Tag Archives: Education

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:


Pakistan / Afghanistan / Terrorism – 12/14/11

Today’s news on Afghanistan and Pakistan, brought to you by the Center for American Progress. To receive updates by e-mail, subscribe here.


  • Gen. Allen confirms that the military plans to shift to an advise and support role in Afghanistan before the complete transition to Afghan security lead in 2014, and says there has been some “modest progress” in repairing military-to-military communications with Pakistan. Indian sources suggest that an agreement is near on the establishment of a ‘political office’ for the Taliban in Qatar, although there are reports of international dissension within the movement over the idea. Pres. Zardari cleared for release to his home in Dubai; still no indication exactly he will return to Pakistan.

Pakistan — Security

  • NATO Cooperation: ISAF commander Gen. Allen told reporters yesterday that he had seen modest progress in repairing military-to-military relations with Pakistan in the wake of the November 26 airstrike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers; Allen said that relations remained “chilled” but indicated that he spoke by phone with Gen. Kayani for the first time since the incident on Monday. The two generals did not discuss the reopening of NATO supply routes through Pakistan, Allen said. [APP]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Zardari Cleared for Release: Pres. Zardari’s spokesman said Wednesday that doctors had cleared him for release to his home in Dubai tomorrow, where he will continue to rest; his return to Pakistan has yet to be scheduled. [Reuters] [Guardian] [Guardian]
  • PTI Plans Karachi Protest: Speaking at a Lahore press conference, PTI chairman Imran Khan accused the Sindh government of seeking to block his planned rally in Karachi on December 25, and vowed to hold the protest “even if a war was going on.” Sindh Home Minister Manzoor Hussain Wasan said the provincial government had no objections to the rally, but wanted the PTI to change the venue away from the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (whose birthday is the 25th) to a public park instead. [Dawn]
  • PML-N Preparing for Opposition: The Express Tribune suggests that after a meeting of senior party officials on Monday, Nawaz Sharif has directed PML-N parliamentary opposition leader Chaudhry Nisar and other top party leaders to prepare for “full-on political conflict” with the government and a no-confidence motion against the PPP government, in a bid to force early elections. [ET]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Abbottabad Commissions Seeks to Interview Political Leaders; Zardari Defers Response [ET] [ET]
  • Saleem Shahzad Murder Commission to Complete Report in 2-3 Weeks [ET]
  • Supreme Court Seeks New Reports on National Reconciliation Ordinance Verdict [ET]
  • Balochistan Frontier Corps Commander Says Conflict Cannot be Resolved by Force, Denies Extrajudicial Killings [Dawn]
  • Pakistani Fertilizer Ignites Tensions with U.S. [Reuters]
  • Gilani Orders Restructuring of Pakistan Steel [Dawn] [ET]
  • Remittances Increase 18% in Five Months [ET]
  • Commentary: The Pakistanis Have a Point – “As America settles onto the long path toward withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan has considerable power to determine whether the end of our longest war is seen as a plausible success or a calamitous failure.” [Bill Keller, NYT]
  • Commentary: Pakistan’s Modernity: Between the Military and Militancy – “In Pakistan economic progress does not automatically translate into liberal progressive modernity due to the nature of the state.” [Ayesha Siddiqa, Economic and Political Weekly (pdf)]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Taliban Talks: Indian diplomatic sources tell The Hindu that plans are underway to establish a “political office” for the Taliban in Qatar after renewed talks between U.S. officials and former Mullah Omar aide Tayyab Agha. Mullah Mohammad Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan who now lives openly in Kabul and has been seen as an interlocutor to the movement, is reportedly under consideration to head the office, but the piece notes without elaborating further that his appointment is being resisted by “hardliners in Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar’s Pakistan-based command council”.
  • Transition Shifts: In comments to reporters yesterday, Gen. Allen confirmed that the military is preparing an earlier transition to Afghan lead and a reorientation of U.S. troops’ mission away from active combat to a support role before the 2014 deadline for complete Afghan security lead. Allen declined to specify the exact point at which the shift would take place and said no decisions had been made about future troop reductions beyond October 2012. He also sought to stress that “there is no daylight” between himself and the president on the strategy; recent accounts have indicated that he has privately told visiting Congressional delegations that he wishes to avoid a further reductions in forces from the 70,000 who will remain after next fall until late 2013 or 2014. Separately, the UK national security council deferred a decision on a withdrawal next year of over half its forces; British commanders have advised delaying substantial withdrawals until late 2013. Allen appeared in Kabul alongside visiting Defense Secretary Panetta, who told troops that “we’re moving in the right direction and we’re winning this very tough conflict.” [NYT] [AJE] [Reuters] [AP] [TOLO]
  • Attacks: A bombing in Helmand’s Khan Shin district killed the district governor, Massoud Balouch, officials indicate; two others, including a policeman, also died. There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack; Balouch had campaigned against both the Taliban and drug traffickers. [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Pakistani Foreign Minister Khar Blames ‘Afghan Refugees’ for Killing Rabbani [Dawn]
  • New Armed Stealth Drone Heads to Afghanistan [Danger Room]
  • Red Cross Sees Gloomy Outlook for Afghanistan [Canberra Times]
  • NATO’s Fraught Roads into Afghanistan [BBC]
  • Report: The Battle for Schools: The Taliban and State Education – “In the last two years, we have seen rural communities motivated by a pragmatic desire for schooling for their children force the Taleban to change their strategy. The Taleban, unable to forcibly end state schooling, have, however, managed to partially co-opt it. The main losers in this new modus vivandi are Afghan girls.” [Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, AAN]
  • Report: Beyond Power-Sharing: Institutional Options for an Afghan Peace Process – “Beginning a process requires more than a conducive military situation; it also calls for potential negotiation scenarios that can generate the confidence to take the initial steps.” [Hamish Nixon and Caroline Hartzell, USIP/PRIO/CMI]
  • Commentary: A New Sectarian War? – “There is now a growing rift between those Taliban who want a political solution before the US and NATO leaves, and more hard-line groups.” [Ahmed Rashid, NYRB]
  • Commentary: Plan Afghanistan Can Work – “The mission in Afghanistan suffers from the same pessimism and waning confidence that afflicted Colombia’s counterterrorism efforts.” [Alvaro Uribe Velez, FP]
  • Commentary: Graveyard of Empiricism – “Much like its previous iterations, the current round of the Afghanistan debate in Washington is riddled with a staggering number of mischaracterizations.” [Javid Ahmad and Dhruva Jaishankar, AfPak Channel]
  • Commentary: Kajaki and Power Politics – “Somewhere in the many struggles to “modernize” this modern dam, it became an end rather than a means to development.” [Vikash Yadav, Duck of Minerva]

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