Afghanistan’s Girls’ Schools Under Siege

Despite popular support for girls’ education, attacks by a resurgent Taliban and other groups in southern and southeastern Afghanistan are forcing the closure of schools throughout the region and beyond, according to a new report released Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The report, “Lessons in Terror: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan," detailed more than 200 attacks on teachers, students, and schools over the past 18 months, more than half of them in just the past six months.

“Schools are being shut down by bombs and threats, denying another generation of Afghan girls an education and the chance for a better life,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, who co-authored the 142-page report.

Nor are closures confined to the largely Pashtun south where the Taliban is strongest. Nearly one-third of all of Afghanistan districts currently have no girls’ schools in operation, according to the report. It stressed that local warlords, some of them allied with President Hamid Karzai, along with drug traffickers and Taliban allies, such as Gulbuddin Hekymatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, were also behind the attacks.

The new report comes amid growing concern and media attention here, as well as in NATO countries that are contributing troops to the expanding International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to the growing insecurity in Afghanistan, of which the escalating attacks on the educational system are one key indication.

In a recent Washington Post column, Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid described the ongoing Taliban offensive in the south and the counteroffensive by NATO and U.S. troops as a “full-scale war” with a dozen attacks every day and nearly 1,000 killed over the past two months. U.S. warplanes carried out 750 bombing missions in Afghanistan in May alone.

In the past nine months, more than 40 suicide bombings – many of them in or near Kabul – have been carried out, compared with just five over the previous five years. Meanwhile, the size of Taliban units operating in the south has grown from around 100 men a year ago to 400 or more this past spring. Analysts here believe the group’s total fighting strength may exceed 6,000.

Like other analysts, Rashid blamed the deteriorating situation primarily on the West’s failure to provide adequate numbers of troops in Afghanistan to both ensure the security of the population and protect rebuilding and development efforts, especially in the Pashtun south.

“We need to realize that we could actually fail here,” Lt.-Gen. David Richards, the British commander of the NATO-led ISAF, was quoted as telling the Sunday Times of London in a particularly pessimistic analysis. Britain announced Monday that it was sending nearly 900 more troops to Afghanistan, bringing its strength there to some 4,500.

Ret. U.S. Gen. Barry McCaffrey also painted a dark picture of the situation that stressed the superior equipment and tactics of the Taliban compared to the NATO-trained Afghan National Army (ANA), which, he wrote in a recent report for the Pentagon, “will require at least five years of continued robust U.S. military presence.”

The administration of President George W. Bush currently plans to reduce its military presence from some 20,000 troops devoted mainly to hunting down Taliban and al-Qaeda “remnants” to about 16,000 by the end of the year as part of a two-year plan to transfer full responsibility for security to ISAF, which will include at least 7,000 U.S. troops. Many analysts believe that recent attacks by the Taliban on ISAF forces in the south is designed to disrupt the transition.

“They are brutalizing the population,” wrote McCaffrey of the Taliban, “and they are now conducting a summer-fall campaign to knock NATO out of the war, capture the provincial capital of Kandahar, isolate the Americans, stop the developing Afghan educational system, stop the liberation of women, and penetrate the new police force and (ANA).”

That the Taliban and its allies are succeeding in disrupting the education system is made clear by HRW’s new report, which, like Rashid, argued that Washington and the West shared the blame for the deteriorating situation by failing to provide adequate development assistance and security after the Taliban’s ouster, particularly in the south.

“For four years, the international community has shortchanged Afghanistan on security, and the Taliban and other armed groups are filling the vacuum,” said Sam Zarifi, HRW’s research director and Coursen-Neff’s co-author.

He stressed, however, that the situation was not yet “hopeless” provided that U.S. and ISAF forces make their priority “mak[ing] life safer and better for ordinary Afghans,” including those who wish to send their children to school.

“A key measurement of the international community’s success in Afghanistan must be the safety of ordinary Afghans,” said Coursen-Neff. “Access to education is a critical benchmark. If it’s too dangerous to send children to school, there is no real security and no real development.”

School enrollment skyrocketed after the Taliban’s ouster, from some 775,000 in 2001 to more than 5 million last year, according to estimates cited in the report, which noted that that the number was still a small percentage of eligible pupils due to the lack of schools in rural areas where most Afghans live.

For 2006, however, the Ministry of Education told HRW that it did not expect new enrollments as a result of both school closures and the inability of the government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to open new schools due to the reigning insecurity.

In a speech honoring International Women’s Day speech in March, Karzai himself complained that 100,000 Afghan children enrolled in school in 2005 had not returned.

In the last year, according to the report, some previously secure schools, such as girls’ schools in Kandahar city and some northern provinces, came under attack.

At least 17 teachers and education officials have been assassinated over the past 18 months, according to the report, which stressed that threats against students and teachers, known as “night letters,” have become more common.

A letter posted at one mosque, for example, warned that “men who are working with NGOs and girls going to school need to be careful about their safety. If we put acid on their faces or they are murdered, then the blame will be on the parents.”

The report noted that motives behind attacks against the schools differed. In some instances it appears to be motivated by ideological opposition to education or girls’ education, in particular, but in other instances schools and teachers were targeted as symbols of the government or, in the case of NGO-run schools, of foreign intrusion.

In either case, it said, ‘the result is the same: Afghanistan’s educational system, one of the weakest in the world, is facing a serious and worsening threat.”

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.