With the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan, America is on the verge of emerging from its longest war. In its place, lawmakers in Washington held hearings on the United States’ turbulent exit from Afghanistan.
The American people have a right to know why and how our withdrawal has deteriorated so rapidly and so chaotically, but it distracts attention from the more immediate questions of how to protect the gains we have made in Afghanistan over the course of decades – including, first and foremost, the improvement and expansion of education for young Afghans.
The past two decades have stood out as an exceptional period in the country’s efforts to establish and expand public education in the face of corruption, dilapidated infrastructure, gender discrimination and poor training of educators.
Early in my career, I served in the Peace Corps in Iran and later as a press secretary at the United States Embassy in Tehran, where I was held hostage for 444 days. Despite this, my belief in the basic goodness of American values and my faith in the importance of working to build a better world remains firm.
It was a huge motivation in my decision to go to Afghanistan shortly after the US-led Taliban rout as the leader of what was called Teachers College, Columbia University, Afghan Education Project, which lasted for three years from 2003 to 2006. The President of Teachers College and his professors did not hesitate about their most recent international effort in Afghanistan.
The school has a long history in Afghanistan, writing textbooks and attempting to make considerable progress in teacher training from the early 1950s until the Communist coup of 1978 – and was unable to continue with its curricula. as the country fell into civil war from 1989 to 1996. Afghan educators fondly remembered him and welcomed him in late 2003, to work on teacher training and to rewrite the Soviet-style texts of the Ministry of Education and remove Taliban-imposed changes from the elementary curriculum.
Meanwhile, after years of repression, Afghan children were returning to school in large numbers. Young women who were not undereducated under the Taliban and treated as outcasts in society began to find their way. Our project, made possible with funding from UNICEF, was an improvement over the existing education system in Afghanistan, but unfortunately it was only a fraction of the investment needed to create a sustainable system.
In the years since my arrival in 2003, Afghan children have been continually deprived of school buildings or qualified teachers. The Ministry of Education was disconnected from contemporary pedagogy. Millions of dollars were needed, but never came, to rebuild over 7,000 schools that were in disrepair or build the thousands more that were needed. It shocked me that at the time, 80% of the over 100,000 Afghan teachers themselves had little education and were barely trained to teach, with little or no mastery of a subject. It never improved significantly in the years that followed. Many teachers never even showed up because of the appalling salary.
Nonetheless, what illustrated our effort was the feeling that children in Afghanistan should have the same opportunities as children in America. But with students forced to deal with the impact of wartime death and pain, and navigate a society that did not treat people equally or with respect for their differences, the teaching elementary school focused on basic life skills.
We may have been idealistic about our mission, but we were more than realistic about what contemporary Afghans faced. This is 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 these fragile but important gains, especially for women and girls, and reimposing restrictions unprecedented since the Taliban came to power in the 1990s. This includes the ban on girls to attend secondary school and the conversion of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs building into offices for religious morality policy.
Now more than ever, America must have an honest judgment on the issues that will allow the Taliban to dismantle the progress made in education, which will require facing the whole tragedy of the cataclysm that awaits. millions of Afghans who dream of going to a real school.
This is a difficult truth to face, but one that is vital if the United States is to avoid leaving a dismal legacy – a legacy that has only allowed more suffering and injustice.
I can only hope that the sparkle we have helped create in the space of education and opportunity will somehow endure in the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and that our government will one day recognize the benefit to America of investing in global education that is rooted in inclusion and tolerance.
Barry Rosen, a survivor of the hostage crisis in Iran (November 4, 1979 – January 20, 1981), is the former executive director of external affairs at Teachers College at Columbia University. Follow him on twitter @ brosen1501.