Afghan People

Why Maidan Wardak’s school problem is our problem, too

Maidan Wardak’s got a school problem. They’re not the only ones.

The only helicopter mom in Afghanistan actually flew a helicopter in the Afghan Air Force and brought her five year old daughter to work with her every day. Because in Afghanistan the moms are more worried about their kid not getting killed at recess because the Afghan Army are using their school as a fort. Assuming, of course, the Taliban haven’t burned it to the ground or the school even existed in the first place.

A group of school girls turn their heads away from a gust of wind and sand during their class at the Bamyan Regional High School June 18, 2012. Teachers are forced to conduct classes outside for lack of electricity and lighting inside the building. Bamyan province has more than 120,000 children enrolled in school, nearly half of which are girls.

Maidan Wardak’s school problem

Maidan Wardak’s long been a troubled Afghan province. It’s a security risk for nearly everyone who’s not Taliban to drive there, and now Wardak’s kids are having trouble getting to school.

Children are being denied access to education in the central Afghanistan province of Maidan Wardak by a combination of conflict, poverty and conservative tradition, according to speakers at an IWPR event in the provincial capital Maidan Shahr. (IWPR/ReliefWeb)

Wardak’s students? Not alone, at all, because there’s a few problems facing Afghan kids just trying to get their learn on. And those problems start with the government.

Afghan military thinks that schools make cools forts

The use of schools by the Afghan Army and the insurgency is one reason schools aren’t open. And this has been a problem UNAMA has noted, because the “A” doesn’t mean “Assistance” so much as “Almost Angry Letter”. In 2016, UNAMA had this to say about the military use of schools:

Of particular concern, UNAMA documented the military use of 18 schools during the first half of 2016 for periods variedly ranging between days and months – 15 schools used by Afghan security forces and three by Anti-Government Elements. For example, from the end of January 2016 through April 2016, the ANA occupied four schools – including one primary school, one secondary school, and two high schools in the Dand-e-Ghori area of Pul-i-Khumri district, Baghlan province, impeding 3,500 students, including 200 girls, from access to education and 250 teachers, including 50 women, from exercising their right to work.

And it’s not just the Afghan military that’s taking over places of learning. The Taliban, for all the hate in their hearts for education, sure do like them some schools.

The Taliban, too, have used schools in Baghlan as bases. For example, a Swedish government-financed school in Omarkhail opened its doors in 2015 to 350 boys and girls. Soon afterward, Taliban fighters came to occupy the school, and were unwilling to leave when asked by village elders. In early 2016, government forces attacked the Taliban forces based at the school, raking the building with gunfire and mortar rounds. The Taliban fled, but the school compound was left in ruins less than a year after it had opened.

The reason both sides use schools? They’re usually the best-built building in town, thanks to the billions in aid dollars that have been pumped into the graveyard of projects of a reasonable scale. Even though watchdogs and journalists have all decried how well some of those schools are built, they’re usually good enough to use as a base.

Or a fort.

I like “fort” better because when you were stacking couch cushions in your living room, you made forts. And the whole thing feels whimsical and pointless and near-sighted.

So they have forts, not bases.

Schools closed due to security

And if the Taliban or the Afghan Army aren’t fighting over a school, fighting in the area may still make it hard for kids to attend. Like the Associated Press reported in April of 2016, schools get closed for security reasons. And intimidation by the Taliban. Which is, well, a security problem.

Sometimes the cause is fighting, sometimes it’s intimidation from the Taliban.

Sometimes it’s both, as in the case of the Loy Manda high school in southern Helmand province, part of the Taliban heartland. When the Taliban waged an offensive last winter, the school in the Nad Ali district was caught in the fighting between the militants and Afghan government forces.

“We had six rooms, books, chairs, but now everything is destroyed,” said Hekmatallah, the headmaster, who like some Afghans goes by one name.

He’s working toward reopening, but he had to get permission from the Taliban or else face their retaliation. They said they would allow it, if only boys attend — no girls — and if they are only taught a curriculum meeting the Taliban’s hard-line version of Islam. Taliban mines from the time of the fighting still surround the school, and government forces are stationed just 40 yards (meters) from the school — a potential target for extremist attack.

Sure, the Afghan military isn’t in the school itself, but they’re 40 yards away. Which isn’t exactly what we’d term “stand off” range if/when the VBIED aimed at Afghan troops goes off and school happens to be open that day.

Schools don’t exist at all

Then there’s the issue of schools not being where they’re supposed to be. A BuzzFeed investigation in 2015 found a lot of problems with schools they visited.

The American effort to educate Afghanistan’s children was hollowed out by corruption and by short-term political and military goals that, time and again, took precedence over building a viable school system. And the U.S. government has known for years that it has been peddling hype.

And it gets worse:

At least a tenth of the schools BuzzFeed News visited no longer exist, are not operating, or were never built in the first place. “While regrettable,” USAID said in response, “it is hardly surprising to find the occasional shuttered schools in war zones.”

At the schools that were still running, BuzzFeed News found far fewer students than were officially recorded as enrolled. Girls, whom the U.S. particularly wanted to draw into formal schooling, were overcounted in official records by about 40%.

USAID program reports obtained by BuzzFeed News indicate the agency knew as far back as 2006 that enrollment figures were inflated, but American officials continued to cite them to Congress and the American public.

Not only did the schools not exist, but the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had no idea that they didn’t exist. And since they were taking enrollment figures from the Afghan government and not checking on shit themselves, well, you get a perfect storm of ghost schools happening.

Pop quiz, hotshot: How do we fix it?

I’m pretty damn good at this point at pointing out what’s broken here. Not a lot of big brain power to do that. And everyone knows that schools in Afghanistan are in trouble. The question is, what do we do about it now?

Take away money from the AAF

Tough sell, but if you’re not happy with Afghan forces taking over a school for its next fort, start canceling some checks. Big checks, too. Because until we add a stick to any of this, nothing changes.

Afghanize school inspections

Something I advocated for in 2015 is hiring more Afghan staff by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) to check on things like schools. Which isn’t as sexy, but will get more done.

For about the same cost of a single site visit, you could pay an Afghan with a graduate degree for a year to do the exact same thing. There was a time when that was nearly impossible, since it relied on too many human inputs in the process. In 2015, that’s not the case, thanks to all things Android.

This works because Afghans are checking on Afghan work on Afghan schools. It’s more than a cost issue, it’s an ownership equation. They’ve got skin in the game: let them figure it out.

Deal with the Taliban on education

At some point we’re going to have to bow to some Taliban demands. From the IWPR report above, Taliban interference in education is a constant problem for kids in schools. Especially girls.

“The Taleban also interfere in the affairs of boys’ schools and don’t permit the teachers to teach modern or social subjects.”

Rahman disputed this, adding, “The Taleban don’t have a special school curriculum. They have ordered that a subject called Islamic Teaching must be taught at schools, but the governmental curriculum is more advanced, modern and improved.”

That’s not unreasonable: add Islamic instruction to your core curriculum, and kids get the other classes and get to attend something that isn’t a burned out shell. Feels like a win-win. So long as the Taliban control the countryside (and they will for the foreseeable future) making these kinds of local compromises are better for everyone in the long run.

Why are we still caring about Afghan schools?

Because education is the key to making a different world. Kids who learn stuff are less likely to want to blow up stuff. Doesn’t mean you stop all of them, but if you can get a few boys to understand that beating your wife is bad, maybe things get better.

If you can convince a few girls that they don’t have to get married at 14, you end up with a better country.

A solid education is good for the people, good for the country, and good for the residents of Donorland who keep writing the checks. A country that’s moving forward thanks to its people being better educated is a country that needs less help. So yeah, we should give a shit about what’s happening in Maidan Wardak.