Lily Smith, Colorado College

Wednesday April 4, 2007

Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world. Three-fourths of the Afghan population over age 15 cannot read or write. Under the Taliban regime, girls were not allowed to attend school and boys were only allowed religious education. By the time the Taliban fell in 2001, the Afghan people had endured years of an inadequate education system that did not emphasize scholastic achievement or social responsibility. Its legacy is that most of the Afghan population lacks the skills necessary to perform non-agricultural jobs.

Once the Taliban were ousted in 2001, improving the educational system became a major priority of the United States and the Afghan people. At that time only about 775,000 children attended school. By late 2005 and early 2006, 5.2 million children were attending school. This was heralded as a tremendous success by the international community, but while this was a drastic improvement, an additional 7 million Afghan children still did not attend school. Since then the aid bubble that facilitated these improvements has popped, and school quality has declined. The relatively small aid budget has caused two main problems in Afghanistan. The first is that 90 percent of the educational aid was allocated for primary education only, leaving few options for students who finish primary school. And with relatively few resources, the quality of education available was relatively low. In Afghanistan in 2005, 200 primary school teachers were asked to take the same exams as their students. Only 10 passed.

The deterioration of security within Afghanistan is also a major issue: as Taliban attacks on schools increased, school attendance began to drop. As of March 2006, at least 100,000 children who had previously attended school no longer did because of Taliban-led threats and attacks on schools. Today the Taliban attack schools mostly because they feel that the curriculum has been influenced by what they see as a puppet government and foreign invaders. These attacks generally take the form of school burnings, teacher killings, and general threats. Currently these tactics are working in many areas; school enrollments are dropping and are expected to continue to fall even as refugees return. The decrease in enrollment is a concern because it most likely means that these children will be left without the skills to rise out of poverty. Their disaffection as a result of this could drive them toward the Taliban, especially if the United States and NATO forces continue to alienate the Afghan population through poppy eradication and other unpopular policies.

What is perhaps even more disturbing is that in January Taliban leaders announced they would begin opening Muslim religious schools, known as madrassas. Their reasoning for opening these schools is that the Taliban has had a difficult time gaining support in some regions because of their reputation for destroying everything without building anything. It is also the Taliban’s proclaimed wish to “prevent harm to the education of the children of the nation.” This is their first recent attempt to provide social services or show that they are a viable alternative government and not merely an insurgency. These schools are of concern to Afghan educational minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar and other officials in the Afghan government mainly because they feel that these schools will serve as training grounds for terrorists. The public reaction to the construction of these schools has been mixed. Some fear that if their children attend only Taliban schools they will become militants, but others feel that an Islamic education is more important than a secular one. However, what almost all Afghan parents have in common is that they want their children to be educated. Those who do not have the option of sending their children to state-run secular schools (because there are not any near them or because the risk is too high) may see Taliban schools as their only option. This could mean that the Taliban will again garner the support of the Afghan youth. After all, the Taliban began as a youth movement; in many ways their opening of schools is a return to their roots.

It may seem tempting in the face of increased violence and lawlessness to make educational reconstruction a secondary task. But if the Afghan people are not educated, they will not have the ability to remedy these problems. A renewed commitment to Afghan education on the part of the United States and the international community would improve the situation both by mitigating this disaffection and by giving Afghans the skills necessary to rebuild their country on their own terms.

Lily Smith is an intern in the National Security team at the Center for American Progress.