Afghan schools: Safe havens?

A look at a few of the hundreds of attacks and threats against Afghan schools, detailed in WikiLeaks documents.
Grade 4 girls learn to read and write in Pashto at an all-girls school on March 23, 2010, in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. ((Julie Jacobson/Associated Press))

A bomb is found tucked into a school typewriter. Insurgents dressed in military uniforms attack an education chief. School guards are tied up while the building is bombed to smithereens. Teachers and students at an all-girls high school are poisoned through the drinking water.

Those are just a few of the hundreds of incidents involving schools that are detailed in the U.S. military logs from Afghanistan released by WikiLeaks in late July.

Dubbed the Afghan war diaries, the 77,000 military incident and intelligence reports released by the whistleblowing website provide an on-the-ground glimpse of the military's troubled battle against insurgents from 2004, several years after coalition forces entered the country, until the end of 2009.

Canada in the Afghan war logs

To see Canada-related incidents in the American reports, see CBC's searchable database.

They also give an unhindered view of the reconstruction aspect of the military's fight, including attempts to rebuild education infrastructure in the war-torn land amid constant threats and attacks against schools, teachers and students. 

From time to time, stories of school attacks surface in media reports, including one of the most infamous incidents where men on motorcycles squirted several schoolgirls with bottles of acid

Murdered, ambushed, robbed

Many of the incidents outlined in the U.S. military reports are smaller and less shocking, and go unreported in the media. But added together, they paint a picture of continuous threats.

"Noses and ears will be cut off from any women seen going to and from the school," one threat letter sent to a district commissioner in Daman district states, according to the reports.

Other military reports mention a Kapisa province school principal who is killed; a Kunduz province education chief ambushed while carrying teacher salaries by suspects wearing military uniforms; and a bomb detonating as the Parwan province chief of education drives by.

Schoolgirls hold up new book bags that Special Forces soldiers gave to village elders for pupils in the village of Nili, the provincial capital of Day Kundi in central Afghanistan, on Sept. 19, 2009. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Though the Kunduz chief is robbed but not injured and the Parwan education chief escapes unscathed, the incidents are troubling in their regularity.

Military links cause harm

Over the years, military forces have increasingly turned their focus from combat to reconstruction. And schools, particularly girls-only ones, have become an important symbol of rebuilding Afghanistan, a country where women were banned from schools until the hardline Islamist regime of the Taliban was overthrown in 2001.

But ensuring schools are the safe havens they should be has proved tricky in an unconventional war where anything related to foreign military forces is a possible target for insurgents.

Some aid agencies say military involvement in the rebuilding of schools — and the resulting link the Taliban draw between the facility and the counter-insurgency efforts —  is one of the biggest challenges facing the education system.

"It's a very, very big concern for us," said Jennifer Rowell, CARE International's head of policy and advocacy in Afghanistan, who studies protection for schools. "The visible relationship with the schools draws attention to that school. They then become a target, by virtue of their relationship."

Hard data, she notes, isn't available on whether military-linked schools are attacked more frequently. Rowell says CARE is researching the issue, but the agency has documented in a survey of communities that locals perceive the link between attacks and military involvement. Perception of a threat, she notes, can be just as powerful.

An Afghan soldier stands in a classroom after a blast at the school in Khost, Afghanistan, on May 11, 2010. Four teachers and nine students were injured after a bomb went off under a stairwell at a boys' school in the Smalhail district. ((Nishanuddin Khan/Associated Press))

"People, just as importantly, will fear that they'll be attacked and won't send students to school. That has just as great an impact on a child's right to education as an attack."

Schools a 'battleground'

Figures on school attacks vary. According  to data gathered by UNICEF, the number of reported attacks has significantly increased over the years, with a high of 610 in 2009. That's 250 more incidents than the previous year and about triple the number in years prior.

The dramatic rise in 2009 is largely attributed to the August presidential elections, when hundreds of schools were used as polling stations — making the buildings targets for insurgents aiming to disrupt the electoral process. In that month alone, there were 249 school attacks — with 174 instances reportedly connected to the election — compared to several dozen incidents in the months post- and pre-election.

School attacks

 Year  Number of attacks against schools
 2005  98
 2006  220
 2007  236
 2008  348
 2009  610

Source:  UNICEF. Data for 2008 and 2009 are from the UN Country Task Force on Children, and previous years are from the Ministry of Education.

"Education has become a central battleground in the war, intensifying dangers that all education personnel and student face there," according to a UNESCO report.

Sometimes security forces stationed near education facilities also result in schools, teachers and students becoming collateral damage in the war, says UNICEF.

Though the federal government largely oversees the education system in Afghanistan, aid agencies provide services in locations where a government presence could increase risk, typically in areas held by insurgents. The schools are then transferred back to the government when it's deemed safe.

Visible military support

The place of provincial reconstruction teams, or PRTs, can be a bit more complicated. About 26 provincial reconstruction teams, including a Canadian one, are in Afghanistan, enough for nearly all 34 provinces.

In a speech at a PRT conference earlier this year, Mark Ward, special adviser on development for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, remarked on how the role of reconstruction teams hasn't changed to reflect the progress made in the country.

Five years ago, he noted, it made sense for the PRTs to take a larger role in development because they were "the only game in town." But now the Afghan government is present in most districts and PRTs just end up competing with the local officials.

He calls for reconstruction teams to instead funnel some of their extensive funding to the government and reduce their involvement to a distant supporting role, with Afghans visibly at the lead so locals see their own officials in action.

Cases of direct military involvement are well documented in the WikiLeaks reports.

In one incident on June 27, 2009, a school and hospital built in the remote southeastern Paktika province with U.S. funds was targeted with improvised explosive devices. In the end, tragedy was averted, but a report notes: "the devices appeared to target personnel that might have been at the ribbon-cutting for both buildings."

Rowell notes that provincial reconstruction team involvement in Afghan schools can sometimes take a far worse turn than simply competing with local officials or making the schools a direct target.

She recalls cases where a team, without seeking local advice, had such a poorly constructed school built that it was deemed a safety hazard and redone. There was also an instance where a PRT erected a school without securing a teacher and another where, in the absence of a teacher, a member of the team instructed classes.

Afghan students attend a class in Lashkar Gah, in Helmand province, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Dec. 15, 2009. ((Abdul Khaleq/Associated Press))

"That's essentially pulling a target into the school itself," said Rowell.

Teams have also created problems by building schools in non-Afghan designs. "It sticks out like a sore thumb. It's like having a bull's eye painted on the side of the building."

Rowell noted that none of the instances involved Canada's provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar.

The International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, didn't comment on specific cases, but stated that insurgents may choose to undermine the authority of the Afghan government by putting students at risk with or without PRT support.

"These projects lay foundation for the long-term growth of Afghanistan," ISAF Joint Command spokesman Ryan Donald said in an email.

He said reconstruction team projects are developed in line with the Afghan national development strategy. "PRTs to the best extent possible follow all possible rules while engaging with communities. Each PRT is governed by those who fund the project."

Community involvement key

The importance of community involvement has not been lost on international players. For the past few years, PRTs have begun engaging "shuras," or meetings of local elders, to function as school protection groups after security forces have left the area.

Community-engagement tactics like this have found success, particularly in two provinces — Khost and Blakh — studied by CARE International. There, they recorded that some communities negotiated with their potential attackers or got "permission" to continue teaching, while others banned strangers from their community, hired night guards and patrolled schools, sometimes even fighting the attackers.

Jim Melanson, Canadian International Development Agency's director of development told CBC from Kandahar, that often the most effective approach is to step back.

"You get the best results in education in communities when communities own the project and communities take responsibility for it. We don't ourselves go out and get directly engaged," said Melanson.

And in the end, aid agencies also note that education has been a bright spot in what can otherwise be a bleak landscape.

Nine years ago, about 100,000 students were enrolled in schools. The figure now stands at more than seven million students, one-third of whom are girls, according to the Afghanistan Ministry of Education.

"It's one of those sectors where we've seen radical and dramatic progress since 2002," notes Rowell.

"No one knows where the country is going … but education is a beacon of success."