October 29, 2009
Recently I was thinking about the typical pathway to democracy. It seems to me the usual pattern goes something like this:
- A dictator rules a bunch of uneducated idiots.
- The dictator realizes he needs smarter citizens to compete with other countries.
- The dictator educates his citizens.
- The educated citizens get rid of the dictator.
- Democracy flourishes.
In Afghanistan, the literacy rate is about 26% in cities, and 9% in outlying areas. Not surprisingly, the recent Afghan presidential election didn’t work out so well. I have a feeling that version 2.0 won’t be a spectacular success either.
What Afghanistan needs is a dictator who values education for his own benefit, thus setting the stage for his own demise and the emergence of democracy. The Taliban aren’t the right kind of dictators because they eschew education.
But I wonder if education is the one area in which the Taliban might be willing to negotiate, assuming there are moderates among them, in return for power. Suppose we agree to withdraw our military, leaving some hardly-noticed bases that we use for hunting terrorists, in return for the Taliban allowing the U.N. to set up non-religious schools, funded by foreign assistance, with mandatory attendance, including girls. We could agree to keep any political or controversial stuff out of the curriculum.
The Taliban could still teach religious absurdities to their kids on their own time, the same way we do it in our own country. We wouldn’t like what the Taliban teach their kids, especially the parts about killing infidels. But in the long run, the Afghan education system would produce a citizenry that demands democratic reform. It might take 200 years, but that’s not bad for a country that is in the Stone Age.
The risk, of course, is that once we leave, the Taliban beheads everyone who thinks education is a good idea, and spends all of their drug profits to set up Bed and Breakfast places for Al-Qaeda. I will stipulate that the beheading scenario is likely. My only point is that Afghanistan needs a pro-education dictator more than it needs a president who steals elections. Maybe we shouldn’t be trying to skip steps.