The War on Education in Afghanistan

Afghan girls study in a classroom of a school in Loya Waila, on the outskirts of Kandahar. (Photo: Strdel / AFP-Getty Images)

In Western perception, parents usually assume as a matter of fact that their children's schools are safe and harmless sites. When they go to work, American and European parents know that their children are learning and playing in safety, that there is nothing they should worry about.

This is not the case in Afghanistan. The problem in Afghanistan is not just the fact that there is an ongoing conflict between NATO/U.S. troops and Taliban insurgents. Of course, that does put school children in jeopardy because bullets and bombs could accidentally kill students who are on their way to school or even in their schoolyards.

Yet, it is quite a different case when students and teachers are targeted on purpose. In Afghanistan, schools, students, and educators are being targeted more and more frequently by Taliban insurgents. The insurgents are trying to regain control of the volatile Southern regions and spread their presence and influence all over the country, causing unpredicted difficulties to Western and Afghan troops. To that end, insurgents burn schools, kill teachers, and intimidate students and their families.

Human Rights Watch, UNICEF and other international agencies and organizations concerned about children's rights reported worrying statistics about the increase in attacks against schools in 2006. Earlier this year, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that President Hamid Karzai declared that 100,000 fewer children were attending schools because many school structures had been destroyed. Hundreds of schools were also closed for security reasons, because of fear of attack from Taliban forces. Since then, the situation is even worsening, as a recent statement issued by UNICEF declared. The statement demonstrated that from the beginning of 2006 about 100 cases of attacks against schools were reported, more than six times the number of accidents occurred during the same period in 2005.

There is then a second, hidden battle going on in Afghanistan, less known than the battle between Western troops and Taliban insurgents, but much harder to fight. It involves children and their schools. The number of foreign soldiers and Afghan police officers is too small and their distribution – reasonably – too unbalanced to combat these types of attacks, which usually occur in peripheral regions far away both from the country's capital, Kabul, and the administrative and political centers in the provinces. Because the attacks cannot be predicted, every school is a possible target.

The main target is girls' schools. When the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, before 2001, girls were not allowed to attend public schools because Taliban policy maintained that education was not fit for women. Women were forced to live hidden lives at home. If they had to venture out in public, they had to be covered by burqas. It was a community made by men for men; women were allowed no part in it.

An education would give Afghan women a very different perspective. Discovering that they had autonomous and capable minds would have jeopardized Taliban structures from the inside. With that kind of awareness, women would have been free to decide for themselves how to dress, how to behave, what to say, and what to think.

Taliban leaders – or the residual leading elements of their network – have always been very aware of this. The prospect of a literate Afghan population scares them than U.S. bombs and NATO tanks, because it saps the very foundation of Taliban ideology.

After the Taliban regime was overthrown in 2001, the international community worked hard to increase the number of schools and to open them to girls. They expected the response to be timid at first, but for cooperation to grow over time, a sign that the Afghan people were willing to give their children a better future in a safer and wealthier country, and acknowledge that going to school was the basic step to achieving success.

Schools are a prime targets for two reasons. Firstly, schools can be easily attacked and have a higher resonance abroad than institutional targets. Administrative centers are under strict control and politicians have bodyguards and soldiers who protect them. It is quite impossible to control and protect every school in the – remote – corners of the vast Afghan territory.

Secondly, schools represent the embodiment of a tolerant, open-minded belief system, which deeply clashes with Taliban ideology. From the Taliban's dogmatic perspective, girls' education, and education in general, is a foreign intrusion on Afghan cultural and religious habits. This idea is false, of course, as most anthropologists would confirm. Education and schools have been considered a fundamental part of every culture, past and present.

On the Web

"Lessons in Terror: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan," Human Rights Watch, July 2006.

"UNICEF Alarmed as Attacks on Afghan Schools Rise," UNICEF, Aug. 4, 2006.

Furthermore, from an ethical viewpoint, everyone has the right to an education. A fair system, in fact, is one that allows everyone to have the same opportunities. Trying to exclude some members is ethically unfair and therefore unacceptable.

Afghan people acknowledge that their culture and habits may be safeguarded and even empowered by an improved school system, yet they also know that they cannot allow themselves to endanger their children's lives. Some people reasonably hesitate to send their children to school because they fear the consequences. Taliban militants are aware of this and try to take advantage of it, threatening the Afghan people's most precious resource for a better future.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Antonio Fabrizio.