PUSHGHAR, Afghanistan -- I confess, I find it hard to come to Afghanistan and not ask: Why are we here? Who cares about the Taliban? Al-Qaida is gone. And if its leaders come back, well, that's why God created cruise missiles.
But every time I start writing that column, something stills my hand. Last week I watched Greg Mortenson, the famed author of "Three Cups of Tea," open one of his schools for girls in this remote Afghan village. After witnessing the delight of those little Afghan girls crowded three to a desk, I found it very hard to write, "Let's just get out of here."
Indeed, Mortenson's efforts remind us what the essence of the "war on terrorism" is about. It's about the war of ideas within Islam -- a war between religious zealots who glorify martyrdom and want to keep Islam untouched by modernity and isolated from other faiths and those who want to embrace modernity, open Islam to new ideas and empower Muslim women as much as men.
America's invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were, in part, an effort to create the space for the Muslim progressives to fight and win so that the real engine of change -- a new generation -- can be educated and raised differently.
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Which is why it was no accident that Adm. Mike Mullen, the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent half a day to reach Mortenson's newest school and cut the ribbon. Imagine if someone put a one-story school on the moon, and you'll appreciate the desolateness of this landscape.
But there, out front, was Mortenson, dressed in traditional Afghan garb. He was surrounded by bearded village elders and scores of young Afghan boys and girls, all agog at the helicopter.
While the admiral passed out notebooks, Mortenson told me why he has devoted his life to building 131 secular schools for girls in Pakistan and another 48 in Afghanistan: "The money is money well-spent. These are secular schools that will bring a new generation of kids that will have a broader view of the world. We focus on areas where there is no education. Religious extremism flourishes in areas of isolation and conflict.
"When a girl gets educated here and then becomes a mother, she will be much less likely to let her son become a militant or insurgent," he added. "And she will have fewer children. When a girl learns how to read and write, one of the first things she does is teach her own mother. The girls will bring home meat and veggies, wrapped in newspapers, and the mother will ask the girl to read the newspaper to her, and the mothers will learn about politics and about women who are exploited."
It is no accident, Mortenson noted, that since 2007, the Taliban and its allies have bombed, burned or shut down more than 640 schools in Afghanistan and 350 schools in Pakistan, of which about 80 percent are schools for girls. This valley, controlled by Tajik fighters, is secure, but down south in Helmand province, the deputy minister of education said that Taliban extremists have shut 75 of the 228 schools in the last year. This is the real war of ideas. The Muslim militants recruit among the illiterate and impoverished, so the more of them the better, said Mortenson.
This new school teaches grades one through six. I asked some girls through an interpreter what they wanted to be when they grow up: "Teacher," shouted one. "Doctor," shouted another. Living here, those are the only two educated role models these girls encounter.
Mortenson said he was originally critical of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he's changed his views: "The U.S. military has gone through a huge learning curve. They really get it. It's all about building relationships from the ground up, listening more and serving the people of Afghanistan."
In grand strategic terms, I still don't know if this Afghan war makes sense anymore. But when you see two little Afghan girls crouched on the front steps of their new school, clutching tightly with both arms the notebooks handed to them by a U.S. admiral it's hard to say: "Let's just walk away." Not yet.
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE