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Taliban's war against Afghan schools

The Taliban and its allied groups as well as local warlords have set ablaze 144 schools this year in Afghanistan, rights group have reported.

india Updated: Aug 21, 2006 15:24 IST

The Taliban and its allied groups as well as local warlords have set ablaze 144 schools this year and forced closure of scores of others, depriving over 100,000 children of education in Afghanistan, rights groups have reported.

Human Rights Watch says schools were forced to close down in entire districts in the southern provinces bordering Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan.

It cites 204 documented incidents against teachers, students and schools since January 2005 and says there have been more attacks in the first six months of 2006 than in the entire previous year.

Teachers have been killed, NGOs chased out and Unicef claims that six children died. Schools for girls were hit particularly hard.

The attacks include one missile attack, 11 explosions, 50 school burnings and 37 threats against schools and communities, according to the UN agency.

The Kabul-based Institute of War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reports that around 1.5 million girls were forbidden from attending school under the Taliban rule but had flocked back to the classroom since their overthrow in March 2002.

Unicef estimates that 5.1 million Afghan children were back in school by December 2005.

These attacks are a great setback to international efforts to put Afghanistan's education system back on track.

Human Rights Watch blames the Taliban and allied groups for many, though not all, of the attacks.

Also responsible, it says, are local warlords trying to strengthen their control and criminal drug networks.

Schools are targeted as in many areas they are the only symbol of government authority.

Deputy Education Minister Mohammad Sediq Patman, however, laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Taliban.

"It is clear that the Taliban is involved in arson attacks on schools. We have information that Taliban in some provinces have told the teachers not to teach in schools, and that they will get salaries at home or bullets in their heads," he said.

Taliban spokesperson Qari Mohammad Yousuf rejected claims that the group was behind the school attacks, adding that it had condemned the violence months ago.

IWPR quoted him as saying: "We have denounced burning schools, but no one is listening to us. All of the media is controlled by the west."

He has two theories on who is responsible - school officials disguising their thefts from the schools by burning them down and the government, which is attempting to "defame" the Taliban.

Yousuf also denied being under the influence of Pakistani religious groups or the country's secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), whom many Afghans believe is masterminding the attacks.

Political analyst Habibullah Rafi told IWPR: "Pakistan's ISI is against education in Afghanistan, particularly in the Pashtun areas. They do not want Afghans to be well-educated because Afghans' education is not in Pakistan's interests."

Mohammad Hassan Wolasmal, a senior Afghan editor and also a political analyst, describes Pakistan as Afghanistan's biggest enemy.

"Pakistan cannot tolerate a strong Afghanistan. It tries to keep Afghans politically, economically and militarily dependent on Pakistan. Therefore, it burns schools and prevents the Afghans from education."

There are some within Pakistan itself who blame their government. Afrasiab Khataq, who heads the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, in a press conference in Kabul a couple of months back accused his government of directly interfering in Afghanistan's affairs.

"I have heard that the Pakistani government has said Americans are leaving Afghanistan and we (Pakistan) have to replace them," he said.

Pakistan, however, denies this along with accusations that it is somehow sponsoring the school attacks.

IWPR quoted the press officer of the Pakistan embassy in Kabul as saying: "It is easy to blame (Pakistan), but to prove it is very difficult.

"There are some people who want to destroy the friendly atmosphere between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those who burn schools and conduct other destructive acts in Afghanistan and detonate bombs in Pakistan are terrorists, and these people are the enemies of both the countries."

This isn't the first time Afghanistan's education system has faced violent threats. Attacks on schools and teachers were also commonplace during the mujahideen's war against the Russians.

Then, fighters argued that schools were communist training grounds and teachers were delivering enemy propaganda.

Some Afghans also claim there was a Pakistan connection with the mujahideen-era school attacks.

IWPR cites a jihadi commander who claimed that an ISI officer in Pakistan showed him a map and told him to burn a school in the Saroobi district of Kabul and destroy the local dam.

"I discussed the issue with my jihadi colleagues," he said. "They all said that we are doing jihad (holy war) against Russians and communists but not against schools or power dams. We disobeyed this order of Pakistan."

Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, head of the Centre for Regional Studies, said, "Whoever is carrying out the attacks has chosen education for the simple reason that it is crucial to Afghanistan's future development.

Those who burn and destroy schools are, in fact, burning and destroying Afghanistan."

Zaki, a religious scholar in Kabul, added that bringing and maintaining security is the duty of every Muslim. He said that destroying schools and creating an atmosphere of terror and horror is against Islam.

"The real Muslim is one who does not hurt other Muslims," he said, quoting the Prophet Mohammad.