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Afghan Schools in Peril

Thousands are shut out of school following a rise in missile and arson attacks.
By Hafizullah Gardesh
Extremists are increasingly targeting schools in Afghanistan, threatening the education of thousands of children who only recently returned to the classroom following the fall of the Taleban.

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 attacks are spreading from the south and southeastern 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 because of closures.

Human Rights Watch concurs, saying it found entire districts where attacks had closed all schools and driven out teachers and NGOs. It cited 204 documented incidents against teachers, students and schools since January 2005, saying there have been more attacks in the first six months of 2006 than in all of the previous year.

It blames the Taleban and allied groups for many, though not all, of the attacks. Also responsible, its says, are local warlords trying to strengthen their control and criminal drug networks which target schools, because in many areas they are the only symbol of government authority.

Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Sediq Patman, however, lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Taleban.

"It is clear that the Taleban are involved in arson attacks on schools," he said. "We have information that Taleban in some provinces have told the teachers not to teach in schools, and that they will pay them the salaries in their homes."

Around 1.5 million girls were forbidden from attending school under the Taleban rule but had flocked back to the classroom since their overthrow in March 2002. UNICEF estimates that 5.1 million Afghan children were back in school by December 2005.

Qari Mohammad Yousuf, a Taleban spokesman, rejected claims that the group is behind the school attacks, adding 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 IWPR.

He has two theories on who is responsible: school officials disguising their thefts from the schools by burning them down; and the government itself which, he said, is attempting to defame the Taleban.

Yousuf also denied being under the influence of Pakistani religious groups or the country's secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI, whom many Afghans believe is masterminding the attacks.

"Pakistan's ISI are against education in Afghanistan, particularly in the Pashtun areas. They do not want Afghans to be well educated because Afghans having an education is not in Pakistan's interests," said political analyst Habibullah Rafi.

Mohammad Hassan Wolesmal, also 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," he said.

There are some within Pakistan itself who blame their government.

Addressing a press conference in Kabul on June 28, Afrasiab Khattaq, who heads the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, accused his government of directly interfering in Afghanistan's affairs.

"I have heard that the Pakistani government has said the Americans are leaving Afghanistan and we [Pakistan] have to replace them," he said.

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," Naeem Khan, a press officer at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul told IWPR, adding that Islamabad has played a major role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.

"Those who burn schools and conduct other destructive acts in Afghanistan and detonate bombs in Pakistan are terrorists, and these people are the enemies of both countries," he said.

This isn't the first time Afghanistan's education system has faced violent threats. Attacks on schools and teachers were also commonplace during the mujahedin's war against the Russians. Then, fighters argued that schools were communist training grounds and teachers were delivering enemy propaganda.

Some Afghans also claim there was a Pakistan connection with the mujahedin-era school attacks.

A former Jihadi commander claimed he went to Pakistan during those days and spoke to an ISI officer who showed him a map and told him to burn a school in Kabul's Saroobi district and destroy the local dam.

"I discussed the issue with my jihadi colleagues," he said. "They all said we were engaged in a jihad against the Russians and communists, but not against schools or hydroelectric dams. We disobeyed this order from Pakistan."

Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, head of the Centre for Regional Studies, points the finger at neither the Pakistanis nor the Taleban for the present day violence. He said 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," he said.

Zaki, a religious scholar in Kabul, added that bringing and maintaining security is the duty of every Muslim. He said that destroying schools and creating an atmosphere of terror and horror is against Islam.

"The real Muslim is one who does not hurt other Muslims," he said, quoting the Prophet Mohammad.

Hafizullah Gardesh is IWPR's editor in Afghanistan.

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