Monday, June 15, 2009

Afghans Yearning for an Education

When terrorists strike and harm or kill innocent civilians in the name of Islamic jihad, there’s a perception that they do so because they hate Western liberties and all that America stands for. But what do the Taliban hate about determined school children?

Last November, in Kandahar, Taliban extremists sprayed acid on a group of schoolgirls who were on their way to the Mirwais School for Girls. Opposing education for women, the culprits drove up on motorbikes and squirted acid on dozens of girls’ faces, leaving several badly burned. In response, the Obama administration proposed to negotiate with the Taliban.

What the Taliban fear most is the flourishing of modern education in Afghanistan. Educated women pose a far bigger threat to the Taliban than American or NATO bombs.

When the Taliban ruled (1996-2001), there were no schools, only madrassas that twisted interpretations of the Koran, and they were only open to boys.

The Taliban oppose the study of the arts and sciences and the learning of English because they know a knowledge-based society means the loss of control. Given this logic, you’d think we’d make sure to leave no Afghan child behind. But while ten million Afghan children are back in school, over five million remain at home.

The problem would be solved by shoring up the educational infrastructure (both at the K-12 and college levels). Beefing up military aid might secure Afghan neighborhoods, but military enforcement alone won’t cut it.

Fortunately, not all Afghans are quitting school out of fear or Taliban reprisals. While many Afghan parents discouraged their daughters from attending schools after an endless string of school attacks that has left over 700 closed, most of the fathers of the Mirwais School refuse to deny their daughters a formal education. Wearing their headscarves tightly to cover their scars, and with fire in their eyes, the girls have made their way back to class this time with even more intense vigor.

Instead of a strategic long-term vision for Afghanistan, we contemplate a shoddy deal with the rogue Taliban. Do you think that after fighting the Taliban for eight years, that they will be sincere about lasting peace and cooperation with ordinary Afghans?

President Obama’s overture to talk to “moderate” Taliban is counter-productive to our goal of an Afghanistan that remains stable and free. A deal with the Taliban would not only be a blow to the morale and safety of law-abiding Afghan citizens, but it would also reverse any success made post-9/11 and threaten the country back into the hands of terrorists.

This insatiable hunger for education defeats the perceptions that people have of Afghans as being far too corrupt, medieval, and tribal to ever accept modernity. Many don’t realize the progress Afghanistan made on its own in the twentieth century. In 1965, when suffrage was granted to Afghan women, many hadn’t; even liberal democracies in Europe – countries like Liechtenstein, Portugal, and Switzerland. With more women’s rights laws established in the 1970s, Afghan women pursued higher education in record numbers and female leaders began to emerge as powerful figures in government. The Feminist Majority estimates that by 1980, upwards of 70 percent of all doctors and teachers in Afghanistan were women, a figure that was groundbreaking for any country in the greater Middle East.

The plight of Afghanistan might just remind us why we are helping Afghanistan, what our own American forefathers endured to overcome bigotry, and the cost our nation paid with Civil War. While American history may not readily explain Afghanistan’s predicament, perhaps a Hollywood blockbuster can. Just like the movie “The Last Samurai”, Afghanistan’s conflict is, and has been, a cultural war between the rural and the urban or, rather, the illiterate, religious hinterland and the forward-thinking, educated elite. In the movie, the industrial center of Japan defeats the villages. This has been the story of almost every country in the modern era except Afghanistan, where every such an attempt has resulted in backlash by the tribes.

But after more than thirty years of war, the tribes have been crushed, demoralized, and fragmented. Though the last vestige of tribalism endures in the rag-tag form of the Taliban, their ignorance and fundamentalism can easily be defeated.

To win in Afghanistan, we must advance the economy by creating a self-sustaining engine for growth, which can only happen by transferring educational skills, by saturating the country with an “enlightenment surge” that cultivates an insurgent intelligentsia class – one that overwhelms the despots and ushers Afghanistan into the modern era.

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