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      The New Era of War & Occupation
      The Failure of Education in Afghanistan

      By Nita Palmer

      October 7th 2015 marks fourteen years since the United States invaded Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in the longest war in US and Canadian history. From the beginning the war has been mired in controversy - from torture to corruption to bombing and shooting of unarmed civilians, many have questioned how much good foreign forces are doing in Afghanistan. But through all of this, the education of young Afghans has remained one of the so-called ‘bright spots’ in the controversial war. Even during the worst fighting, promising reports came of new schools built, accompanied by pictures of soldiers standing alongside Afghan children, smiling proudly in front of their new school.

      Afghan Education: Myth vs. Reality

      The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) claims that the number of students attending school in Afghanistan has increased from 900,000 in 2002 to 8 million today, including 2.5 million girls. Certainly these figures sound promising - except that they are completely inaccurate. An investigation by BuzzFeed news earlier this year spot checked USAID-funded schools in Afghanistan, and found that one in ten of the schools were “closed, not operating, or were never built in the first place”. And at the schools that were still operating, they found “far fewer students than were officially recorded as enrolled... Girls, whom the US particularly wanted to draw into formal schooling, were overcounted in official records by about 40%”.

      In parts of Afghanistan where military operation against the Taliban has been the most intense, BuzzFeed News found that the number of schools not functioning was even higher: “In Kandahar province... a full third of the 423 schools the Ministry of Education publicly reported as open in 2011 were not functioning, and in Helmand, it was more than half.” In Zabul, as many as three quarters of the schools were not functioning.

      US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko has also noted that “the [Afghan Ministry of Education] counts absent students as ‘enrolled’ for up to three years before dropping them from the rolls”. Of the 8.35 million students that the Ministry claims are enrolled, 1.55 million are ‘absent’. Even these numbers could be overly optimistic, as there is no outside verification of the numbers. John Sopko told those attending his May 5 presentation at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York that “I can report that a ranking USAID official in Afghanistan has told us that the number of students actually attending Afghan schools may be on the order of four million, not the eight million widely reported as enrolled. This lower number has been confirmed by a number of Afghan civil society organizations also.” But even this number - more than fifty percent less than official counts - does not necessarily reflect students attending full-time. Even those who currently attend school are often forced to come late or miss classes because they need to work to feed their families.

      Even for students who attend classes regularly, the quality of education is questionable. A 2011 report by the Afghan Ministry of Education stated that 68% of teachers “did not meet standard qualifications for trained professional teachers (grade 14 graduate of Teacher Education Colleges (TTC), or their qualification is lower than 12th grade.” In fact, it is questionable whether all teachers are even literate themselves. As well, schools often lack enough books for the students, or students cannot afford books and supplies. Some ‘schools’ do not have buildings or even tents for the students, but instead are held in open air. In this situation, how could students attend school through Afghanistan’s long, cold winters?

      Even when there are buildings, they are often in shambles. BuzzFeed News reported that the “overwhelming majority of the more than 50 US-funded schools it visited resemble abandoned buildings — marred by collapsing roofs, shattered glass, boarded-up windows, protruding electrical wires, decaying doors, or other structural defects. At least a quarter of the schools BuzzFeed News visited do not have running water.” A report by the SIGAR office found many of the same concerns. Even those fortunate enough to attend a school with qualified teachers in an actual building do not receive the same level of education we would see in most countries, including Afghanistan’s neighbours. School days are about three hours, and the curriculum varies widely - Dari or Pashto, English, math and science are taught in some schools, while others only teach basic literacy and religious subjects.

      Girls Losing Out

      For girls and young women - who the US and NATO claimed they were in Afghanistan to ‘liberate’ - education has in fact improved very little. As noted earlier, girls are overcounted by about 40% in schools. While the lack of girls in school is often blamed on Afghanistan’s social conservatism, the reality is that there are often simply no schools for them to attend. Many Afghan girls and young women would love to grow up to be doctors or teachers, writers or scientists - but without access to even basic primary education, these dreams will not become reality.

      Although conservative families do prevent some Afghan girls from going to school, there are many practical and safety concerns as well. Girls attending school have been the victims of numerous poisonings and acid attacks by those who do not believe they should receive an education, making many parents justifiably nervous to send them. As well, the lack of female educators is a major problem. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, “there are no qualified female teachers in 230 districts out of 412 rural and urban districts. As a result, retention and continuation of girls’ education in secondary grades are affected. There are no girls in upper secondary grades in 159 districts”.

      A Corrupt System

      USAID alone has spent $850 million on Afghan education; the government of Canada has spent $227 million. Yet it seems as though much of these aid dollars are going nowhere - or, more accurately, are funding corruption rather than education. Massively overpriced school construction projects often go to warlords or corrupt ‘aid’ organizations. These schools are typically poorly constructed, or in some cases, never built but still paid for.

      In a study of the state of education in Ghor province, the Afghan Analysts Network found that salaries were often paid to absentee teachers, or were withheld from the teachers and collected by officials in the Ministry of Education or local warlords. A 2005- 2006 internal audit by Afghan Ministry of Education found that at least $12 million in salaries were going to ‘ghost teachers’ annually. Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission provincial director Jawad Reza’i has noted that in some areas of the country the education system exists on paper only: there are “no classes, no professionally trained teachers – and by the end of each year, fake results of schools exams are being submitted in order to pretend the schools are functioning and to keep the salaries flowing.”

      Education in Afghanistan Before the US Invasion

      As people living in Canada or the US, we would never accept this poor excuse for education for our own children. Why, then, would we accept it for Afghan kids? Perhaps it is because we have accepted that it is better than nothing, or at least better than what Afghans had before. But yet again, this argument is completely false! In fact, only a generation ago, Afghanistan was making major improvements to its education system. Although educational institutions were still lacking in the country’s rural areas, progress was being made and widespread literacy programs had been established. And women were well-represented in schools as well - at the time, 40% of Kabul’s doctors and 50% of its’ university students were women.

      The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 and the civil war that followed crumbled the country’s education system. With a lack of formal schooling, many children began to attend religious schools - often funded by the United States.

      The Washington Post reported in 2002 that “In the twilight of the Cold War, the United States spent millions of dollars to supply Afghan schoolchildren with textbooks filled with violent images and militant Islamic teachings, part of covert attempts to spur resistance to the Soviet occupation.

      The primers, which were filled with talk of jihad and featured drawings of guns, bullets, soldiers and mines, have served since then as the Afghan school system’s core curriculum. Even the Taliban used the American- produced books...”

      In 2014, the Washington post gave more specific examples of the kind of books being supplied by the US to ‘educate’ Afghan children at the time:
      “Printed both in Pashto and Dari, Afghanistan’s two major languages, books such as “The Alphabet for Jihad Literacy” were produced under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development by the University of Nebraska at Omaha and smuggled into Afghanistan through networks built by the CIA and Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, the ISI.”

      Many of the children educated under this curriculum grew up to be fighters with the Taliban, which took power in Afghanistan in 1996. Under the Taliban, education was strictly curtailed, especially for girls. However, even in these dark days for Afghan education, it was not quite as bad in practical terms as the numbers that are frequently cited by the media and government agencies show. Although only about a million students were officially enrolled in school, others were educated through informal home schools and schools run by certain aid organizations. Even girls’ schools were tolerated to a certain extent by the Taliban, although not officially accepted. This is not to say that education in Afghanistan was in a good state at the time; however, the official numbers used to show how much education has improved under the US/NATO occupation are certainly not accurate.

      End the Occupation! This month, the occupation of Afghanistan will begin its fifteenth year. Tens of thousands of lives have been lost in this war - and for what? When the US first invaded Afghanistan, they claimed that foreign intervention would improve human and womens’ rights, education, and democracy. Today, none of the stated main objectives of this war have been achieved. In terms of education, little if any progress has been made. The schools we see being proudly opened in news reports are often shuttered within months. Those that remain open often provide substandard education. Other factors such as poverty, unemployment and a lack of security - many of them worsened by the US/NATO presence in the country - prevent millions of children from attending school.

      In practical terms, education in Afghanistan today is little better than it was under the Taliban - and certainly far worse than it was before the country was torn apart by three decades of war and occupation.

      Over the last fourteen years, the US and NATO have proven that they are incapable of bringing any kind of positive change to Afghanistan - the education system is just one example. The presence of foreign troops in the country is only fuelling corruption and violence. Foreign armies and aid agencies - including Canada’s - seem content with showing off a few schools built and reporting completely inaccurate facts about the state of education in the country.

      In light of their utter failure to improve the lives of Afghans over the past fourteen years, the US must pull all its troops and contractors out of the country immediately, as should countries such as Canada which have military or police remaining in the country in a so-called ‘advisory’ capacity. For centuries, Afghans have built their own country, raising it up time and again out of the destruction of foreign occupation. They will once again. It will not be easy, but it is the only way forward out of the quagmire of destruction and corruption which foreign forces have brought.

      Those of us in Canada - and around the world for that matter - must continue to call for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan. Our duty to stand with the Afghan people against this atrocity did not end when Canadian troops left the country, and it will not end until the last foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

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