The Afghanistan Americans Seldom Notice
Unlike Bamiyan, which has almost no paved roads and no electricity, the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif stands out as a relative success story. Mazar was the first place the US and its Afghan allies from the Northern Alliance captured in the 2001 invasion. Some forty miles from the border of Uzbekistan, it is home to the Blue Mosque, the holiest shrine for Muslims in all of Afghanistan, where Hazrat Ali is said to be buried.
When I first traveled to Mazar in January 2002, only the mosque was lit at night, a comforting beacon of hope in the post-invasion darkness of a shattered city. The sole other source of luminosity: the headlights of the roaming Northern Alliance gunmen who policed the city in Toyota pick-ups packed with men armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers.
During the day, however, the city was brimming with hope and activity, just weeks after the Taliban fled. I met folk musicians like Agha Malang Kohistani performing songs on the street to mock the Taliban and classical musicians like Rahim Takhari playing in public for the first time in years, while weddings were graced with singers like Hassebullah Takdeer who sang classics like Beya Ka Borem Ba Mazar ("Let's Go to Mazar").
The Fatima Balkhi Girls School was among those that were opening their doors to students for the first time in years. Amid the rubble of bombed-out buildings at the Sultan Razya School, for instance, little girls flocked to classrooms with earthen floors and no chairs. They squeezed by the hundreds into tiny rooms, where lessons were sometimes chalked onto the backs of doors.
At Sultan Razya, I spoke to 14-year-old Alina, who bubbled with teenage excitement as she described her adventures studying secretly in teachers' houses during the Taliban era. "One day we went to class at eight o'clock, another day at ten o'clock, and another day four o'clock," she recalled.
Seven years later, I returned to find Mazar now well supplied with electricity (by the Uzbek government) and connected to the capital city of Kabul by a smooth, new, well-paved two-lane highway. Although there had been a couple of suicide bombings in the city, Mazar was almost as safe as Bamiyan. Residents who fled during Taliban rule to places like Tashkent had returned with hard currency to invest in local businesses. While it would be an overstatement to say that Mazar was flourishing, it's certainly decades ahead of Bamiyan in development terms.
I tracked down Alina--one of very few in her class to have continued her education--at Balkh University, where she was studying Islamic law. Now a little shy about talking to foreign journalists, she was still happy. "Things have completely changed in every part. All of the women and girl students are studying their lessons in computers and English, and they are happy," she told us.
I also revisited the Fatima Balkhi School, where the principal took us to meet a new generation of 14-year-olds who told us about their plans for the future. One wanted to be a banker, another dreamed of being a doctor, a third spoke of becoming an engineer. Earthen floors and makeshift chalk boards were a thing of the past. The Sultan Razya School had been completely rebuilt and the girls wore neat school uniforms, although teachers still complained of a lack of proper supplies.
Opportunities for girls were also expanding. Maramar, a 14-year-old Balkhi student, invited us to visit the local TV station where she hosted her own show. Astonished, I took her up on her offer and went to the RZU studios on the outskirts of town where I filmed her reading headlines--about the US elections!--on the afternoon news.
Indeed girls' education is one of the real success stories in Afghanistan, where one-third of the 6 million students in elementary and high schools are now female, probably the highest percentage in Afghan history. The education system, however, starts to skew ever more away from girls the higher you get. By the time high school ends, just a quarter of the students are girls. Only one in twenty Afghan girls makes it to high school in the first place and even fewer make it through.
The Return of the Taliban
Neither rural Bamiyan in central Afghanistan nor urban Mazar in the north has had to worry greatly about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the last few years. For one thing, as Hazaras, an ethnic minority descended from the army of Genghis Khan, most residents of Bamiyan are from Islam's Shia sect, while the Taliban, largely from southern Afghanistan, are Pashtun and Sunni. Indeed, when they ruled most of the country, the Taliban went so far as to brand the Hazara as non-Muslim.
Similarly, Mazar, which has a large Tajik and Uzbek population as well as some Hazara, but relatively few Pashtuns, has also been spared the influence of the Taliban. Unlike rugged and remote Bamiyan, it is situated in a well connected part of the country, close to Russia and the Central Asian republics. (The former Soviet Union used the city as a strategic military base in the early 1980s.)
Yet when one heads south to Kabul and toward the Pakistani border, a third Afghanistan is revealed. Twenty minutes from the center of Kabul, the Taliban control large swathes of the provinces of Logar and Wardak.
In the Pashtun-dominated southern city of Kandahar, the stories of attacks on girls' schools are already legend. In November 2008, while I was visiting Bamiyan and Mazar, three men on a motorcycle attacked a group of girls at the Mirwais School, built with funds from the Japanese government. Each carried containers of acid that they used to horrific effect, scarring eleven girls and four teachers. The Taliban have denied involvement, but most local residents assume the attackers were inspired by Taliban posters in local mosques that simply say: "Don't Let Your Daughters Go to School."
Last March, Taliban followers raided the Miyan Abdul Hakim School in Kandahar, which serves both boys and girls, making bonfires out of desks to burn the students' books. At another local school, a caretaker had his ears and nose cut off, and this was but one of dozens of attacks on such schools.
"Yes, there have been improvements in girls' education in Afghanistan. You can see it on the streets when the girls walk home from school in their uniforms, laughing with books in their hands. You can see it in the schools that have been built all over the country, in villages where they have never had schools before," Fariba Nawa, author of Afghanistan, Inc., told us.
"However, in the south there's a different story to be told," she added. "That's the story of girls being afraid to go to school, even the story of newly built schools being burned down, or teachers being beheaded for teaching in them. So it depends on what part of Afghanistan you go to, which story you want to tell."