Friday, May 14, 2010

Taking an education lens to Pakistan-terrorism problem

Following Hoodbhoy's article on Faisal Shahzad and Pakistan's terrorism problem, here is one by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times and he points to the lack of quality education as one of the key problem. Of course, Faisal Shahzad was well-educated - but Kristoff's comment is about the society at large. I think this is definitely part of the problem but there are many more factors embedded in this problem (one example would be what some people call jihadi cool - for those seeking thrill and meaning in life).

Back to Kristoff's article. Like Hoodbhoy, he also traces major problems back to the Zia years and then draws an interesting comparison with Bangladesh (former East Pakistan):
Why does an ostensible “ally” seem to constitute more of a threat than, say, Iran? Or Lebanon or Syria or Iraq? Or Egypt, birthplace of the Muslim Brotherhood brand of militant Islam? Or the West Bank and Gaza, where resentment of America’s Middle East policies is centered?

One answer, I think, is that Pakistan’s American-backed military leader of the 1970s and 1980s, Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq, drove the country off course, seeking to use fundamentalism as a way to buttress the regime. Instead of investing in education and infrastructure, he invested in religious sanctimony.

The public education system, in particular, is a catastrophe. I’ve dropped in on Pakistani schools where the teachers haven’t bothered to show up (because they get paid anyway), and where the classrooms have collapsed (leaving students to meet under trees). Girls have been particularly left out. In the tribal areas, female literacy is 3 percent.

There’s an instructive contrast with Bangladesh, which was part of Pakistan until it split off in 1971. At that time, Bangladesh was Pakistani’s impoverished cousin and seemed pretty much hopeless. Henry Kissinger famously described Bangladesh as an “international basket case.”

But then Bangladesh began climbing a virtuous spiral by investing in education, of girls in particular. It now has more girls in high school than boys, according to Unicef. This focus on education has bolstered its economy, reduced population growth rates, nurtured civil society and dampened fundamentalism.

Educated girls formed the basis of a garment industry, making shirts for Americans. This brought in currency, boosted employment and provided an economic lifeline to the country. Those educated girls went to work for poverty-fighting organizations like BRAC and the Grameen Bank.

Can't say it any better. Then he is right on the money when critiquing military solutions:

In Pakistan’s tribal areas, you can hear American drones buzzing faintly overhead, a reminder of our focus on military solutions. Drones and hard power have their place, but not to the exclusion of schools and soft power. An important 2008 study from Rand, “How Terrorist Groups End,” concluded that “military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups.”

I can’t tell you how frustrating it is on visits to rural Pakistan to see fundamentalist Wahabi-funded madrassas as the only game in town. They offer free meals, and the best students are given further scholarships to study abroad at fundamentalist institutions so that they come back as respected “scholars.”

We don’t even compete. Medieval misogynist fundamentalists display greater faith in the power of education than Americans do.

Let’s hope this is changing under the Obama administration. It’s promising that the Kerry-Lugar-Berman aid package provides billions of dollars for long-term civilian programs in Pakistan, although it’s still unclear how it will be implemented. One useful signal would be for Washington to encourage Islamabad to send not only troops to North Waziristan but also teachers.

This is sensible and I just hope that the ratio of schools to drones increases substantially soon. Apart from all the ethical issues associated with drone attacks, I'm not even sure if there is a net-positive or net-negative for the US. Yes, it has crippled Al-Qaeeda in the tribal areas - but if this comes at a cost of creating many more low-level Faisal Shahzad's - then I'm not so sure about its eventual effectiveness.

But there is room for other positive measures as well. For example, Pakistan has been requesting cuts in tariffs for textiles since 2002 - but to no avail. This is crazy! US has to establish this level of trade to enhance trust and cooperation:

We continue to be oblivious to trade possibilities. Pro-American Pakistanis fighting against extremism have been pleading for years for the United States to cut tariffs on Pakistani garment exports, to nurture the textile industry and stabilize the country. Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, told me that his top three goals are “market access, market access, market access.” But Washington wants to protect North Carolina textile mills, so we won’t cut tariffs on Pakistani goods. The technical word for that: myopia.

Education and lower tariffs are not quick fixes, sometimes not even slow fixes. But they are tools that can help, at the margins, bring Pakistan back from the precipice. It has been reassuring to see the work of people like Greg Mortenson, whose brave school-building in Pakistan and Afghanistan was chronicled in “Three Cups of Tea.” Ditto for Developments in Literacy, or D.I.L., which builds schools for girls in Pakistan that are the most exhilarating things I’ve seen there.

It costs $1,500 to sponsor a D.I.L. classroom for a year, and that’s just about the best long-term counterterrorism investment available.

Read the full article here.

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