Of Bombs and Diplomas

At a press conference in Kabul this morning, David Cameron stated that Afghanistan was his “number one priority” and pledged an additional £67m to fight improvised explosive devices, or  IEDs (roadside bombs, effectively). Mr. Cameron denied that any additional troops would be sent.

£67m on bombs. What else could that £67m have bought you in Afghanistan? Schools, hospitals, roads, infrastructure, a better police force? All that things that, arguably, might reduce support for the insurgents that plant IEDs, which is the number one killer of British troops in Afghanistan.

Obviously, you must supply bomb-defusal experts to these areas for the sake of saving lives – I’m not disputing that – but what about the “proper political settlement” that Mr. Cameron himself mentioned was vital? Where does that come into his funding scheme? While he has said that he is not interested in “cutting and running” from Afghanistan, it is arguably difficult to see how this would make a difference, with the British investment in bomb defusal apparently taking priority over schools and hospitals – things that matter to ordinary Afghan citizens.

Of course, it is possible that this should come as no surprise, considering that the same day that Mr. Cameron made this speech in Kabul, the Universities Minister, David Millet, alluded to rises in tuition fees (though he won’t confirm this), putting more pressure on already indebted students. One of his rationales? Reducing the strain on the taxpayer.

Does £67m of military spending not also constitute a strain on the taxpayer? Obviously there is a delicate balance that must be struck – whether or not you agree with the war, British troops are dying in Afghanistan, and yes, they need to be protected – however, we also need to invest in the future of people here. David Cameron may have been alluding to an ‘end game’ for Afghanistan today (which would bring troops back and arguably eliminate the need to fund IED removal all together), but it likely won’t come soon enough for that £67m to be funneled back into where it’s really needed – higher education.

Let me further illustrate this tension between military vs. education spending. According to several different indexes of happiness (laugh if you want, they’re real) Costa Rica ranks very high on the list of happiest countries. Why? One reason pointed to is its pristine environment and incredible beauty, and, looking at photos, I think I’d be pretty happy if I lived there as well. But the other, as Nicholas Kristof (NY Times columnist) puts it, is that:

“What sets Costa Rica apart is its remarkable decision in 1949 to dissolve its armed forces and invest instead in education. Increased schooling created a more stable society, less prone to the conflicts that have raged elsewhere in Central America. Education also boosted the economy, enabling the country to become a major exporter of computer chips and improving English-language skills so as to attract American eco-tourists.

In Costa Rica, rising education levels also fostered impressive gender equality so that it ranks higher than the United States in the World Economic Forum gender gap index. This allows Costa Rica to use its female population more productively than is true in most of the region. Likewise, education nurtured improvements in health care, with life expectancy now about the same as in the United States — a bit longer in some data sets, a bit shorter in others.”

Clearly this is not something that would happen over night in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter.  In Afghanistan, there are many complex issues that need dealt with. But it bears consideration.

As Kristof succinctly summed up, “I’m not anti-military. But the evidence is strong that education is often a far better investment than artillery.”

  • slappymcgroundout

    I don’t suppose that you’ve considered the need to secure the schools? Maybe you and Kristof should review this word from the AP:

    Girls schools have regularly come under attack or have been burned down by militants, and some students have had acid thrown on them in what officials say are intimidation tactics.

    In other words, if we can’t keep them physically safe, the finest schools in the world won’t mean a damn.

    And back from the last week of May (again, courtesy of the AP):

    The ninth-graders at the Khadija tul Kubra girls school were sitting outside enjoying a spring day, waiting for their afternoon history class to start, when they smelled something strong and as sweet as perfume.
    Some collapsed. Some clutched their stomachs and vomited. Some wandered around in a daze. A student ran to get Headmistress Huran Nesa. But as Nesa stepped into the schoolyard, she lost consciousness.

    “When I opened my eyes, I was in the hospital,” she says.

    Law enforcement officials such as provincial police chief Brig. Gen. Mohammad Razaq Yaqubi say the school was the target of a poison attack. He and others suspect it was done by adherents of the Taliban, the former Muslim clerical rulers of Afghanistan whose version of Islam forbids girls from getting an education.

    Last month, a poison spray was loosed on two other girls schools in this northern Afghan city. Dozens of girls were sickened and needed hospitalization, says Homayun Khamoush, director of Kunduz Regional Hospital.

    Now, our hope, and this point seems to undercut Mr. Kristof:

    If the aim was to stop the girls from going to school, then it failed.

    “My father was scared,” Marwa Mahmoodi, 13, says.

    Marwa said her dad wanted her to drop out for a while after the attack, but, “I was not scared. I told my father, ‘If I lose the last drop of blood in my body, I am going to finish school.’ ”

    Marwa’s determination appears to be a trend. Prior to the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, virtually no girls were enrolled in school. Today, a record 2.5 million girls are enrolled in grades first through 12th, according to UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s fund. That’s up from 839,000 in 2002.

    “The demand for girls education has increased and is increasing,” says Mohammad Sediq Patman, deputy minister for academic affairs at the Education Ministry in Kabul. “We receive letters from very remote districts. They used to consider girls schools a blasphemy. But today they ask for girls education.”

    Some credit the increase in enrollment not just with the removal of the Taliban but a change in attitudes among Afghans.

    “When I travel to the villages, even the Kuchi people (Afghan nomads) who never sent their girls to school, they ask me to build a school for their girls,” says Kunduz provincial Gov. Mohammad Omar.

    So, we’re winning that war, now we must defeat the insurgents. I would suggest invading their active sanctuaries (Pakistan and Tajikistan), but far be it from my countrymen and the world to do the only sensible thing. And the only sensible thing as an insurgency with an active sanctuary has never been defeated. Uncle Marty as Deputy First Minister is just one of the latest examples.

    Lastly, and by the way, if you truly wish to help on the education front, then ask the women of your nation to serve as teachers. Seems there’s a decline in female enrollment once they turn 13 or so. Seems that such is owing to the family wanting them to be taught by women and not men at that age and older. As you can understand, such is not a dollars issue, but a how much do the women in the West care about the women in Afghanistan issue. Do they care enough to serve?

    Almost forgot, but the clearest expresson on why we need to hunt them down like the rabid human dogs that they are:

    The attacks have taken a toll: As many as 80% of the schools in southern Afghanistan were closed at the beginning of last year, CARE says.

    In Kunduz province, which touches Tajikistan on Afghanistan’s northern border, the insurgents have been gaining strength. Last summer, insurgents in Khan Abad banned girls education after fifth grade, throwing 900 girls out of school. They also blocked the government’s attempts at economic development – electricity projects, bridges, a road linking Khan Abad to neighboring Ali Abad district.

    The villagers of Khan Abad rebelled, sending their local militia to drive out the Taliban.

    “People were fed up with the local Taliban,” district Gov. Nizamuddin Nashir says. “The Taliban were interfering. They said: ‘We don’t want girls to go to school.’ They didn’t want development.”

    Kunduz provincial education director Abdul Basir Kochi, who was beaten by the Taliban regime after being caught teaching girls secretly, says that despite threats, there is no stopping the trend toward Afghan girls going to school and no returning to the days of the Taliban.

    “We cannot compare to those times,” he says. “We have an elected president. We have a good ministry of education. We have European and Western friends. … God willing, we will not go back.”

  • Bubbler

    I recognize the need to make places secure before you can downsize the military. I thought I mentioned that, but perhaps not clearly enough, so I take your point.

    However, I never pretended there wasn’t a tension there, because obviously there is, and the article you posted points that out. I think the point about needing women teachers is interesting, and if true, perhaps something the government should be pushing. That’s the first I’ve heard about it.

    But I don’t just mean investing in schools in Afghanistan, I was also commenting on the loss of funds for higher education institutions in the UK, and the effect that is going to have on society here. I don’t pretend to have the solution to the budget crisis, but it seems to me that the amount of money being spent on the war and what parts of the war effort it is being spent on should be examined.

    Also, one last thing: You said “why we need to hunt them down like the rabid human dogs that they are….”

    I think as soon as you start de-humanizing people, you have a problem, and, and anticipating your response that that’s what they’re doing with girls who want to be educated – don’t we want to be better than that?