NEW YORK — With Iraq's reconstruction mired in Al Qaeda's well-planned guerrilla warfare, and Taliban remnants resurgent throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, there seems scant room in US policyplanning these days to focus on long-term strategies aimed at stabilizing countries ravaged by radicalism. But by not doing so, US policymakers are showing signs of forgetting the reasons Osama bin Laden's legions were willing to strike out and die for their cause.
While the terrorist challenge will not easily fade, as multiple, indiscriminate terrorist attacks in Turkey and Saudi Arabia have now shown, it is vital to limit the scope and impact of its threat by focusing on educating future generations in countries that are today's havens for terrorists. US policymakers must focus on cutting the terrorists' recruitment cords by rehabilitating the education systems of countries like Afghanistan so the pursuit of jihad becomes one of seeking knowledge and becoming productive members of society, not joining terrorists in their quest to destroy humanity.
After 23 years of conflict, Afghanistan's education system had become the worst in the world. An estimated 80 percent of the country's 7,000 schools were damaged, if not completely destroyed. At the height of the Soviet invasion, primary-school enrollment was roughly 54 percent for boys and 15 percent for girls. But war with the Soviets, followed by a devastating civil war and the antieducation rule of the Taliban, reduced those numbers to 35 percent for boys and just 3 percent for girls at the primary school level, and 10 percent and 2 percent, respectively, at secondary levels.
Little wonder that bin Laden and Al Qaeda's educated leadership structure thrived in such a vacuum, picking off young men prone to years of systematic fighting to join its jihadist plots because they had no system in place to teach them any better. Targeting the uneducated was, from the inception of Al Qaeda, a cornerstone of the terror group's strategy for expansion.
Initial efforts to revive Afghanistan's education system, and that of Pakistan where radicalism still thrives, may yet be successful if US policy planners can be persuaded that results are forthcoming from the trickle of money being sent in. Preliminary data from Afghanistan is promising, but much more needs to be done to stay the course.
An estimated 2 million children of the more than 4.5 million eligible (compared with only 1.5 million in school prior to 2002) are expected to enroll at the primary-school level by the start of the 2004 school year.
Female enrollment will represent 30 percent of the total, but needs to rise above 50 percent to sustain the trend toward educating more of the female population. The number of female teachers is also increasing, one signal that US policy is having a positive effect on Afghanistan's harsh antiwomen measures.
But encouraging signs do not a policy success make, and initial results can't be converted into long-term, irreversible trends without money, intellectual commitment, and insistence on government reform of education. Pressure must continue to uphold the right of females to get an education. Women - mothers, to be more specific - are still the heart of traditional Muslim families, particularly in rural areas. Educated mothers - capable of sustaining their own livelihoods - are less likely to let their sons go off to join Al Qaeda's jihadist legions than uneducated mothers dependent on men who routinely succumb to the monetary bribes of mullahs and their terrorist backers.
Some rural areas in Afghanistan still challenge the idea that a girl has a right to get an education. Surely, this cannot be acceptable to US taxpayers footing the bill for Afghanistan's reconstruction. US policymakers should make this clear to the Afghan government - particularly to the warlords operating under official government cover.
The Asian Development Bank estimates $125 million is needed per year for the next decade to reconstruct Afghanistan's collapsed education system. And $40 million more per annum is needed for operating expenses like teacher's salaries, school supplies, classroom facilities, and administrative expenses. In March 2003, USAID pledged $60 million to rebuild the education system - a promise so far unfulfilled.
But even at these projected levels, teachers, the most important cog in the wheel of educating children, earn only $35 to $40 per month. Sadly, only a few teachers have received this paltry sum in over a year. In places like Kabul, where apartment rents have soared to more than $1,800 per month, such salaries don't even permit purchase of basic food supplies. Tripling or even quadrupling teacher pay should be a high priority. More teachers mean more students learning and fewer minds co-opted by terrorism.
Further attention also needs to be given to the "lost generation" - an entire population of might-have-been working-class Afghanis aged 12 to 30 whose education was terminated by Afghanistan's perpetual state of conflict. Although well beyond the usual school age for Afghanistan, these people must be incorporated into the educational scheme through vocational schools that teach basic skills necessary for any productive member of society. What better way to construct democracy than to teach and practice economic self-reliance?
As newly educated entrants come into Afghanistan's job market, an infrastructure for business, trade, and development will also be needed.
Peace Corps lore has it that an African woman once told volunteers, "If you're here to develop us, then you can go home. But if you believe your future is tied to our future, then you can stay." Afghanistan's children are tied to America's future. The US must give them tools to rebuild themselves and their society. To do otherwise puts the future of America's children at risk from uneducated zealots, the products of policy failures that the US helped design with taxpayer dollars. The US made that mistake once; lets hope it doesn't again.
• Mansoor Ijaz, an American of Pakistani descent, is chairman of Crescent Investment Management. Malalai Wassil is an Afghani-born American. Currently a New York Law School student, she fled Afghanistan with her family in 1983.