Good morning. In one week, boys and girls in Afghanistan will start a new school year.... Under the new government of a liberated Afghanistan, educating all children is a national priority. And America, along with its coalition partners, is actively helping in that effort.
When Afghan children begin their classes they will find that the United States has already sent more than 4 million textbooks to their country. The textbooks are written in the Afghan languages of Pashto and Dari. And before the end of the year we'll have sent almost 10 million of them to the children of Afghanistan.
These textbooks will teach tolerance and respect for human dignity, instead of indoctrinating students with fanaticism and bigotry. And they will be accompanied by blackboards, teacher's kits and other school supplies.
(President George W. Bush, radio address, 16 March 2002)
Education coming to Afghanistan, American-style. In the first quarter of 2002, the president announced the program to replace existing textbooks for Afghan children with ones that no longer contained teachings in alignment with the beliefs of "Islamic extremism" and militarism. It would bring adequate schoolbooks to the millions of children who would be filling classrooms after the fall of the Talebanmany girls for the first time ever.1 But there is a story behind that seemingly innocuous, even apparently laudable story. It is the story of those undesirable textbooks and how they became the primary texts used to teach children in Afghanistan. A story that was pretty much ignored by every mainstream news outlet in the United States.2
What exactly are these terrible textbooks, these books that had been "indoctrinating students with fanaticism and bigotry"? Where did they come from? Therein lies the story. These were books that were originally written and published during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979 to 1989), then distributed to students. Given the apparent inflammatory nature of the content and the reaction against it shown by the president, one might be led to draw the conclusion that they were the product of the Soviets. Not the case at all. The "schoolbooks that still exist [that] are pro-Taliban screeds and deemed unusable"3 are a product of the US.
The Soviets invaded Afghanistan to prop up the unstable Communist government that had come to power following a coup in 1978.4 The US, seeing a way to disgrace them and to bleed them economically and militarily in a way similar to Vietnam's effect on the US, launched what is probably the biggest and most expensive covert operation in the history of the country. This, of course, led to training (with help from other intelligence services, particularly Pakistan) the sort of people who would later become the various warlords currently running most of the country as well others who would join organizations like al-Qaeda. It also included the use of propaganda (a term the Washington Post article avoids mentioning) to indoctrinate the people. In this case, specifically targeting children.5
The books, written in Dari and Pashto, were printed up in the early 1980s using a grant from the US Agency for International Development (USAID). They were developed at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha (USAID gave $51 million of taxpayer money to the university for its Afghanistan studies programs between 1984 and 1994). The US made sure "regional military leaders" were able to smuggle the primers into the country. The books contained pictures of tanks, missiles, and land mines, used to help teach children to count. They were also required to have all the proper "anti-Soviet passages" (again, the Post avoiding the "p" word).
The idea was to make Afghans despise and hate the Soviets and "stimulate resistance against invasion" (Yaquib Roshan, Nebraska's Afghanistan center). So children were serving the interests of US foreign policy. Humanitarian groups see it as a "crude tool that steeped a generation in violence." According to an Afghan educator and program coordinator for Cooperation for Peace and Unity, "The pictures [in] the texts are horrendous to school students, but the texts are even much worse." One picture shows a soldier who is praised, these mujaheddin described as being obedient to Allah and willing to "sacrifice their wealth and life itself to impose Islamic law on the government." Above the picture is a verse from the Qur'an, completing the cynical association of Islam with violence. These books were a large part of Afghanistan's core curriculum.
Even if one is willing to give the US a pass from the altar of Realpolitik, asserting the context of the Cold War demanded such action, the consequences of the schoolbooks may have well outlasted their immediate use in the 1980s. When the Taleban came to power (1996), they did not ban the books, they embraced them. The only changes made were to excise the human element (faces) from the books as per their interpretation of Islam. So they did things like leave pictures of gun-toting soldiers armed to the teethonly missing the heads.
USAID stopped funding the programs in 1994 (five years after the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the Berlin Wallwhich signaled the beginning of the end for the Cold War) but the books remained in circulation (sometimes in different versions, though the message and the tone remained the same). Some were even circulated by private humanitarian groups (source does not say which ones). At the time of Bush's speech, they were still widely available and in use.
One aid worker looked through a copy and found 43 pages of "violent images or passages" in the 100 page book. A Canadian Christian group reviewed the books in December of 2001 and was "shocked." Along with non-governmental organizations ("generation in violence" quote above), the books are seen as having dangerous implications: "The constant image of Afghans being natural warriors is wrong. Warriors are created. If you want a different kind of society, you have to create it." In January of 2002, the books still had the militarist pictures of Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers and other warlike images. But that would be a problem of the past, right? No, the books are still there.
In 2001, UNICEF began printing and distributing new books that had been created by some 70 Afghan scholars and other aid groups. They also reprinted copies of the "old" texts (in their "unrevised" form)books that are, in part, used for Islamic instruction. Shortly after, the Afghan government announced that the old books would be the main texts and the new ones only used to supplement them. The US then, using money that had been marked for rebuilding aid, began reprinting the old books. Of course, they could not print them as is and decided to "purge the violent references" (the 500,000 copies that UNICEF was left withprinted at a cost of $200,000were marked for destruction). Note that it is the images being removed (referred to as a "scrubbing" operation) from the 4 million (soon to be 10 million, according to Bush) books, not the text.
And how are the images being removed? As of February 2002, Afghan educators, working in Pakistan were "laboring night and day, scrambling to replace rough drawings of weapons with sketches of pomegranates and oranges."
There is another element of the story. The illegality of it all. The books have and continue to be filled with religious instruction and readings. Any organization that accepts funding from USAIDincluding universities that receive $51 million earlier and $6.5 million currently (announced 29 January 2002)must certify that the money "will finance only programs that have a secular purpose" and that the "...activities cannot result in religious indoctrination of the ultimate beneficiaries." This clearly is not the case.
According to a USAID spokesperson, "it's not AID's policy to support religious instruction," though she claimed mitigation because the "primary purpose...is to educate children, which is predominately a secular activity." At least 18 of the 200 books being republished are "primarily Islamic instructional books." Officials consider them "'civics' courses." Some instruct children on living according to the Qur'an and "'how to be a good Muslim.'" USAID claims that they left the "Islamic materials intact" (emphasis, mine) because there was a concern that Afghan teachers would reject the texts if there was no religious content. On the other hand, they did remove the AID logo and any mention of the US government.
But, again, it is clearly illegal to do this. There was a federal appeals court ruling in 1991 (three years prior to the end of the first round of USAID funding) that stated USAID money could not finance religious instruction overseas. Regardless that the White House claims that the books "are fully in compliance with US law and policy." That this makes a strong case for violation of the first amendment's establishment clause is simply ignored.
It seems taxpayer dollars may now be used to teach children how to be a good Muslims. And to learn their lessons with pomegranates and oranges drawn over assault rifles.
1Almost two years after the bombs fell (7 October 2001), school attendance has greatly increased but the picture is far from the rosy one portrayed by the Bush administration. According to Human Rights Watch (citing a UNICEF official), approximately half of school age children (between five and 18) actually attend school. Of those, 32% are girls. That is an overall percentage, in some areas female participation is as low as 3%. In actual practice, girls are often discouraged actively or through a chilling climate of fear from taking part in the education process. Besides treatment in the classroom (interaction and participation are discouraged either openly or through social pressure), many stay home (or are kept home by their families) because of the terrible security problems in the country where harassment, beatings, abduction, and rape are very real concerns. ("Killing You is a Very Easy Thing for Us": Human Rights Abuses in Southeast Afghanistan, Human Rights Watch July 2003)
2The only exception seems to have been an article appearing in the Washington Post 23 March 2002. The title "From U.S., the ABC's of Jihad: Violent Soviet-Era Textbooks Complicate Afghan Education Efforts" is actually misleading and might lead one to the wrong conclusion if one only reads the headline. Quotes above are from the article unless otherwise indicated.
3Boston Globe, "The Task: Educating a Generation of Women, and Quickly, with a Female Literacy Rate of Less then 4 Percent, Teachers Face Obstacles Even with the Taliban Gone" 17 March 2002.
4It was not the only reason (another being a means to secure a larger sphere of influence in the region and a fear of instability of a border countrythe latter being a reason not specifically related to the Communist government of Afghanistan) but the main one.
5Interestingly, during the Soviet years, both women's rights and access to education for children were probably at their highest levels in the history of the country. No doubt, the Soviets used such things to "justify" its invasion of the country.
(Regrettably, due to the lack of information, this piece ends with the Washington Post article. What has transpired since March 2002 is not known to this author. sorry.)