Given today’s economic difficulties, I thought I’d come to Pakistan to find Osama bin Laden, lug him back home in my duffel bag and declare him at American customs to pick up the $27 million reward.
More on that mission in a moment. First, another conundrum here in Pakistan:
The United States has provided $18 billion to Pakistan in aid since 9/11, yet Pakistan’s government shelters the Afghan Taliban as it kills American soldiers and drains the American Treasury. Meanwhile, only 8 percent of Pakistanis have confidence in President Obama, according to the Pew Research Center. That’s not even half as many as express confidence in bin Laden.
Meanwhile, Pakistan seeks postflood aid from Western taxpayers, yet barely taxes its own affluent citizens at home. And its feudal landholders have historically opposed good schools, for fear that poor Pakistanis — if educated — would object to oppression.
One reason Pakistan is sometimes called the most dangerous country in the world is this: a kindergarten child in this country has only a 1 percent chance of reaching the 12th grade, according to the Pakistan Education Task Force, an official panel. The average Pakistani child is significantly less likely to be schooled than the average child in sub-Saharan Africa.
American myopia historically has played a role. We’ve propped up generals but not the lawyers’ movement for democracy. We’ve allocated billions of dollars for Pakistan’s army but not for schools. And the U.S. has never been willing to take the single most important step: open our markets wide to Pakistani garment exports, so as to provide jobs and strengthen the business sector.
Now let’s break for a ray of hope.
This is my first trip to Pakistan in years in which the country’s downhill slide seems to have been arrested — and that’s notwithstanding the floods that ravaged the country recently.
It helps that the United States has approved the Kerry-Lugar-Berman package to provide civilian aid, earning the U.S. a dose of goodwill in Pakistan. But most important, members of Pakistan’s emerging middle class are stepping up to the plate.
They are enraged at the terrorists who have been tearing apart their country, they’re appalled by corruption and illiteracy, and they want peace so that their children can become educated and live a better life. Their obsession is college, not Kashmir.
Partly because of middle-class influence, ordinary Pakistanis are increasingly focused on education. About one-fourth of Pakistani children, even from poor families, now attend private schools, simply because the public schools are so wretched.
These days the middle class is not only eclipsing the feudal landowners but also rejects the old feudal contempt for the masses. One reflection of the middle-class engagement is the rise of the Citizens Foundation, a terrific aid group started by a group of businessmen frustrated by their country’s appalling schools.
Today, T.C.F. runs 660 excellent schools for the poorest citizens. I visited several of these schools on this trip — and, wow!
T.C.F. spends 40 percent less per pupil than state schools do, but manages to provide incomparably better education. Here in the most-populous province of Punjab, for example, nearly 100 percent of Citizens Foundation pupils pass government exams, while over the last four years state schools have averaged a 44 percent pass rate.
The most inspiring Pakistani I met on this trip wasn’t a prominent official but a 17-year-old girl.
Zahida Sardar, an ebullient teenager with braids and a radiant smile, used to languish in an execrable state school in Minhala outside Lahore. “A teacher might come only twice a month,” Zahida recalled.
In such a school, Zahida despaired that she would have no chance to become a doctor or teacher. She began to pester her parents to send her to a T.C.F. school so she could actually get an education, but her parents are illiterate and worried about school fees.
“My father said, ‘I’m not going to pay. Why should we spend money on education?’ ” Zahida recalled. So Zahida tormented her mother, begging her just to find out if a transfer might be possible.
“For three months, I pestered and insisted,” Zahida recalled. She tried everything she could think of, including a daily torrent of tears.
I met Zahida’s mother, Sardara, who told me that the girl was impossible and just wouldn’t take a “no.” “She just wore me down,” Sardara said. Timidly, Sardara visited the T.C.F. school, and the principal agreed to test Zahida and, when she performed brilliantly, accept her at much reduced fees of 50 cents a month.
So Zahida is now is a star in the 11th grade — speaking to me comfortably in English.
Oh, and bin Laden? Well, maybe I’ll get lucky on my next trip. But in Zahida and other educated young Pakistanis, I’ve found those who will vanquish him.