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Higher education for young Afghans: Those currently looking to make a positive impact should be afforded every opportunity to succeed (AHMAD MASOOD/Reuters)
Higher education for young Afghans: Those currently looking to make a positive impact should be afforded every opportunity to succeed (AHMAD MASOOD/Reuters)

Cory Anderson

Higher education for young Afghans: An inexpensive way to rebuild the country Add to ...

Over the past decade, the international community has invested billions of dollars and sacrificed hundreds of men and women in a fragmented effort to stem an increasingly downward tide that has been evident for years.

To highlight that the current generation of young Afghans are the key to sustained progress and development would be a gross understatement. Born after the fall of the national government in 1978, they now represent the majority of the population, and have experienced instability and conflict all their lives. While many are uneducated and underemployed, there is a critical mass who have managed to secure a basic education and are currently at a crossroads.

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They are also the most significant segment of the local population as it pertains to socio-economic development and the insurgency - young, impressionable Afghans who can be easily manipulated, are generally poor, and are increasingly isolated from their communities due to the conflict. With grade-school education behind them, many now look to an uncertain future fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Recall that the Taliban gained power in 1994 largely due to mujahedeen commanders' failure to govern effectively. The clerics who formed the Taliban had a concrete connection to large swaths of the population and thus rose to power as a popularly supported clerical response to the tribal strongmen.

Almost a decade after they were ousted from power, this small group of radicals continues to diminish the credibility and influence of the entire government using violence.

These attacks, largely carried out against government officials, institutions and pro-government mullahs, are complemented by a sophisticated system of shadow governance, and designed to incite fear and validate them as the only legitimate alternative to the weak national government - which, with the international community, has proven incapable of countering this trend.

This matters most in Kandahar. The Taliban leadership was dominated by Kandaharis. While the majority of Afghans suffered tremendously during the short-lived Taliban rule, many Kandaharis benefited at least economically.

Therefore, what distinguishes this government from the systemic abuse suffered under the Taliban are not only the principles of rule of law and human rights, but a notion that these values represent a way forward from the fear and repression the majority has endured.

The principles of oppression in Kandahar are grounded in a misrepresentation of Islamic tenets from an historical and cultural perspective, accentuating the importance of higher education, employment and good government.

Belief in this philosophy quickly erodes with opportunity, subsequently providing the next generation with the necessary tools to counter the doctrine of the radicalized madrassas.

Correspondingly, when the basic values of honesty and transparency are not enforced by local leaders and the police, the damage is palpable because it reinforces insurgent claims and calls into question the credibility of the entire system.

But we must recognize that Afghans can't do it alone, and that in Kandahar, counterinsurgency strategies will never achieve a prolonged reduction of instability without a corresponding emphasis on sustainable economic development through higher education linked to meaningful employment.

This will not only provide renewed sense of purpose, but serve as the critical component in Afghanistan's rebuilding - especially in light of the international community's desire for an acceptable exit strategy.

Considering that higher learning and economic development are so critical in addressing the root problems plaguing conflict-ridden societies, the small but significant percentage of young Pashtuns currently looking to have a positive impact on their community should be afforded every opportunity to succeed through access to post-secondary education, vocational training and employment.

The international community has thus far failed to adequately acknowledge this crucial element. For a fraction of the cost currently allocated to security sector reform and military operations, hundreds of young Afghans could be provided with postsecondary education, so vital to ensuring our considerable investments over the past decade haven't been in vain.

Cory Anderson is former director of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. He served as a special adviser to the Independent Panel on Canada's Future Role in Afghanistan and is now executive director of the Hila Organization for Partnerships in Education.

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