A Tactic More Productive than War: Education

The United States’ self-declared war on terror(ism) has produced results, but not necessarily the kind that the current Bush administration desired. Since the infamous 9/11 attacks, which claimed the lives of over 3,000 people and nearly depleted the ranks of Al Qaeda, the relatively recent transnational group has ballooned to new heights in adherents and prestige with its international notoriety as the adversary of the United States. After the U.S government spent close to one trillion dollars on the combat-related efforts to fight Al Qaeda and other considered targets, we find a global terrain as tenuous and dangerous to the U.S (if not more) than before 9/11. To make matters worse, according to the U.S economist Jeffrey Sachs, currently less than 8% of the world’s population looks favorably upon the U.S.

Engaged in official conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S troops have faced difficult terrain and challenging conditions, the least of which Al Qaeda. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges for U.S soldiers is maintaining the necessary support of local Afghans and Iraqis. The push for local support and help is related to another problem in Islamic countries: Education.

In war-torn and drug-infested Afghanistan, one of the most undetected but devastating casualties is local access to education. The Taliban, interested in maintaining control over the population, destroyed many schools prior to and during the U.S invasion. The Pakistani earthquake in 2005, which took the lives of over 140,000 people, also destroyed schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The destruction of these schools are important to consider when assessing Afghanistan’s economy and its climate for Islamic extremism. It is now a general agreement among scholars that richer countries have less internal conflicts than poorer countries. In this respect, education is a crucial element in improving a country’s economy and reducing an individual’s designs for violence. When looking at education, there is also the role of women in Islamic societies to take into account. For many male Muslims in places like Afghanistan, one important requirement before joining a radical movement or suicide movement is receiving the blessings of their mothers. Not surprisingly, Muslim women are found to be less likely to offer their blessings if they are educated. These two facts– education’s role in improving an economy and women’s roles in condoning men to commit violence– may be the reasons that the Taliban and other Islamic extremists have targeted and destroyed schools, specifically ones opened to girls.

Greg Mortenson has been fighting a different battle in both Pakistan and Afghanistan than U.S troops: A battle to preserve local rights to education. After serving in the United States army and receiving the Army Recommendation Medal, Mortenson founded Pennies for Peace and the Central Asia Institute. He joined civilian life to take on the goal of building locals schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, schools specifically for girls. His work has led to the building of over 61 schools and providing education to over 25,000 people. For more information on work, one can check out the recent New York Times’ best seller he wrote, Three Cups of Tea. Mortenson’s work and influence has not gone unnoticed by the U.S and NATO forces. Just recently, military outfits in Afghanistan have shifted their work from combat to community assistance- particularly in education.

With what appears to be a clear link between raising education and reducing violence and religious extremism, it comes as a shock to find that recently the United States’ Fulbright award, the most prestigious and generous education awards to international students, was canceled for U.S-bound Palestinians. The reason: Israel refused to grant the students access to international visas.

Ethan Bronner of the New York Times reports, May 29, 2008:

The State Department has withdrawn all Fulbright grants to Palestinian students in Gaza hoping to pursue advanced degrees at American institutions this fall because Israel has not granted permission for the students to leave Gaza.

Israel’s restriction is in keeping with its policy of isolating this coastal strip, which is run by the militant group Hamas.

The United States consulate in Jerusalem said the grant money had been “redirected” because of concern that if the students were forced to remain in Gaza the grant money would go to waste. A letter was sent by e-mail to the students Thursday telling them of the cancellation.

Abdulrahman Abdullah, one of the seven Gazans who received the letter, was in shock.

“If we are talking about peace and mutual understanding, it means investing in people who will later contribute to Palestinian society,” he said. “I am against Hamas. Their acts and policies are wrong. Israel talks about a Palestinian state. But who will build that state if we can get no training?”

Often the U.S’s military budget is compared to other important domestic and international endeavors. With a daily budget of 1.5 billion dollars, the U.S Pentagon might find itself more efficient and productive directing its efforts toward reconstructing and educating societies, rather than arming them. Although the United States is appearing to shift some of its focus from combat to education, there is much more emphasis, money and attention needed to improving education in areas like the Middle East and South Asia. And with the current presidential election on issues such as the U.S war in Iraq, we can only hope that the politicians take heed.