Counter-Terrorism: The Taliban Lose One To The School Teachers


June 11, 2007: One of the most powerful counter-terrorism tools in Afghanistan has been education, especially of children. Afghanistan has long had the highest illiteracy rate in Asia, especially among women. A large part of this was cultural. Many of the Pushtun tribes in the south had a tradition of keeping women at home, not even allowing the girls out to go to school. This has been changing slowly, especially among the wealthier Pushtuns, and those who had moved to cities. But millions of Pushtun in the countryside clung to the old ways. It was from this group that the Taliban got, and still gets, most of its support. But to put it all into perspective, note that, since the Taliban fell six years ago, the number of children in schools has gone from 900,000 to over six million. Only about 35 percent of the students are girls. In the Pushtun south, the Taliban used violence against schools for girls, and in many areas, schools in general (because the Taliban only accept religious schools, that concentrate on studying the Koran). Thus in 2006, the Taliban shut down 537 schools (including 187 destroyed), and killed 85 students and teachers. But that was only 6.4 percent of the 8,400 schools in the country. Moreover, the lower number of girls in school is largely a matter of limited resources. Only about half the eligible children are going to school, and the boys are given preference, because they will be the main earners for families.

Since 2001, the number of teachers has gone from 21,000 to 143,000, and the number of schools from 3,400 to 8,400. Under Taliban rule, there were 265 students and six teachers per school. The quality of instruction was low, and concentrated on memorizing passages from the Koran. Today, there are 714 students and 17 teachers per school, and secular subjects predominate. The shortage of teachers is largely the result of there being few college educated Afghans.

The Taliban attacks on schools last year was very unpopular among the parents of the children affected. In most southern villages, the adults are divided on the issue of secular education, and sending girls to school. The Taliban used a lot of threats, and that got 350 schools closed. Where the threats did not work, violence was used, and that caused a backlash that even the Taliban could not avoid noticing. So this year, the schools have been largely left alone, and the Taliban are talking about establishing more religious schools. The Taliban are also pressuring the government to include more religious instruction in all schools, something the government is trying to accommodate.

The Taliban has good reason to fear secular education, for past experience has shown that it diminishes enthusiasm for the old customs, and Islamic conservatism. The Taliban has been unable to stop the spread of education, even in their own heartland. That, more than failed military operations and terror attacks, has been the defeat that has done the most damage.


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