The first time insurgents burned down Hazratullah’s school, he helped rebuild it with donated carpets and salvaged chalkboards. But when Taliban fighters returned with guns and gasoline, torching his makeshift seventh-grade classroom, Hazratullah decided it was time to leave.
“We knew then that if we wanted to go to school, we would have to move,” said the 14-year-old, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name.
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.”
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.
Each student at the Pashtunistan School has his own story about the Taliban encroaching on classrooms, or crossfire making the trip to school impossible.
“They beat our teachers with sticks,” said Abdul Karim, from Nurestan province.
“They threatened to behead us if we kept going,” said Noorgullah, from Konar province.
“They burned it to the ground,” said Nakibullah, from Paktia province.
The boys sleep side by side in rooms adorned with class schedules and pictures of their native provinces. Compared with those places, life here feels easy and safe.
When the boys return home for rare visits, they leave their textbooks at school, for fear of being caught by the Taliban.
About half of all schools are closed in Zabul province, where the NATO troop drawdown has been particularly rapid. About a third of schools are closed in Helmand and a quarter in Kandahar, according to the Afghan government’s tally. In several districts where families have sent sons to Pashtunistan, the insurgency isn’t the biggest problem. There simply aren’t enough trained teachers to maintain a school.
A number of the shuttered schools were built by foreign powers, shiny tributes to a new Afghanistan. Only a few years ago, Western officials proclaimed that public education would reach even the country’s darkest and most dangerous corners.
“The enemies, they don’t want to let innocent students get educated,” said Sharifullah Naseri, Zabul’s provincial spokesman.
Some Western-funded schools never opened because of security concerns. Others were closed by the insurgency days after being inaugurated. Some schools survived for years, like Hazratullah’s, but collapsed as security grew weaker.
“Wherever I drive, I see schools built by the U.S. that were closed or never finished,” said Tamim Nuristani, the governor of Nurestan province, from which more than two dozen of Pashtunistan’s students hail.
The Pashtunistan School sits on a few acres of farmland 50 miles from Pakistan. It was built three decades ago, amid insurgency against the Soviets, as a haven for ethnic Pashtun children from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. It was named for the autonomous Pashtun nation that many here strive to one day create and was seen as a place where students could be educated with their fellow tribesmen.
The Afghan government is experimenting with boarding schools in several of the country’s largest cities, where stability has been maintained largely because of NATO’s urban-centric security strategy. There are several boarding schools in Kabul. Others are set to open in the capitals of Helmand and Ghazni provinces, which are safe enough to operate schools, although many rural districts in those provinces are under Taliban control. The Education Ministry hopes to open more boarding schools in coming years.
“These are places where education can be maintained and monitored, where the government is in control,” Wardak said.
But that leaves dozens of school districts in areas where the Taliban wields more power than Western or Afghan forces — a dilemma for the Education Ministry.
In recent months, the insurgency’s closure of schools has prompted anti-Taliban uprisings in a number of provinces, a development that U.S. and Afghan officials see as a positive sign.
In parts of the country where the Taliban remains in control, insurgents often inspect the curricula and handpick teachers but allow schools to remain open. The insurgency’s inconsistent approach to education, many Afghan officials and analysts argue, speaks to its fragmentation.
But for children living in districts where insurgents have demolished schools or threatened teachers, that lack of consistency doesn’t mean much.
“We have no plans to return home,” Hazratullah said. “Here, there are classrooms. There are teachers. At home, there is nothing.”