Schools in peril

More than 100 schools have been set ablaze in recent months and dozens of others closed because of bombs and threats, according to the Afghan education ministry. Teachers have been killed and UNICEF claims that six children have died. Schools for girls have been hit particularly hard. The finger of blame is pointing at the Taliban.

The attacks are spreading from the south and south-eastern regions to all provinces and include one missile attack, 11 explosions, 50 school burnings and 37 threats against schools and communities, according to the UN agency. It says that in the four southern provinces alone more than 100,000 pupils are shut out of school. Human Rights Watch concurs, blaming the Taliban and allied groups for many, though not all, of the attacks. Also responsible, it believes, are local warlords trying to strengthen their control and criminal drug networks that target schools, in many areas the only symbol of Government authority.

Around 1.5 million girls were forbidden to attend school under Taliban rule but had flocked back to classrooms since its overthrow in March 2002. UNICEF estimates that 5.1 million Afghan children were back in school by December 2005.

Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a spokesman, rejected claims that the group is behind the school attacks, adding that it condemned the violence months ago. ‘We have denounced burning schools, but no-one is listening to us. All of the media is controlled by the West,’ he said in an interview with Institute for War and Peace. Yousuf also denied being under the influence of Pakistani religious groups or that country’s secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which many Afghans believe is masterminding the attacks.

Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, a political analyst, describes Pakistan as Afghanistan’s biggest enemy. ‘Pakistan cannot tolerate a strong Afghanistan. It tries to keep Afghans politically, economically, and militarily dependent on Pakistan; therefore it burns the schools and prevents the Afghans from accessing education.’

There are some within Pakistan itself who blame their Government. At a 28 June Press Conference in Kabul, Afrasiab Khattaq, head of Pakistan’s Human Rights Commission, accused his Government of directly interfering in Afghan affairs. ‘I have heard that the Pakistani Government has said the Americans are leaving Afghanistan and we [Pakistan] have to replace them.’

That’s a claim Pakistan denies, along with the accusations that it is somehow sponsoring the school attacks. ‘It is easy to blame [Pakistan] but proving it is very difficult. There are some people who want to destroy the friendly atmosphere between Afghanistan and Pakistan,’ said Naeem Khan of the Pakistani embassy in Kabul, adding that Islamabad has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, head of the Centre for Regional Studies, says that whoever is carrying out the attacks has chosen education for the simple reason it is crucial to Afghanistan’s future development. ‘Those who burn and destroy schools are in fact burning and destroying Afghanistan.’

*Hafizullah Gardesh* is the Institute for War and Peace editor in Afghanistan.

New Internationalist issue 394 magazine cover This article is from the October 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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