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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Mortenson: Withdraw 248 U.S. Soldiers, Fund All Afghan Higher Ed

Greg Mortenson at SDSU 2010.11.03A full house at Frost Arena greets Greg Mortenson as he preapres to speak at South Dakota State University, November 3, 2010
The Heidelbergers joined about 5000 other people at SDSU's Frost Arena last night. Nary a basketball in sight: we gathered to hear author, adventurer, humanitarian (and ELCA Lutheran!) Greg Mortenson talk about how to save the world one conversation and one school at a time.

The author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools offered a lot of practical and political insight into what's happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and what we Americans might do to make it better.

Mortenson is an Army veteran, so he has great respect for and understanding of the military. This old soldier said there is no military solution to ending the Taliban's terrorism and oppression of women in Afghanistan and Pakistan and bringing our soldiers home. Asking our 18-year-olds to be soldiers is hard enough; asking our young soldiers to be diplomats and humanitarians at the same time, says Mortenson, is an enormous burden. Building some sort of peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan requires something more.

The military gets this. Mortenson said that General Petreaus has made Three Cups of Tea, about Mortenson's efforts to build relationships with village elders and build schools for girls in Afghanistan and pakistan, required reading for senior military officials. The U.S. military also brings Mortenson to 28 military bases a year to conduct briefings for Afghanistan-bound troops on local culture.

Mortenson sees education, especially education for girls, as the key to peace throughout the world's poorer and less stable countries. Educating women leads to lower infant mortality, increased literacy, and a decrease in population growth. Mortenson says flatly that there are too many people on the planet (cue awkward shifting from some audience members). He says we can lessen the strain on our natural resources without any controversial policies. He's not mandating forced birth control or limits on family size. He believes letting girls go to school will result quite naturally and justly in those girls growing into women who assert their rights to control their destiny, to work and participate freely in the economy and culture, and to have fewer yet healthier children.

Mortenson puts into financial perspective how easy it would be for the U.S. and the West to shift from military to humanitarian solutions. President Obama doubled our troop presence in Afghanistan last year to 100,000 pairs of boots on the ground. At $100 billion a year, that's $1 million per soldier. Mortenson says he asked the Afghan minister of education to cite a dream budget for the country's higher education system. $248 million a year, said the minister. Bring 248 American soldiers home, and you'd have the money to fund all 24 of Afghanistan's universities, and then some.

Or try this: Bring five soldiers home. Use the corresponding five million dollars to build an Afghan version of South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Train a new corps of Afghan engineers and geologists to lead the country's exploitation of newly discovered rare earth minerals and other ores that could be worth hundreds of billions. Let Afghanistan make itself rich, says Mortenson, with a meager investment in education.

Or why not aim even bigger: Mortenson says that worldwide, 120 million children are not in school. 78 million are girls. Millions of them are slaves, bought and sold to produce rice, soccer balls, fireworks, and many other things we use. Educating one child takes a few dollars a day in some places. Mortenson says spending $60 billion dollars over the next ten years would eradicate worldwide illiteracy. That's $6 billion a year—no small sum... but only 6% of what we spend each year making war in Afghanistan.

Mortenson said the Taliban fear education—an awkward position for such supposedly pious men, as Mortenson cites a line from Muhammad declaring the ink of the scholar holier than the blood of a martyr. Holy or not, smart people, especially smart women, are the enemy of their fear- and force-based power. Since 2007, the Taliban have destroyed 2400 schools, three quarters of them girls' schools.

But Mortenson says the Taliban have yet to destroy one of the schools he's helped start in the region, in large part because he gets the locals themselves to build the schools. And overall, Afghanistan's greatest success under American/NATO occupation is in education. Mortenson says that in 2000, 800,000 Afghan children, mostly boys, were in school. In 2010, nine million Afghan children are in school. 2.8 million of those children are girls. That's still a terrible imbalance, but it's enormous progress from when the Taliban held Kabul.

Typical political labels don't fit in this discussion. But for those of you blog readers addicted to such things, Mortenson is no big-government liberal. He said our initial top-down approach to rebuilding Afghanistan, the Bonn Agreement, failed because it was too centralized. Mortenson said the post-World War II Marshall Plan was "brilliant" because it was decentralized and provincialized. Mortenson said General Petreaus boils his model for building a healthy and peaceful Afghanistan down to three bullet points: listen, respect, and build relationships with the people, especially with the elders. Ultimately, said Mortenson, people in Afghanistan and Pakistan want the same things we do: they want their children to live, and they want their children to learn. We can help make that happen, but we will do it with brains, not bullets.


  1. Whenever absurd military spending is compared with nearly any other use of the money, the military spending looks like a complete waste.

    It probably wouldn't take much of a shift of military spending to scholarships to pay the tuition of every student in US universities, or at least every engineering and science student.

    Our corporations want us to provide them more engineers and scientists, but they do everything they can to escape or evade the taxes that might support such education. They funnel income through Bermuda or so;me other island to avoid US taxes.

  2. It isn't that there are too many people on the planet, there are too many Taliban on the planet.

  3. Thad, I can't argue with the second half of your statement.


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