Lying in her hospital bed in Kabul, Afghanistan, having survived an extremist group’s bombing that killed more than 80 students at her school, a 17-year-old named Arifa was as determined as she was frightened.
“I will continue my education, even if I’m afraid,” Arifa, who hopes to become a doctor, vowed to Richard Engel of NBC News.
Afghan girls and boys may lack books, pens and laptops, but in their thirst for education, they have plenty to teach the world. Indeed, one of the few things the extremists and the students seem to agree on is the transformational power of education, especially girls’ education.
In some hideous way, perhaps it was rational for fundamentalists to blow up the school, because girls’ education poses an existential threat to extremism. That’s why the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. It’s why the Afghan Taliban threw acid in girls’ faces.
In the long run, a girl with a book is a greater threat to extremism than a drone overhead.
“The way to long-term change is education,” said Sakena Yacoobi, a hero of mine who has devoted her life to educating her fellow Afghans. “A nation is not built on temporary jobs and mining rights, contractors and political favors. A nation is built on culture and shared history, shared reality and community well-being. We pass these down with education.”
Since 9/11, we Americans have sought to defeat terrorism and extremism with the military toolbox. As we pull our forces out of Kabul and Kandahar, this is a moment to reflect on the limits of military power and the reasons to invest in more cost-effective tools to change the world, like schooling.
After almost 20 years and $2 trillion, the mightiest army in the history of the world couldn’t remake Afghanistan. Some Americans are critical of President Joe Biden for withdrawing from Afghanistan, but I think he made the right decision. I’ve long argued that we were losing ground and that the war was unsustainable.
I reached that conclusion after Afghan contractors in Kabul who supplied U.S. forces told me that for every $1,000 America paid them, they gave $600 to the Taliban in bribes to pass through checkpoints. To support a single U.S. soldier in Helmand province, contractors paid the Taliban enough in bribes to hire 10 men to fight against that American.
Yet while America’s longest war is unsustainable, we must remember our obligations. We should greatly accelerate visas for the roughly 17,000 Afghan translators, aides and others who have worked with the United States and will be in danger when our forces are gone. Otherwise, their blood will be on our hands.
So with a heightened appreciation of the limits of military power, let’s try to chip away at extremism with tools like education. It’s also much cheaper. For the cost of deploying a single soldier in Afghanistan for one year, we can establish and pay expenses of 20 rudimentary schools.
There’s a misperception that the Taliban will not allow girls to be educated. It’s not easy, but it can be done. The Taliban tolerates many girls’ schools, particularly primary schools and those with female teachers, but aid groups must negotiate with communities and win support. It doesn’t work to have a sign saying it’s donated by America.
“Most aid groups have been able to operate successfully on both sides of Taliban front lines,” noted Paul Barker, who has spent many years in the region as an aid worker.
Girls’ education is not a magic wand. Schools were built in all corners of Afghanistan over the last 20 years, yet this was not enough to stymie the Taliban.
“It’s not that you go to school and suddenly are empowered,” a young Afghan woman told me. Let’s be honest: Nothing works as well as we would like to overcome extremism.
Yet this young woman is an example of what’s at stake. She studied on her own in the Taliban heartland and then was able to come to the United States — where she is now doing research on quantum algorithms.
Education is an imperfect weapon against extremism, but it helps. It works through some combination of opening minds, building a middle class, giving women a greater voice in society and reducing population growth and thus a destabilizing “youth bulge” in the population.
So I hope that as we, chastened, pull military forces from Afghanistan, we will learn something from extremists and their victims alike: Promoting girls’ education isn’t about mushy idealism, but about employing an inexpensive tool that is frustratingly slow — but sometimes the best tool we’ve got.
“There is no other way to build a nation,” Yacoobi told me. “Maybe someday we will melt down some of these guns and trade them in for medicines and new Homeric epics. If we wish to get there, we must always start with education.”
Nicholas D. Kristof is a regular columnist for The New York Times.