Mr. Mortenson's idea for 2011 is a simple one conceptually but difficult to put into practice. "I'd like to see a commitment made so that every single child on the planet can go to school," he says. He cites figures from UNICEF that 112 million kids worldwide are deprived of formal classroom learning, 74 million of them girls.
Mortenson has established friendships with Islamic mullahs and local tribal elders in Afghanistan while, at the same time, earning the respect of top US generals. Military officials acknowledge, he says, that there is no military solution, long-term, to the problems plaguing the region. "The greatest allies of terrorists are illiteracy and ignorance," he says.
He believes that global illiteracy could be cut in half over the next 10 years by spending just half the $100 billion annually the US is putting into Operation Enduring Freedom (largely the war in Afghanistan). Mortenson says that Dr. Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan's education minister, told him that roughly $248 million annually is spent to operate the country's 24 universities. "We are spending about $1 million per US soldier each year in Afghanistan. Let's let just 248 soldiers come home to their families and instead write a check to fund the country's entire university system. Send a couple of thousand troops home and replace them with schools and salaries for 10,000 teachers. It would alter the dynamic of the war. We'd be giving Afghanistan a future."