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Opinion

To fight Taliban, US must give Afghanistan schools

President Obama and Mitt Romney both pledge to leave Afghanistan in 2014. But neither discussed the importance of establishing schools for the children of a war-torn nation where nearly half the population is under the age of 15. The Taliban are most scared of books, not bombs.

By Faheem Younus / November 1, 2012

Afghan children show their henna painted hands, a tradition during Eid Al-Adha celebrations, in Herat, Afghanistan, Oct. 26. Op-ed contributor Faheem Younus writes: 'Establishing an educational infrastructure in Afghanistan is the most cost effective long-term strategy for grassroots change.'

Hoshang Hashimi/AP

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After watching the presidential debates, now watch the 2007 biographical drama, "Charlie Wilson’s War." It’s about the period when the United States was leaving Afghanistan after wrapping up its covert anti-Soviet operation there. Tom Hanks, who played the role of Congressman Charlie Wilson in the movie, pleaded with lawmakers, “One million dollars for school reconstruction….Did you hear me say? It was a million, not a billion, for a school construction?”

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This is what he got in return: “Nobody gives a [darn] about a school in Pakistan.” Or Afghanistan.

Caution: A quarter century later, America is about to make the same mistake. President Obama and Mitt Romney have both pledged to leave Afghanistan by 2014. But neither discussed the importance of establishing schools for the children of a war torn nation where nearly half the population is under the age of 15.

The recent Taliban assassination attempt on Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old Pakistani champion of girls' education, shows: The Taliban are most scared of books, not bombs. Establishing an educational infrastructure in Afghanistan is the most cost effective long-term strategy for grassroots change.

The cost effectiveness could be shown in multiple ways. “For the cost of just one soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we could start about 20 schools,” said Nicholas Kristoff in a July 2010 column in The New York Times.

Mr. Kristoff says Greg Mortenson, the author of “Three Cups of Tea,”  told him that “for the cost of just 246 American soldiers in Afghanistan for a year, we could pay for a higher education plan for all Afghanistan.” Can you imagine the global impact of educating a tribal society over the next decade, all for less than 0.1 percent of our annual military spending?

To be fair, the US government has made some strides. In December 2011, an Afghan version of “Sesame Street” – a program funded by the US State Department and produced in consultation with Afghanistan's Ministry of Education – was launched. Afghanistan has one of the highest proportions of school-age children in the world, yet less than half are in school.

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