You need only spend an afternoon walking through the Storytellers' Bazaar here in Peshawar, a few miles from the Afghan border, to understand that America needs to do its business in Afghanistan _ eliminate Osama bin Laden and his Taliban protectors _ as quickly as possible and get out. This is not a neighborhood to linger in. This is not Mr. Rogers' neighborhood.
What makes me say that? I don't know, maybe it was the street vendor who asked me exactly what color Osama bin Laden T-shirt I wanted _ the yellow one with his picture on it or the white one simply extolling him as the hero of the Muslim nation and vowing "Jihad Is Our Mission." (He was doing a brisk business among the locals.) Or maybe it was the wall poster announcing: Call this phone number if you want to join the "Jihad against America." Or maybe it was all the Urdu wall graffiti reading "Honor is In Jihad" and "The Alliance Between the Hunood and Yahood Is Unacceptable," referring to the Indians and Jews. Or maybe it was the cold stares and steely eyes that greeted the obvious foreigner. Those eyes did not say "American Express accepted here." They said "Get lost."
Welcome to Peshawar. Oh, and did I mention? This is Pakistan _ these guys are on our side. Fat chance. This whole region of northwest Pakistan is really just an extension of Afghanistan, dominated by the same ethnic Pashtuns that make up the Taliban. This is bin Laden land. This is not a region where America is going to sink any friendly roots. In part it's because the Pashtuns here all, understandably, side with their brothers in Afghanistan; in part it's because they were jilted once before by the Americans _ after the United States just dropped Pakistan like a used hanky once the Soviets left Afghanistan. But most important, it's because of the education system here.
On the way in to Peshawar I stopped to visit the Darul Uloom Haqqania, the biggest madrasa, or Islamic school, in Pakistan, with 2,800 live-in students _ all studying the Koran and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad with the hope of becoming mullahs, or spiritual leaders. I was allowed to sit in on a class with young boys, who sat on the floor, practicing their rote learning of the Koran from holy texts perched on wooden holders. Most will never be exposed to critical thinking or modern subjects.
It was at once impressive and disquieting. It was impressive because the madrasas provide room, board, education and clothing for thousands of Pakistani boys _ who would otherwise be left out on the streets because of the gradual collapse of Pakistan's secular, state education system. In 1978 there were 3,000 madrasas in Pakistan; today there are 39,000. It was disquieting because their religious curriculum was designed by the Mogul emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir, who died in 1707. There was one shelf of science books in the library _ largely from the 1920s.
The air in the Koran class was thick and stale. A sign on the wall said this room was "A gift of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." The teacher asked an 8-year-old boy to chant a Koranic verse for us, which he did with the beauty and elegance of an experienced muezzin. "The faithful shall enter paradise and the unbelievers shall be condemned to eternal hellfire."
I asked one of the students, an Afghan refugee, Rahim Kunduz, age 12, what his reaction was to the Sept. 11 attacks, and he said: "Most likely the attack came from Americans inside America. I am pleased that America has had to face pain, because the rest of the world has tasted its pain." And his view of Americans generally? "They are unbelievers and do not like to befriend Muslims and they want to dominate the world with their power."
The Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasa is famous because the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, attended it, as did many other top Taliban figures. Omar never graduated, though, our guide explained, "but we gave him an honorary degree anyway, because he left to do jihad and to create a pristine Islamic government."
As we were leaving, my Pakistani friend asked the school's rector a question he had posed to me, which I couldn't answer: How come Americans are so good at selling Coke and McDonald's to people all over the world, but can't sell their policies?
"Because their policies are poisonous and their Coke is sweet," said Moulana Samiul Haq.
I am all for reviewing our policies, but only the Pakistanis can rebuild their schools so they meld modernity, Islam and pluralism. Bin Laden is a sideshow, but one we must deal with. The real war for peace in this region, though, is in the schools. Which is why we must do our military operation against bin Laden quickly and then get out of here. When we return, and we must, we have to be armed with modern books and schools _ not tanks. Only then might we develop a new soil _ a new generation as hospitable to our policies as to our burgers.
Until then, nothing pro-American will grow here.
Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times News Service