(London, July 11, 2006) - Escalating attacks by the Taliban and other armed groups on teachers, students and schools in Afghanistan are shutting down schools and depriving another generation of an education, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Schools for girls have been hit particularly hard, threatening to undo advances in education since the Taliban's ouster in 2001.
"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."
Selected Testimonies from "Lessons in Terror":
"In the first three years there were a lot of girl students - everyone wanted to send their daughters to school. For example, in Argandob district [a conservative area], girls were ready; women teachers were ready. But when two or three schools were burned, then nobody wanted to send their girls to school after that."
- Female representative on Kandahar's provincial council, December 11, 2005.
"The Taliban 'went to each class, took out their long knives... locked the children in two rooms, [where they] were severely beaten with sticks and asked, 'will you come to school now?'' The teachers said that they were taken out of school. The Taliban asked them individually, 'Why are you working for Bush and Karzai?' They said, 'We are educating our children with books - we know nothing about Bush or Karzai, we are just educating our children.' After that, they were cruelly beaten and let go."
- Education official from Maruf district, Kandahar province, describing how the Taliban shut down his school in June 2004, speaking to Human Rights Watch on December 9, 2005. All schools in the district closed down that year.
"I saw these two men... One of them fired a full magazine in Laghmani's chest... I was afraid for my life and hid around a corner. I did not know who the victim was. After the killers fled, I went to the gate and saw Laghmani lying dead... It was awful.... We have been receiving night letters, but no one thought they would really kill a teacher!"
- Eyewitness speaking to Human Rights Watch on December 21, 2005, describing how on December 14, 2005, two men on a motorbike shot and killed a teacher at the gate of the school where he taught, in Zarghon village in Nad Ali district, Helmand province.
"I was a first grade teacher at [name withheld] Primary School for girls . . . Last November , I was walking with girls towards school, and on our way I found a letter... It was a clear threat to me and all students going to that school. It said [in Pashto]: 'To all girl students and school teachers who are teaching in girls' schools! We warn you to stop going to school, as it is a center made by Americans. Anyone who wants to go to school will be blown up. To avoid such a death, we warn you not to go to school.'
"After reading this letter, I along with my family decided not to go to school because those who are warning us are quite powerful and strong. We are ordinary people and we can not challenge them. Also, I asked the girls from my village not to go back to school... All the girls from my village would really like to attend that school... but the problem is security - what will happen if they really plant bombs on our way? That's the reason.
- Former teacher, Laghman province, June 7, 2005.
"I said, 'Please don't include Helmand province in your target areas, because we will have to hire staff two times: we will send staff and they will be killed.' This is not a joke. We cannot take charge of working there. This is the main place where the Taliban operates."
- Staff member of an Afghan NGO that has weathered serious security problems explaining why he urged the coordinator of a joint NGO program not to expand the program to Helmand, speaking with Human Rights Watch on December 15, 2006.
"While culture is an issue, security is more important because even those people who want to break tradition are not able to."
- Member of a women's group in Kandahar city, December 8, 2005.