The relationship between schooling and conflict in Afghanistan

The Taliban government’s decision earlier this year to ban girls from attending secondary school (grades 7-12) sent shock waves across the world. The outcry against this decision was loudin the country and internationallyand set back hard-won gains in access to education over the past two decades. While Afghans clearly value education, schooling has always been a source of conflict. The actions of the Taliban were a sordid manifestation of this larger problem.

The relationship between education and conflict has become a growing concern for academics and practitioners of the development of international education over the past two decades. Practitioners focused on teaching “peace education” and signing declarations such as theSafe Schools Statement and theConvention on the Rights of the Child (Afghanistan is a signatory to both). However, neither of these two initiatives has made much difference in practice. I argue that unless national and international educational development programs systematically address broader societal issues through dialogue that reconciles local concerns with global aspirations and considers education as an ecosystem rather than a single model, education will continue to be a cause of conflict rather than a source of unity, especially for fragile states, such as Afghanistan.

The closure of girls’ high schools

On August 15, 2021, the Taliban took control of the country from the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The takeover led to the temporary closure of all schools until mid-September, when the Taliban announced the reopening of primary schools for boys and girls, but that secondary schools for girls would remain closed.pending further deliberation. Girls’ secondary schools remained closed for the next six months. There was a ray of hope when the Taliban announced the reopening of secondary schools for girls at the start of the school year. Thousands of eager girls showed up in their uniforms for the first day of school on March 23, 2022, but their joy was short-lived. After a few hours, the school gates were firm, and the girls who had arrived at school with a smile went home with tears in their eyes. Three months have passed since the closures, and there is still no clear path to opening these girls’ schools or what that opening would look like.

As Afghans and international stakeholders grapple with how to accept the new regime in Kabul, ending the relationship between education and conflict should be high on their agenda.

The sudden and chaotic reversal of the closure of girls’ schools by Taliban Supreme Leader Mulla Hibatullah Akhundzada evensurprisedmany other Taliban government officials. This last-minute reversal appears to be a political calculus tied to the balance between aspirations for global legitimacy and maintaining the hardline image with the grassroots at the national level. The Taliban leaders see the issue of girls’ education as political leverage with the international community and within their ranks. Mulla Hibatullah Akhundzada probably did not think that opening secondary schools for girls would give his regime greater legitimacy with the international community, but it would certainly weaken the Taliban hardline and lead to a loss of grassroots support.

The rural-urban divide

Education has been at the center of power struggles in Afghanistan since the introduction of the modern school in the early 1900s. There is a long history of national and international actors manipulating the education system for political ends (in know morehereandhere). The main source of contention has centered on the balance between global forces of modernization and local desires to maintain religious and cultural identities.

Unfortunately, getting girls into school served as a litmus test for both sides in this struggle.not because conservative, rural people think girls shouldn’t be in schoolbut because of the symbolic power of the school. School girls have become the strongest symbol of modernization on the one hand and foreign domination through globalization on the other.

This tension manifested itself in a continuous cycle of expansion of modern education, followed by violent conflict (Figure 1). Throughout this time, national and international education development efforts have focused almost exclusively on tactical approaches to expanding access to schooling and have failed to address the relationship between schooling and conflict.

Figure 1. History of the modern school in Afghanistan

Source: author’s analysis.

Historically, there has been a noticeable divide in Afghanistan between rural and urban communities and how they perceive schooling and education. In general, students in the madrasa system (who usually come from rural communities) have sounded the alarm that schools are a mechanism to undermine religious and cultural identities, while urban elites have championed the school as a force for modernization and economic prosperity. The Taliban’s closure of secondary schools for girls is the latest example of how educationand the schooling of girls, in particularbecame a proxy for broader socio-cultural, political, religious and economic conflicts related to the balance between traditional and modernist aspirations.

Balancing global and local aspirations

The modern school is a global phenomenon that is primarily a by-product of Western religious, political and economic forces. The non-Western world mainly adopted (and expanded) schools through colonization, modernization efforts, and other forces of globalization. While some countries have succeeded in negotiating the articulation between their local educational aims and practices with that of the modern school, other countries have struggled to find this balance. The disconnect between traditional education systems and modern schooling, together with the dynamics of globalization, donor dependency and local politics of power and identity, have made schools a source of conflict. Afghanistan unfortunatelyAs many other fragile statesfalls into this latter category.

Previous search showed that fragmented and siloed education systems, with disparities in educational purpose, access, achievement and quality, as well as inequalities in the distribution of resources, fuel violence. To make education a source of unity rather than a source of conflict, I propose that national and international policymakers focus on three distinct areas as a starting point for addressing the underlying sources of conflict:

  1. Move away from a single delivery system perspective of schooling and embrace a broader ecosystem perspective that combines multiple pathways. Conduct a mapping exercise that outlines areas of divergence and potential sources of conflict between different educational pathways in the countryincluding parallel systems like formal and community schools, supplemental programs like private tuition, and competing educational models like madrasas and private schoolsseems like a good starting point.
  2. Provide a platform for dialogue within the countryand between local and global actorsto discuss and identify the greatest socio-political sources of division. This can help build a national consensus on the goals, objectives and purposes of education. A national strategy championed by local and national figures that engages all stakeholders through face-to-face meetings and traditional and social media can be a good strategy to start this dialogue.
  3. Embark on a comprehensive, comprehensive system overhaul to meet local and global aspirations. Designing a new national accreditation system for primary and secondary education that allows students to combine elements from across the education ecosystem into a unified national degree is a practical first step.

The relationship between education and conflict is complex and multifaceted and does not lend itself to easy solutions. The above suggestions are intended as a starting point in the right direction. In Afghanistan, the previous government was committed to overhauling the system, but unfortunately the cycle of violence halted those efforts before they could bear fruit. As Afghans and international stakeholders grapple with how to accept the new regime in Kabul, ending the relationship between education and conflict should be high on their agenda.

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