Afghanistan

A Humanitarian Perspective on the War in Afghanistan

Last week, Bill Moyers interviewed Greg Mortenson, a man who has worked on the front lines of the war in Afghanistan not as a soldier, but as a humanitarian. Mortenson’s non-profit organization, the Central Asia Institute, has constructed dozens of schools in the region in an attempt to provide education to the very people that can best lead toward a better future for Afghanistan. He is also a co-author of the book “Three Cups of Tea” which, according to Moyers, “has become required reading for our senior military commanders and Special Forces in Afghanistan.” His perspective is invaluable because of the unique insight he has into the conflict. Here are some highlights from the interview.

Mortenson’s work

While Mortenson has built schools for boys and girls, the majority of his work has been dedicated to educating girls. The success of Mortenson’s strategy of focusing on girls’ education speaks to the power of gender equity and non-violent approaches to uprooting the source of extremism. (Emphasis mine throughout)

The education of girls has very powerful impacts in a society. Number one, the infant mortality’s reduced. Number two, the population is reduced. The third thing is the quality of health improves. And, from my own observation, when girls learn how to read and write, they often teach their mother how to read and write. Boys, we don’t seem to do that as much. They also, you’ll see people, kids coming out for the marketplace, have meat or vegetables wrapped in newspaper. And then you’ll see the mother very carefully unfolding a newspaper and ask her daughter to read the news to her. And it’s the first time that woman is able to get information of what’s going on in the outside world around–very powerful to see that. And another compelling reason is when women are educated, they’re not as likely to condone or encourage their son to get into violence or into terrorism. In fact, culturally when someone goes on jihad, they should get permission from their mother first. And if they don’t, it’s very shameful or disgraceful. So when women are educated, as I mentioned, they are less likely to encourage their son to get into violence.

Comments on the war

Mortenson survived a week long kidnapping by the Taliban and has spent years in dialogue with the young people that are its prime recruiting audience. He knows better than most what fuels extremist behavior on the border with Pakistan, and how to put a stop to it. The measures that have worked best during the last eight years, it turns out, have not been the violent ones. The worst thing we can do, says Mortenson, is to substitute dialogue with bombs.

And, like Vice President Joe Biden and columnist George Will, the conservative columnist, have both recommended pulling out the troops but doing more selected targeted bombings. And I can tell you, of all things that the elders say is, please, do not bomb and kill civilians. That is the number one way to antagonize people.

Moreover, Mortenson remarks that as the Taliban have grown more reliant on criminal activities and become less ideological, their popularity has only declined – an indication that violence and coercion does little to discourage radicalism. Instead, we should focus more on providing the humanitarian services and infrastructure the Taliban – and the US — have neglected.

The Taliban are getting less Saudi funding now, so they’re doing more extortion, heroin trafficking, illicit lumber trafficking, kidnapping, crime. What’s interesting, too, is having been on the ground for many years, I’ve seen a shift in where people are starting to turn against the Taliban in the last two years. As a militant entity, they had a lot of support. But they’re not able to deliver healthcare, education, roads, and the things that most people want, and peace.

Just do the math

But perhaps Mortenson’s most persuasive argument is grounded in simple arithmetic.

BILL MOYERS: It costs us a million dollars a year to keep one soldier there. That’s $30 billion for the new 30,000 troops.

GREG MORTENSON: And ultimately–

BILL MOYERS: How many schools could you build with that?

GREG MORTENSON: Well, $1 million we could build 30 or 40 schools. And in one generation we could have over 20,000, 30,000 kids educated.

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