I owe my life to my interpreter in Afghanistan, Janis. On more occasions than I care to remember, his sage advise or expert marksmanship saved me and numerous other American soldiers.
After one particularly intense firefight, I asked Janis why he fought on our side and not with the Taliban. What he said shocked me, "My mother would kill me if I fought for them."
"Janis, I don't understand, why would your mother kill you if you fought for the Taliban?" I asked.
Janis calmly responded:
"Matt, you have so much to learn about Afghans. In Afghanistan, men cannot fight without the blessings of their mothers. My mother can read and write for herself. She has read the Koran for herself and knows what the Taliban preach is bullshit. She insisted that my siblings and I learn to read and write for ourselves so that we would not be corrupted by their lies."
Literacy is not only the path to social mobility in Afghanistan and numerous other countries, it is also the only truly effective long term weapon we have against ilk like the Taliban and al Qaeda. Literacy allows one to independently access the marketplace of ideas, to think for oneself, and draw one's own conclusions. The Taliban are so afraid of a literate Afghan population that they constantly resort to blowing up schools -- they need an illiterate and ignorant population in order to maintain their ranks.
George Kennan once wrote in his famous long telegram that "Communism has sowed the seeds of its own destruction." I argue the same is true with the perverted ideology espoused by the Taliban -- but only if we can prevent today's children from becoming tomorrow's terrorists. Terrorism is the tool of the desperate. We must acknowledge that we cannot capture and kill our way to victory for it only takes one idiot with dedication to insight terror through violence. But, we can win if we are able to influence a generation of children to reject the ideology of their fathers.
Pens are key to such a strategy. The Afghan government provides all of its children with free primary education. The government does not, however, provide the children with writing implements. If a child's family does not own a writing implement -- if their parents too poor to afford basic school supplies -- their parents will not send them to school; to do so would be a major disgrace for the family. These pen-less children end up farming and herding animals rather than receiving an education -- until their father likely dies.
The average life expectancy of an Afghan parent is 47. The average Afghan family has 12 children. When an Afghan father dies, the responsibility for care of his children passes to his closest living relative -- usually one of his brothers. That brother likely has a large family of his own to feed -- which he can barely do. Thus, the brother often opts to send his nephews to madrasas where they receive meals and basic religious education via rote memorization of the Koran. Sadly, most madrasas in Afghanistan are run by the Taliban or their clerical allies and are often funded by the Wahhabi school of Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia, and is also the brand of Islam adhered to by Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Even parents who live to see their children grow to adults often send children to madrasa because they cannot afford to keep them in their household; sometimes parents simply cannot feed all their offspring, and madrasas take care of this basic need. Madrasas also provide their students with basic school supplies like pens.
Thus, pens are vital to winning this war; they keep kids in government-run schools, which in turn increases the number of literate people, improves the economy, and most importantly, decreases the Taliban's recruiting pool. During my tour of duty in Afghanistan, I ordered my soldiers to always carry a box of pens on our patrols. We ended up handing out over 250,000 pens during our time with the Afghan people. We realized that we can only win this war by preventing today's children from becoming tomorrow's terrorists -- and to do that, we need to teach them to read.