Foreign Policy Blogs

Take a Bite out of Terror: Battling the Taliban’s Influence in Schools

Combat Outpost Zormat, Paktia Province

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.

Taliban influence

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.

  • Kathryn J.

    I think it is wonderful that the Village Outreach Program has become independent of the US and is starting to assert its influence in Afghanistan. I think that the most important legacy that the US can leave behind in Afghanistan is education for all children because it may prevent similar conflicts in the future. Those that are educated justly are less likely to become part of radical terrorist groups. I think that the US should continue to aid Afghanistan on its education front in terms of money because the Afghan government is not in a place to fund it by itself right now. Money for education is something that I think would be well spent and would be long influential after our actual troops leave Afghanistan. It is truly a shame that the Taliban still has so much influence in certain regions of the country. These children deserve to be educated and with so much at stake in terms of Taliban violence, they cannot get that education. I truly hope that the efforts by the Afghan government to secure education for children (especially girls) will be successful, and I commend those, like the brave teachers, who literally put their lives at risk to give their country what it needs: an educated future generation.

  • Jack Poulton

    Afghan schools are caught in a pretty vicious cycle right now. While the country has now consciously recognized the importance of educating the next generations of Afghanis, they are at a total loss for funds essential to the continuation of new education programs. The current generations are supposed to lead the country to economic prosperity, but their very own education is jeopardized due to a sheer lack of money. In addition to that, schools are becoming increasingly responsible for dissuading the expansion of the Taliban into the up and coming younger generations, but the schools are constantly threatened with closing or destruction by the Taliban. While this seems somewhat dismal, it is an indication of the enormous strides the country has made since the US first entered a decade ago. Education is obviously becoming more and more of a priority, and its valued much higher than in recent years, but its ranking on the country’s priority list will mean nothing if the threat of the Taliban or lack of investments destroy what has grown to be a hopeful sign of a developing, educated Afghanistan.

    This dilemma might actually be the best avenue aid to step in. With one of the two biggest problems being financial, it would be relatively un-confrontational for a world leader (the US) to intervene and offer their support without necessarily having to make any enemies. That being said though, Afghanistan should be focused on self-sufficiency and being able to support themselves as a developed country once more powerful countries eventually (inevitably) cut funding. So, for the time being, Afghanistan is sort of in a jam, they’re showing signs of moving in the right direction, but two obvious hurdles remain in the way of their development. If they can find a way to galvanize investments in education, the mere growth of the country’s educational program should debase Taliban threats against schools, but the current stagnation (economically) is proving to be a problem. Hopefully they can find ways around these problems soon, seeing as now that they’re a somewhat respectable developing country, they deserve to have a growing educational system to sustain their promising growth.

  • MattIsh123

    I believe that the Taliban’s influence in schools is a direct result of their fear of political awakening. For so long, ordinary people have been subjects of the Taliban’s strict, traditional practices and the Taliban fears that with a proper education, these people, male or female, will become aware of their subjugation and subsequently stir up demands for more freedom. With the Taliban maintaining a big influence in schools, Pakistan and Afghanistan will remain backwards nations. As in most revolutions, change is solicited by the youthful population and if Pakistan and Afghanistan’s young people remain under the spell of the Taliban, forward progress will not be made and the two countries will still have large issues.

    As we have seen lately, especially with the case of Malala Yousefzai, activism for educational demands has been on the rise and it is unlikely that these requests will fade. If the Taliban wishes to garner the support of their people, they will have to make some reforms, and education could be a start. Having said that, it is unlikely that the Taliban is willing to make such changes and I believe this will result in continuing conflict an bloodshed in the region.

  • Katherine L

    I agree with Matt that the Taliban’s influence is a result of their fear of political awakening. If they can control the thoughts of the younger generations through the education system, they have a better chance of maintaining the same symbol of fear and control they signify now. I firmly believe that the type of schooling one receives plays an enormous role in the type of human they become. One can only grow so much in knowledge and understanding when they are confined within their own minds with no opportunity to throw their ideas out to others.Not only that, but nations with fair education systems are rated with the highest human happiness and fulfillment, especially in regards to increasing women’s rights in the education system.
    The only way to not let the Taliban influence the school systems in Afghanistan is to ignore their threats and hope that the students graduate and start to make a difference faster than the Taliban can control. The quicker knowledge spreads, the quicker the Taliban will lose its pull in Afghanistan. The issue is many of their threats are not empty and have resulted in violence and terror. Stepping up to a terrorist group is not only horrifyingly dangerous, but in a sense, stupid. one school on it’s own can’t change the entire system of education. This is why I also think the U.S. should be putting our money towards protection for these schools, rather than sending our troops out with the intent to kill. Protecting is a much more admirable and worthy job and, in this case, would do much more good. I don’t think we should remain involved for long, though, so after some time we should continue to pull out and let them develop in to a healthy, independent nation.

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