In Afghanistan, a new approach to teaching history: Leave out the wars
By Kevin Sieff,
KABUL — In a country where the recent past has unfolded like a war epic, officials think they have found a way to teach Afghan history without widening the fractures between long-quarreling ethnic and political groups: leave out the past four decades.
A series of government-issued textbooks funded by the United States and several foreign aid organizations do just that, pausing history in 1973. There is no mention of the Soviet war, the mujaheddin, the Taliban or the U.S. military presence. In their efforts to promote a single national identity, Afghan leaders have deemed their own history too controversial.
“Our recent history tears us apart. We’ve created a curriculum based on the older history that brings us together, with figures universally recognized as being great,” said Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan’s education minister. “These are the first books in decades that are depoliticized and de-ethnicized.”
High school students across the country are expected to receive the textbooks in time for the school year this spring. The books are the only ones approved for use in public classrooms as part of the new “depoliticized curriculum.” Elementary and middle school textbooks, which also conclude history lessons in the early 1970s, have been distributed over the past several years.
As Western leaders look to wind down their part in the war, the inability of Afghans to agree on a basic historical record casts doubt on a much more complex exercise that is critical to the country’s future: the creation of a government that would unite Afghanistan’s disparate groups.
But Afghan officials insist that the new textbooks will be one of the government’s best state-building tools, offering a fresh perspective to a generation raised in the middle of a war but unencumbered by the biases of the past four decades. During much of that time, warring political and ethnic groups used their own course materials, imbued with their own ideologies and peppered with their own heroes and villains.
“That’s how we got our extremist ideas,” said Attaullah Wahidyar, director of publication and information for the Education Ministry. “Now, we’ve learned our lesson.”
Foreign powers only deepened divisions, distributing books to further their own political agendas and bringing the “New Great Game” in Central Asia into Afghan classrooms.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union printed books that stressed communism’s virtues and the importance of Marxist theory. During the last years of the Cold War, the United States spent millions on Afghan textbooks filled with violent images and talk of jihad, part of a covert effort to incite resistance to the Soviet occupation. During the Taliban’s reign in the 1990s, conservative Islamic texts were imported from Pakistan. In western Afghanistan, Iranian textbooks that openly praised Tehran-backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas were for years distributed in public schools.
‘A sensitive history’
When educators, scholars and politicians gathered to overhaul the curriculum, beginning in 2002, they were intent on undoing the politics of Afghan historiography. But they could not agree on how to address the country’s descent into civil war or its various insurgent groups. Even the mention of key figures — the Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud or the Taliban’s Mohammad Omar — would spark fierce loyalty or hostility, officials said, paralyzing any history lesson.
Educators suggested that the only solution would be to omit the period after King Mohammed Zahir Shah, whose ouster in 1973 ushered in an era of chronic political instability. Among those charged with crafting the new curriculum, there was near-universal agreement.
“We aren’t mature enough to come up with a way to teach such a sensitive history,” Wahidyar said.
Foreign donors reviewed the books to ensure there was no religious content and that materials were well designed, but they made no suggestions related to the omission of recent history, Afghan officials said.
The high school textbooks were funded by the U.S. military’s foreign aid arm, the Commander’s Emergency Response Program.
U.S. military cultural advisers “reviewed the social studies textbooks, grades 10-12, for ‘inappropriate’ material, such as inciting violence or religious discrimination. Content of these textbooks, such as events or dates, are the responsibility of the Ministry of Education,” said David Lakin, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. “There were no discussions between [U.S. military] officials and the Ministry of Education on the teaching of Afghan history.”
Despite the broad consensus, some Afghan scholars and educators have pushed back, claiming the new textbooks mark an abdication of the ministry’s academic responsibility.
“This will be the biggest treason against the people of Afghanistan. . . . It will be a hindrance to all of our spiritual and material gains over the last four decades,” said Mir Ahmad Kamawal, a history professor at Kabul University. “All these young people will be deprived of knowing what happened during this period.”
Afghan education officials have begun crisscrossing the country, trying to persuade 8.2 million students and their families that a fair curriculum will emanate from Kabul.
The new history lessons will be taught even in villages still controlled by insurgents. Officials say that if they detailed the atrocities committed during five years of Taliban rule, the textbooks would almost certainly be disputed and discarded.
“We’re talking about community-building through education, and that includes the insurgency,” said Wardak, the education minister. “This curriculum needs to appeal to all Afghans.”
Wardak recently spoke to groups of teachers and students in eastern Afghanistan, explaining that they should come to expect uniformity and accuracy in new public school lessons. If sources of tension can be avoided, he said, the Education Ministry might stand a better chance of recruiting the more than 4 million children currently out of school.
“The curriculum is a national one, based on Islamic principles. It’s not just for Pashtuns or Tajiks or Hazaras,” he said in front of a packed meeting hall in Nangahar province. “The curriculum will bring us all under one roof. It will encourage brotherhood and unity.”
Then he toured schools, hospitals and mosques. In one public building, portraits of Afghan leaders over the past 200 years lined the wall. Wardak pointed to a photo of Mohammed Daoud Khan, who assumed power in 1973.“That’s where the division started,” he said, “and that’s where our history books end.”
Special correspondent Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.