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Madrassas Built with Your Money By: Ann Marlowe
New York Post | Tuesday, July 15, 2008

THE US Army's combination of development with counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is admirable in all but one regard: We're building mosques and madrassas, too.

When it comes to building roads, bridges, dams, schools and clinics in the 14 eastern Afghan provinces under de facto US Army protection, our military has done far more than any charity, the US Agency for International Development or the Afghan government.

In Khost Province, the model for US counterinsurgency, we built 50 schools last year alone and broken ground on a 200-bed hospital. But we've also finished four mosques, with four more in the works, plus three madrassas, with plans for one in every district (typically areas of 60,000-120,000 people).

The Army is building mosques and madrassas with good intentions. But it's far too likely to backfire in the long run.

The case for it? Well, in rural communities in this part of the world, the mosque is an all-purpose community center, bar and coffee house rolled into one. And our longer-term plan for helping Afghanistan advance involves fostering a robust civil society - Afghans don't cooperate in units larger than the family or tribe.

Mosque-building also associates the US presence with the national faith. We mainly build mosques near the district centers or county seats; US troops usually live in barracks in the same compounds. The Army hopes mullahs will be more apt to preach cooperation with the people who built their mosque - but it's not clear that the military has any way of monitoring what's preached.

Building madrassas, meanwhile, gives Afghan authorities some control over what's taught to those students. Across the border in Pakistan, anything goes. On the other hand (as one senior officer told me), a better idea might be for us to infiltrate those Pakistani madrassas.

The US-built, Afghan government-registered madrassas also are supposed to devote 40 percent of teaching to secular subjects, preparing graduates to work or get higher education. The typical private madrassa is all Koran, all the time.

And the real goal is to make them all obsolete. Until '06 or '07, many districts in eastern Afghanistan didn't even have schools; the US Army is building them now. Our long-term hope is that madrassa education will wither away as secular schooling gains ground.

Finally, as Khost Gov. Arsala Jamal says, "We have to prove to our people that neither the Afghan government nor the Coalition Forces are against Islam but rather we the Afghan government are supporting Islam. If we do not touch the religion, the enemy will use it against us."

Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of The Book of Trouble: A Romance.

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