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Afghanistan: Bombs and threats shut down schools
In the 142-page report, “Lessons in Terror: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch documented 204 incidents of attacks on teachers, students and schools since January 2005. This number, which underestimates the severity of the crisis due to the difficulty of gathering data in Afghanistan, reflects a sharp increase in attacks as the security situation in many parts of the country has deteriorated. There appear to have been more attacks on the education system in the first half of 2006 than in all of 2005. Southern and southeastern Afghanistan face the most serious threat, but schools in other areas have also been attacked.
“Schools are being shut down by bombs and threats, denying another generation of Afghan girls an education and the chance for a better life,” said Zama Coursen-Neff, co-author of the report. “Attacks on schools by the Taliban and other groups that are intended to terrorize the civilian population are war crimes and jeopardize Afghanistan’s future.”
Human Rights Watch found entire districts in Afghanistan where attacks had closed all schools and driven out the teachers and non-governmental organizations providing education. Insecurity, societal resistance in some quarters to equal access to education for girls, and a lack of resources mean that, despite advances in recent years, the majority of girls in the country remain out of school. Nearly one-third of districts have no girls’ schools.
The assault on education in Afghanistan is part of a dramatic resurgence over the past year of armed opposition to the central government and its international supporters. In addition to targeting educational facilities, the Taliban and other armed groups have used tactics previously rare in Afghanistan, such as suicide bombings against civilians and attacks on aid workers. Threatening messages – known as “night letters” – targeting teachers, students and government employees now appear with far greater frequency than before.
The Taliban and allied groups, such as warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, were responsible for many, but not all, of the attacks on schools and teachers that Human Rights Watch investigated. In other instances, local warlords have carried out such attacks to strengthen their local control. Afghanistan’s rapidly growing criminal networks, many involved in the production and trade of narcotics, also target schools because in many areas they are the only symbol of government authority.
“The Taliban, local warlords and criminal groups now share the goal of weakening the central government, creating a perfect storm of violence that threatens Afghanistan’s recovery and reconstruction,” said Sam Zarifi, co-author of the report. “These groups are exploiting the international forces’ failures on security in order to alienate Afghans from a central government that can’t protect them.”
Afghanistan has received a fraction of the funding and peacekeeping support given to recent post-conflict situations such as the Balkans and East Timor, Human Rights Watch said. Troops from NATO, operating under the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), have only recently begun moving into southern Afghanistan, where insecurity and armed insurgency pose the greatest threat. They replace U.S. troops whose mandate was directed at military operations against the Taliban, and not aimed at providing security for the local populace.
“For four years, the international community has shortchanged Afghanistan on security, and the Taliban and other armed groups are filling the vacuum,” said Zarifi, Asia research director at Human Rights Watch. “But the situation isn’t hopeless yet. The U.S. and NATO must show that they can and will make life safer and better for ordinary Afghans.”
Human Rights Watch called on armed opposition groups, including the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami, to immediately halt all attacks on civilians and civilian objects, in particular teachers, students and schools. The organization also urged the Afghan government, NATO and the U.S.-led coalition forces to implement a security policy firmly tethered to the development needs of the Afghan people. The Afghan government, with international support, needs a strategy to monitor, prevent and respond to attacks on education. At a minimum, it should keep track of attacks, identify and protect schools most at risk, and strengthen Afghanistan’s feeble police force so that it can investigate, arrest and prosecute those responsible.
“A key measurement of the international community’s success in Afghanistan must be the safety of ordinary Afghans,” said Coursen-Neff, senior researcher in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. “Access to education is a critical benchmark. If it’s too dangerous to send children to school, there is no real security and no real development.”