30 July 2010


In today's NYTimes, Nicholas Kristof notes that the ostensible "war on terror" has been the most costly war in American history, with the exception of World War II. This information comes from a new report by the Congressional Research Office, and measures only monetary costs. It does not include the costs in casualties or ruined lives, in troop morale, or in the credibility of the US among the world community. Kristof justifiably takes President Obama to task for his escalation of the war in Afghanistan (tripling the number of US troops in that country since he took office). The money and lives would be far better spent (as this writer has noted repeatedly) by shifting our attention to education in Afghanistant and other countries.

Greg Mortenson's inspiring book Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time is required reading at West Point, but its message has yet to penetrate the upper levels of policy making in the Obama Administration. Three Cups of Tea is set in Pakistan, while Mortenson's follow-up book Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, not Bombs is set mostly in Afghanistan. Mortenson's non-profit Central Asia Institute is based in Bozeman, MT, and has built over 130 schools in the two countries -- not by barging into local communities and declaring "this is what you need", but rather by respectfully establishing relationships with community leaders and then asking "what do you most need?" Resoundingly, the answer is "We need schools." CAI's approach includes locals at all levels of decision-making and construction, which is key to allowing them to feel empowered, to take charge of their own lives. Incidentally, that taking charge includes rejecting any further support for the Taliban, in village after village. Military protection for these schools is not needed, as the experience of Mortenson and the relief organization CARE have demonstrated repeatedly.

Kristof's article mentions Three Cups of Tea as a model for a much more effective method of combatting terrorism than our costly and counterproductive military presence in southern Asia. The focus on schools for girls is especially important. "Teach a boy, and you educate an individual. Teach a girl, and you educate a community."

Kristof closes by noting that "We won our nation's independence for $2.4 billion in today's money ... That was good value, considering that we now fritter the same amount every nine days in Afghanistan." Time for a change in priorities, indeed. For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about twenty schools there.

On another Afghanistan front, the recent publication of thousands of documents by Wikileaks has been roundly (and predictably) criticized by Administration and Pentagon officials. For another viewpoint, please consider this brief essay by a soldier on the ground in Afghanistan. We need more transparency in government, not less. The US intelligence apparatus is so bloated that, according to the Washington Post, the number of people with Top Secret security clearances is 1.5 times the population of the District of Columbia. Fewer spies, more teachers?

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