Beating extremists by building schools

January 15, 2008|By TRUDY RUBIN

Pakistan has made news lately as the world's most dangerous country: a nuclear-armed state that has become a base for al-Qaida, the Taliban and other fanatic Islamists. But on my trip there last month, I saw a route out of this trap - if Pakistan's government and the West would only seize it.

I traveled to mountain villages with Greg Mortenson, a former mountain climber who has built 55 schools in Pakistan and eight in Afghanistan. Mr. Mortenson got lost 15 years ago descending from K-2, and promised to build a school for the villagers who rescued and nursed him.

After building his first school, Mr. Mortenson set up the Central Asia Institute to build schools in Pakistan's most remote areas, where the government fails to provide education. This vacuum is often filled by Islamic schools, or madrassas, some of which have become notorious training grounds for jihadis.

My trip with Mr. Mortenson made clear that schools can be built for a pittance, with community involvement, and the madrassa problem addressed, if the will exists to finesse political and bureaucratic hurdles.

Our trip took us up the narrow, crowded mountain road to Muzaffarabad, capital of Azad Kashmir, the Pakistan-controlled part of contested Kashmir, set against lofty peaks, where for years Pakistani and foreign jihadis trained to cross the dividing line with India to fight Indian troops. We drove an hour farther down a bumpy dirt road into the Neelam Valley to the small town of Patika. There, in October 2005, the earthquake collapsed the Gundi Piran higher secondary school for girls, killing 104 students.

The dedicated headmistress, Saeeda Shabir, recalled emotionally how, months later, despite international media attention, not a single Pakistani government official had visited or offered to help the school rebuild.

Then in September 2006, Sarfraz Khan, the Central Asia Institute's operations director, arrived. Mr. Khan mobilized Chinese seismic engineers and building materiel. And - in the key to Mr. Mortenson's method - Patika townspeople were enlisted to contribute labor, haul water and mix mortar. The school was finished in one month.

Mr. Mortenson rebuilt the Patika school and two others in nearby villages for a total of $54,000. He has now built seven schools in the Neelam Valley. His institute also provides funds to train and pay teachers (until the government can take over their salaries), and pays for books and uniforms.

By contrast, the boys' secondary school in Patika is still in several tents and tin shelters. The Pakistani government, which spends only 2.5 percent of its budget on education, seems unable to construct schools. Schools that do get built often lack teachers.

Religious organizations fill the vacuum. In the earthquake's aftermath, Mr. Mortenson says, Islamic charities, some with terrorist ties, rushed to Muzaffarabad, setting up clinics and madrassas, which offer food to students.

The United States invested $256 million from 2002 to 2007 in education reform in Pakistan, but there is little sign the programs have broken through Pakistan's bureaucratic blockage. Yet nothing could be more important in the long-term struggle to redirect alienated youngsters away from jihad and into productive lives.

As we rattled back down the mountainside, Mr. Mortenson said he has focused on building girls' schools because girls' education lifts the whole community. "We can drop bombs, hand out condoms, put in electricity, but you won't see change without girls' education," he said.

As he noted, the cost of one $840,000 Tomahawk missile could pay for almost 40 schools - if the United States could only press the Pakistani government to build and staff them. In the meantime, Mr. Mortenson, by building schools one at a time, shows how the battle against militancy might be won.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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