“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.