The furor accompanying the recent dissemination of classified military files by WikiLeaks has focused some much-needed attention on the damaging role Pakistan plays in the Afghan theater. As the WikiLeaks documents highlight in damning detail, Islamabad's close - and ongoing - cooperation with the Taliban has made it a key accessory to the worsening insurgency against the U.S.-led coalition on the war on terror's first front.
But what can actually be done about Islamabad's double-dealing? Disengagement, after all, is simply not an option. By dint of its strategic geography, Pakistan is a key player in Afghanistan, and its constructive involvement is essential to ensuring lasting stability there - especially following the planned July 2011 U.S. withdrawal. Pakistan is also a nuclear power, and the specter of Islamists gaining control of its burgeoning atomic arsenal is a nightmare scenario the West has sought to forestall through increased diplomatic engagement and foreign aid.
For years, Pakistan has played on these fears to get a pass on its domestic conduct and keep American dollars flowing. But this does not mean the United States lacks the ability to steer Pakistan toward a more constructive course. To the contrary, a number of opportunities exist for Washington to influence Islamabad's stance on terrorism and radical Islam.
In this regard, no area deserves greater attention than the state of Pakistan's education system. Over the past three decades, Pakistan's educational sector has withered, a casualty of neglect and partisan politics. In its place has risen a parallel religious education system built around a specialized Islamic curriculum known as the Dars-e Nizami. Ostensibly, other subjects - including mathematics, history and medicine - also are offered. But specialists such as C. Christine Fair of the U.S. Institute of Peace are quick to point out that the results fall far short of a "well-rounded education" because all the texts used for instruction, even those for supposed "rational sciences," are fundamentalist in nature. Many such subjects have stopped being taught altogether in Pakistan's sprawling network of more than 10,000 madrassas.
By objective standards, the size of the problem may be small; officials in Islamabad estimate that about 1.7 million students - just 1 percent of the country's total population - are enrolled in the madrassa system. Still, if even a fraction of that number becomes radicalized enough to join the jihad against the West, it would be a boon to the Taliban and al Qaeda - and a major threat to the United States and its allies. By all indications, that is precisely what is happening in places such as Afghanistan and Kashmir, where anecdotal evidence suggests that local radicals are being reinforced by a steady stream of new recruits from Pakistan's Islamic schools.
That problem, moreover, is only poised to grow in the years ahead. When surveyed by the United Nations Development Program in 2007, 63 percent of all Pakistanis were estimated to be 25 or younger. Of that number, the vast majority is of school age and will be for the next decade. The education these youth receive will go a long way toward determining whether their country will be a friend or foe of the United States in the years ahead.
Washington, however, is barely even engaged on this intellectual battlefront. While the $7.5 billion aid package approved recently by the U.S. Congress focuses on improving everything from Pakistan's critical infrastructure to the country's military capabilities, it is virtually silent on the sorry state of the Pakistani education system, deferring the issue for future years. By doing so, the United States risks exacerbating the very socioeconomic problems its aid is attempting to address. Real reform must begin by devaluing the intolerant religious ideas that perpetuate support for instability in Afghanistan and bolster the ranks of terrorist movements in South Asia and beyond.
Here, the private sector can help. Pakistan's madrassas are dangerous not because they teach the Koran, but because they offer so little else. As a former intelligence official recently noted on Fox News, "When you finish an education in a madrassa, you are good for one of two things: You can be a mullah, or you can be a jihadist." At the moment, Pakistan's state-run education system, neglected and riddled with corruption, does not offer a compelling alternative to this binary choice. However, vocational schools can help fill this gap and provide Pakistan's school-age children with the necessary life skills to be integrated successfully into mainstream society.
Working in tandem with private-sector institutions, the United States and its allies can help build such an alternative education track - one devoid of radical religious dogma and possessing the requisite training in hard sciences, mathematics and engineering for its students to succeed. Put another way, perhaps America's most constructive contribution to the fight against radicalism in Pakistan would be to bring institutions like the ITT Technical Institute to Islamabad.
Such a step may not be intuitive. For the moment, officials in Washington are still focused on coaxing Pakistan into assuming a more cooperative stance in the struggle against radical Islam. Nevertheless, they would do well to understand that, to a large extent, the road to moderation in Pakistan runs through its schools. And they would do even better to act on it.