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 an antidote to this nightmare, 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.
Mortenson got lost 15 years ago descending from K-2, and promised to build a school for the villagers who rescued and nursed him. His formula for countering extremism is summed up in the title of his best-selling book: "Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to promote Peace ... One School at a Time."
After building his first school, Mortenson set up the Central Asia Institute (www.ikat.org) to build schools in Pakistan's remotest 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. In 2002, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf introduced a program to broaden the curriculum for approximately 10,000 madrassas with their 1.7 million students. Religious parties protested, and the program was shelved.
My trip with 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. That will is clearly lacking in Pakistan's government; U.S. and other international aid has failed to overcome the roadblocks.
Yet I saw how a dedicated nongovernmental institute with Pakistani staff can succeed despite governmental failures. "I see education as the thing least invested in, that can bring the most change," Mortenson told me in the United States. Indeed.
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 astounding peaks, where for years Pakistani and foreign jihadis trained to cross the dividing line with India to fight Indian troops. Muzaffarabad, a one-main-road town in a deep valley, still bears the scars of the terrible 2005 earthquake that galvanized world attention and a massive U.S. relief effort. Whole mountainsides above the valley are sheared off, where villages simply fell down and disappeared.
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. Many survived for two days but could not be rescued because there was no earthmoving equipment.
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 CAI's operations director, arrived, having first hiked the Neelam Valley by foot with Mortenson to survey the need. Khan mobilized Chinese seismic engineers and building materiel, trucked in across the 16,000-foot Khunjarab Pass on the fabled Kerkoram Highway linking China to Pakistan.
And - in the key to Mortenson's method - Patika townspeople were enlisted to contribute labor, haul water, mix mortar. Mortenson says that any school project is assessed on how much villagers are willing to contribute to its success.
Today, neat one-story basic classrooms with blue trim surround a courtyard; on one side is an open shelter where young students, too traumatized by the earthquake to study inside, take their lessons. In the middle of the shelter is a small, fenced-in site with seven graves of young victims whose bodies were never claimed; no doubt their entire families died.
A school for $25,000
Most important, 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.
"We can build an eight-room school for $25,000, so 40 schools can be built for $1 million," he told me in Patika. "One Tomahawk Missile costs $840,000."
Mortenson's institute also provides funds to train and pay teachers (until the government can take over their salaries), and pays for books and uniforms. He is hoping to build science and computer labs at the Neelam Valley schools this year.
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 and are known as "ghost schools."
Religious organizations fill the vacuum. In the earthquake's aftermath, Mortenson says, Islamic charities, some with terrorist ties, rushed to Muzaffarabad, setting up clinics - and madrassas, which offer food to students.
"In some families, they are attracted to madrassas by food because the government provides no services," says Shawkat Ali, a former teacher at the Patika girls school. Ali is pressing for more schools in the valley. "If poor families don't go to madrassas, where will they go?"
The United States invested $256 million from 2002-2007 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. Mortenson has shown how it can be done for a pittance, involving communities to boot.
Educating girls is the key
As we rattled back down the mountainside, Mortenson spoke of another educational passion: He has focused on building girls' schools because girls' education lifts the whole community. Male literacy is supposedly 63 percent in Pakistan (and is probably lower), but female literacy is a dismal 36 percent and in some areas almost zero.
"If you really want society to improve, you educate the women," he told me intensely. "We can drop bombs, hand out condoms, put in electricity, but you won't see change without girls' education. I have seen profound change in the villages when girls learn to read and write."
Mortenson has persuaded religious leaders to endorse girls' education and believes it is also a key to undercutting religious militancy among boys. His words made me recall the passionate outburst of a young teacher, Fawzia Naseer, at a school rebuilt by the CAI in Balseri village just beyond Patika.
"Every woman here is fond of education," Naseer told me eagerly; she herself is struggling to get a law degree, commuting to Muzaffarabad. "Women can improve, they can teach the children, they can handle domestic problems better, they can make a business or work with an organization." This from a woman who is still living in a post-earthquake tent and studying by candlelight.
As Mortenson said, the cost of one 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, Mortenson, by building schools one at a time, shows how the battle against militancy might be won.
- Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.