Americans should not turn away from the tragedy of education in Afghanistan

Americans should not turn away from the tragedy of education in Afghanistan
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With the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, America is poised to move on from its longest war. In its place, lawmakers in Washington have been holding hearings about the turbulent U.S. exit from Afghanistan. 

The American people have the right to know why and how our withdrawal spiraled downward so quickly and chaotically, but it is a distraction from more immediate questions about how to protect the gains we made in Afghanistan over two decades — including, first and foremost, the improvement and expansion of education for young Afghans.

The past two decades stood out as an exceptional period in the country’s efforts to establish and expand public education in the face of corruption, decrepit infrastructure, gender discrimination, and deficient training for educators.

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Early in my career, I served in the Peace Corps in Iran and later as the press attaché in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, where I was taken hostage for 444 days. Despite this, my belief in the fundamental goodness of American values and faith in the importance of working to build a better world remains resolute.

It was a huge motivator in my decision to go to Afghanistan shortly after the U.S.-led rout of the Taliban as the lead in what was called the Teachers College, Columbia University, Afghan Education Project, which lasted for three years from 2003-2006. There was little hesitation by the president of Teachers College and its faculty over its newest international effort in Afghanistan. 

The school has a long history in Afghanistan, writing textbooks and attempting to make uphill progress in teacher training from the early 1950s until the communist coup of 1978 — and could not continue its programs while the country fell into civil war from 1989-1996. It was remembered fondly by Afghan educators and welcomed back in late 2003, to work on teacher education and to rewrite the Ministry of Education’s Soviet-style texts and remove Taliban-mandated changes from the elementary curriculum.

During this time, after years of repression, Afghan children were returning to school in large numbers. Young women who were not under-educated during Taliban rule and treated as pariahs in society, began finding their way. Our project — made possible through UNICEF funding — was an improvement upon the existing education apparatus in Afghanistan, but unfortunately it was only a fraction of the investment needed to create a sustainable system.

In the years following my arrival in 2003, Afghan children were continuously deprived of school buildings or qualified teachers. The Education Ministry was out of touch with contemporary pedagogy. Millions of dollars were needed, but never came, to reconstruct more than 7,000 schools that were in disrepair or build the thousands more that were needed. It shocked me that, at the time, a staggering 80 percent of the more than 100,000 Afghan teachers had little education themselves and were hardly trained to teach, holding little or no command of any subject matter. This never meaningfully improved in the ensuing years. Many teachers never even showed up because of the abysmal pay. 

Nevertheless, what exemplified our effort was a sense that children in Afghanistan should have the same opportunities as children in America. But with students being forced to contend with the impact of death and pain in wartime, and to navigate a society that did not treat people equally or with respect for their differences, the focus of elementary education was on the basic life skills. 

We may have been idealistic about our mission, but we were more than realistic about what confronted contemporary Afghans. That’s why Afghan elementary education emphasized social justice, exploring personal emotions and decision-making, the value of helping others, cooperation, and love for a shared country.

Today, the brutal Taliban regime is destroying those fragile but important gains, especially for women and girls, and reimposing restrictions not seen since the Taliban first swept into power in the 1990s. This includes prohibiting girls from attending secondary school and converting the Ministry of Women’s Affairs building into offices for the religious morality policy.

Now, more than ever, America must have an honest reckoning with what’s at stake in paving the way for the Taliban to dismantle progress made in education — which will require facing the full tragedy of the cataclysm in store for millions of Afghans who dream of going to a real school. 

It's a hard truth to face, but one that is vital if the U.S. wants to avoid leaving a dismal legacy — one that has only enabled more suffering and injustice.

I can only hope that the flicker of light we helped to create in the space of education and opportunity somehow endures in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and that our government one day recognizes the benefit to America of investing in education around the world that is rooted in inclusion and tolerance. 

Barry Rosen, a survivor of the Iran hostage crisis (Nov. 4, 1979-Jan. 20, 1981), is the former executive director of external affairs at Teachers College, Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @brosen1501.