When U.S. Major Lee and Captain Gil entered Ganat Kahiyl High School in eastern Afghanistan recently, a local teacher slipped them a small note: “The Taliban have visited our school and forced their curriculum upon us. Can the government help?”
This was not an empty threat. Insurgents burned down Sahakh High School in the same district a couple months earlier for teaching girls and the government’s curriculum. Taliban attacks on schools that defy insurgents are reported often, though difficult to confirm because of Taliban influence, say analysts. In fact, the U.S. officers were visiting the school to promote the Village Outreach Program, devised by the local U.S. Army and the district governor of Zormat to battle that type of Taliban influence on schools and children.
The new 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 schoolchildren civic responsibilities and instill trust in the government and the police.
“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!” District Chief of Police Abdul Wahab, who was visiting the school with Lee and Gil, told high school students that day. Given the relatively poor reputation of the Afghan National Uniformed Police in most parts of the country, this friendly, fatherly policeman and his message seem revolutionary here. Local forces say there is a lot of hope riding on the program as it builds confidence among schools in places like Zormat. Lee says he hopes it can instill an appreciation for civic responsibility and trust in police and government, so that they can help teachers and schools like Ganat Kahiyl High School, but it still has a long way to go.
Education could be the only lasting legacy that the United States will leave behind after a decade of war. 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 by far outstripping supply.
If the trend continues, by 2020 Afghanistan will require some 21,100 teachers, for an additional 7.8 million students at an added cost of almost $300 million. Then there’s the question of who will pay for the increasing demand of education (the total tax revenue of the Afghan government for 2011 was $1.8 billion).
The local Provincial Regional Construction Team (PRT) used to be the shadow government of each province. Now, however, they have almost no budget for new projects, and their influence is waning.
“PRTs were originally set up as temporary solutions to kick-start development in the various regions of Afghanistan. Over the past decade, however, they became the default address for most development projects,” says Lee who is a member of the PRT. Some 85 percent of Afghanistan’s education budget is still funded by foreign aid and donations.
“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,” says Aschkan Abdul-Malek, of Altai Consulting, based in Paris.
Nonetheless, the Village Outreach Program is a Zormat district initiative, planned, led, and executed by the Afghan National Security Forces without any direct outside funding from the U.S. government. This initiative had been planned for several months with US civil affairs officers acting in an advisory capacity; however, the initiative only took hold this past August when all military operations in the district became Afghan planned and led.
The influence of the Taliban on school curricula is as strong as ever, especially in remote districts such as Zormat, say teachers and U.S. Army officials.
In deed, U.S. forces picked up a typical Taliban curriculum during a visit to a local school recently. The syllabus emphasized the study of the Quran, history of the mujahedeen, Pashto, math and science.
Staff and teachers are still concerned with the physical safety of students, and will often deny intimidation by insurgents. In fact, in the heavily Taliban influenced areas such as Sahak and Khoti Kheyl, the staff at many schools will dismiss class and send students home when the Afghan National Security Force (ANSF) show up in the area, fearing a confrontation with Taliban forces might result in the children being caught in the middle.
Zormat, the southernmost district of Paktia Province, has served as a haven for the Taliban, which continue to exercise considerable influence in the district villages and schools. The infamous Taliban commander, Saifullah Rehman Mansoor, is reported to be hiding here and still widely admired by the local population. Zormat District is home to 25 secondary schools, 30 primary schools, and five madrassas, with a total of 18,000 male and 12,000 female students enrolled, according to the province director of education, Muhamed Ali.
In a short interview, Mr. Ali denies that the Taliban have any influence at all here: “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.”
Complicating the efforts of International Security Assistance Force troops and Afghans in charge of the program, villagers, however, tell a different story. They say that the Taliban tightly control the school curriculum and teachers through intimidation tactics.
Glimmer of hope?
Though the Village Outreach Program is still in its early stages, there is some evidence that the program may be working:
During an Afghan Army-led clearing mission in the village of Khotwi Khyl, the local pharmacist, Mohamed Anwir, said 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. Mr. Anwir said they decided that: “Afghanistan will need female doctors in the future. We will keep our girls in school.” The Taliban then threatened to come back and burn the school down, though they haven’t made good on that threat, yet.
Kazyat Mohamed is a 30-year-old math teacher in Kharachi Village. He says 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. Still, he insisted that he believes in the potential of the Kabul government and the outreach program and says things are better.
“Many more visits are planned under the leadership of the ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] and in collaboration with the district director of education, and we are confident that the program will continue to exist when the Americans depart,” says Police Chief Abdul Wahab.
Franz-Stefan Gady was embedded with Dog Company/3rd Battalion/509th Regiment (Airborne) in Paktia Province in the summer of 2012.