Friday, July 30, 2010

Schools, Not Soldiers or Bombs

Pennies for Peace 
(Image credit: Amy Frost for The Oklahoma Daily)

Yesterday I was just too exhausted to blog. But I can't let the subject of Nick Kristof's marvelous column in the NY Times pass us by. On the heels of WikiLeaks scandal and the revelation that 1) Osama bin Laden likely died almost half a decade ago in Pakistan, 2) that we let him escape a number of times anyway, which 3) suggests (at least to me) that the Bush administration thought that it was far too valuable financially for various entities *cough Halliburton?* to continue the war on terror than it was to nab this major terrorist and be done, and 4) the resultant 'collateral' damage to the civilian population in Afghanistan is horrible, there's been a resurgence in examining just what it is that we're doing there in Afghanistan. Is it working? No.

As any reader of this blog knows, I have an unholy horror of the Taliban and in particular, their treatment of women. That doesn't mean I think that we should have tens of thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan, however. It also doesn't mean that to Nick Kristof, who, as readers of his wonderful book Half the Sky or his blog, know, thinks that so much of the problem in third world countries with high levels of mistreatment of women, severe poverty and extremism, would be remedied by education, specifically by teaching women to read, to write and to earn money with a simple trade.

The figures that Kristof points out in his column- the high cost of the War on Terror, are simply astonishing. How astonishing? Check out this screen capture from the Congressional  Research Service report that Kristof quotes. You can get the report and read it yourself here

Sources: Congressional Research Service. 
All estimates are of the costs of military operations only and do not reflect costs of veterans’ benefits, 

interest on war-related debt, or assistance to allies

For those of you not good on the big numbers, that's a TRILLION dollars in the post 9/11 Iraq, Afghanistan War Cost column. That trillion dollars is going toward the great military behemoth that is both ineffective in this war (it's been nine years people), is decimating the civilian population and thereby creating more hatred of Americans, and is robbing, right before your eyes, your children's and my children's economic future.

The solution that Kristof proposes is to take money it costs to fund a few soldiers and build schools. Ah, you say, the Taliban in Afghanistan would never allow this. Well, it has and it will.

Greg Mortenson at his Gultori school
attribution unknown,

As a longtime follower of Greg Mortenson (a fellow climber!) and his splendid Central Asia Institute, I can tell you that if you read Greg's books, and look at Greg's results, they speak for themselves. At no small personal risk (especially since in a lot of places in Pakistan and Afghanistan Americans are now regarded with not just suspicion but open dislike if not hatred) Greg Mortenson goes into villages and respectfully talks with tribal leaders about the benefits of building schools and educating not just their boys but their girls. Not those fake schools, like madrassas in Pakistan where many boys can only recite the Qu'ran but cannot read it. Real schools. Where you learn to read, write and do basic math so you can keep track of your sales of whatever goods or services you can offer because now you have the ammunition intellectually to have a useful trade when you finish school, as opposed to being a potential terrorist and cannon fodder. 

As Nick Kristof points out in his articles, not a single one of Greg's schools has been destroyed by the Taliban. And Greg's built well over 200 of them and is operating dozens more in buildings that already existed. The projects themselves are successful, and indeed, protected by local interests, because CAI engages people at a local level and gets them to actively participate. (Somehow I think you are slightly less likely to tear or burn down something that you yourself built...) And believe me, if you've read Greg's books, you know just how vested people are in building these schools. And how hard lugging the supplies to build them is. They WANT these schools.

Porters carry roof beams 18 miles to Korphe School. Pakistan.
attribution unknown,

Mortenson estimates to Kristof that the cost of maintaining 239 US soldiers in Afghanistan would provide funds to build schools throughout the entire country.

I am really hoping that Sasha and Malia are reading Nick Kristof's columns because based on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, they appear to be some of the only people asking Barack Obama the tough questions about what he's doing to fix things these days.

What can you do, other than write your Congressman? CAI has some simple programs to raise funds to build schools. Mortenson's original project, which started out in Pakistan has now broadened to comprise Afghanistan, and outreach programs in Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan. His simplest to implement project is one in the schools of American children. They've been doing it in my child's school. Pennies for Peace educates children about the broader world and tries to engage them in helping children elsewhere attain what they have in abundance here: education, healthcare, and the promise of a future freer of poverty. You can also view other fundraising options here.

Check out these excellent books if you want to see Change You Can (Really) Believe In.


And subscribe to Greg's Newsletter, Alima. Alima means wise and learned woman in Urdu. Alim is the male counterpart. 

It would be great if American dollars could be the way to create many of them.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010


  1. Marzie, while (as usual) I think you make some excellent points, I can't accept that the Obama administration would know that Osama bin Laden has been dead for five years and neglect to tell the public.

    In addition to my belief that this administration does not want to lie, the political capital to be gained by informing the American people that the Bush administration lied for years would be enormous - and Obama has not been averse to blaming his predecessor for the economic crisis (which it does deserve, of course).

    But also, there is the incredible risk to Obama's legacy if it comes out in later years that this administration covered up something this significant. And I just don't think the potential cost could be considered worth it.

  2. Hadas, If you believe the WikiLeaks leaked documents, there is ample evidence that Osama bin Laden is dead. The issue is that the Bush administration created such havoc that it leaves Obama in the position of dealing with a very real mess. I simply cannot believe that Obama did not know of the information prior to the leak. What he makes of the information, and the US responsibility to Afghanistan (and Iraq) is an open question. It's not like he can simply announce that there was a coverup and hundreds of thousands of lives have been damaged or lost for no reason and that's that. There is a serious responsiblity there, which he clearly sees. The problem is that his solution is more troops and thus, more loss of civilian lives and engendering of hatred and poverty because of the continual warfare.

    Books. Not Bombs. Books.

  3. Dennis I'm so confused. You're not even American but you're so worried about 9/11? What do you think about Osama?