Economy & Development

The Battle for Schools in Ghazni – or, Schools as a Battlefield


The anti-Taleban uprising by the people of Andar in the spring surprised many observers and, quite possibly, the insurgents themselves. This made it possible to portray it as a spontaneous struggle of local villagers for the right to education during its first weeks. Now, a month later, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini feels that, rather than risk describing something real in mystifying terms, we must look at the plausible reasons for all the actors involved to have acted as they have done – and consider the possible outcomes of their actions.

Two months after it was first reported that the Taleban were forcibly closing schools in Ghazni and one month after residents of possibly the most-Talebanised district in the province, Andar, rebelled and took up arms against the insurgents, the situation is far from having returned to normality.(1) Only a few days ago, in a clash in the village of Paindeh Muhammad, one of the epicentres of the revolt, as many as ten militants were reportedly found dead. Repercussions of the events have even reached the provincial centre, Ghazni city. On Sunday of last week (24 June 2012), a delegation of the district residents marched to the provincial capital and protested against the fact that the Taleban had burnt down houses in Andar to punish the rebels and, during this action, had destroyed several copies of the Quran. Separately, the explosion of a ‘bicycle bomb’ in a playground in the city may well have been part of the Taleban’s retaliation against the support that the provincial government is lending people in Andar.

And then there is the question: a return to what normality? In Andar, and more generally in southern Ghazni, tables had already been turned before this last coup de theatre: in this context, the rebels were not the Taleban, but those who take up arms against established Taleban authority there. When government institutions interfere and try and support these ‘rebels’, they risk putting at stake the sort of informal, if not cease-fire, then restricted-fire inside Ghazni city, which they had earlier negotiated with the Taleban.(2) Just one week after the rebellion started, eight rockets were fired into the city. Then on 1 July, a roadside bomb hit a bus travelling on a bypass road off the main highway killing five civilians, among them a mother and her child.

From the beginning, events in Andar had a surrealistic air. A ban on motorcycles – or better, a comprehensive attempt on the part of the government to reduce the number of unregistered bikes in circulation – may sound a strange casus belli. But bikes are a main means of transportation of the insurgents. So, in late April, the Taleban responded to the motorcycle ban by ordering the closure of all schools in the province. It was dramatically effective. At least, this was the case in the first days, with more than one hundred educational institutions forced to close down between 20 and 25 April. These school closures happened mostly in the Pashtun-inhabited districts of the province, where the insurgency is stronger. Among the most affected districts was Andar, where for many years now the Taleban have had more clout than the government (read some old reports from 2006 here and here or, more recently, here). And then, armed confrontation erupted between the inhabitants of a cluster of villages south of the district centre and the militants, and it soon became clear that the latter were able neither to solve the revolt diplomatically or quench it militarily.

Andar is no normal place on the map of Afghanistan. This densely populated district south of Ghazni has been a significant centre for religion and politics for centuries, and many of its leaders wholeheartedly supported the Taleban in the past and up to very recent times(3). The roots of this revolt cannot easily be traced back to some sort of structural opposition to Taleban presence based on political, religious or ethno-linguistic reasons. It seems instead that the population reacted angrily to the Taleban efforts at curbing any sort of educational or social activity carried on by local youth, and to the ruthless methods they employed in doing so.

Of course, a political track is also there to explain the swift and prolonged mobilisation of the locals. A cluster of villages south of the district centre has a history of Hezb-e Islami presence, and clashes between armed members of this organisation and the Taleban started immediately after the school ban in early May. The frequency of the clashes intensified, with the outcome shifting progressively in favour of the Hezbis. Soon, developments in Andar caught the attention of the government. Local powerbrokers linked to Hezb-e Islami, like former Ghazni governor, Faizanullah Faizan, and former MP, Abdul Jabbar Shilgari, both from the area, returned to try and reassert their clout in Andar after years of Taleban hegemony had forced them to stay back in Kabul. Hezb-e Islami networks also seem to have been instrumental in extending the anti-Taleban uprising in neighbouring Deh Yak district(4).

The Hezb-e Islami connection has certainly contributed to strengthen and militarise the revolt.(5) But it does not explain its outbreak since the role the party had played in Andar in the past had long faded in comparison to the strength of the local Taleban. The reasons for the hostility of the villagers vis-à-vis the Taleban are not to be found in politics, but in a broader and deeper malaise which affects rural communities in many areas of the country. The hardship caused by an unending conflict and the consequent economic depression experienced by rural communities who have now supported the Taleban for many years must not be underestimated. When the same people feel they are suddenly treated like enemies by the insurgents, for example seeing their youth deprived of a basic education – which is one of the few potential keys to access the more remunerative labour market of cities like Ghazni or Kabul – because of broader political developments for which the community is not in the least responsible, they can come to realise that there is no other way than force to be respected and allowed to live their own way.

The re-opening of schools in a number of provinces and districts where government control is barely effective – like the Pashtun-inhabited areas of Ghazni where re-opening started from early 2010 – has been possible mainly thanks to the exertions of the local communities. They endeavoured to convince the Taleban of the necessity for education and other basic projects, after some years of insurgent targeting of school buildings and personnel. As explained in an AAN report on this, Taleban were motivated, in their phase of expansion, to try and ‘bridge the gap with rural communities’ and, also, to make up for their inability to provide services to the population by getting onboard the government program, or even by trying to co-opt it. In fact, they tried to exert their power by having a say, at least locally, on the choice of curricula, textbooks and teachers.

The Taleban who decided to allow schools to re-open a couple of years ago are largely the same who today are moving in the opposite direction, at least in Ghazni. If their purpose then was to gain popularity and reach out to the public – and if, as the AAN report states, these efforts showed how ‘village communities were seen as primary interlocutors’ – does it mean that now they are more keen to use them as bargaining tools vis-à-vis the government? Is the logic of the conflict becoming more separated from the priorities of the communities?

Education is certainly a priority for many communities, but one can hardly think of it as the single issue for which Afghan villagers would all of a sudden be ready to switch allegiance and brave death (6). Moreover, there seems to be an increasing trend among communities to use schools as a means to pressure the state with respect to other, possibly more vital needs. Last month, in Momand Dara of Nangrahar province, local residents, headed by an MP originating from the area, closed down schools and clinics in protest against the usurpation of land in the district by a rival group. After the deadly US airstrike in Sejawand of Baraki Barak, in Logar, on 5 June, residents decided to close the village school in protest, with the backing of the local Taleban.

Does this mean that the main value vested in those schools for local residents is the attention they receive from the government and the media? Many in the Afghan government are certainly interested in guaranteeing at least the formal existence and functioning of schools across the country, for both political and economic reasons. And, in a place like Andar, locals could surely be interested in defending the right to education for their children, but also in taking their chance to draw in external support and funds, and find a way to escape the military and economic impasse they have been stuck with for years.

The Taleban still seem to lack both a comprehensive and consistent policy on education, something which could put schools beyond the risk of becoming targets, or the ability to implement such a policy (read about another case of a recent school ban from Nangrahar). Consequently, the move of the Ghazni Taleban seems to be more in line with the priorities of the Taleban’s military leadership. In recent times, according to a number of observers, the Taleban’s military chief, Mulla Abdul Qayum Zaker, has been striving to refute the idea that the movement has been weakened by years of substantial losses and is currently more interested in entrenching in rural areas rather than confront the outgoing foreign troops directly.

This hard-line attitude could be behind Taleban attempts to put down the rebellion militarily and to heavily target the civilians involved. This might be particularly the case, given reports of the Taleban targeting two brothers in Andar who had been running the local insurgency. They were deemed to have had too ‘soft’ an approach, actually one which was very much in tune with the needs and priorities of locals. Significantly, they had been unwilling to enforce the ban on education (read also a recent Newsweek article about this here). The Taleban also seem to have focused more on scaling up attacks on ANSF and ISAF, possibly with a view to raising their status among the populace to that of mujahedin, rather than oppressors.

On the other hand, Taleban in Ghazni have shown some restraint in attacking those schools which did not close, or that reopened soon (the murder of a high school principal in Ghazni on 6 June seems suspicious though). This may be in order not to worsen their overall image among the public further, and it would show that they have not grown completely apart from the need to go along with local communities.

As for the future of the Andar ‘rebels’, much will depend on the type of response their enterprise solicits from Kabul and the NATO command. Someone who claims to be their spokesman declared they consider themselves independent of both the Taleban and the government, and they do not ask for government military support, but only for development aid.(7) Still, they will need support (and they are reportedly receiving it) in order to hold out against the Taleban in the long run.

If the ‘rebels’ mobilisation indeed has to do with an increasing Hezb-e Islami involvement, it could lead to the creation of a local militia or ALP unit under the auspices of government-related powerbrokers originally from the province. This would give them the ability to resist a Taleban backlash. But whether this would eventually lead to better security and increased possibilities for local kids to attend school – the originally stated objective of the rising – is something to be seen. Similar projects have often just altered the local political power balance and created new conflicts (see for example AAN blogs on Gizab here and here). But the temptation to spoil the Taleban game in a stronghold like Andar may be too big, for the government and the NATO command to allow for sound judgements about long-term effects or what might ultimately be best for local people.(8)

(1) For a look at a similar pattern of events in Andar early on in the insurgency, see the essay by Reuter and Younus, ‘The Return of the Taliban in Andar District, Ghazni’, in Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban (pp115–16). Reuter and Younus describe how initial local support for the Taleban (because of government predations) turned to opposition because of abuses, extremist bans and arbitrary punishments meted out by local Taliban commanders. In that case, the leadership stepped in to remove unpopular commanders and soothe local feelings.

(2) The development of a sort of modus vivendi between insurgents and government in the provincial capital is hinted at in the story of a previous barrage of rockets on the city, which caused the death of a child last November. The attack would have been ‘agreed’ between the governor and the Taleban, only to end in tragedy by mistake.

(3) The Andar area, also called Shulgar in former times, has been home to a number of political-religious leaders in the history of Afghanistan, from Mulla Mushk-e Alam, one of the major forces behind the ‘Ghazni Party’ (or National Party) which opposed the British occupation of Kabul during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), and whose son, Abdul Karim, would become the leader of the Ghilzai rebellion against King Abdur Rahman (1886-87); to Ghulam Muhammad Niazi, one of the founders of the Islamic Movement of the early 1970s which was to split into the major Jehadi tanzims during the following decade. (Niazi was arrested under the regime of President Daud in 1974 and later killed; according to Olivier Roy and Gilles Dorronsoro this happened after the failed 1975 Islamist uprising, according to Hassan Kakar and Adamec.) The district also hosts the prestigious madrasa, Nur-ul Madaris, (which also reopened recently), which was a focal point for several religious movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Nasrullah Mansur, leader of a break-away faction of the mujahedin partyHarakat-e Inqilabi-ye Islami (whose founder, Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, although from Logar, was Andar by tribe), used to teach there. His brother, Abdul Latif Mansur, still leads the so-called Mansur network, a major component of the Taleban movement in neighbouring Paktia province (find background on the Mansur network in this AAN report).

(4) There have been reports from analysts working in the region that the local Taleban commander of Dehyak had been particularly opposed to education in past years.

(5) Kabul daily Hasht-e Sobh (8am, 30 June 2012) even sees government influence behind Hezb’s role in Andar, calling this a ‘good trick’. It writes that ‘if the Afghan government […] is behind this movement […], after the destruction of the Taleban in Ander, it needs to activate the local administration make the ANP and ANA take over securing order’.

(6) In several areas of the country, opposition to schools did not come from the Taleban only. Mullas, jihadi organisations other than the Taleban and conservative elders have often proved resistent too. In some cases, even in a region usually considered relatively well-off in terms of education like the East, they have been the major forces behind threats, arson and more serious episodes of violence concerning schools (Nangrahar’s Chaparhar district in particular has a bad record of these kind of incidents). In some districts, a major concentration of Taleban leaders and a total lack of government control does not prevent schools from working (like in Alasay of Kapisa), while in adjacent districts at least partially controlled by Kabul, school attendance lags behind because of social objections from locals (such as nearby Tagab).

(7) Another article in 8am (30 June) quotes Lutfullah Kamran, the leader of the movement, saying his followers ‘have problems with the Afghan government as well’, particularly about corruption, oppression and inefficiency and that the government ‘never cared about us and our problems over the last ten years’. Therefore, they would accept government support on education and health but not military support. The author of this article concludes that the relationship between the government and this movement is not clear’ yet. Kamran also gives more detail about the movement, saying that he has 500 armed supporters who control 31 villages, that the uprising has extended to Giro district and that the plan is to ‘spread this movement over the whole of Afghanistan’ (source: AAN media monitoring).

(8) In fact, a US military operation, termed by one media outlet the ‘last major offensive’ in Afghanistan, has long been announced to take place at some point during the summer. Major operations by foreign troops, with their potential for causing civilian casualties and local resentment, could end up helping the Andar Taleban to sail out of the troubled waters they put themselves in.

 

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development