In a recent editorial for the N.Y. Times Nicholas Kristof plays upon his fiddle a familiar tune; building schools is better for peace than firing missiles. In the abstract this theme is undoubtedly true. Collectively we know that education is the key to a better, safer world. It is not a question of whether building schools is better for peace then firing missiles, the question is actually whether building schools is better for peace in Afghanistan.
Kristof cites a recent report from the Congressional Research Service that states that the war in Afghanistan will cost more than any other war in our nation’s history aside from WWII. He also cites the recently leaked military documents, which incidentally and sadly may cost both American and Afghan lives, for support that the military strategy is a “mess.” Additionally, according to Kristof, for the cost of one soldier “we could start to build about 20 schools there.” And, interestingly, Kristof states that education has been far better at neutralizing extremism than military power.
Mr. Kristof is not wrong for believing that education is critical and must be an integral part of our strategy for success in Afghanistan. The problem with his point of view is that he does not accurately depict the brutal reality facing both the Afghan population and the U.S. military. Kristof should consider a more narrow focus on those actual realities including the fact that many schools have no doubt survived the Taliban due to military provided security.
Surely Kristof has met women like Aisha, an Afghan woman who had her nose and ears cut off by the Taliban? And for what egregious offense did Aisha receive this punishment? Because she attempted to escape the abuse of family members. Will these members of the Taliban enroll in school? And will this happen before or after they read their autographed copies of Three Cups of Tea? How long will the education plan take to affect a burqa wearing suicide bomber such as the one on June 11, 2010 who killed two civilians and wounded another 16?
Perhaps the worst part of Kristof’s view of Afghanistan is his rather uninformed depiction of America’s fighting men and women. Many members of the media with experience embedded with NATO forces would tell you that today’s soldier is a true “renaissance man,” or woman. The primary skill set of most soldiers is focused on warfighting, but our nation’s current mission has required much more. Soldiers are taking out the enemy while at the same time providing humanitarian relief, meeting with town and tribal councils, and directing civil reconstruction projects. It is up to the Afghanistan people to use this blanket of security and stability to form political gains and reconciliation. The military cannot do this for them, but neither can simply building schools.
Kristof actually gives no evidence in support of his claims. In what situation analogous to Afghanistan, is it true that education has neutralized extremism better than military power? Our nation, despite the economy, is generally business as usual and this makes it easy for us to forget that we are at war. We are at war with two enemies; one who killed thousands of Americans, lest we forget, and the other who gave those murderers safe haven. Because the average American civilian has gone back to business as usual, does not mean the enemy has.
Even a cursory glance will leave you empty handed in finding a comparable situation where education has been successful as a unilateral strategy while leaving military assistance on the shelf. We need only look to Umar Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian who attempted to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day 2009. The 23 year old came from a privileged background and studied at a boarding school prior to his enrollment at University College London. What aboutKhalid Sheik Mohammed whose time at studying engineering in North Carolina “almost certainly helped propel him on his path to become a terrorist” according to the CIA. Or the fact that we know that most of the 9/11 hijackers came from middle class and educated backgrounds. It seems that it is not a lack of education that is our problem.
When the evil of fascism and racist extremism gripped our world during World War II, should the Allies have redirected our D-Day budget to the building of schools on the cost of France? Was there a shortage of schools throughout Europe that allowed ignorance to rule the day? Education is a wonderful and helpful tool to enriching lives and changing attitudes, but when a certain evil of this world rises up we must meet it with our intelligence, our material, and when appropriate our military.
Mr. Kristof says that his “hunch” is that CARE is doing more to bring peace to Afghanistan than Mr. Obama’s surge of troops. But what are the statistics on stability in the areas where these schools are located? Are attacks by the Taliban and Al Qaeda down in those areas? If there was a decline in violence was it in the absence of security? This blanket transformation of areas within Afghanistan must have surely led to a wholesale emigration of Afghans to these areas, and how are these schools coping with the surge?
I must wonder whether Kristof is aware of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) working to improve the lives of the Afghan population every day. There are an almost 30 PRTs established by 18 national governments operating in Afghanistan. PRTs are commanded by a military officer, usually a Lieutenant Colonel or equivalent and typically include representatives from the Departments of State, Agriculture, Justice, and Defense, as well as the United States Agency for International Development. The PRT in the Zabul region of Afghanistan completed more than 65 projects over the course of a ten month period from 2009-2010. These projects totaled more than $40 million and addressed medical education, road reconstruction, and quality of life issues. In the Helmand province the PRT reopened 40 schools since December 2008 and actually built four of the schools. Additionally, as of January 2010 pupil enrollment in the Helmand province increased 34% among females and figures showed a total enrollment of 83,995 students. All totaled there are 103 schools open in Helmand, and in 2007 there were only 47. The gains and accomplishments by PRTs are the result of years of work to reach out to the Afghan population. As far back as 2004 military civil affairs soldiers from PRT Tarin Kowt worked as the “connection between U.S. Forces in Afghanistan and the people.” This early PRT worked to provide supplies and funds for agriculture, education, and construction. The sacrifice and work of the American soldier to provide solid and sustainable improvement to the education and economic situation of the Afghan people must not be ignored. Moreover, I have a hunch that these soldiers are doing quite good at bringing peace to Afghanistan.
My humble advice to Mr. Kristof would be to spend a week with our nation’s soldiers. Speak with their commanders, speak with the grunts. Focus less on the words of the elite in Washington and whilst you roll up your sleeves looking at the schools built by Greg Mortenson, roll up your sleeves and look at the work done by the U.S. military. When you finish please write an op-ed describing what you saw, and this time around I would bet you will have a more balanced and realistic depiction of the military’s role in Afghanistan. A needed depiction of our countrymen’s struggle to provide assistance. The women and men of the military are not aliens from another galaxy or robots constructed by the government. They are people just like you, from places like Yamhill, Oregon, and they are in Afghanistan doing the best they can, in a bad situation, because their President asked them to.
Posted on 3 Aug 2010