Afghanistan: Education In Conflict

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Afghanistan’s Education History


Emergence of Modern Education

Starting in early in the 20th century, as modern learning institutions made their first attempts toward achieving social integration and national development. The impetus of an educational system was made until Amir Sher Ali’s (1863-79) rule. According to Shorish (1988), the two famous schools were Maktab-e-Harbia (War School) in Shirpur and Mulki-e-Khawanin (Royalty school) in Bala-Hissar. Due to the burden of the second Afghan-Anglo War, the experiment was discontinued.

Later, Amir Abdur Rahman (1880-1901) opened some schools for members of the aristocracy, members of the bureaucracy and their families, and selected officers of the army. In addition, the government taught its ghulam-bachas (slave boys) who were sent to be educated and serve loyally to the king.

The first formal steps at creating a modern educational system occurred during the reign of Amir Habibullah (1901-1919). In 1903, he founded Habibia Lycee, which eventually adopted the curriculum of British Indian high schools. According to Ghobar (1967), Habibia Lycee produced intellectuals and some students were sent abroad to study in British India. Great strides were made in social literacy, newsprint, libraries, and public discourse.

In 1906, Sayyid Ahmad Kandahari created a literacy method and wrote 6 books including a teacher’s guide. In 1907, the Office of Textbooks was established to produce textbooks for the modern schools.

In the early 20th century, it became necessary to create an independent teacher-training institute that would have its own standard curriculum or competency required for the instructors and students. So, in 1912, the first teacher training college, Dar-al-Malimin, was established in Kabul and the next year the primary school system was broadened:

“The Department of Education was established in 1913 for the first time in order to modernize and broaden the curriculum of the traditional schools” (Miran, 1975, P.51).

Amir Habibullah’s son, Prince Enayatullah, was appointed Head of the Department. Education and school supplies were provided free of charge to all students. In addition, a small stipend was awarded to students as an incentive to pursue an education.

Most of the foundation for the educational system in Afghanistan was established after Shah Amanullah rose to the leadership and seized national independence in 1919. In 1922, the Ministry of Education was added and Prince Abdur Rahman was appointed as the country’s first Minister of Education.

Shah Amanullah and members of the Amani Movement established primary schools in major towns, villages, and cities. In 1922, with the assistance of French curriculum and teachers, Amaniyya (renamed in October 1929 to Istiqlal) Lycee was established. A year later, Amani (renamed in October 1929 to Nijat) Lycee was founded as a German high school. In 1927, Ghazi Lycee was founded and taught in the English. This was an attempt to bring Afghanistan closer to the educational standards in Turkey, Egypt and most importantly Europe. In addition, “In 1924, two vocational schools were opened, Maktab-e-Hukkam for administrative purposes, and the School of Fine and Applied Arts” (Miran, 1975, P.51).

In addition to schools in each province there were also schools for the country’s nomads. According to Miran (1975), during the Amani Period 14 intermediate and high schools were opened in Kabul and in parts of provincial capitals:

“One goal was a national system of schools with a modern curriculum. The beginnings of a network of government-run intermediate and secondary schools was achieved in 1928; as many as 40,000 students were enrolled” (Newell, 1972, P.54).

After the exiled Mahmud Tarzi returned from Turkey in 1901, he quickly was promoted to high government positions. As an Afghan statesman, Mahmud Tarzi, was a major lobbyist for a modern education system provided by the government. Referred as the father of Afghan journalism and the having the opportunity to study in India and Syria, Tarzi knew the value of modern education. Tarzi used his influence as the father-in-law of Shah Amanullah and also his status at the nation’s first foreign minister to impart wisdom and courage to his daughter, Queen Soraya.

The progressive trends of the Amani Movement led to the creation of the first girl’s high school, Masturat, in 1921 by Queen Soraya. Her mother, Rasmiya, served as the school’s first principal. In the period 1921-28 over 800 females attended Masturat (Bashiri, 2002). In 1928, co-education began in the first and second grades of Amaniyya Lycee.

Since no formal higher education system existed, top graduates were sent abroad to Germany, France, and Egypt in order to further their higher education potentials. Among them were some females who were sent to Turkey to continue their education. During the Amani period, “there were 205 Afghan students, including 10 girls, in Turkey” (Ghobar, 1999, P.69).

Unfortunately, enemies of the state propagated that government schooling is unreligious and if children attend schools, they become infidels. The propaganda wedged the traditional educational system (dominated by the clergy, feudal landlords, and tribal chieftain) versus the modern educational system (dominated by the state, intelligentsia, and urbanites). This tension coupled with foreign-sponsored insurgents incited by the Deobandi denomination clergy led to the 1929 rebellion. The educational system were brandished and defamed by the same factors leading to the rebellion.

Development of Modern Education

In January 1929, Shah Amanullah, in an attempt to prevent a civil war and bloodshed, abdicated and sought self-exile in Italy. All advancements made during his rule were reversed after his departure. Kabul was capture by a militia commander, Habibullah Kalakani, who ruled for 9-months. During this period, the regime and tribal leaders closed all schools.

Kalakani later surrendered but was executed by General Mohammad Nadir who had returned from France to regain the throne for Shah Amanullah. Instead, the general was proclaimed king by his comrade-in-arms. Ansary (1991) explains the general did not restore Shah Amanullah and some regard him as a usurper. In any case, while the new king was a cosmopolitan person, much of the progress of the progressive decade was undone. The regime had formed close ties with certain clergy and tribal chieftain Who eventually became the political base of the government.

In 1933 after his father’s assassination at the commencement ceremony of Amani Lycee, Prince Muhammad Zahir, a liberal and mild mannered teenager was crowned king Still, the remnants of the feelings of anti-modern education persisted. Not much progress had been made on the national education program. The religious conservatives which in part led the uprising against Shah Amanullah were immensely entrenched in the Nadir Shah regime especially in the ministry of justice and court system. Hence, limiting modern education in favor of more traditional education.

According to Ghobar (1999), Islah newspaper quoted Shah Amanullah’s former Education Minister, Faiz Mohammad Zikria (1925-27) that in the king last year in 1929, there were 83,000 female and male students in Afghan schools. Yet, according to Afghanistan’s Official Statistical Book published by the Nadir Shah regime, the respective of number of students published were 45,091 and number of teachers was 165. Why did the numbers provided by Shah Amanullah’s Education Minister, F.M. Zikria, and the report published by the Nadir Shah government differ? Did Minister Zikria overstate or the Nadir Shah regime understate? Not only was there a reduction in the reported number of students, but also in the number of teachers. Even with 45,091 students and 165 teachers being a correct statistic, the student to teacher ratio would be about 279 students per one teacher. This was a practical impossibility at that time since the infrastructure did not provide for such large classrooms. Ghobar (1999) explains there were only 27 schools for millions of people, which gave an impression that maybe the Afghan people were not interested in education. In order to please the religious and tribal conservatives, the new regime took on drastic regressive reforms:

“Among the first steps taken by the new monarchy was the closure of female schools and the Women Association of Kabul. The Irshad-e Naswan, the only newspaper published for enlightening women, was also banned. The government recalled the female Afghan students from Turkey and forced them to put on the veil. It imprisoned nine students returning from Turkey” (Ghobar, 1999, P.68).

One progressive move came in 1931 women were finally allowed to take classes at the Masturat Hospital in Kabul. In addition, in 1932, the faculty of medicine was founded.

Another regressive reform, which has been a controversial topic for Afghans, was the issue of language:

“In 1936, as part of [Zahir Shah’s family] the Musahiban’s attempt to strengthen the national ideology, Pashto was recognized as the official language. During King Amanullah’s reign both Pashto and Dari (Afghan Persian) were considered official languages” (Zulfacar, Page 14).

The government decided to replace the language of instructions, Dari, with only Pashtu in an attempt to bolster the state’s claim on Pashtunistan, currently Pakistan’s Northwestern Frontier Province. In 1946, the king’s uncle, Prime Minister Muhammad Hashim, resigned and another uncle, Shah Mahmud, took over. The government policy on the language of instruction was improved to a so-called bilingual model of Dari and Pashtu.

Nonetheless, there were some other progressive moves too:

“In 1939 the Ministry of Education under Prince [Muhammad] Naim created a High School for girls, called for several years a ‘Nursing School’ to prevent any social disturbance” (Watkins, 1963, P.172).

In the higher education system, the following academic faculties were established: law (1938), science (1942) and letters (1944). However, entrance to these faculties was reserved mainly for members of the aristocracy and the family members of top bureaucrats. In addition, private tutors gave high-ranking and wealthy Afghans the cultural capital -languages, literature, sciences, etc – necessary to leverage themselves in society.

Some favorable trends started to emerge in the late 1940s. Government expenditures on education came to comprise 40% of the national budget. In 1946, a Women’s Institute was started in Kabul. A year later, two girls’ high schools were created and in 1947, a women’s faculty of education was established. Furthermore steps were taken when:

“In 1949 the first group of girls having the equivalent of a high school diploma began to teach in girls’ schools” (Watkins, 1963, P.172).

According to Samady (2001), by 1950 there were 368 primary, secondary and vocational schools, and one teacher training school with a total of 95,300 students. The enrollment of children in primary education was 6% of the corresponding age (6 through 12) in an estimated population of 11 million people. In 1947, Kabul University was formally established. Three years later, the departments of theology, agriculture, and economics were founded.

In 1953, the king’s cousin (also, brother-in-law) Prince Muhammad Daoud became Prime Minister. Quickly, the government’s new policy took what Eastern and Western aid, milking both sides during the Cold War. UNICEF’s senior officer, Dr. Navarro explains, “Kabul University was one of the premiere universities in the region” (Cho, 2003).

It was starting to advance during Prime Minister Daoud’s administration, many more faculty departments were established. Some departments were affiliated with foreign universities in Germany, France, America, and the Soviet Union.

According to Samady (2001), in the 1950s efforts to expand education and improve its quality were started. In 1949, the Afghan government asked UNESCO to send a Mission to study its educational system. In 1954, USAID and Columbia University Teacher’s College came to improve the qualitative improvement of teacher education in Afghanistan. In 1955, the Institute of Education was created and later integrated into Kabul University. Two years later, the Faculty of Economics was established and the Faculty of Pharmacy in 1959. In 1962, the Faculty of Education and the Institute of Industrial Management was founded.

In the 1950s, Afghanistan tried many times to strengthen its relations with the United States but was rejected by American presidents. This was mainly due to the US-Pakistani coalition, thus Afghanistan turned to the Soviet Union for military assistance and later social, economics, and political assistance. From 1957 until 1974, the Soviets trained more than 60,000 skilled Afghan workers and 5,200 technicians. During this period, dozens of treaties and contracts were signed between Afghanistan and the Soviet Union.

By the early 1970s, about 90% of the Afghan armed forces were being trained by the Soviets. With the arms and weapons arrived Soviet advisors and experts and what followed were thousands of Afghans going to the Soviet Union for military training. Graduates from Afghan institutes of higher education won fellowships to the USSR and Warsaw Pact nations, and there emerged a growing cadre of military officers, students, and technocrats with modern ideals and indoctrinated with socialist sympathies. Slowly but surely the stage for the Sovietization of Afghanistan was being laid as even Prime Minister Daoud earned the nickname of “Red Prince” by western diplomats.

At the time of Prime Minister Daoud’s reign, three boarding high schools were also introduced in Kabul: Ibn Sina (later becoming Lycee), Khushal Khan Khattak Lycee, and Rahman Baba Lycee. Ibn Sina served as a teacher’s training institution equipping rural students to return and become teachers in their villages. Khushal Khan Khattak Lycee and Rahman Baba Lycee enrolled students from the tribal areas. There were some of the programs to integrate various tribes into the government.

Efforts to expand the educational services are accounted by Wilber (1962):

“In 1960 there were 175,600 pupils in 1,110 elementary schools of whom 19,000 were girls some 11,300 students, of whom 2,500 were girls, attended seventeen middle schools and eighteen secondary schools [The middle schools being grades seventh to ninth] there were thirty vocational schools with some 5,000 students, most of whom were young men some 193,000 students were enrolled in schools in Afghanistan and abroad, a figure double that of a decade [1950] earlier” (P. 85 & 87).

In 1963, Prime Minister Daoud was asked to step down by Zahir Shah. The king wanted to institute a constitutional monarchy and the presence of a powerful prime minister who was also a prince was something that would turn off the critics of the tribal monarchy from participation. Not surprisingly, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, debate was not restricted to only lecture halls, but the entire society was undergoing a transformational period. During this time scandalous cases of corruption also surfaced into the public debate circles. One relevant issue was the role of nepotism in the distribution of overseas scholarships and promotions. Kabul University was becoming a center for public discourse, social activism, and a check and balance on the government bureaucracy:

“By 1968, the Afghan professors and other academic members developed 350 textbooks and teaching” (Samady, 2001, P. 61).

It was in the 1960’s that new generation of educated Afghans entered the government bureaucracy. Further progress was realized in 1963 when the Faculty of Medicine at Nangahar University was founded in the city of Jalalabad in which Pashtu and English were the languages of instruction. Still, international projects continued unhampered and with the assistance of the Soviet Union in 1967 the Polytechnic Institute was created. For the next decade, a number of university faculties were established with international support namely the universities in the USSR, France’s universities in Lyon and Paris, German universities in Bonn, Bochum, Cologne and Leipzig, and American universities: Columbia University, Indiana University, University of Wyoming, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

However, political progress was coming to slow as the king and his establishment failed to ratify several important legislations drafted by the elected parliament. In 1973 while international aid declined and unemployment rose, the constitutional monarchy was abolished in a palace coup d’etat declaring former Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud as the country’s President of the first republican government. The Soviets immediately recognized the first new republican government. In the field of education, “Special attention was given to the development of technical and vocational education including agricultural education” (Samady, 2001, P. 11).

Not only was the constitution of the government styled after that of the Soviet Union but also changes in academia started to resemble the Soviet approach to education.

According to Shorish (1998), in 1975 about 12,000 high school graduates competed for about 3,000 places at Kabul University. In 1977, the education infrastructure could not support the educational demands. It was not a case of education inflation; rather it was a result of faulty planning and structural inadequacies. In 1978, there were more than one million students in primary and secondary schools and other educational institutions in Afghanistan. There were 152,750 girls and 5,070 female teachers in primary schools. In an attempt to reduce pressure on both the education system and the labor market, the government instituted an examination, the Concord, at the end of the eighth grade:

“Student enrollment in schools and other educational institutions in Afghanistan was over one million” (Samady, 2001, P.11).

The main purpose of the French-derived Concord was to weed out potentially successful university students from the rest of the student population.

In April 1978, President Muhammad Daoud was ousted and Nur Muhammad Taraki, head of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), ascended the presidency. Although the new government considered itself non-aligned, it was very much in alliance with the Soviet Union. The U.S. recognized the regime within a week and continued to send economic aid.

Being from the rural area, Taraki instituted Marxist style reforms, which emphasized literacy and educational opportunity expansion to farmers, rural dwellers, and women. According to Dobbs (1992), the April coup of 1978 caught the Kremlin by surprise and Moscow had even warned against the obstacles. Not considering the tensions between the modern systems and traditional systems, Taraki instituted drastic social and economic measures, including land reform, women’s rights and education, thus continuing to offend those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo.

His Prime Minister, Hafizullah Amin, subsequently ousted President Nur Muhammad Taraki in September 1979. President Amin had previously been a PhD. candidate at Columbia University as well as a principle in one of the boarding high schools in Kabul. The Amin regime executed and imprisoned intellectuals and technocrats from all over the political spectrum such as the royalists, religious elements, and rival leftist groups of society. He did not hesitate to go after his own party members such as President Taraki or his sympathizers.

Interestingly, Amin had declared a jihad on illiteracy while leftist were plotting his overthrow and the mujahidin renewed their call to jihad (holy war) started in 1973 against the state. a jihad against his regime. Neither the leftists nor mujahidin were able to overthrow him because in December 1979 Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan. While people were freed of Amin what took shape was a Soviet Vietnam scenario and eventual training ground for foreign Al-Qaida fighters And promotion of fanaticism among Afghans. Furthermore, pitting the Afghan government against the mujahidin as proxies for the Cold War between the USSR and USA.

In 1980, Babrak Karmal, former 1960s parliamentarian, became the country’s fourth president. President Karmal was a graduate of Habibia Lycee and Kabul University and went on to become a member of the 1960s parliament. Literacy courses and programs educating about health, technology were expanded throughout the country. Ansary (2002) explains that lots of advances in education were made. Since the 1950s the educational system was becoming increasingly indoctrinated and funded by the USSR. This trend increased after the Red Army invasion. However, Dar-al-Olum, as well the Islamic Studies Department at the university, religious teaching in primary and secondary schools remained intact, religious madrassas and other learning centers became part of the modern educational system.

Part of the reforms included the creation of a Pedagogical research centers. In 1981, the Central Institute for the Retraining of Teachers was established. In 1982, the Kabul Pedagogical Institute was founded. Figures from the 1980’s show that about 1,000 licensed Afghan doctors graduated yearly not including those on student visas in foreign countries.

Further academic exchanges were established with Eastern Bloc countries as the American and Western exchanges stopped. Starting in 1978, many West German projects were taken over by East Germany until 1989. In fact, the East Germans built the Hotaki high school. Kabul University for the first time established a Spanish Language Department. In the 1980’s about 70 students registered for Spanish courses each semester (Rovira, 2002).

In the 1980s, the government placed emphasis on adult education, literacy programs, higher education, and the other languages of Afghanistan. According to Burhan (1972), even until in the 1970s no concern was shown for the Turkic language speakers who constituted 10% of the population. In the 1980s, some of those languages merited recognition by the Ministry of Education.

In 1986, Dr. Muhammad Najibullah, former head of the Afghan intelligence agency, became the country’s fifth president. That same year, a new university was founded in Balkh. President Najibullah, a graduate of the school of medicine at Kabul University realized the need for more higher education throughout the country by opening two new universities were founded in Herat (1988), and Kandahar (1991). While facing obstacles on other front, the government was succeeding in educating and fighting literacy:

“the enrollment in institutions of higher education increased at an annual rate of four percent with a total enrollment of 14,600 students in 1990, Kabul University had about 10,000 students (sixty percent female) and 620 teachers” (Samady, 2001, P.72).

This increased the number of students at the local level:

“In 1991, there were 577 primary schools with an enrollment of 628,000 pupils including 212,000 girls. Enrollments in secondary education and higher education were 182,000 and 24,000 respectively” (Samady, 2001, P. 77).

It is from Giustozzi (2000) that we are informed that while the government and mujahidin battled, the mujahidin in Kandahar sent their children to government schools because the alternative was undeveloped education.

The government’s opposition had an inferior educational system. The already weak system was paralyzed when the Soviet Union left in 1989 because U.S. aid to the Afghan factions in Pakistan dropped tremendously while money from Saudi Arabia tripled:

“Much of that aid went into building the Islamic religious schools” (Healy, 2003).

At the end of ten years, there were 40,000 of these schools, most religious schools, in the borderland area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some experts reported the Pakistani government was ultimately responsible for all schools in the refugee camps, although many factions had organized their own schools in the Northwestern Frontier Province (NWFP) than in Baluchistan.

Furthermore, although the majority of refugees sought shelter in NWFP, the Pakistani government’s only seven sponsored Dari-language schools existed in Baluchistan. So, parents wanting Dari language instruction had to either send their children to private schools or to the factional sponsored schools. The educational system was an institutional and systematic failure for the obvious reasons such as inefficient teacher-student ratios, learning material deficiency, inclusion of at least 3 age groups in each class, and lack of sheltered building.

During the Afghan conflict, some children in neighboring refugees were being taught that “three tanks plus two rocket-propelled grenades is equal to five instruments of [war] … weapons of war were used as typical examples for teaching arithmetic – common, as they were, as apples and oranges” (Prusher, 2002, P. 12).

Very few kids attained a modern educational upbringing unless they entered other than these schools. It was the militant infusion into the educational content, mentioned earlier, that led to create a generation solely dependent on war to resolve hostility.

Demise of Modern Education

In April 1992 the Afghan government transferred power to the Islamic Jihad Council (IJC) which was designated by the Peshawar Accords. Within days the various factions collided and Kabul was engulfed in urban warfare cascading throughout the country.

This had immense impact on education. There was no uniform curriculum and religious education was prioritized as more important. The equal education opportunities of boys and girls were not provided while religious schools for boys were encouraged. To make matter worse, schools and Kabul University became the stages for warfare and pillage (Shorish, 1998).

Due to fighting and the security situation the universities and schools were frequently closed. There was damage to buildings and insecurity, which affected school attendance as teachers, administrators, and students became displaced. Schools and universities became the stages for warfare and pillage. Even laboratories, furniture, and the electric wiring from inside the walls of its classrooms were stolen.

According to Basharat (2002), the rival factions targeted the libraries and thousands of volumes were either looted or burnt, and rare titles smuggled and sold off for high prices in the antiquarian book markets of the United States, Europe and Japan:

“The University Library, opened in 1964, was another victim. It used to contain about a million books, including a huge archive of scientific journals, some 7,000 academic monographs, and more than 500 manuscripts and hundreds of bound archived copies of magazines and newspapers.”

In an article entitled Raping the Libraries of Kabul details of how the various factions burnt or sold millions of hand written books on religion, history, poetry, and autobiographies of great scholars (Hussain, 1998). From that million-volume collection only 20,000 books survived.

Nonetheless, a glimmer of hope for modern education occurred between 1992 and 1994, in Mazar-e Sharif where primary and secondary schools as well as Balkh University resumed. Most of the teachers from Kabul University sought refuge to the north. In Herat there was the emergence of higher educational organizations. Herat University had several functioning faculties in 1994.

By 1996, Afghanistan was divided into two military groups: the Northern Alliance (former mujahidin) and the Taliban. The Taliban who mainly grew up in orphanages or rather religious seminary schools in Pakistan. These schools promoted the Deobandi and Wahabi denominations of Islam and manifested in the Taliban:

“By 1999, at least eight Taliban Cabinet ministers in Kabul were graduates of the Pakistani [Deobandi] school and dozens more graduates served as Taliban provincial governors, military commanders, judges and bureaucrats” (Kremmer, 2001).

The Deobandis and Wahabis, both reformists’ movements, have restrictive reformatory views on art, music, the role of women, and other sects of Islam. Since coming to power 1995, Taliban completely closed down school especially any for girls. Only religious studies in religious schools (madrassas) were allowed for boys. Still, many Afghans schooled their children illegally at home in modern educational curriculum.

“According to UNESCO, over the past two decades, Afghanistan lost an estimated 20,000 experts and academics, while its 17 universities and institutes were left devastated by conflict” (UN News Service, 2002).

The thousands of teachers and education administrators became victims of war, underwent intellectual apartheid, or left Afghanistan especially after the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996.


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