Battling the Taliban's Influence in Schools

Commentary | October 17, 2012

When U.S. Major Lee and Captain Gil entered Ganat Kahiyl High School in Zormat District, Paktia Province in Eastern Afghanistan, a local teacher slipped them a small note: "The Taliban have visited our school and forced their curriculum upon us. Can the government help?" If the teachers did not comply, they would have suffered the consequences. This was not an empty threat. Insurgents burned down Sahakh High School in the district a couple months earlier for teaching girls and the government's curriculum.

The U.S. officers visited the school to promote the Village Outreach Program, a program devised by the local U.S. Army Civil Affairs team along with the Provincial Reconstruction Team and the District Governor of Zormat to battle Taliban influence on schools and curricula. The project, loosely modeled after McGruff the Crime Dog, a cartoon bloodhound used by the American police to build crime awareness in children, is meant to teach school children civic responsibilities and instill trust in the government and the police. Because of the program, Ganat Kahiyl High School heard Abdul Wahab, a District Chief of Police, publicly talk to the school children for the first time. "If your parents don't let you go to school, you should cry. Cry until they let you go to school because you are the future of Afghanistan!" This may not seem quite as revolutionary in America; however, given the relatively poor reputation of the Afghan National Uniformed Police in most parts of the country, a friendly and fatherly policeman may be revolutionary indeed.

Education could be the only lasting legacy that the United States will leave behind after a decade of war at the Hindu Kush. Yet, the challenges are still daunting. While school enrollment, according to statistics of the Ministry of Education, has increased almost eight times since 2001, demand is outstripping supply by far. By 2020, Afghanistan will require some 21,100 teachers, for an additional 7.8 million students at an added cost of almost USD $300 million. In addition to the question of who will pay for the increasing demand of education (the total tax revenue of the Afghan government for 2011 was USD $1.8 billion). The influence of the Taliban on school curricula is as strong as ever, especially in remote districts such as Zormat.

Zormat, the southernmost district of Paktia Province, always has been considered the stepchild of Paktia Province and for years has served as a safe haven for the Taliban, which continues to exercise considerable influence in the district villages and schools. The infamous Taliban commander, Saifullah Rahman Mansoor, is buried in the district and still widely admired by the local population. Consequently, the local Afghan government is fighting an uphill battle to dampen the influence of the insurgents and has implicated education as one of the principle battlefields.

According to the Director of Education, Muhamed Ali, Zormat District is home to 47 school -- 25 secondary schools, 30 primary schools, and five madrassas -- with 18,000 male and 12,000 female students enrolled. In a short interview, Muhamed Ali vehemently negated that the Taliban have any influence at all in the region. "We would never allow the Taliban to enter our school. We have security guards to keep them out, and we stick to the government curriculum!" Villagers and ISAF troops, however, tell a different story. Villagers mention that the Taliban carefully select teachers to suit their purposes and tightly control the school curriculum. U.S. forces retrieved a typical Taliban curriculum during a visit to a local school a couple months ago. The syllabus emphasized the study of the Quran, history of the Mujahedeen, Pashto, and math and science. English, the language of infidels, is naturally frowned upon.

Insurgent activity is, however, just one enemy in the uphill battle of education in Zormat. According to Major Lee, the United States "has created a culture of dependency. Many school officials still come to us rather than the District Governor for help and assistance, yet we are no longer in charge!" Major Lee is a member of the local Provincial Regional Construction Team (PRCT). The PRCTs used to be the shadow government of each province. Now, however, they have almost no budget for new projects, and their influence is waning. "PRCTs were originally set up as temporary solutions to kick start development in the various regions of Afghanistan. Over the years, however, they became the default address for most development projects," according to Lee. 85 percent of Afghanistan's education budget still is funded through foreign aid and donations.

According to Aschkan Abdul-Malek, of Altai Consulting "The operating and maintenance costs for education in Afghanistan in 2012 are estimated at $170 million, and expected to rise to $235 million in 2014. However, the current budget for operations and maintenance, which doesn't include teachers' salaries, is $38 million. As such, without operating and maintenance funding as a priority, much of the investment from the last decade may fall into disrepair or disuse very soon after the transition. Closing this funding gap is critical to the long-term sustainability of Afghanistan."

Kazyat Mohamed is a 30-year-old math teacher in Kharachi Village. He is happy with the school supplies provided by the Kabul government, but he complains that he has not been paid in three months. The Taliban also regularly visit his school, and this scares him. The Village Outreach Program is still in its early stages. More visits to schools are planned. How successful they will be in teaching the kids and whether they can convince someone like Kazyat Mohamed to teach the government curriculum remains to be seen.

Perhaps little by little as the value of education is more and more appreciated, the influence of the Taliban may start to wane gradually.

During an Afghan Army-led clearing mission in the village of Khotwi Khyl, the local pharmacist, Mohamed Anwir, told about how the Taliban came to his village and announced that the local school should no longer teach the girls, or they would shut the school down. The village elders, however, decided against it. "Afghanistan will need female doctors in the future! We will keep our girls in school!" The Taliban threatened to come back and burn the school down. To this date, however, girls are still taught in the village of Khotwi Khyl.

Click here to read this piece in The Huffington Post.