‘Infidels are our enemy’: Afghan fighters cherish old American schoolbooks

Amid debate about Western-funded education programs, Taliban still use anti-Russian texts funded by US

Afghan students in Ghazni in May 2014. Afghanistan has had only rare moments of peace over the past 30 years, wth its education system undermined by the Soviet invasion of 1979, a civil war in the 1990s and five years of Taliban rule.
Rahmatullah Alizada / AFP / Getty Images

Millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars helped fan religious conflict in Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to a major new study, and even money spent since 9/11 may have stoked tensions.

The conventional wisdom that building schools in a conflict zone helps promote peace and stability is called into question by New York University professor Dana Burde, whose findings make sobering reading for donors as reconstruction of Afghanistan enters a crucial period.

“Aid education may not always have the influence that we think,” she said. “Although there are dramatic and positive results of current support to education in Afghanistan today, this was not always the case.” 

Promoting violence — in the form of jihad against the Soviet invaders and their local proxies — was the goal of the U.S.-funded education effort in the 1980s and early ’90s. Textbooks such as “The Alphabet of Jihad Literacy,” funded by the U.S. and published by the University of Nebraska at Omaha, came out at a time when the CIA was channeling hundreds of millions of dollars to mujahedeen fighters to resist the Soviet occupation.

USAID funded textbooks for distribution at refugee camps in Pakistan, with content written by mujahedeen groups with the support of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the CIA.

Burde said the rationale of this indoctrination in the ideas of warfare as religious duty rested on the assumption of the “importance of starting early.” While the U.S. program ended with the collapse of Afghanistan’s communist government, its textbooks have spawned dozens of copies and revised editions, she said.

She managed to find several old copies of the Pashto-language books and a 2011 edition on sale in the Pakistani city of Peshawar as recently as last year. The Taliban, she said, continues to recommend these books for children.

The majority of the book’s 41 lessons glorify violence in the name of religion. “My uncle has a gun,” reads the entry for the letter T, using the Pashto word for “gun,” “topak.” “He does jihad with the gun.”

‘Aid education may not always have the influence that we think. Although there are dramatic and positive results of current support to education in Afghanistan today, this was not always the case.’

Dana Burde

professor, New York University

And while some details have changed, references to Soviets and communists remain. More alarmingly for U.S. and international forces still in the country, the textbooks describe all nonbelievers as the enemy.

“Our religion is Islam. Muhammad is our leader. All the Russians and infidels are our enemy.”

“Kabul is the capital of our dear country,” reads the entry for the letter K. “No one can invade our country. Only Muslim Afghans can rule over this country.”

Burde says the anti-infidel message in the U.S.-funded textbook of yore is easily repurposed for those seeking to indoctrinate young Afghans today to support the fight against NATO forces. She discovered in the course of her research that the Taliban today insists the books are used in schools in areas under its control.

The failure to defeat the Taliban by the U.S.-led combat mission, which technically concludes at the end of 2014, leaves education statistics as a commonly cited indicator for those seeking to claim success for the longest war in U.S. history.

During its reign, the Taliban banned girls’ education. Only about 3 percent of girls were enrolled at school in 2001, according to the World Bank; today that figure is about 36 percent. USAID has spent more than $880 million on education since the fall of the Taliban.

Burde spent 10 years visiting Afghanistan and Pakistan to study education, and summarized her findings in a new book, “Schools for Conflict or for Peace in Afghanistan.”

Since 9/11, U.S. education funding has had a different goal: to provide services to stabilize communities and legitimize the NATO-backed central government. That effort has had mixed results. Perhaps as a result of the counterinsurgency goals, most of that funding was directed to Pashtun areas at the heart of the insurgency, Burde’s research found, ignoring peaceful communities in other parts of the country.

That built resentment toward foreigners and Kabul in some villages passed over for such support. “If people perceive that their enemy is getting more of those services, then that could contribute to the underlying conditions for conflict,” she said.

‘No one can invade our country. Only Muslim Afghans can rule over this country.’

‘The Alphabet of Jihad Literacy’

US-funded textbook

The findings will challenge the untested orthodoxy among donors that spending money on development will necessarily reduce conflict, according to Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group.

Other research into military counterinsurgency programs designed to win hearts and minds had also struggled to show a link between providing services and reducing conflict in Afghanistan, he said.

“A lot of resources have been poured into place like Afghanistan in the hope that education and clinics and so forth will reduce levels of violence,” he added. “But so far the evidence is not clear cut, and there simply isn't a lot of research into that relationship.”

Burde's answer — at least temporarily — lies in community-based schools. Set up in a home or madrassa, these informal settings don't require the sort of resources that have caused resentment and corruption elsewhere. There is no school to build, and teachers are locals trained on the job.

International donors have begun to switch funds and attention, working with local authorities to set up this new type of school.

Her findings suggest they have done an impressive job attracting and educating girls and boys in equal numbers.

“When you have a school not set up in a government structure but in a home or a mosque, in the village, protected by the village and supported by the villagers, the likelihood of the school being attacked is reduced,” she said. “And you don't have construction, so you don't have problems with contracts.”

But with foreign forces heading for the exits and the government in Kabul ever fragile, the prospects for community schools realizing their promise is clouded in uncertainty. 

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