The power of education is the real gold in Afghanistan

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Amid all the dark news from Afghanistan, every now and then a sliver of light slips through the cracks.

Afghanistan, it turns out, is rich in minerals. Trillions rich. It's going to become the Saudi Arabia of lithium, they say. Thanks to vast stores of that resource, plus iron, copper, cobalt and gold, this impoverished, war-torn nation could become a wealthy nation.

No more wars, no Taliban, no heroin, no Osama bin Laden.

Too good to be true, right?

The deposits are real enough, but the question remains: Can a country without mining infrastructure and populated by people who've never known prosperity or possessed the collective memory of self-direction (70 percent of Afghans are under age 30) put its resources to constructive use?

Although the potential is "stunning," according to Gen. David Petraeus, the sidebars and footnotes to this heartening story are full of caveats and "yes, buts."

There's also potential for corruption, for fights between the central government and the provinces, for conflict along the border with Pakistan, where some of the richest deposits are located, and for a resurgent and enriched Taliban.

Moreover, turning deposits into a functioning mining industry will take decades. But speculation naturally leads to the hope that Afghanistan could begin to fund its own reinvention and liberate other nations, notably ours, from that burden.

The key, it seems, lies in educating the rising generation of Afghans -- in the liberal arts as well as in the technologies needed to advance this new economic potential. There is hope there, too, not least because of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), the nation's only private, nonprofit university.

The school was launched with the help of a substantial grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development and built on 48 acres in Kabul. Instruction commenced in 2006, and the first class graduated last month. The school has 500 students, 20 percent of them women, and it hopes to expand to 800 students next year and to 2,000 in five years.

Most Afghans can't afford the tuition -- 70 percent receive financial aid -- and are being educated in large part through American donations. Some of those donors attended a dinner in Washington recently to hear from students and to honor former first lady Laura Bush for her support of the university. A new fundraising project is underway for the Laura W. Bush Women's Resource Center, which will be the cornerstone of a new library and student services building with classrooms, conference space and an auditorium.

And you thought all she did was sit and smile.

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