Combating Extremism Through Education

David Martin is National Security Correspondent for CBS News.
Although the story is about where the candidates stand on the issue of combating Islamic extremism, the star of the piece is a down and out mountain climber named Greg Mortenson, who, for the past 15 years, has been building schools in the tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. His thesis is simple: the Taliban fear education much more than they fear smart bombs. It's the old cliché of winning hearts and minds. Everybody talks about it. Mortenson did it and has recounted his amazing story in a best selling book "Three Cups of Tea."

Mortenson started his work in 1993 after he almost died in a failed attempt to climb K-2, after Everest the world's tallest mountain. His life was saved by an illiterate porter who lead him down from the mountain, and Mortenson set out to repay the debt by building a school for the porter's village.

Editor's note:
An April 17, 2011 "60 Minutes" report quotes multiple sources saying that some of the most inspiring and dramatic stories in Greg Mortenson's best-selling books are not true, and that Mortenson's charity, the Central Asia Institute, has spent more money in the U.S. talking about education in Pakistan and Afghanistan than actually building and supporting schools there, according to an analysis of the organization's last financial report.

It was an enormous undertaking. Before he could build a school, he had to build a bridge over a raging river so that the building materials could be carried to the village. The most valuable lesson he learned was to sit down and shut up and let the tribal elders do it their way. That's not something Americans are very good at, and it's probably no accident that Mortenson was born and raised in Africa and grew up learning to respect local customs.

He has now built 78 schools – and he's done it all with money he raised on his own. The Pentagon offered to support him, but he turned them down, afraid that any association with the U.S. government would discredit his work. It's a wonderful story of "the good American," but there's a catch. By his estimate, he is competing against 25,000 madrasas, or religious schools, which teach holy war to some four million young boys.

Only a rich government can compete on that scale, which is where the Presidential candidates come in. Would either of them support efforts like Mortenson's? They both say they would. McCain says scholarships are more important than smart bombs. Obama has called for $7 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan. But as I was interviewing Mortenson and looking at the video he shot of his school building projects, I couldn't help thinking that what the U.S. really needs is an army of Greg Mortensons.

Watch our full story on tonight's CBS Evening News, but until then, you can check out other editions of "Where They Stand."

  • David Martin

    David Martin is CBS News' National Security Correspondent.