Sometimes the acts of one individual can illuminate how to confront a foreign-policy dilemma more clearly than the prattle of politicians.
Such is the case with Greg Mortenson, a U.S. military veteran and mountain climber, whose work gives insights into an essential element of fighting terrorism. Through an astonishing sequence of events, Mortenson became a builder of schools in remote areas of Pakistan that are potential breeding grounds for the Taliban. Along with writer David Oliver Relin, Mortenson has related his experiences in his fascinating book "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace ... One School at a Time."
President Bush now warns of a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan; many Taliban got their training in radical religious schools in rural Pakistan, where there is no alternative schooling.
Bush and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf have pledged cooperation on improving Pakistan's education system, and the United States has disbursed $200 million in education aid to Pakistan since 2002, with an additional $100 million in the pipeline. But it's not clear how much of a dent this money has made in reining in extremist "madrassas. One only hopes some U.S. policy-makers are reading Mortenson's book.
"I see education as the thing least invested in, that can bring the most change," Mortenson told me in an interview. His story started in 1993, when he got lost and ill trying to climb Pakistan's K2, the world's second-highest peak. He was nursed back to health by the people of remote Korphe village. Its illiterate headman yearned to educate the local children, so Mortenson pledged to return and build Korphe a school.
It took two years, hocking his possessions, raising pennies from schoolchildren, and a large gift from one donor, for Mortenson to raise the necessary $12,000. That was the beginning of an odyssey that led to the founding of his Central Asia Institute (www.ikat.org), which has built 55 schools for 22,000 Pakistani and Afghan children.
He is especially concerned with providing education for girls, who tend to stay in the village and can affect the whole community. "If you educate a girl to fifth-grade levels you see a drop in mortality, population explosion, and an improvement in the quality of life," he says.
The key to Mortenson's success was his ability to get villagers to accept the broad-based curriculum that Pakistan is trying fitfully to extend to poor areas. His schools teach some classes in Islamic studies, as required in all Pakistani schools, and pay religious instructors $20 to $40 a month, which makes them more tolerant of a broader curriculum.
By involving village leaders, Mortenson ensures their support against fanatics. Two fatwas were issued against him by conservative clerics, one Shiite, one Sunni. Both were withdrawn after pressure by locals.
The Shiite fatwa sought to ban him from teaching girls. But a supportive Shiite imam got a letter from clerics in the Iranian holy city of Qom - a center of Shiite scholarship - that said his efforts followed the highest principles of Islam. Early in his work, Mortenson was kidnapped in Waziristan, the area where Sunni tribal leaders are believed to be sheltering al-Qaida leaders. After tribesmen checked his credentials they showered him with money to build more schools.
"There is a hunger for education" in remote Pakistani areas, Mortenson says, "but you have to overcome suspicion." Indeed, the title of Mortenson's book refers to the ritual that binds an outsider to a village. After three cups of tea, Korphe's headman Haji Ali told his American visitor, "you join our family, and for our family we are prepared to do anything - even die."
Without close ties to villagers, it's extremely difficult for outside groups, such as USAID, to build or refurbish schools in troubled areas such as Waziristan. They are hampered by security concerns and restrictions on hiring of contractors and local teachers.
When thousands of schools were destroyed in 2005 by a devastating earthquake in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir, Mortenson quickly set up three dozen temporary schools for 6,000 students. But radical Islamists established many religious schools in the large refugee camps set up for homeless Kashmiris. Mortenson says U.S. security regulations prevented Americans from establishing schools in these jihadi camps lest they inadvertently aid terrorists.
Recall that refugee camps full of Afghans fleeing war in the 1980s became the incubators for the Taliban and al-Qaida. "We spend billions" on military efforts, says Mortenson, but "one dollar per kid per month would set up schools." His goal - which is essential to preventing a new generation of terrorists - is "to promote peace one school at a time."