Putting Schools in the Line of Fire in Afghanistan

Posted on 12 September 2009 by


Two previous posts on this site described and analyzed the extent to which Western-built schools are made to form part of the war zone, a new front line in the US/NATO counterinsurgency campaign against the Taliban (see here and here). While it is nothing new to observe that Western schools in occupied territories always perform a colonizing function, it is something qualitatively different and very disturbing to see the conscious and deliberate ways that schools are mobilized such that they become inevitable targets. They are intended to be targets, especially to the extent that counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is about manipulating local distinctions and turning them into antagonistic divisions, laying the fault lines through every aspect of local society to keep it unstable and at war with itself, thereby weakening opposition to NATO.

The current government of Afghanistan cynically manipulated schools for the electoral process, knowing that the Taliban would attack polling centres, and the Ministry of Education itself downplayed the attacks. According to Ajmal Samadi, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Rights Monitor, an independent human rights organization, the Ministry of Education went as far as “arrogantly declaring it is prepared to make even ‘more and bigger’ sacrifices in order to support democracy.” (Of course by “it” the Ministry means that it is prepared to sacrifice others, not to make any such sacrifices itself.) The ARM and several other NGOs warned the government not to politicize schools and make them a part of the war, and yet more than 2,700 polling stations were set up in schools. As a result, 26 schools were struck with rockets and other gun fire on election day. ARM has pleaded that “schools must be treated as apolitical, civilian structures that exclusively serve the interests of the communities where they are located.”

Linking schools to the foreign military occupation and placing them on one side of the war is also a danger to those schools and the children attending them, ARM argues: “the common practice of students flag-waving and singing to greet every visiting government and/or international delegation must be stopped.” Other “extremely provocative and counterproductive” practices noted by ARM, are the hanging of portraits of Hamid Karzai in schools, and “painting donor logos or flags” on the exterior of schools. ARM argues that,

The Afghan government and international security forces must stop the practice of distributing stationary items and school supplies. Schools must be – and be seen to be – neutral places of learning, rather than showplaces of government policy successes.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hands out notebooks at the opening of the Pushghar Village Girls School, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, July 15, 2009. The school located in a remote valley 60 miles north of the capitol Kabul was built by "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Photos: JCS at http://www.jcs.mil/photoessay.aspx?ID=56

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff hands out notebooks at the opening of the Pushghar Village Girls School, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan, July 15, 2009. The school located in a remote valley 60 miles north of the capitol Kabul was built by "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson to promote and support community-based education, especially for girls, in remote regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Photos: JCS at http://www.jcs.mil/photoessay.aspx?ID=56

In a legally (and morally) questionable piece of military propaganda directed at a home audience, U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Rex Temple writes:

Then it was as if a light came on. The Taliban do not want people educated, especially the female population. An educated person might rebut their ideology and disagree with the direction of the local mullah or cleric….So perhaps one of the answers to winning this war is to educate the people, especially the children, because they are the future of Afghanistan….For them, just owning a notebook and a pen is a really big deal. That’s why they mob us when we hand out these supplies.

(The article by Temple, a preposterous piece with an almost certainly fabricated sermon by a mere eight-year-old boy who shows Temple the path to truth, with the only thing missing being the melodious strains of a Hollywood studio orchestra, is part of a sales pitch: Temple and his wife, Liisa Hyvarinen Temple, are missionaries, both of whom  “have teamed up with a Florida nonprofit to send school supplies to Afghanistan this fall.” Ironic choices here, given the dilapidated and woefully neglected state of inner city schools in the U.S.)

Elsewhere Ajmal Samadi has argued that, “it is a key, undeniable fact that illiteracy and ignorance are the oxygen that fuels the insurgency.” This is one of his weaker assertions that does not seem to be supported by actual facts more than common beliefs about the “liberal” benefits of education. On the other hand, read in a different light, it is an indirect reaffirmation of the colonizing roles of schools. There is considerable ambiguity in some of Samadi’s positions on the role of schools in society, which is not his fault, he has inherited this baggage.

What one needs to contend is that there is also considerable ambiguity regarding the position of the Taliban vis-à-vis schooling, one that far too infrequently gets attention, with commentaries regularly monopolized by simplistic, demonizing stereotypes.

First, some schools do stay open because of the Taliban, as reported here. Second, to suggest that there is an antimony between schooling and the Taliban (“the students”) who themselves emerged from schools (as explained on this blog by my colleague), is a blazing contradiction. Third, there are nothing other than entirely subjective notions about what constitutes “ignorance” — the way that Samadi uses the term here evokes common ways the term is used, which usually say little more than, “if you don’t think like me, it’s because you’re ignorant.” Why literacy must be anti-insurgent is also not just unproven, but even illogical, and contradicted by the very fact of the Taliban’s existence.

And now for the “clincher”: far from being “$10 Taliban” who are unschooled, ignorant, and illiterate, the BBC reports that many “weekend jihadis” are in fact government-employed civil servants who are educated:

In the villages of Afghanistan, many young men are working for the government during the week, but fighting for the Taliban at weekends.

“We don’t get paid,” says Gul Mohammad.

“It’s voluntary – all for the sake of God. We even buy fuel for the operations ourselves. And our own ammunition and bullets.”

He is educated, in his 20s, married with children and, during the week, he works in a government office.

“At the same time, I work for the Islamic Emirate (the name the Taliban use for their regime in Afghanistan). I’ve been fighting for the Taliban for about two years.”…

“The people are helping us from the bottom of their hearts. During the fighting, they give us food. They help us with economic and technical problems.”

He says he will keep fighting during his spare time until the foreigners leave.

“We will win – not because of planes and soldiers, but by the will of God.”

Therefore one cannot make an argument that mere schooling as such, in and of itself, is essentially anti-Taliban and will win the war in the long term. The fact of the matter is instead that Western-built and Western-financed schools are intended to achieve that target in the medium term, and intended to draw the fire of the Taliban so that NATO spokesmen and military bloggers can howl in protest to their home audiences about the “evil” Taliban, meanwhile continuing to use Afghanistan’s school children as battle bait.

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