy the freedoms that we do in the west. We were not intelligent enough to recognize that their society was different from ours with tribal areas ruled by councils of elders. That had been their life experiences for many decades. We thought they would welcome democracy; but, we were mistaken. As the country becomes more educated and the world’s evolving technologies takes the world to Afghanistan’s people, they will begin to reach out to other societies and become a much friendlier place.

Human beings can be amazing animals.



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