Document Dump: The Battle for the Schools

Time to get back into the regular blogging habit with a review of a new paper from Antonio Giustozzi, one of the most consistently interesting scholars of contemporary Afghanistan — particularly in the context of state formation and insurgency. (I have not yet read his latest book on this, but his Taliban anthologies are must-reads and Empires of Mud was a provocative look at how ‘warlords’ in Afghanistan have formed proto-states in the absence of strong central governments.) If you’re just joining, more articles in the Document Dump series can be found here.

Document: The Battle for the Schools: The Taliban and State Education
Author: Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, Afghan Analysts Network
Published: December 13, 2011
Source: Published by the Afghan Analysts Network on their website here. I’ve also uploaded a copy in my Scribd library.

Key Content: Most popular international coverage of Afghanistan’s education system focuses on its limited reach and the low level of human capital development in Afghanistan, as well as the threats of insurgent violence faced by students and teachers attending state-run schools (particularly women and girls). Although I was raised by a pair of humanities-academic parents to view education as a basic right as well as a means to better myself and the world around me, public education is also a highly politically charged activity which has the potential to drastically upset existing hierarchies of power and bring the national state down to the level of the family unit in a way few other public services do.

In this work with co-author Franco and in a previous paper published by AAN in May 2010 (Nation-Building Is Not for All: The Politics of Education in Afghanistan), Giustozzi explores the complex process of introducing nationally-sponsored, generally secular educational institutions into local communities. Successive Afghan central governments have swung back and forth on the degree to which they have actively sought to utilize the school system as a means of national civic indoctrination and political mobilization, but it has always been controversial — much as the debate over federal versus state control over education continues to be polarizing here in the United States. The difference being that in Afghanistan, there’s no monopoly of force on the part of the national government to stop that rivalry from turning violent.

“Schools became the main administrative presence of the state beyond the administrative district centers,” Giustozzi writes in Nation Building is Not For All (on pg 3), and “in the early years of the state education roll out to the provinces, many villagers feared that the state was, in a way, acquiring the ownership of their children. In a sense … they were right.” While objections are often framed in cultural, ideological or religious terms, the religious elite who operate madrassahs and other private scholastic rivals to state schools also happen to have a direct financial and political stake in retaining a monopoly over local educational options (and the associated prestige and political/social networks). Equally divisive in a country as politically and ethnically fragmented as Afghanistan are state-developed textbooks’ attempts to define a national language and identity, which has been the cause of more than a few civil wars around the world. State-run schools have not surprisingly faced varying degrees of opposition from existing conservative political and religious institutions who risk displacement by the new educated class — most vociferously from Islamist political and religious leaders in the early 1980s in reaction to the highly ideological reforms of the leftist and Communist governments. Giustozzi notes that the Khalq faction of the Afghan Communist Party had its organizational roots in the state schools, and members of the academia were active participants — and often victims — of 1980s-era conflict.

The focus of The Battle for the Schools is the post-2001 Afghan education system and particularly how the Taliban have reacted to it. Giustozzi’s assessment of the Karzai government’s education system in Nation Building is Not For All found it too top-down and inflexible to account for the interests of local communities, but also too weak to actually mobilize a constituency with national rather than local political loyalties that could effectively counter the influence of existing community elites. (This could be said for much of the rest of the post-2001 Afghan state-building project as well.) As early as 2002, attacks resumed on public schools, although Giustozzi and Franco view local militia and religious leaders as more likely culprits than a reconstituted Taliban at that point in time; still, in its first major codification of its rules for Taliban fighters (published in 2006), the Taliban leadership-in-exile endorsed attacks on state education institutions that failed to follow their rules, and violence spiked. But while they frame it in religious terms, in interviews (on pages 5-7 of the paper), Taliban fighters and field commanders appear to object to state schools and see them as a target for attack primarily because they view them as outlets for the state (and international) political influence that they are seeking to challenge — not out of opposition to the idea of education per se. (Although secular women’s education does appear to be a point of general ideological objection, which can conveniently be used to de-legitimize their state/international rival as un-Islamic.)

Given that many local communities in post-2001 Afghanistan — even areas previously controlled by the Taliban — actually welcomed the opportunity offered by some form of education, the strategy of directly attacking state schools and the accompanying casualties among teachers and students did not endear the insurgency to the local population and instead provoked something of a backlash. The Taliban were also at this point reentering areas where they had not traditionally maintained a strong base of political support, and needed to present themselves as a legitimate rival government to the Karzai administration. In response, the Taliban have adapted and refocused since early 2007 on coopting (through a mix of coercion and negotiation) state-run schools, as well as establishing their own network of private religiously-oriented schools.

Taliban negotiations with the Ministry of Education at the national level over a revision of the state curriculum, which had begun at least by 2007, do not appear to have been initially successful; the U.S. is also said to have objected to any such talks. Provincial and local-level agreements appear to have been struck more widely, however, allowing schools to stay open or reopen without risk of attack in exchange for the removal of teachers that the Taliban objected to. By 2010-2011, Giustozzi and Franco report that these local deals appear to have culminated in a national-level tacit agreement with the Ministry of Education that allowed state schools to reopen despite continued Taliban military operations around the country; in March 2011, a decree issued in Mullah Omar’s name directing insurgents not to carry out attacks on schools or schoolchildren. (A new Taliban decree on its policy towards girls’ education, forecast last year by the Minister of Education, has yet to be released.) In exchange, the Ministry of Education has reportedly accepted the reintroduction during the 2012 academic year (which begins in March) of the 1990s-era school curriculum, which was established under the Taliban regime and is much more heavily weighted towards religious subjects.

Unanswered Questions: Since this paper’s publication, the Ministry of Education has rejected all of its accounts of talks, leaving it unclear exactly what may happen in terms of any compromises that may have been made over curriculum for this coming academic year. Despite increasingly clear signals that the U.S. intends to significantly reduce the level of its security and financial investments on behalf of the Karzai administration within the next two to three years, the Afghan government has yet to develop a serious indigenous political counter-mobilization effort against the insurgency and instead preferred appeals for ongoing international aid. The government’s dependence on the support of the international community for its continued survival (at least as it is currently constituted) will place it at a serious disadvantage in any peace negotiations and seems likely force additional concessions like those that may have been made to the Taliban so far on education.

Giustozzi and Franco obliquely acknowledge that these agreements effectively amount to a capitulation by local communities to Taliban priorities for how education should be structured; with rare exceptions these communities lacked the means to defend themselves against insurgent threats of violence. And the Afghan state, they write, appears to be “giving away more than it gets”; the only prospective advantage to the government in this agreement is the possibility of using cooperation over education as a confidence-building measure to kick-start more substantive peace talks with the insurgency, which the Karzai government has blown hot and cold on over the past year and a half. Taliban interest in substantive talks that would involve concessions on their part as well (in this or other areas) remains uncertain.

Most Taliban interviewees who do acknowledge a shift in previous positions on education portray it as a way of being responsive to the concerns of local communities, who want access to some form of education.  Even though the Taliban represent (comparatively) one of the most successfully organized political movements in Afghanistan’s history, Giustozzi and Franco’s paper notes that they have been forced to account for local community preferences in shaping their policy towards education. Should the Taliban one day find themselves back in a position of national power again, they may find it just as challenging to effectively impose their vision of education across Afghanistan as the Karzai government has.

Additional Context and Further Reading:

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