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Mortenson offers simple solutions to achieving peace in Central Asia

Mortensen_t.jpgBOONE—Finding a solution to the conflicts occurring in Pakistan and Afghanistan may be as simple as taking time to listen to tribal leaders, building relationships with villagers, and enhancing educational opportunities, particularly for young girls.

That’s the advice that Greg Mortenson offered while speaking at Appalachian State University Sept. 10 as part of convocation and related activities. Mortenson is the co-author of the book “Three Cups of Tea” that tells of his experiences building schools for children living in remote sections of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mortenson said that when people question why the U.S. military should remain in Afghanistan, they should consider this: In the year 2000, only 800,000 children were enrolled in school in Afghanistan. Today 8.4 million are enrolled in school, including 2.5 million females. “It is the greatest increase in school enrollment in any country in modern history,” he said.

That growth is despite efforts by the Taliban to destroy schools.

In the last two years, the Taliban has bombed destroyed or shut down more than 800 schools, 90 percent of which were schools for girls, Mortenson said. “So why do a group of men want to bomb a girls’ school and not a boys’ school? I think it’s because their main fear is not a bullet but the pen.”

By destroying schools, the Taliban more easily gain control over young boys who they recruit to fight. “They are primarily going to illiterate, impoverished areas because many educated women refuse to allow their sons to join the Taliban,” Mortenson said.

“There is a saying in Islam that the ink of a scholar is holier or greater than the blood of a martyr, meaning that the pen is mightier than the sword,” Mortenson said. “If education continues in the community, they (the Taliban) have lost the ability ideologically to control society.”

Col. Christopher Kolenda, a former commander in eastern Afghanistan, has seen the changes that education is bringing to Central Asia. In an e-mail to Mortenson, Kolenda wrote that, “This conflict will not be won with bombs and bullets, but with books and ideas that excite the imagination towards peace, tolerance and prosperity. The thirst of education is palpable, and it is education that will make the difference whether the next generation grows up to be educated patriots or illiterate fighters.”

Since first helping build a school in Korphe, Pakistan, in 1996, Mortenson has gone on to establish more than 90 schools in rural and often volatile regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, which provide education to more than 34,000 children, including 24,000 girls.

Mortenson said addressing global illiteracy should be a national priority, just as it is a United Nation’s millennium goal. “We can drop bombs, we can build roads, we can put in electricity, but unless girls are educated, a society will never change,” he said.