Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Battle for Afghanistan a fight for young minds

By Colin Freeze- They came in the dark of night to sabotage the empty building with land mines. The explosion roared through the village at 10:30 p.m., and everyone soon knew the outcome: Another school destroyed.

“Now all the students are in their homes … and I hear that the Taliban may want to attack again,” said Faiz Mohammad, a regional director of education, north of Kandahar City. He says he fears for his life.

Since the school was blown up last week, nearly 450 boys and their teachers stay home. Mr. Mohammad says officials are struggling to figure out where else to safely assemble for final exams. “The school is a link between the common people and the government,” he said. “The Taliban want to break the link.”

As insurgents destroy schools in and around Kandahar, Western powers are struggling to build them. One of the “signature” aid projects Ottawa launched last year is a plan to construct, repair or expand 50 Kandahar-area schools before the end of 2011. Five of the projects have been completed so far.

A stalemate of sorts seems to be occurring as both officials and terrorists lock onto schools as extensions of the central government. Arson and rocket attacks against schools became increasingly common in the years after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban, but millions of children returned to class over all.

These days, however, fear is mounting as attacks pile up. Two years ago, the Taliban beheaded a headmaster in front of his children. Last fall, insurgents squirted acid onto the faces of 15 Kandahar schoolgirls and teachers. This spring, there has been a spate of complaints by female students that they have been sickened by gas leaks at schools – possibly deliberate attacks.

Canadian officials remain cautiously optimistic they’ll meet their 50-school target. But they acknowledge the plans face a host of obstacles, not just the Taliban. Kandahar’s literacy rate is said to be below 20 per cent – and below 5 per cent for women.

Not only are there few qualified teachers, there are fewer instructors who can teach teachers, which makes it difficult for Canada to meet another of its pledges: to train 3,000 new teachers by 2011. The program is only expected to be rolled out this fall, with officials saying they had to first await a “precursor” program meant to get teachers who are already working up to speed.

Canadian officials have lately spoken of refocusing aid efforts in Kandahar City and in villages where they can do the most good. Afghan officials, who help build schools under the rubric of a “national-solidarity” program, seem to be making similar calculations.

“They don’t want to make schools [in rural areas] because security has become worse,” says Abdul Latif Ashna, an engineer who works in Kandahar’s rural-rehabilitation department.

He said he had helped build 10 schools, but says there are no new projects. “Our department works only in rural areas. The Taliban is only in rural areas,” he said. “No one can enter them. No one can study there.”

Some Kandaharis say the Taliban – self-styled religious scholars who initially derived their name from the word for “student” – are intent on ripping apart the fabric of society and replacing it with nothing.

“They only want to destroy, destroy and destroy,” said Mr. Mohammad, the official struggling to deal with the school that was blown up last week.

Based in the Arghandab, a region north of Kandahar that’s lately become an insurgent hotbed, Mr. Mohammad says he basically inherited his current job from his late cousin, who was assassinated last year by gunmen.

The father of three said that, as an education director, he has no car, his salary is a pittance, and that he’d been marked for death if he ever returned to the village he came from. “If Canadians want to build schools,” Mr. Mohammad said, “we need security in the area.”