U.S. troops work with Afghan officials to open schools in remote villages

A young female leads the class in recitation of the alphabet at a school in the Zhari Dasht internally displaced persons camp on Sept. 7, 2011, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan. Eight schools opened in September in the Zhari and Maiwand districts, two of them for girls.


By LAURA RAUCH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 9, 2011

BAG-E-POL, Afghanistan — Rows of well-behaved boys sat at desks that had been moved outside for the news conference. They watched as a stream of dignitaries and ministers, U.S. and Afghan soldiers, and members of the media filed into the courtyard of the Bag-e-Pol school on registration day in Kandahar province.

As the dignitaries settled in behind a podium and looked out, they saw the unlikeliest of sights. In the front row sat female students, fidgeting, smiling and acting as giddy as, well, schoolgirls.

They sat in wonderment as Zhari district governor Niaz Sarhadi talked about the value of education and what it means for the future of Afghanistan. At times the girls feigned modesty to onlookers, hiding behind their small veils, but that didn’t last. Today wasn’t a day to hide. Today was different because they knew that somebody thought they were important.

In partnership with the provincial Ministry of Education, along with local and district leadership, the 10th Mountain Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team oversaw the opening of eight schools in early September in the Zhari and Maiwand districts of Kandahar province; two of them for female students. That’s up from just two schools operating this time last year, neither of which was open to girls. Six more schools are scheduled to open soon in the two districts.

Aside from providing a basic education for Afghan youth, opening schools is part of the brigade’s greater commitment to help restore the traditional village structure that’s been fractured by decades of war and upheaval, according to Maj. Frank Leija of Los Angeles. They hope to connect Afghans to their district and provincial governments through schools, and thus to grow a sense of civic-mindedness and an understanding that their government can work for them.

“Thirty years of war has completely broken this society. The family was broken,” Company D Commander Capt. Jeff Auer of 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, who is from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said. “Schools are what is going to tie this community back together.”

The West has spent nearly $1 billion since 2006 on education reform in Afghanistan, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, with thousands of schools built, according to data from ISAF nations. And an estimated 6 million Afghan children are getting an education.

But many of the lasting effects of education cannot be determined for years to come, and the immediate goal — how well Afghans are being connected to a central government through local initiatives — remains open to competing interpretations.

On registration day in Zhari, officials toured three schools and attended a ground-breaking ceremony for a fourth in the village of Kandalay. Wherever they went, throngs of children awaited their arrival, many in tattered clothing and wearing no shoes.

Most of them know nothing of new clothes or uniforms, fresh pens and notebooks, or newly minted lunch boxes. Those are unimaginable luxuries in Zhari or Maiwand, where most live without electricity or running water in mud dwellings.

“It’s victory along this road today. It’s winning. We’re winning,” 3rd Brigade Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Carabello said as he watched the scores of children in the street as his vehicle drove away from the Now Ruzi School.

“There’s a difference between having an effect and winning. I didn’t come here to have an effect. I came here to win,” Carabello said.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, which tracks demographics for policy makers, the average Afghan is 18 years old with a life expectancy of 45 years. The young population has little knowledge of its past — other than that it has been wracked by war — and only a limited understanding of how they can affect their future. Nearly 60 percent of Afghans are illiterate and fewer than 13 percent of Afghan women are able to read or write.

Just down the road in Garmsir district, Helmand province, Marines are building schools at a furious pace, but only for boys. One school is nominally for girls, a school one Marine officer described as a “girls’ day care,” where no formal classes are taught.

“There’s a lot of words to say, but it’s impossible now to build a school for the females,” Hajji Hazarat, an elder in one of Garmsir’s central villages, said through an interpreter. “The Taliban would burn it.”

But the Marines persist.

“Education is the only thing we have that the Taliban can’t legitimately provide,” said Maj. Roberto Falcon, the civil affairs officer overseeing a raft of projects, including 13 new school buildings and at least a half-dozen temporary tent schools in the dusty district in Helmand province. “That is a fact.”

As a result, there is a lot riding on the nearly $2 million the Marines are spending this year on schools here, Falcon said, noting that if the Marines don’t build schools, “then it looks like [the Afghan government] can’t provide anything for them.”

Rahmatullah, 50, a teacher at Bag-e-Pol, says he is eager to teach girls. He has eight registered, but is hoping that number triples during the school year. He attributes security in the area and the progressive attitude toward the education of women to regional leader Haji Tor Ghani. Though Tor Ghani holds no official government position, his influence in the area is unmatched.

U.S. soldiers have nicknamed Tor Ghani the “Afghan Rock Star” because of his long dark hair and ultra-hip sunglasses. He travels with an entourage and is rarely without an AK-47 slung over his shoulder.

Though he has a history of working with members of the Taliban during its reign, he now supports the Afghan government, and works regularly with 10th Mountain soldiers. Tor Ghani says that a lack of education in Afghanistan has led to decades of war, and he is committed to seeing the schools stay open.

“We have fought. We have sacrificed. We have stood here. We will not leave,” Tor Ghani said after visiting with dignitaries during the opening of the Bag-e-Pol school.

That day, 10 miles to the west, two more schools opened up for registration in Zhari Dasht, an internally displaced persons camp, where some 7,000 people from all points in Afghanistan try to eke out a living. The following morning, on the first day of classes, 30 girls showed up for school.

Lt. Col. Greg Anderson, from San Jose, Calif., commander of the 2-87, credits both the female teacher they employ and their displaced status for the camp residents’ willingness to teach girls.

“Because they’re on the ropes, they’re amenable to new ideas,” Anderson said.

Sitting in the heat of the afternoon on her dirt floor lined with flattened grain sacks, Farzana, 45, cuddles two of her four children as she speaks, through a translator, about her passion for teaching girls in Zhari Dasht. A soft breeze passes through a simple ventilation system cut into the mud walls; the only evidence of modernity in her austere living quarters are the rubber shoes her son is wearing.

She is the only female teacher in the Zhari and Maiwand districts — the home of the original Taliban movement — and one of very few in the region.

“Conservative, rural Pashtuns in the heart of Taliban country don’t look kindly on female teachers,” Anderson said.

Farzana learned to teach while living in a refugee camp in Quetta, Pakistan, where her husband worked as a security guard in one of the schools. Aside from hoping to combat the abysmal literacy rate of Afghan women, she is primarily motivated to prepare women to become health care providers. Women’s health needs are so underserved in Afghanistan that, even after 10 years of NATO presence, the country still has the second highest infant mortality rate globally, according to the World Factbook.

“My goal is to help my nation. And making progress means teaching girls,” Farzana said. “My society needs me.”

As she spoke, her husband, Redegul, sat close by, listening and nodding. When asked about her work, he quickly answered that he’s especially proud of his wife.

In spite of the progress, or perhaps because of it, two recent threats came as stark reminders of the challenges that await both Afghans and coalition forces. On registration day, while the contingent of ministers and educators was visiting the Pir Mohammed School, revelry turned to seriousness when insurgents launched a grenade at soldiers and officials returning to their vehicles. No one was injured in the attack that landed a grenade just a few feet from a U.S. armored vehicle.

Another threat came less than a week later in Now Ruzi. Taliban insurgents posted a “night letter” at the local mosque, forbidding residents from cooperating with either the Afghan government or American forces, and warning residents to close the school. It was signed “Mullah Omar” — the Taliban leader.

Anderson views letters like that, which arrive occasionally, as a sign that the population is turning away from the Taliban.

“A unified village is a threat to the enemy. These schools are connecting villages that wouldn’t otherwise be connected,” Anderson said. “There’s no miracles; it’s hard work.”

Pir Mohammed school headmaster Haji Bismillah Khan, 70, isn’t deterred by the threats either.

“I don’t care if the Taliban kill me,” he said. “As long as kids are coming to school.”

Stars and Stripes’ Matt Millham contributed to this report.


Regional leader Haji Tor Ghani speaks with soldiers and dignitaries following a press conference at the Bag-e-Pol school on Sept. 6 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, where girls are allowed to attend. Eight schools opened in the Zhari and Maiwand districts in September and six more are planned to open later this year.

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