Afghanistan's war is killing its students, and its whole education system

The country cannot stabilise without an educated population, but people cannot go to school without stability

Afghans go through belongings left behind after deadly bombings on Saturday near a school in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, May 9, 2021. The Interior Ministry said the death toll in the horrific bombing at the entrance to a girls' school in the Afghan capital has soared to some 50 people, many of them pupils between 11 and 15 years old, and the number of wounded in Saturday's attack has also climbed to more than 100. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)
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The graduation of each and every one of the more than 50 pupils killed on Saturday in a car bomb attack outside of Kabul’s Sayed Al Shuhada secondary school should have been a crowning achievement for Afghanistan.

They are not even the first victims of such an attack this month. On May 1, another car bomb exploded outside a guest house in Logar province, where a group of students was staying after having travelled to the capital to sit their university entrance exams.

As Afghanistan prepares to enter a new phase in its history – one marked by the accelerating withdrawal of US forces and their foreign allies – one of its greatest tests will be sorting out the vexing riddle that paralyses its education system and, with it, the country’s hopes for prosperity.

Afghanistan cannot become a stable, prosperous country if its young people are not educated. And they cannot receive an education if their country is unstable and under-resourced. This was widely recognised to be an issue as the US first invaded Afghanistan in 2001, when most Afghans born during the preceding two decades had no formal education at all. Two decades on, the issue remains. And given that Afghanistan has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of just 15, allowing this problem to fester means the consequences in future years will only grow worse.

The World Bank identifies four basic requirements for schools to succeed in getting their students to learn: skilled and motivated teachers, effective school management, school resources and preparation for students. According to a survey conducted by the organisation in 2019, Afghanistan is severely lacking in every one.

Entirely incompetent teachers outnumber skilled ones. The World Bank survey found that, in fourth-grade classes, a mere 40 per cent of teachers showed any evidence of mastering the language curriculum. Even fewer had any mastery of mathematics. In primary school, which includes the fourth grade, every minute of learning at the hands of a good teacher counts for that much more – the school day is a mere three-and-a-half hours long. As the World Bank has noted, this means that Afghan children “receive less effective teaching than any sub-Saharan African country”.

When skilled instructors can be found, they are often required to travel considerable – and dangerous – distances to reach the schools that need them. The same goes for administrators and even exam invigilators. While the students killed in the Logar guest house bombing had managed to travel to Kabul to sit their university entrance exams, most of their peers elsewhere in the country are unable to do the same. In some places, students had to sit their exams weeks or months early because of a shortage of invigilators from the capital. Thanks to a national education system that is highly centralised, but nonetheless very weak, training staff locally is not an option.

In other circumstances, early exams might simply be frustrating. But in rural Afghanistan, they can be physically agonising, because exams very often must be held outside in the open. Nearly half of the 18,000 schools in the country lack adequate facilities, and more than 450 schools have been closed down – many because of damage caused by the ongoing war. In Daykundi province, in central Afghanistan, exams had to be held at the start of March this year. Photos circulated on social media of hundreds of students seated outside in a field, on the ground, without chairs, with their exam papers on their laps, covered in snow.

HEX6WJ 101104-F-1020B-013.jpg Kabul - More than 4,560 candidates take a test to compete for 600 available National Military Academy of Afghanistan slots in the class of 2015 at the academy in Kabul Nov. 4, 2010. The academy issued invitations to the top three percent of recent high school graduates to attend a three-day selection process which consists of a physical fitness and written exam. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Sarah Brown/RELEASED) Flickr - DVIDSHUB - Thousands compete for Afghan military academy (Image 1 of 9). Alamy
Schools in Afghanistan are often forced to hold exams outside due to poor facilities. Alamy

The students who brave these circumstances – who, incredibly, have the privilege of braving them – are only slightly less rare than the skilled teachers who prepare them. Nearly four million Afghan children are not enrolled in any school at all, out of a total school-aged population of 8.4 million. The Covid-19 pandemic forced hundreds of millions of children around the world to forgo classroom schooling last year, but in Afghanistan, the consequences have been particularly catastrophic. The UN estimates that 40 per cent of young Afghans now are neither enrolled nor employed.

There is a dangerous spiral between this severe under-education and the country’s prospects of remaining locked in war. And while it may appear to be a chicken-and-egg paradox that stability requires education and vice versa, in truth, the spiral can go up or down.

There is a popular and perennial conspiracy theory in Afghanistan that every one of the past century’s eruptions of war is caused by some state or another lusting after the country’s precious resources. And yet, no invading force has ever undertaken a serious effort to mine copper, iron ore, chromite or even lapis lazuli. There is only one truly precious resource in a country as poor as Afghanistan, and that is the potential of its people. In other words, their desire to learn, to educate themselves and be educated and to do better. Any side to the country’s war – be it the government or the Taliban or anyone else – who wants to see the country thrive, even under their own preferred ideology, must recognise the basic value of education in achieving that.

Even an extremist government needs engineers and doctors. Even an extremist government needs scientists to protect its population from pandemics. Militants do not have to attack students. Even they must come to see the sense in resisting that urge. Just this tiny gesture in favour of stability might grant just enough room for just enough education to breed just a little more stability.

One student signing up for this year’s university entrance exams, in Paktia province, understands this better than anyone. He is in his 70s, having lived long enough to see what Afghanistan once was and what it has become. By sitting for his exam, he has shown that he also knows what Afghanistan could yet be.