Afghanis Desperately want to Learn and aren't Afraid to Do So: Washington can't be Afraid to Help Them

This is a guest post from my colleague Matt Keller, Director of Europe, Middle East and Africa for One Laptop per Child. He recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan.

I was saddened to learn on Wednesday that Mohammad Anwar Khan, the Director of Education for Kandahar, was killed in a suicide attack. Mr. Anwar Khan, was one of the faces of Afghanistan that you likely haven't met. A member of a growing group of brave Afghanis, fighting to give education a chance, in the "land of the unruly."

I recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan (some photos here), where I was taken aback by the members of this group, and their overwhelming desire to make education a top priority for their war-torn country.

Prior to going to Kabul, I believed that I would be met with fear and archaic thinking. Fear that girls should never be given the tools to learn, because they may be attacked for them, and archaic thinking, because I was there to talk about the introduction of a fairly sophisticated technology in a land where many people live as though it is the 17th century.

What stunned me was the exact opposite reaction of everyone I spoke with. The desire for knowledge and connection, the hunger for an end to isolation and the dream of education for all was tangible. The people I spoke with - including the Ministers of Education and Communications - were predominately young, and had come back to their homeland after years away during the wretched regime of the Taliban. And yet here they were, risking life and well-being to make their country rich in resources and most importantly knowledge.

I was there to discuss the One Laptop per Child initiative with the Afghani Ministers, UN agencies, NGOs, and Afghani students - both young and old. What I heard from every government minister, UN Director and Afghani student was the need for new tools to assist with education reform - in what remains a dangerous and unforgiving place.

In the south, where it is increasingly common for girls to be attacked on their way to school - and I use the term "school" only in the roughest sense - education officials are desperate for tools, which would give girls the ability to learn and connect from the safety of their home, empowering them to satiate their thirst for education, while ending their crushing isolation.

Our non-profit's dream - like the Afghani people's - is to connect and help educate a world of children by giving them the power to take charge of their own learning. Imagine Afghanistan 20 years from now if every primary school child in the country - including every girl - had within his or her hands the ability to access a universe of knowledge and a world of ideas far beyond their most wild imaginings.

It sounds far-fetched, but it really isn't. Only seven years ago, there were roughly 800,000 students in Afghanistan, and most if not all were forced to study the Koran and to memorize it. Now, there are roughly 6.2 million students in Afghanistan, most of whom make some sacrifice to even attend school. Because an entire generation was lost to education, the shortage of qualified teachers is epic, but the will of the people to learn is equally so.

Clearly progress has been made, but it's not enough. I came away from my experience there with the firm conviction that with all its talk of "Smart Power," the new Administration in Washington must do more to reach this generation of Afghani students, especially girls.

Just a short time ago, we rolled out 500 laptops in Jalalabad as the first step that will see 5,000 connected laptops in the hands of Afghani children over the next year. It's drop in the bucket, but it's a start, and the children who received them are already doing extraordinary things with their computers.

But much, much more needs to be done to educate children in Afghanistan, and it must be done by this Administration, and it must be done now. If it's not, then stunningly brave public servants like Mohammad Anwar Khan, who work tirelessly to revitalize a broken educational system, will continue to die in vein and we will have missed an opportunity to create a real and lasting peace in their nation.

On the final night of my visit, a young woman and her friends who attend university in Kabul hosted me for dinner. Against my great protestations, they insisted they pay for the meal on the condition of one promise: That I go back and tell people that Afghani girls desperately want to learn and are not afraid to do so. We shouldn't be afraid to help them.