Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Afghan Textbooks Skip Decades of Violence
In a highly controversial move, Afghanistan’s education ministry has dealt with the complexities of the last four decades of turmoil and war by simply omitting the entire period from the new history textbooks it is issuing to schools.
Officials argue that the decision to pass over contentious events of recent history is an attempt to heal rifts in Afghan society and avoid further strife. But critics accuse the ministry of distorting history, and of protecting individuals implicated in past bloodshed, some of whom now hold senior posts.
Schoolchildren studying the books could be forgiven for thinking they were reading about another country.
Historians see the missing parts – from political machinations and Cold War intervention to the emergence of Islamist militias and all-out war – as the key to understanding modern Afghanistan.
There is no mention of the July 1973 coup led by Mohammad Daud Khan, nor of his death when he was overthrown by communist forces in 1978. Absent, too, are the 1979 Soviet invasion, the ensuing mujahedin war, the brutal civil conflict of the early 1990s, and the Taleban takeover which lasted until 2001. The United States-led invasion that year and a decade of conflict since then are also missing.
Education ministry spokesman Amanollah Iman told IWPR the aim was to emphasise the positive.
“Positive events of the last 40 years have been included, but negative, distressing exasperating ones have been avoided,” he said.
He acknowledged that the continuing political role of some of those involved in past conflicts was a factor in the decision to edit out recent history.
“It may be impossible to judge those events and incidents properly in the present situation,” he said.
Education Minister Faruq Wardak believes omitting all this history is the only way of healing divisions.
“Our recent history tears us apart,” Wardak said, according to the Washington Post. “We have created a curriculum based on older history that brings us together, with figures universally recognised as great. These are the first books in decades that are depoliticised and de-ethnicised.”
Iman said there been no pressure, either from Afghan politicians or from the international community, to censor out the past.
He suggested the decision was taken not by the ministry’s current staff, but back in 2003, when Mohammad Yunus Qanuni was education minister.
Qanuni, now a member of parliament, told IWPR that this was not the case, and that as minister he pushed for recent historical events to be included in schoolbooks.
“No such decision was made during my tenure,” he said. “We tried to incorporate the events of the past four decades into the educational curriculum.”
An education ministry staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told IWPR that President Hamid Karzai approved the omissions after consulting with government ministers and the former leaders of armed militias.
Hamed Elmi, a spokesman for Karzai, said the president was unaware of the issue.
“We are not aware that such a decision might have been made eight years ago,” he said. “The education ministry is free to make any decision on the curriculum.”
Whoever is responsible, historians say the books make a mockery of historical truth.
“Falsification is not allowed or acceptable in the history of Afghanistan,” Ahmad Zia Nekbin, a historian and lecturer at Kabul University, said, adding that the education officials had no right to carve up the past into “positive” and “negative” parts.
The Coalition for Change and Hope, a parliamentary opposition group, is against the omissions. Its spokesman Fazel Sancharaki warned that erasing parts of recent history would leave younger Afghans with a distorted understanding of their own
“Present Afghan generations will become divorced from their past,” he said. “That means future generations will think there was no government in Afghanistan during these four decades, and that no positive or negative developments occurred.”
The textbooks have also angered Afghans who lost relatives to violence and conflict, since the events in question had effectively been made to disappear.
University student Tamana lost two brothers during the civil war of the early Nineties.
“The events of the past must not be hidden away. There must be recognition of the enemies of the Afghan people. Those who hold power today must stand trial,” she said.
Journalist Atiqollah Bena said that in the current political situation, where many powerful figures had blood on their hands and a vested interest in covering up the truth, it was always going to be difficult to produce an objective account of the past.
“Those ones who fought one another, reduced this country to ruins, massacred the innocent and committed thousands of other crimes, are still in power, so they will try to falsify history,” he said. “It is better if we wait.”
Abdol Wahed Faramarz is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.
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