He and his three cousins packed clothes and blankets. Then their parents drove them to a refuge they had heard rumors about — a place for children whose schools had been shuttered or destroyed by the Taliban. Ten miles outside this eastern Afghan city, they found the Pashtunistan School: a haven from insurgents, a chance for Hazratullah to finish seventh grade.
But Hazratullah’s new school is also a monument to one of his government’s greatest failures — its inability to protect students and teachers in vast stretches of territory that have been effectively ceded back to the Taliban. On its campus, 350 boys from across Afghanistan swap stories about Taliban fighters beating their teachers and setting their classrooms on fire.
Afghan officials acknowledge that with poor security in much of the country, the only way to educate a large portion of the population is to pluck children out of Taliban-dominated districts and move them to safer areas.
There are two Afghanistans, they say: one where public education can be protected, and another where it cannot. That acknowledgment reflects a stark shift from the years of U.S.-funded efforts to rebuild and reopen schools in traditional insurgent strongholds.
The new reality is reflected in a NATO talking point intended to convey how concentrated violence in Afghanistan has become and how much of the country enjoys relative peace.
“Eighty percent of the enemy attacks take place in areas where only 20 percent of the Afghan population lives,” NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen recently told reporters.
But what of that less fortunate 20 percent, a figure that includes millions of children?
With the Taliban burning schoolhouses and threatening students in much of the south and east, educators here have rechanneled their ambition. Part of the problem, Afghan officials say, is that the United States built many schools in places where security could not be maintained. More than 90 percent of Afghanistan’s 500 shuttered schools are in four provinces in the country’s volatile southeast.
“The reality is that in some areas, the lack of security means there is no access to education,” said Farooq Wardak, the Afghan minister of education. “Either we can move those students to safer places, or they will remain uneducated and easy for the Taliban to absorb.”
‘They beat our teachers’
Although there are exponentially more children enrolled in school than there were when the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, opposition to public education in many districts appears intractable.
The Taliban’s antipathy toward the education of girls is well known. But boys’ schools, too, are in the Taliban’s crosshairs, because they are viewed as an extension of the government and, ultimately, of the West. Classes organized and funded by the Karzai administration are viewed as an affront to the Taliban in places the group effectively controls.