Deploy more teachers now

“We would rather have our kids get an Al Qaeda education than be illiterate.” Yemeni tribes people said this to explain sheltering Fahd al-Quso in Rafadh. Al-Quso was a hardened Al Qaeda terrorist and mastermind of the 2000 USS Cole bombing. But, al-Quso brought teachers to the empty village schoolhouse, something the Yemeni government failed to do. In exchange, the tribes people gave him protection and loyalty.

It took the U.S. military years to track down al-Quso. It cost the U.S. millions in aid just to coax the Yemeni government into moving against Al Qaeda in places like Rafadh. Eventually, it was a U.S. drone, not the Yemeni military, that killed al-Quso. One can’t help but wonder if we could have caught him sooner. Could we have avoided this if Rafadh had teachers and a school?

Yemen has been a recipient of U.S. foreign aid for decades, just not the right type of aid. U.S. assistance has paid for food, health, and infrastructure in many of Yemen’s remote areas, but not a lot of schools. Unfortunately, our assistance has not bought us any good will. On the other hand, by providing a number of teachers, Al Qaeda wins tribal loyalty. This is not surprising. Most of us quickly forget who paid for the fish, but we don’t forget who taught us how to hook our bait. 

This unfortunate scenario in Rafadh, documented in Robert Worth’s New York Times piece aptly titled “Is Yemen the Next Afghanistan?” isn’t the only time something like this has happened. When one conjures up Afghanistan, the story of the Taliban is sobering. The name “Taliban” comes from the Pashtu word for “student”, alluding to their roots from a cluster of religious schools for Afghan refugees in Pakistan. During that conflict against the Soviets, the U.S. supported the Afghan people with weapons, food, and shelter -just not schools. The schools were paid for by the Wahhabis, a radical Islamic proxy used by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for regional influence. The Taliban emerged as the most cohesive and organized group after the conflict. After spending millions in support, we had no stake and no influence.

Today, after 9/11 and spending billions in Afghanistan, we should be asking ourselves if we can really afford not to invest in education?

Currently, in countries like Yemen and Afghanistan, only about 5 percent of U.S. aid goes to education. The trend is similar for many U.S. recipients of foreign aid, particularly in the Middle East. Worldwide, only 2 percent of what the U.S. spends on foreign assistance goes to education. If we figure in military aid, that 2 percent gets even smaller. More than four times as much goes into democracy, human rights, and governance. Surprising, given the importance of education in building a democracy.

Consider the conflict in Syria; reminiscent of Afghanistan in the 1980s, there are almost 2 million Syrian refugees in between Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey. Many of them are idle and desperate; watching their country and youth slip away. More and more boys, as young as 14, are being recruited from UN refugee camps. Most, if not all, join the rebels; who are increasingly becoming radicalized.

The US is the biggest donor of aid-just not schools. Again, less than 1% is going to education. Even in a crisis, it is not too early to invest in education, especially when Al Qaeda has a presence on the ground. If we want a future partner in the region, the time to invest is now.

Tomorrow, over 1 million Syrian children will be returning to a broken country. If we don’t build schools, our enemies will. Radical militant groups know the power of education. In Nigeria, the Al Qaeda affiliated group Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is prohibited”, knows the power of education. In Somalia, the radical group Al Shabaab, which recruits child soldiers via twitter and whose name means “youth”, knows the power of education. In Pakistan, the Taliban who shot Malala Yousafzai, knows the power of education.

It is about time we beat the terrorists where it counts: the battle of hearts and minds. Everything the U.S. spends abroad on education, from training teachers in rural areas to Fulbright scholarships, contributes to mutual understanding and peace. These programs have tremendous impact. Many political leaders around the world today were once Fulbright scholars; among them is the current Foreign Minister of Vietnam. Today, we have normal relations with Vietnam; trade has grown exponentially. What we spend there now on education is trivial compared to what we spent in life and treasure nearly 50 years ago.

This is what Secretary of State John Kerry, himself a Vietnam vet, marveled at as he spoke about “the once unthinkable normalization of our relations with Vietnam.” Now, as we think about normalization with the Muslim World, we should ask if it will ever come through the high cost of deploying diplomats and soldiers. Perhaps, it could come from spending a little on deploying teachers.

Al-Abbadi was a teacher in Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. Recently, he was an English Language Fellow with the Regional English Language Office at the U.S. Embassy in Rabat, where he taught at a university in rural Morocco. He is currently a Masters candidate for International Education Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.