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Monday, July 20, 2009

Friedman Drinks Tea

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes from Afghanistan this week where he met with Admiral Mike Mullen and Greg Mortenson. Here’s some..

“PUSHGHAR, Afghanistan — I confess, I find it hard to come to Afghanistan and not ask: Why are we here? Who cares about the Taliban? Al-Qaida is gone. And if its leaders come back, well, that’s why God created cruise missiles.
But every time I start writing that column, something stills my hand.

"This week it was something very powerful. I watched Greg Mortenson, the famed author of Three Cups of Tea, open one of his schools for girls in this remote village in the Hindu Kush mountains. I must say, after seeing the faces of those little Afghan girls crowded three to a desk waiting to learn, I found it very hard to write, “Let’s just get out of here.”

“Indeed, Mortenson’s efforts remind us what the essence of the “war on terrorism” is about. It’s about the war of ideas within Islam — a war between religious zealots who glorify martyrdom and want to keep Islam untouched by modernity and isolated from other faiths, with its women disempowered, and those who want to embrace modernity, open Islam to new ideas and empower Muslim women as much as men.

"America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, in part, an effort to create the space for the Muslim progressives to fight and win so that the real engine of change, something that takes nine months and 21 years to produce — a new generation — can be educated and raised differently.

“Which is why it was no accident that Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — spent half a day in order to reach Mortenson’s newest school and cut the ribbon. Getting there was fun. Imagine a one-story school on the moon, and you’ll appreciate the rocky desolateness of this landscape.

“While the admiral passed out notebooks, Mortenson told me why he has devoted his life to building 131 secular schools for girls in Pakistan and another 48 in Afghanistan: “These are secular schools that will bring a new generation of kids that will have a broader view of the world. We focus on areas where there is no education. Religious extremism flourishes in areas of isolation and conflict.

“When a girl gets educated here and then becomes a mother, she will be much less likely to let her son become a militant or insurgent,” he added. “When a girl learns how to read and write, one of the first things she does is teach her own mother. The girls will bring home meat and veggies, wrapped in newspapers, and the mother will ask the girl to read the newspaper to her, and the mothers will learn about politics and about women who are exploited.”

“It is no accident, Mortenson noted, that since 2007, the Taliban and its allies have bombed, burned or shut down more than 640 schools in Afghanistan and 350 in Pakistan. This is the real war of ideas. The Taliban want public mosques, not public schools.

“This new school teaches grades one through six. I asked some girls through an interpreter what they wanted to be when they grow up: “Teacher!” shouted one. “Doctor!” shouted another. Those are the only two educated role models these girls encounter. Where were they going to school before Mortenson and the U.S. State Department joined with the village elders to get this school built? “The mosque,” the girls said.

“Mortenson said he was originally critical of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he’s changed his views: “The U.S. military has gone through a huge learning curve. They really get it. It’s all about building relationships from the ground up, listening more and serving the people of Afghanistan.”

“So there you have it. In grand strategic terms, I still don’t know if this Afghan war makes sense anymore.

“But when you see two little Afghan girls on the front steps of their new school, clutching the notebooks handed to them by a U.S. admiral — as if they were their first dolls — it’s hard to say: “Let’s just walk away.” Not yet.”

-Well, it would be hard to argue with Mortenson, who has put his life on the line with the Afghan people ever since one of them carried him out of a frozen mountain pass to safety in a remote village.

I have to wonder about the numbers though, when he builds 180 schools as the Taliban destroy 1000. Are we going to destroy the country in order to save it? And do we have the stomach to spend blood and treasure for however many years it takes? I don’t even think we have the attention span required to put our own affairs in order.

I hope our president knows what he’s getting in to: may he show us what world leadership is about.


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