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The School Runners (Commentary April 2016)

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Review of “The Last Thousand” by Jeffrey E. Stern

A 2015 exposé on the Buzzfeed website created a stir by savaging the notion that the massive expansion of education in Afghanistan has been one of the triumphs of the international military effort. It was titled “Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools.”

“As the American mission faltered, U.S. officials repeatedly trumpeted impressive statistics— the number of schools built, girls enrolled, textbooks distributed, teachers trained, and dollars spent —to help justify the 13 years and more than 2,000 Americans killed since the United States invaded,” wrote a Pakistani-American journalist named Azmat Khan. The U.S. government’s claims are, Khan said, “massively exaggerated, riddled with ghost schools, teachers and students that exist only on paper.”

One-tenth of the schools that Buzzfeed’s employees claimed to have visited were not operating or had not been built. Some U.S.-funded schools lacked running water, toilets, or electricity. Others were not built to international construction standards. Teacher salaries, often U.S.-subsidized, were being paid to teachers at nonexistent schools. In some places local warlords had managed to divert U.S. aid into their own pockets.

The tone and presentation of the article leaves little doubt of its author’s conviction that 13 years of effort in Afghanistan, including the expenditure of 2,000 American lives and billions of dollars ($1 billion on education alone) were pointless and the entire intervention a horrendous mistake.

Unfortunately, it is all but certain that some of the gladdening numbers long cited by USAID and others are indeed inaccurate or misleading, especially given that they are based in large part on statistics supplied by various Afghan government ministries. The government of Afghanistan is neither good at, nor especially interested in, collecting accurate data. Here, as in all countries that receive massive amounts of overseas aid, local officials and NGOs have a tendency to tell foreign donors (and foreign reporters) what they think the latter want to hear. They are equally likely to exaggerate the effectiveness of a program or the desperate need for bigger, better intervention.

Moreover it would be remarkable if there weren’t legions of ghost teachers. No-show or nonexistent salaried employees are a problem in every Afghan government department. This is true even in the military: The NATO-led coalition battled for years to stop the practice whereby Afghan generals requested money to pay the salaries of units that existed only on paper. As for abandoned or incomplete school-construction projects, such things are par for the course not only in Afghanistan but everywhere in South Asia. India, Nepal, and Pakistan are littered with them. You don’t read about them much because no development effort has ever been put under the kind of (mostly hostile) scrutiny that has attended America’s attempt to drag Afghanistan into the modern era. Given the general record of all development aid over the past half century and the difficulty of getting anything done in a conflict-wrecked society like Afghanistan, it may well be the case that reconstruction efforts by the U.S. military and U.S. government in Afghanistan were relatively effective and efficient.

Despite all the money that may have been wasted or stolen, there really has been an astonishing education revolution in Afghanistan that is transforming the society. It is an undeniable fact that the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan has enabled the education of millions of children who would never have seen the inside of a school of any kind had it not been for the overthrow of the Taliban. The World Bank and UNICEF both estimate that at least 8 million Afghans are attending school. This means that even if a quarter of the children who are nominally enrolled in school aren’t getting any education at all, there are still 6 million other kids who are; in 2001 there were fewer than 1 million children in formal education, none of them female.

To get a sense of what education can achieve in Afghanistan, even in less than ideal circumstances, you can hardly do better than to read The Last Thousand, by the journalist and teacher Jeffrey E. Stern. It tells the extraordinary story of Marefat, a school on the outskirts of Kabul. Marefat (the Dari word means “knowledge” or “awareness”) was originally founded in a hut in a refugee camp in Pakistan. After the fall of the Taliban regime in November 2001, its founder, Aziz Royesh, brought the school to Afghanistan and set it up on a windblown patch of desert West of Kabul. By 2012, Teacher Aziz, as he is known to all, had enrolled a total of 4,000 pupils and was sending students to elite universities around the world, including Tufts, Brown, and Harvard.

The school primarily caters to the Hazara ethnic minority, of which Aziz (a former mujahideen fighter) is a member. As anyone who read The Kite Runner or saw the movie made from the bestselling novel by Khaled Hosseini knows, the Hazara have long been the victims of oppression by the majority Pashtuns and Tajiks. The Hazara (who account for about 10 percent of the Afghan population) bear a double ethnic burden. They are Shiites—heretics in the eyes of the Sunni majority of the country. And they look Asiatic. Indeed, they are widely but probably wrongly believed to be the descendants of Genghis Khan’s invaders.

Hazara were traded as slaves until the early 20th century. As late as the 1970s, they were barred from government schools and jobs and banned from owning property in downtown Kabul. As if certain parallels to another oppressed minority weren’t strong enough, the Hazara are well known for their appetite for education and resented for their business success since the establishment of a democratic constitution, and they have enthusiastically worked with the international military coalition—all of which has made them particular targets of the Taliban.

 From the start, Aziz was determined to give his students an education that would inoculate them against the sectarian and ethnic extremism that had destroyed his country. He taught them to question everything and happily educated both boys and girls, separating them only when pressure from conservative politicians put the school’s survival at risk. (When fathers balked at allowing their daughters to go to school, Aziz assured them that a literate girl would be more valuable in the marriage market.) Eventually the school also found itself educating some of the illiterate parents of its students and similarly changing the lives of other adult members of the school community.

The school’s stunning success in the face of enormous obstacles won it and its brave, resourceful founder affection as well as benefactors among the “Internationals”—the foreign civilian and military community in Afghanistan. When John R. Allen, the tough U.S. Marine general in command of all international forces in Afghanistan, finished his tour in February 2013, he personally donated enough money to the school to fund 25 scholarships. Thanks to reports about the school by a British journalist, a “Marefat Dinner” at London’s Connaught Hotel co-sponsored by Moet & Chandon raised $150,000 for the school in 2011. But by early 2013, Teacher Aziz was in despair for Marefat’s future, thanks to terrorist threats against the school and President Obama’s declaration that he would pull out half of America’s forces within a year regardless of the military and political situation in the country.

It’s a fascinating story. Which makes it a shame that much of it is told in a rather self-indulgent and mannered way. Stern’s prose tends to exude a world-weary smugness that can feel unearned, especially given some shallow or ill-informed observations on subjects such as Genghis Khan, Blitzkrieg, and the effect of Vietnam on current U.S. commanders, and his apparent ignorance of the role of sexual honor in Hazara culture.

Most exasperating, Stern patronizingly assumes an unlikely ignorance on the part of the reader. There are few newspaper subscribers who, after 15 years of front-page stories from Afghanistan, have not heard of the grand assemblies known as loya jirgas, or who don’t know that Talib literally means student. Yet Stern refers to the former as “Grand Meetings” and the latter as “Knowledge Seekers.” He also has his characters refer to Internationals as “the Outsiders,” even though any Afghan you are likely to meet knows perfectly well that the foreign presence comes in different and identifiable national and organizational flavors: Americans, NATO, the UN, the Red Cross, Englistanis (British), and so on. The same shtick apparently frees Stern from the obligation to specify an actual date on which an event occurred, or the actual name of a town or province.

Even so, The Last Thousand is a powerful and important book, especially in the way Stern conveys the sense of betrayal and the terror that many Afghans feel at the prospect of international abandonment. The Hazara children and staff at the Marefat school fear a prospective entente with the Taliban enthusiastically promoted by foreign-policy “realists” in the U.S. and UK. They correctly believe it would lead to cultural concessions that could radically diminish their safety and freedom—if not a complete surrender to murderous Pashtun racism and Sunni bigotry.

The book’s main characters are concerned by what seemed to be the imminent, complete departure of all foreign forces as part of the “zero option.” This option was seriously considered by the United States in 2013 and 2014 when then–President Karzai, in the middle of a bizarre descent into (hashish-fueled) paranoia and poisonous anti-Westernism, refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with the Western powers.

Aziz confessed to Stern (who was teaching English at the school) that he himself was in despair but was trying to hide his gloom from his pupils. He began to to urge his students, graduates, and protégés—especially the female ones—to be less vocal in their complaints about discrimination against Hazara, and he himself began controversially to cultivate unexpected allies such as the Pashtun presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. But Marefat’s staff, students, and their parents had few illusions about the future. As one young girl said to Aziz: “If the Americans leave, we know there is no chance for us to continue our education.”

Although the future of Marefat and its Hazara pupils is uncertain, it is comforting that so much has already been achieved by the education revolution in Afghanistan. Assuming that the Taliban and its Pakistani government sponsors are not allowed to take over or prompt a collapse into civil war, this revolution may well have a tremendous and benign effect on the country’s future. After all, more than 70 percent of the Afghan population is under 25 and the median age is 17. Unlike their parents, these youths have grown up with television and radio (there are more than 90 TV stations and 174 FM radio stations), cellphones (there are at least 20 million mobile users), and even the Internet. Their horizons are wider than anything the leaders of the Taliban regime could even imagine.

As Stern relates in a hurried epilogue, the bilateral security agreement was finally signed in September 2014 after Karzai’s replacement by a new national unity government. There are still U.S. and other foreign troops in Afghanistan, even if not enough.

In Stern’s sympathetic portrayal of the Hazara and their predicament, it’s hard not to hear echoes of other persecuted minorities who put their trust in Western (and especially Anglo-Saxon) liberator-occupiers. The most recent example is the Montagnard hill tribes of Vietnam who fought alongside U.S. Special Forces and were brutally victimized by the victorious Stalinist regime after America pulled out of Indochina. Something similar happened to the Shan and Karen nations of Burma, who fought valiantly alongside the British during World War II but ever since have had to battle for survival against the majority Burmans who sided with the Japanese. In today’s Afghanistan, Gulbedin Hekmatyar, the Pakistan-backed Taliban leader, has overtly threatened the Hazara with something like the fate of the Harkis, the Algerians who fought with French during the war of independence between 1954 and 1962: At least 150,000 of the Harkis were slaughtered with the arrival of “peace.”

 The Last Thousand should remind those who are “war-weary” in the U.S. (which really means being weary of reading about the war) that bringing the troops home is far from an unalloyed good. Having met the extraordinary Teacher Aziz and his brave staff and students through the eyes of Jeffrey Stern, and knowing the fate they could face at the hands of their enemies, one finds it hard to think of President Obama’s enthusiasm for withdrawal—an enthusiasm echoed distressingly by several candidates in the presidential race—as anything but thoughtless, heartless, trivial, and unworthy of America.

The School Runners