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Who cares about the Afghan schoolgirls?

The Taliban care, if the rest of the world does not. For years they have been assiduously attempting to undermine the education of Afghan children, and girls in particular. So far this year alone, 60 schools have been burned or otherwise destroyed in Afghanistan, largely by insurgents, according to the Afghan Ministry of Education.

In March 2009, a Taliban spokesman stated: “Taliban aren’t allowing girls to go to schools because Taliban want women to preserve their respect by staying in their homes, not to work as laborers for others.”

The Taliban have demonstrated their “respect” for Afghan women and girls by spraying them with acid if they try to attend school, threatening them and their families if they attempt to pursue an education or work outside the home, torching their schools, and in a most insidious recent series of mass attacks, by disseminating poison gas in their classrooms. The persecution of Afghan schoolgirls has been going on for years, but the tempo and severity of the attacks are spiking upward, and strangely, much of the world still seems relatively unconcerned.

Is it because the victims are mostly female, and young? Although yesterday’s New York Times ran an article on the subject, it was buried on page eight of the print version, and was similarly relegated to a back page of the paper’s online version. The article notes that the Afghan Public Health Ministry and the World Health Organization have recently found, after testing the blood of victims in “10 mass sickenings” of Afghan schoolgirls – an astonishing number of such incidents -- that their blood contained dangerous levels of organophosphates. These chemicals, the article states, “are widely used in insecticides and herbicides, and are also the active ingredients of compounds developed as chemical weapons, including sarin and VX gas.” It is worth remembering that not so long ago (1995), sarin gas was used by terrorists to poison commuters in the Tokyo subway system; in those attacks, the release of the poisonous gas killed 13 people, wounded 50 more, and caused vision problems for over 1,000 others.

Is it possible that the helpless young Afghan poisoning victims are also serving as guinea pigs for experiments in larger-scale poison attacks? The apparent likelihood that the Afghan school poisonings have been calibrated to cause severe symptoms, but not usually death, raises questions as to whether the orchestrators of these attacks are considering additional, more extensive uses for poison gases against other innocent populations.

In the past, the Taliban have shown no aversion to using these kinds of methods to achieve their aims.

The Long War Journal has noted some of these incidents over the past few years. On Nov. 12, 2008, the Taliban sprayed six girls with acid outside a girls’ school in Kandahar; two of the victims were blinded in the attack. A few weeks later, 10 Taliban fighters were arrested for the acid attacks, and they stated that senior Taliban leaders based in Pakistan had paid them to conduct the attacks.

In April of this year, at least three separate poison gas attacks sickened over 80 Afghan schoolgirls and teachers in Kunduz. Then in May, 30 schoolgirls were hospitalized after poison gas was released in Kunduz and Kabul. Another attack followed in early June, when 16 girls were hospitalized in the wake of a poisonous gas incident. Later that same month, 60 schoolgirls in Balkh province were hospitalized for poisoning, and the CNN news report called it “at least the third suspected poisoning of girls attending schools in Afghanistan this week.”

Most recently, on Aug. 25, at one girls’ high school in Kabul, 73 schoolgirls and their teachers were hospitalized with poison gas symptoms; the following day, 45 students and four teachers from a different girls’ high school in Kabul were hospitalized with similar symptoms.

The gravity of this developing threat cannot be allayed by any temptation to mischaracterize the nature of the attacks. As the NYT article points out, the poison gas attacks cannot be dismissed as ‘female hysteria.’ They are undeniably chemical attacks with pronounced physical effects, including loss of consciousness, urinary distress, vomiting, diarrhea, and near asphyxiation (including cyanosis, or turning blue for lack of oxygen).

Despite the extensive evidence pointing to Taliban involvement in the poison gas and other attacks on Afghan schoolgirls, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid recently denied any responsibility, in a phone call to the NYT: “We have not and will never take such action against innocent girls,” he stated.

Denials aside, the sheer scope and persistence of the various kinds of attacks on Afghan schoolgirls is staggering. Last year, the Afghan Ministry of Education and CARE published a joint study called “Knowledge on Fire,” [PDF here ] which observed:

Throughout 2008 alone, 670 attacks on the Afghan education system were carried out including arson and the murder of teachers and students. Between January 2006 and December 2008, 1,153 attacks of different natures were reported: grenades, night letters or verbal threats to teachers, killings of students and education personnel. According to the Ministry of Education (MoE), 230 people died as a result of attacks on schools, students and personnel between 2006 and 2007. [footnote omitted]

The study’s executive summary went on to state:

Girls’ education is clearly targeted more than boys; findings from this research indicate that the main perpetrators against the education of girls are the armed insurgency or internal community members. Of all attacked schools, girls’ schools account for 40%, while mixed schools (32%) and boys’ schools (28%) make up for the rest. There are, however, less than half the number of girls’ schools than boys’ schools in the country, which clearly signals a gender bias in the attacks.

In addition to causing harm to the individual victims, the Taliban’s harassment of pupils and teachers and destruction of their facilities has created countrywide repercussions for Afghan education. In early 2009, 670 schools had been closed across the country, and in the southern provinces, school closures due to insecurity ranged from 65-81 percent. Moreover, the insecurity has led parents to keep their children home rather than send them to school, and this has been particularly true for girls.

The joint Afghan/Care report summed up the status of public education in 2009 in Afghanistan as follows:

Significant progress has been made in the Afghan education sector since the fall of the Taliban, the enrollment in Ministry of Education schools having increased from around 900,000 in 2001 to an estimated 6.1 million by the end of 2008. Now, insecurity and the ban that opposition groups have placed on education are threatening the results achieved. The ranks of the newly-enrolled are dropping alarmingly fast thanks in large part to the daily deteriorating – and rapidly expanding – security situation. “The number of teachers and students killed in the past 10 months is nearly double the total casualties of last year,” authorities in the ministry of education said. “This year 651 schools were closed in southern provinces; 141 teachers and students were killed since beginning of the year; and 173,000 students dropped out of schools,” a spokesman for the Ministry of Education said at the end of 2008. [footnotes omitted]

The physical attacks are sometimes preceded by “night letters” from the Taliban, warning the students or their families not to continue to go to school. But warned or not, Afghan schoolchildren and their teachers risk Taliban attack for attending schools. The joint Afghan/CARE report states:

"[T]eachers and education personnel have suffered enormously from physical attacks: they have been beaten; there have been reports of decapitation; their houses have been set on fire. In other cases, students have been the main target: over 100 students have been killed over the two and a half year period in question [Jan. 2006 – May 2008]."

As the report emphasizes, while only 19 percent of Afghanistan’s schools are girls-only, that 19 percent have suffered 40 percent of all attacks, indicating that girls’ education is clearly under fire.

With respect to attacks on Afghan schools in general, the hardest hit provinces during the period of the study were Helmand, Kandahar, Kabul, Khost, Kunar, and Naranghar, but it is possible that Kunduz may be moving up in that list, given the large number of poison gas attacks there this year.

Perhaps one of the more surprising findings in the report was the fact only 5 percent of those interviewed believed that any forewarning of an attack for attending school had been given, and 88 percent said that to their knowledge no warning had been received. In other words, in the vast bulk of the attacks, the victims are not warned that the insurgents are going to attack them for attending school.

All too frequently, the Taliban are getting away with murder, physical attacks, harassment, and intimidation of young Afghans, particularly girls, who seek an education. Yet despite this increasingly alarming trend, it has garnered little attention from the world press. A notable exception came in November 2008, when First Lady Laura Bush released an official statement from the White House condemning the “cowardly and shameful acts” of the Taliban in dousing eight Afghan schoolgirls with acid.

Just yesterday, a blog called “Let Us Build Pakistan” had a post on the increasing frequency of poison gas attacks on Afghan schoolgirls, noting that the resurgence of the Taliban since 2008 has been marked by a rise in attacks on schoolchildren. The article pointedly observed that “[t]hese attacks have, as usual, largely been ignored in the Pakistani media.” But this sort of thing is happening in Pakistan, too; see this report from today’s Dawn news.

The blog post goes on to discuss the Taliban’s denial of responsibility for the gas attacks on Afghan schoolgirls, and to counter those denials with photographs of Taliban “night letters” that threaten harm to those girls who dare to go to school.

Perhaps some light is beginning to shine on this disturbing phenomenon. Two days ago, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued the following statement:

The United States is deeply concerned by the recent poisonings of Afghan school children in Kabul. While details of these attacks are still being verified, Afghan schools, teachers, and students, particularly girls, are regularly targeted by anti-government elements seeking to destabilize Afghanistan and undermine progress. We condemn such attacks and are working with the Afghan government to address this important issue and prevent further incidents from occurring.

Afghanistan and the United States, together with 40 other co-sponsors, presented a joint resolution to the Human Rights Council that was adopted by consensus in June concerning attacks on innocent students, particularly girls, in Afghanistan. We urge the international community to continue their support for the Government of Afghanistan in combating repression and violence against girls seeking an education, and in bringing to justice those responsible for these appalling attacks.

Our deepest sympathies are with the families of the victims, and we assure the government and all the people of Afghanistan that the United States will stand by you as you continue working to bring peace and stability to your country.

Yet even this declaration failed to garner any headlines, except from Radio Liberty, which noted that there have been 11 mass poisoning attacks on Afghan schoolgirls already this year.

Maybe it's time to start paying attention.