Candidates On Fighting Islamic Extremism

To help you make an informed decision in the presidential election, CBS News is devoting a large part of our broadcasts until Nov. 4 to telling you where the candidates stand on major issues - from the war in Iraq to health insurance to education … and a lot more. Each piece will be an in-depth look at the issues facing the 44th president. In this installment, CBS News national security correspondent David Martin reports on how what Barack Obama and John McCain propose to do about Islamic extremism would affect the world.

The Issue

The driver of an orange-and-white car shown in a video tape is a suicide bomber. He just barely misses an American convoy. The threat of Islamic extremists on the battlefield is so deadly, the only way to win is to shoot first.

But to Greg Mortenson, the real battleground is in the Hindu Kush, where Muslim children have no schools. For him, a classroom is the best weapon against terrorists.

"I think they fear education and literacy much more than they fear a good gun battle," Mortenson said.

Since 1993, Mortenson has been building schools in mountains so dangerous you take your life in your hands just crossing a river.

"Fifteen years later, now we have 78 schools, about 28,000 students and our primary focus is on girls' education," he said.

He is competing against religious schools called madrassas, teaching jihad to young boys who graduate to terrorist training camps. And his 78 schools are badly outgunned.

"Today, there's about 25,000 extremist madrassas with about four million mostly boys going to school, learning about militant ideology," he said.

"Doesn't sound like a fair contest," Martin said.

"It's just a drop in the bucket," Mortenson said.

A drop in the bucket against a fanatic ideology that, for a decade now, has spawned monstrous attacks on Americans.

The Candidates

There is no more visceral issue than the battle against Islamic extremism. And from the beginning, both candidates have put it at the center of their appeal to voters.

For both men, it begins with hunting down Osama bin Laden and other top terrorists - wherever they are.

"We cannot tolerate a terrorist sanctuary, and as president, I will not," Sen. Barack Obama said in May. "We must make it clear that if Pakistan cannot or will not act, we will take out high-level terrorist targets like bin Laden if we have them in our sights."

Obama makes no bones about it - if he gets a shot at bin Laden, he will take it - with or without Pakistani permission.

Sen. John McCain says it's a mistake to be so explicit about violating another country's territory, but leaves little doubt he would do exactly the same.

"There's a guy out there in Afghanistan or Pakistan," McCain said in March. "You know his name: Osama bin Laden. And if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I'll get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice."

The battle against bin Laden and Islamic extremism began in Afghanistan. Seven years later, the United States has 32,000 troops there, and it is still not clear which side is winning.

"Our commanders on the ground in Afghanistan say that they need at least three additional brigades - and our commanders in Afghanistan must get them," McCain said.

Both candidates say they would send in more troops.

"As Commander in Chief, I will have no greater priority than taking out these terrorists that threaten America, and finishing the job against the Taliban. That's why I've called for at least two additional U.S. combat brigades," Obama said.

The U.S. military is already planning to send four more combat brigades - about 15,000 troops - and both candidates seem likely to approve. Both also recognize that's not enough. It will take what's called "soft power."

Obama wants to give Pakistan $7 million to build schools, roads and health clinics. McCain also supports non-military aid, but has put no price tag on it.

In Los Angeles, McCain said: "Our goal must be to win the hearts and minds of the vast majority of moderate Muslims who do not want their future controlled by a minority of violent extremists. In this struggle, scholarships will be far more important than smart bombs."

The Impact

Since 9/11, the Pentagon has spent $160 billion fighting the war in Afghanistan, compared to thet $12 billion for the soft power of diplomacy and aid.

Greg Mortenson says money invested in soft power goes a lot farther.

"A Tomohawk cruise missile costs about $840,000. And for the comparable money we could build about 25 schools, and over 20 years educate about 30,000 students," he said.

It sounds simple, but Americans aren't allowed in areas where Islamic extremists are strongest.

"I was kidnapped for eight days in Waziristan by the Taliban," Mortenson said.

Martin asked: "What did you see when you looked the Taliban in the eye?"

"I see ignorance. I think ignorance breeds hatred," he said.

Muslim children are literally begging for education.

"If you please, build for us a school," one young girl said in Pashtu, with a translator.

Each candidate would no doubt like to start his term as commander in chief by hunting down bin Laden, but the battle against Islamic extremism won't end there.

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.