Winning Minds: The Role of Education in Securing Afghanistan

Photo by The National Guard/Flickr |

By Elizabeth Royall |

In the years following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. military incorporated humanitarian aid and development work into its military strategy to defeat the Taliban. “Counterinsurgency is armed social work; an attempt to redress basic social and political problems while being shot at,” proclaimed Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) and prominent counterinsurgency thinker David Kilcullen.[1] Accordingly, education became one front of Afghanistan’s multidimensional insurgency and counterinsurgency campaign. Both the Coalition[2] and Taliban saw education’s provision and content as a strategic prize to be won in the war for the hearts and minds of Afghans. This paper addresses whether Afghan education content and provision affect security. It reviews the history of education in Afghanistan and American involvement in Afghan education, examines the Taliban’s evolving view of and role in education, and analyzes existing metrics of security and education.

While both the Coalition and the Taliban in Afghanistan claimed a correlation between controlling education and their strategic goals, there is little evidence to support either correlation or causation between education and security. Instead, by linking education to political and military goals, schools became yet another front in the war between the Coalition and the Taliban, leading to violence against schools, teachers, school administrators, and students. Meanwhile, a significant majority of Afghans see development aid as negative, despite the expansion of services.[3] The outcome for Afghanistan and its education system is still unclear and will remain so for years, but analysis of the education and security nexus is required to test assumptions driving current and future policy. Assumptions made by governments, academics, humanitarians, and insurgents about the role of education in conflict provide discursive justification for education’s co-option by security actors, particularly in the last decade. Such assumptions include: 1) uneducated or Islamic-educated children are more vulnerable to insurgent propaganda; and, 2) providing education will allow the government, Coalition, and/or Taliban to demonstrate legitimacy and win popular support. This paper will address how those assumptions shaped the Taliban insurgency as well as the Coalition’s counterinsurgency. Finally, it will examine the merits of those assumptions.

Both Coalition and Taliban forces believed the provision and content of education would influence the outcome of the conflict.[4] As both sides became more involved in education, however, the education sector became more contested and violent without demonstrable impact on the conflict. A regression analysis of security and education data in Afghanistan did not show evidence to support a correlation between education and security outcomes that would indicate that Islamic education or a lack of education would pose a security threat. Neither did regression analysis show that increased educational attainment would lead either to a decrease in violence or increased support for counterinsurgents. By disregarding the political implications of education in favor of viewing education as a benign good, this paper finds that the U.S. military securitized education and made education more politically contentious. Rather than becoming a balm to violence, the battle for control and influence over the Afghan school system exacerbated scars from Afghanistan’s fractious history. This paper argues that due to a lack of correlation or positive outcomes, education and security should be decoupled, and that military and civilian policymakers should limit expectations of short-term aid’s efficacy.

The Tumultuous History of Education in Afghanistan

Education is not a neutral activity; it is inherently political and serves an important role in nation building. It is, in fact, a top-down effort to forge a single nation of different communities with a clear idea of and commitment to the state.[5] Starting in the 1920s, education reform in Afghanistan—particularly reforms involving women’s rights, secular education, and state control over Islamic schools—sparked intense backlash from those who felt their power and way of life was being threatened.[6] After the Communist coup d’état of 1978, public general education schools became one of the mujahedeen’s first military targets. Thousands of teachers and students were killed.[7] The Communist Party hoped to control Afghanistan through various reforms, including compulsory co-ed education.[8] In order to counter the Communist influence, Islamist parties began to use madrassas (private, non-state supported religious schools) for the same purpose of political indoctrination, particularly in Pakistani refugee camps.[9] Both Islamist and Communist militias recruited fighters among students and teachers.[10]

After the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, civil war among mujahedeen factors continued to tear Afghanistan apart. Once again, the education system was not immune from the broader conflict. President Burhanuddin Rabbanis (1992-1996) government advocated an American-designed, heavily politicized curriculum used during the 1980s in refugee camps. He attempted to bridge the difference between general education and madrassas by increasing religious studies in general education and increasing secular subjects in Islamic education (public religious schools with a set curriculum). But the government used its limited money to pay for war, not schools. Students began bringing weapons to class, an unusual occurrence under the Communists. Soon, teachers had little protection or ability to discipline students.[11] Mujahedeen were selected as head teachers, regardless of their educational background.[12]

By the time the Taliban came to power in 1996, the education system was so decimated that the Taliban did not destroy the education system. Enrollment increased due to improved security.[13] The Taliban altered the general education curriculum so students spent at least half their time studying religious subjects. The Taliban also sponsored private madrassas that introduced some secular subjects to madrassa education. [14] Most notoriously, the Taliban closed girls’ schools in the cities, resulting in an almost two-thirds collapse in girls’ enrollment. However, NGO-provided private, semi-underground education continued in some areas. Following international pressure in 1999, the Taliban reopened some schools for girls in the cities, using the 1980s refugee camp curricula to educate only young girls in segregated classes. The Taliban continued Rabbani’s lack of investment in education (as well as other aspects of government).

Following the overthrow of the Taliban in late 2001, the Ministry of Education (MoE) enjoyed a funding flood due to international sympathy and U.S. military involvement. Finally, it could endeavor to bring education to all Afghan children. The prospect of universal education prompted optimism both in Afghanistan and the West, but pockets of resistance to education soon emerged, particularly in regard to curriculum and schooling for girls.[15] The government of Afghanistan saw education as a solution to ethnic and regional divisions.[16] MoE endeavored to please conservative elements by expanding Islamic education after significant community concern that donors were pushing secular, or even Christian, education on Afghan students.[17] MoE commissioned new Islamic education textbooks and placed mullahs on MoE’s payroll to teach religious subjects and early childhood education.[18]

But the dilemmas of the past soon resurfaced: public education was too poor to build faith in the government’s merit or competence, but sufficiently controversial to rankle conservative elements, particularly the clergy.[19] The counterinsurgency strategy to associate schools with the government in order to use education to build support backfired by feeding into the historical narrative of education as an unwelcome government interference and a tool of indoctrination. Increasingly, Afghans rejected or violently attacked the education sector. The Taliban used public opposition to education to discredit public education and build support.

Why Link Education to Security Efforts in Afghanistan?

The story of the U.S. military’s investment in education is a result of the unique mythology of Afghan history, one that blames the creation of the Taliban on radical madrassas. .Ultimately, the U.S. military spent $228.6 million in seven years on Afghan education projects with Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP) funding alone, paid Western education advisors to MoE, and developed its own priorities for Afghan education.[20] The American military became invested in education for practical and ideological reasons. Likewise, development groups were eager to securitize education in order to gain funding and support for development activities. They pointed to studies of other developing countries that suggested increased levels of high-quality education reduces wars by decreasing the likelihood of males becoming combatants.[21] In the security realm, education was part of winning a counterinsurgency by demonstrating the government’s ability to provide for its population. Lieutenant General (ret.) Karl Eikenberry argued that “the construction of roads and schools can be just as decisive, if not more, than military operations.”[22] The assumption that development and reconstruction assistance is critical to promoting stability in conflict states led to near nine-fold increases in U.S. foreign assistance budgets in Afghanistan, stronger linkages between development and security strategies, and a shift of development activities from aid agencies to the military.[23]

Military Education Priorities and CERP

While the early years of the Afghan war focused on a limited counterterrorism and reconstruction mission—to include school-building–by 2007 a robust insurgency had entrenched itself in Afghanistan. In 2009, newly-appointed General (ret.) Stanley McChrystal adopted his own version of population-centric counterinsurgency. Education made up one of five subsections in the counterinsurgency’s “enabling socioeconomic development” line of operation (assumption #1).[24] Furthermore, the Coalition reasoned, if the government could demonstrate its ability to deliver services to the population, the people would benefit, a social contract would be formed, and the population would oppose the insurgency in favor of the government (assumption #2).[25] In concrete terms, NATO’s International Security Assistance Force’s (ISAF’s) strategy document noted that military investment in education “has had, and will continue to have, direct and tangible impact through 2014.”[26] “Development can help consolidate military gains and support our diplomatic efforts,” concluded a Senate Foreign Relations Majority Report, “to create the conditions for a more stable, democratic government.”[27] Education strategies and priorities would be enacted through a novel military development fund: Commanders’ Emergency Response Program (CERP).

In the shattered countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, the lack of effective development and infrastructure was addressed as a military problem that the military sought to redress. Thus, CERP was designed to fund small projects chosen by a local military commander in order to build goodwill among the local populace while contributing to the overall development of the country. Scholars argued that the lack of reconstruction and development in Afghanistan was a contributing factor to the rapid spread of Taliban influence following 2001.[28] The 2005 Afghan government National Military Strategy noted that if key essential services were “not provided quickly, the people will be more vulnerable to extremist elements claiming to offer a better alternative.”[29] Afghan CERP spending started at just under $40 million in 2004 and it peaked at nearly $550 million in 2009.[30] At the same time, U.S. humanitarian funding in 2010 was just over a third of what it was in when CERP began 2004. CERP funding, meanwhile, increased by 2500 percent during that period, demonstrating how development funding in support of military objective s supplanted traditional humanitarian and development work.[31]

As described by CERP’s guidelines, “Money as a Weapon System,” development spending became a new mechanism to win the war:

CERP is a vehicle to address causes of instability through fostering positive, interdependent relationships between [the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA)] and key populations. The program also helps the coalition…create a positive impression of coalition forces and the GIRoA, and help them understand that GIRoA is a better alternative to deliver the government services.[32]

In contrast to practice in earlier counterinsurgencies use of development as a reward to those who had laid down arms, CERP was conceived to convince insurgents to lay down arms. CERP projects were concentrated in unstable, “key terrain” areas that military planners determined were the most important to subdue, and, therefore had concentrations of military forces with CERP money to spend. The political implications of CERP money and the aftereffects of CERP spending practices were acute but little considered.[33] A counterinsurgency strategy to use aid to build up the government is a difficult pitch when many Afghans believe the Taliban more effectively addresses their most important needs—governance and security.[34]

The assumption of education’s importance was not unique to the Coalition. The Taliban’s evolution on education represented their strategic view that provision of Taliban-friendly education was vital to countering the influence of the Afghan state; likewise, the Taliban would demonstrate an ability not only to fight, but to govern. As a result, schools became another contested area between the Coalition and the Taliban.

The Taliban’s Insurgency Doctrine: The Layeha

The Taliban’s doctrine and practice evolved as they re-assessed the proper role of education in their insurgency. After U.S. forces drove the Taliban from power, the remaining members regrouped and strategized about how they could defeat the U.S. (and later, ISAF) forces and retake power. At the end of 2006, the Taliban released the layeha, or code of conduct, for their fighters and the Afghan population to communicate the Taliban’s values and standards. The 2006 layeha began fairly simply, with only 30 rules, echoing much of the philosophy and policies that characterized the Taliban’s time in power, three of which specifically address the education system:

It is forbidden to work as a teacher under the current puppet regime, because this strengthens the system of the infidels. True Muslims should apply to study with a religiously trained teacher and study in a Mosque or similar institution. Textbooks must come from the period of the Jihad [1980s] or from the Taliban regime. Anyone who works as a teacher for the current puppet regime must receive a warning. If he nevertheless refuses to give up his job, he must be beaten. If the teacher still continues to instruct contrary to the principles of Islam, the district commander or a group leader must kill him…Thus we tolerate none of [NGO’s] activities, whether it be building of streets, bridges, clinics, schools, madrases (schools for Koran study) or other works. If a school fails to heed a warning to close, it must be burned.[35]

The Taliban see the war as not simply between two groups of armed forces, but made up as wedge issues such as education that could separate the people from the state.[36] A March 2006 statement by Taliban Leadership Council spokesman Mohammed Hanif announced, “If schools are turned into centers of violence, the government is to blame for it.”[37] Words quickly turned into action; school attacks increased by 65% in 2006, according to ISAF estimates.[38]

In May 2009, the Taliban released a new layeha, which superseded the 2006 version. The document had many notable changes, particularly regarding education. While the size of the layeha more than doubled to 67 rules, specific mention of teachers and attacking schools was eliminated in favor of pointing to Taliban-run education as the only legitimate education. “The provincial authority is responsible for Mujahidin education and their personal behavior with local people,” commands the layeha. “All education and training should be committed to the education and training that Islamic Emirate has established for the Mujahidin.”[39] Meanwhile, the layeha granted significant freedom to Taliban members to attack, capture, or destroy construction equipment, projects, and personnel.[40] Allowing attacks on unspecified construction and projects was an effective method for the Taliban to square the circle of preventing development work while not explicitly banning it and risk angering the local population.

The most recent version of the layeha was published in May 2010 and moves even more towards the ‘hearts and minds’ aspect of insurgency, explicitly echoing much of the philosophy of U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine: “The Taliban must treat civilians according to Islamic norms and morality to win over the hearts and minds of the people.”[41] The longer 2010 document, with 87 rules, moves further away from violence against the school system but alludes to a Taliban commission for education, suggesting a push towards competitive governance and development with the government of Afghanistan:

The educational and training activities within the structure of the Islamic Emirate should be carried out according to the programme and regulations of the Education commission. The persons responsible in the provinces and districts shall conduct their educational efforts in accordance with the strategy of the above-mentioned commission.[42]

While the layeha echoes the 1990s Taliban’s primary focus on the state’s military and judicial functions, Taliban policy towards education had clearly shifted, at least publicly.[43] The Taliban’s use of targeted killings, intimidation, and abductions of government officials, mullahs, tribal leaders, teachers, and politicians effectively separated the population from the Afghan state.[44] The Taliban’s strategy shifted from violence to intimidation. By co-opting service providers, instead of viewing them as “tools of the infidels,” Taliban influence of schools and other services could demonstrate legitimacy and control of the population.[45]

Taliban Involvement in the Education Sector

The Taliban believed in the strategic importance of education: that by controlling the education of children and providing a service appreciated by parents, the Taliban could curry favor with the population while making the long term environment more favorable to their cause. Wahid Muzhda, an Afghan analyst who worked with the Taliban during their reign, said that the Taliban targeted schools not out of ideological opposition but because they wanted to deny a venue for the government to propagate anti-Taliban views.[46] An analysis of school attacks by CARE determined that “the single most important reason cited for attacks is the fact that schools are (or are perceived to be) government entities.”[47] Likewise, visits by military personnel to schools, regardless of whether they funded the construction of the school, temporarly increased the risk to the school after their visit.[48] This suggests that associating schools with counterinsurgency objectives such as government presence and legitimacy had the unintended consequence of increasing violence against teachers, students, and schools. However, resistance to education was not exclusive to the Taliban or their supporters as the geographical spread of violence and threats extended beyond areas plagued by insurgency.[49] Violence was perpetrated by people in the communities that were opposed to some aspect of education but were not necessarily aligned with the Taliban. In line with Afghanistan’s history, nation-building through education continued to be largely unsuccessful and controversial, leading to a contestation of the authority of the government outside Kabul and its international supporters.[50]

The Taliban’s varied reasons for opposing specific sources of education in Afghanistan culminated in a two-pronged strategy of hard and soft power techniques. Schools were opened in areas the Taliban controlled, providing a public service to the local community. However, the method used most was the appointment of friendly officials to ensure schools were teaching Taliban-sympathetic curriculum. This soft power technique attempted to limit the influence of the Afghan government in local villages by manipulating the education system. In January 2007, the Taliban announced that they were opening schools in areas they controlled, initially for boys but later would expand to open girls’ schools. They also claimed to be printing new textbooks worth $1 million that would teach an Islamic curriculum without math or science.[51]

Meanwhile, the Taliban focused on the softer targets of private schools. A Taliban spokesman said that the aim was to reopen schools to benefit poor children and to counter the propaganda of the West (assumptions #1 and 2).[52] As the Taliban exerted control of areas, the usual process was to appoint a ‘shadow’ governor, district chiefs, education chief, and media representative, though the extent of control varied depending on the obedience of local commanders and the amount of money collected from ‘taxes’ and criminal enterprises.[53] Encouraging parents to send their children to private schools while pressuring public schools to use a Taliban-era curriculum enabled the Taliban to limit Afghan government influence on families. Sometimes even public schools were closed down and reopened as private schools, enabling the Taliban to be perceived as pro-education while rejecting the Afghan government. [54]

As violence against students and schools decreased, MoE found itself in a difficult spot—wanting to take credit for the softening of the Taliban and reopenings of schools, yet unwilling to acknowledge any concessions to the Taliban. Instead MoE credited local “involvement of the elders” for the reopening of schools. This reflected the difficulty of Afghan government officials balancing between three contradictory audiences: Afghan communities, the Taliban, and international military and civilian presence. Beginning in 2010, a dramatic decline in school attacks was mirrored by an increased willingness by both MoE and the Taliban to acknowledge top-level negotiations. “If they want to call schools ‘madrasa’ we will accept that, if they want to say Mullah to a teacher we have no problem with that. Whatever objections they [the Taliban] may have we are ready to talk to them,” a MoE spokesman said.[55]

Interviews with Attaulah Wahidyar, then in charge of information and curriculum but since promoted to MoE chief of staff, acknowledged meeting weekly with Taliban members and repeatedly emphasized the importance of “back-door diplomacy” with the Taliban while saying that reopened schools in Taliban-controlled areas were not the result of deals, but due to community demand.[56] While claiming that no curriculum changes were made in support of the Taliban, Wahidyar emphasized that the lack of funding for Islamic education and textbooks would be a major problem for MoE, one that could potentially lead to “an uprising.”[57] Over the last two years, MoE prioritized Islamic education over general education, leading MoE to exceed all of its Islamic education targets while failing its general education targets.[58] Taliban commanders in the field often openly talked about an agreement between the Taliban leadership and MoE to reopen all schools in exchange for the MoE’s adoption of a new curriculum.[59]

In January 2011, Education Minister Farooq Wardak asserted in an interview that the Taliban no longer opposed girls’ education, blaming local mullahs for the opposition to education.[60] In other discussions with Minister Wardak he blamed “enemies of education” for violence against schools, specifically the Pakistani intelligence service and foreign insurgents.[61] Two months later, the Taliban publicly denied attacking schools. A few days after that, MoE announced that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had issued a decree “instructing insurgents not to attack schools and intimidate schoolchildren,” citing an unpublished message from the Taliban military council in Khost. In April, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mojahed said in an interview that the Taliban did not oppose education. According to the Taliban, negotiations with MoE largely favored them by getting the government to pay for something that could produce a recruiting base for them.[62] However, such assumptions had little evidence to support them.

Examining the Evidence Regarding Assumptions About Education and Security

In order to produce some clarity in the conflicting facts, opinions, histories, and claims made about the role of education in securing Afghanistan, this study ran a regression analysis of education and security metrics in Afghanistan to determine correlation and assess the merits of assumptions made about education in a security context. Further research and additional metrics will be necessary for conclusive findings. The data is grouped by the assumptions laid out in the introduction.

To analyze the relationship between education and security in Afghanistan, this paper examines several indicators. The study uses the following as independent variables: general education attendance, Islamic education attendance, Islamic education attendance as a percentage of general education attendance, and the number of schools.[63] Dependent variables are the number of anti-government/Coalition security incidents (anti-government elements (AGE) incidents) and ISAF casualties. The author ran a single variable regression test to find what correlations exist between education and security indicators and identify areas for further research. The indicators included observations from each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces for the years 2008-2011 (the Ministry of Education does not have comprehensive statistics prior to 2008). Those variables were selected because they were available at a province level during the specified timeframe and are representative of various assumptions made about education in Afghanistan. While a greater number of indicators over a longer period of time, ideally at a district level, would have been ideal, this study was limited to publicly available data during an ongoing war. Statistical significance is set at p < 0.1.

Assumption #1: Uneducated or Islamist-Educated Children Are Vulnerable to Insurgent Recruitment

For this assumption to hold true, the study would expect to find that as the number of primary and secondary schools and attendance in general education schools increased, violence would decrease. This assumption is based on the counterinsurgency theory that as the Afghan government and the Coalition provides for a population’s needs, the population would be less likely to join the insurgency. There are two population segments targeted by education: the children who would be attending school who otherwise may be attracted to militant causes and the adults and teenagers who are out of school but are upset with the state of government services provided to their community. Education practitioners point out that education provides opportunity to poor students; a lack of access to education excludes individuals from most lawful occupations, forcing people to find identification and satisfaction elsewhere. Gerd Junne and Willemign Verkoren argue that most individuals join armed groups due to a lack of alternatives.[64] Countering the argument that a lack of education causes militancy, Dr. C. Christine Fair and Dr. Bryan Shepherd find that militants are more educated than their peers.[65] AGE incidents had a statistically significant but slight correlation with total general education attendance, showing a p value of .076, r2 value of .47, with a .0019 coefficient. In line with current literature, there was no statistically significant correlation (p value of .158) between total general education attendance and ISAF casualties. This suggests that improving education attendance in a province did not affect the violence of the insurgency in that area. The number of schools in a province, however, has a statistically significant positive correlation with the number of AGE incidents, showcasing a p value of .003 and r2 value of .67 with a .089 coefficient. This could be explained in that schools become an additional target or may spark conflict themselves. Alternately, it could reflect that more funding was available to build schools in contested areas.

Likewise, this assumption would suggest that, as the number of children in Islamic education and the relative proportion of Islamic to general education attendance increased, violence would increase in tandem. In Afghanistan, MoE administers a public Islamic education system parallel to the general education system. These follow a MoE curriculum (different from the general education curriculum) and do not include private madrassas. There is no available data on private schools. Since parents have the option to enroll their child in Islamic verses general education schools, the number of students attending Islamic education and the percentage of Islamic education attendance to general education attendance is the closest approximation available of education’s religiosity that can be analyzed to determine correlation to security metrics. Examining the narrower field of whether Islamic education produces a security threat had similar results to other studies of madrassas’ effect on militancy.[66] Islamic education school and attendance increases outpaced general education growth, reflecting MoE’s prioritization of Islamic education during this timeframe, as MoE can choose how much to invest in general verses Islamic schools. The percentage of students in Islamic education varied widely across provinces, from 0.12% in Daikundi to 11.89% in Pansjhir. In order to determine correlation between religious education and security outcomes, this research used religious education (the number of students attending Islamic education and the percentage of Islamic education attendance to general education attendance) in a province as the independent variable and two security indicators as dependent variables: the number of ISAF casualties and the number of AGE incidents recorded.[67] With p values of .669 and .419, there is no statistically significant correlation between the number of students attending Islamic education and ISAF casualties or AGE attacks. Likewise, with p values of .733 and .757, there is no statistically significant correlation between ISAF casualties or AGE attacks and the percentage of students in Islamic education. This suggests that growing religiosity of education will not affect the strength of the insurgency.

Assumption #2: Providing Education Will Allow the Government, Coalition, and/or Taliban to Demonstrate Legitimacy and Win Popular Support

For this assumption to hold true, per CERP guidelines, the study would expect that as CERP education spending and/or total CERP spending increased, Afghans would reap the benefits of development provided by the Coalition and government, and would increase their support to the Afghan government and Coalition. Likewise, levels of violence would be expected to decline as CERP spending increased. Education CERP spending averaged 11% annually as a percentage of total spending (compared to 9% in Iraq[68]).

In order to determine correlation between CERP education spending and security outcomes, this study used national CERP metrics (total CERP spending, total education CERP spending, the percent of education spending of CERP funding) as independent variables. Three security indicators were used as dependent variables: the number of U.S. military personnel wounded in action and AGE attacks with civilian casualties or attacks against Afghan military and police forces. While a greater variety of security indicators would have been ideal, there is little publicly available data on security in Afghanistan that goes the full length of the CERP program (2004-2012). This analysis shows that there is no statistically significant relationship between CERP spending (education, education percentage of total CERP spending, or total spending) and U.S. casualties or AGE incidents. See full regression results in the appendix.

The lack of evidence to support the above assumptions within counterinsurgency suggests that education has a limited effect, if any, on political violence. In his study, Ethan Bueno de Mesquito writes, “Any connection between poverty, education, and terrorism is indirect, complicated, and probably quite weak.”[69] Counterinsurgency scholar John Nagl, a proponent of education’s role in the global ‘war of ideas,’ concedes that education is an enabler to governance and economic development, not an end in itself.[70] Even in areas of Afghanistan with little insurgent presence, there was no statistically significant correlation between security and education. This suggests that a functioning education system is not one of the many factors necessary for a successful counterinsurgency.

Was Development Strategy in Afghanistan Flawed in Theory or Practice?

“Something I worry about increasingly as time goes on is the sense that the development strategies in Iraq and now Afghanistan have failed,” said retired General John Allen, a former ISAF commander. “The development dimension of what we have attempted to undertake was either the wrong approach or was just flawed from the beginning…and I think that really deserves some rigorous testing.”[71] Afghanistan witnessed well-intentioned efforts and strategies without a clear understanding of their effect and utility; as the military withdraws and identifies lessons learned from Afghanistan, researchers should also assess assumptions and policies with rigorous qualitative and quantitative testing.

One misunderstanding of the war and counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan was the assumption that providing education was important to popular satisfaction with the government. Studies and surveys have shown that the most important factors to the Afghan people are security and fair governance.[72] In contrast, ISAF resources prioritized development over governance; building roads and schools and health clinics rather than an effective civil service and justice system. A counterinsurgency strategy that uses aid to build up the government is a difficult pitch when many believe the Taliban provides sufficient or even better services to their most important needs.[73] A significant majority of Afghans see development aid as negative despite the expansion of services due to corruption and poor execution of development.[74] Assumptions that aid projects create positive perceptions of aid providers or the host nation government may not be valid in Afghanistan.[75] “We must strive to uncover the true drivers of instability in a region,” testified USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah in 2011. “What we’ve found is that it is generally not the case that a lack of schools or roads drives conflict. Often the situation is far subtler, having to do with local power dynamics.”[76] In Afghanistan, the Coalition focused on the wrong drivers of conflict—on the lack of development and government presence rather than poor governance.[77]

Finally, another miscalculation was the confusion between tactical and strategic gains. This strategic confusion was particularly apparent in military-funded education aid. Edwina Thompson concluded in a conference report on counterinsurgency in Afghanistan:

Reconstruction and development projects are having development benefits, but we do not know whether they are addressing the major drivers of conflict/insurgency. Small‐scale aid projects can certainly help to facilitate and legitimise interactions between external actors and local communities…The important caveat, however, is that the benefits are very local and tactical; therefore the relationships are transactional in nature, and the work is not winning populations over to GIRoA.[78]

While military-funded education aid helped to produce dramatic improvement in educational attainment, it did not translate into strategic gains against the Taliban insurgency.[79] The lessons learned from military provision of education warn against assumptions regarding the impact of education in conflict countries. Education and literacy are tools that can be used to ease or cause conflict, and as such, education does not inherently contribute to military or government gains. The efforts of MoE and ISAF to use education for nation-building and counterinsurgency activities produced backlash while not achieving strategic goals. Afghanistan analyst Antonio Giustozzi concludes:

State promotion of secular education did have an impact in the villages, creating in some areas new demand for educational services and therefore forever changing the status quo in many villages. However, the present mix of half pursued agendas seems to offer the worst possible world: it creates opposition, but lacks the strength necessary to achieve positive results and mobilise that section of the population that still sees state education as an asset.[80]

Despite popular consensus, little evidence—presented in this paper or elsewhere—suggests that education or other development activities dampens support for political violence. While education and aid may serve important humanitarian and long-term development interests, it does not create peace in the near term.[81] By making education part of the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, the United States inserted itself into a highly-contentious internal Afghan debate on the role and content of education and further exacerbated conflict over education. Education’s impact on security is ambiguous and mixed at best.

Policy Recommendations

Decouple Education from Security Objectives. The U.S. military should extract itself from education in Afghanistan and future counterinsurgencies until it can demonstrate education can contribute positively to a counterinsurgency campaign. Without evidence that education aid translates into security objectives and counterinsurgency gains, military aid to education will raise expectations of results from both military commanders and local citizens while outcomes are often far from what is expected. Military and foreign intervention in education politicizes education and places it at risk for greater violence. This is not to say that the U.S. and foreign donors should not provide humanitarian aid to the education sector, but the military and policymakers should not make military strategy based on predictions of the effect of that aid.

Limit Expectations of Short-Term Aid’s Long-Term Consequences. The conscription of education into counterinsurgency limited the efficacy of education efforts GIRoA capacity by pursuing development strategies that are not aligned with GIRoA’s development strategy and priorities. Afghanistan does not discredit education aid; it discredits using education to accomplish military goals. The outcome for Afghanistan and its education system is still unclear and will remain so for years. To repeat General (ret.) David Petraeus’ unanswerable question, “tell me how this ends.”

            “Every age has its follies; perhaps the folly of our age could be identified as an unmatched ambition to change the world, without even bothering to study it in detail and understand it first,” opined Giustozzi. “What is surprising in the attitude of contemporary policy makers is the readiness to enter countries and set out to transform every remote corner of the world.” While Afghanistan’s history of controversy over education and the poor execution of inconsistent strategies in Afghanistan exacerbated the issue, this study demonstrated that provision of education does not necessarily contribute to the defeat of an insurgency. This flawed thinking led the United States to insert itself in an internal Afghan debate about the value, content, and provision of education with little beyond unrealized expectations to show for it.

Ms. Royall currently works with the Department of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Division. From 2011-2012, she served in Kabul as the ISAF Joint Command’s embed in the Afghan Ministry of Education, and, from 2008-2009, she worked at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, D.C.


[1] David Kilcullen quoted in Eli Berman, Radical, Religious, and Violent (Boston: MIT Press, 2009), 183.

[2] This paper uses Coalition as an umbrella term for the major military and government actors in the conflict, to include NATO’s International Stabilization Assistance Force (ISAF), U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy, and USAID. If referencing a specific organization, it will so indicate.

[3] Michael Buonocore, “Aid as a Weapon: Can Money Buy Victory in Afghanistan?” Harvard Kennedy School Review 10 (2010): 134-137.

[4] The Political Future of Afghanistan, Hearing Before the Senate Comm. on Foreign Relations, 107th Cong. 236 (2001); Status of Security and Stability in Afghanistan, Hearing Before House Comm. on Armed Services, 109th Cong. 114 (2006), 10, 16-17; Farooq Wardak, The Journey of Education Continues in Afghanistan (Kabul: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ministry of Education, 2011), 18, 5; The Reconstruction of Afghanistan: An Update, Hearing Before the Senate Comm. on Foreign Relations, 108th Cong. 37 (2003), 8, 11, 24; House Committee on Armed Services. Afghanistan: The Results of the Strategic Review, Part II, Hearing Before the House Comm. on Armed Services, 111th Cong. 112 (2009), 40;,“Sign and Sight: A new layeha for the Mujahideen,” The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, 29 November 2006,

[5] Antonio Giustozzi, “Nation‐Building Is Not for All: The Politics of Education in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Analysts Network Thematic Report 2 (2010): 3.

[6] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 339.

[7] “Lessons in Terror: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch Report 18 No. 6 (2006): 24; Antonio Giustozzi and Claudio Franco, “The Battle for the Schools: The Taleban and State Education,” Afghanistan Analysts Network Thematic Report 8 (2011): 3.

[8] Barfield, Afghanistan, 225, 231.

[9] Giustozzi, “Nation‐Building Is Not for All,” 3.

[10] Ibid., 11.

[11] Ibid., 12.

[12] Ibid., 13.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 4.

[16] National Interim Plan 2011-13 (Kabul: Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Ministry of Education, 2011), 49.

[17] Ibid., 86.

[18] Giustozzi, “Nation‐Building Is Not for All,” 16-17.

[19] Ibid., 2.

 [20] See “Economic Assistance (Disbursements) by Funding Agency, Funding Account, Implementing Agency, and Sector” at “U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants – Afghanistan,” USAID,

[21] Sonja C. Grover, Schoolchildren as Propaganda Tools in the War on Terror (New York: Springer, 2011), 63.

[22] Status of Security and Stability in Afghanistan (2006), 10.

[23] See “Economic Assistance (Obligations) by Funding Agency and Sector” at “U.S. Overseas Grants and Loans: Afghanistan,” USAID,; Stuart Gordon, Winning Hearts and Minds? Examining the Relationship between Aid and Security in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province (Boston: Feinstein International Center, 2011), 3.

[24] HQ ISAF DCOS Stability, “Socioeconomic Development Priorities for Transition,” The Road to 2014 (Kabul, 2011), 1.

[25] International Security Assistance Force Joint Command, “Afghanistan Women’s Shura: ‘Strength in Unity,’” Kabul, April 2012.

[26] “Socioeconomic Development Priorities for Transition,” 2. Development was no longer an activity that occurred as an addendum to military operations, it had become part of the strategy to achieve security. In Algeria, Malaysia, and Vietnam, development projects were rewards to be doled out after the population had submitted to counterinsurgent—development.

[27] Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan, A Senate Foreign Relations Committee Majority Staff Report (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2011), 5.

[28] Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Terrorism, Insurgency, and Afghanistan,” in Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century, ed. James J.F. Forest (London: Praeger Security International, 2007), 470.

[29] Seth G. Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 192.

[30] See “Economic Assistance (Disbursements) by Funding Agency, Funding Account, Implementing Agency, and Sector” at “U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants–Afghanistan,” USAID.

[31] “Promises, Promises: A briefing paper for the Kabul Conference on Afghanistan,” Oxfam Briefing Paper, 19 July 2010, 6.

[32] Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) SOP: Money as a Weapons System – Afghanistan (Kabul: U.S. Forces Afghanistan, 2012), 5.

[33] Rex Brynen, “Donor Assistance: Lessons from Palestine for Afghanistan,” in Postconflict Development: Meeting New Challenges, ed. Gerd Junne, & Willemijn Verkoren (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005), 244.

[34] Thompson, “Winning ‘Hearts and Minds’ in Afghanistan,” 2.

[35] “Sign and Sight,” The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

[36] Kate Clark, “The Layeha: Calling the Taleban to Account,” Afghanistan Analysts Network Thematic Report 6 (2011): 6. See also David Galula on counterinsurgency in Algeria.

[37] “Lessons in Terror,” 34.

[38] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 5.

[39] Taliban 2009 Rules and Regulations Booklet Seized by CF on 15 July 2009 IVO [In Vicinity Of] Sangin Valley, 3, 4, 7, 9, 11.

[40] Thomas Johnson, Analyzing the Taliban Code of Conduct: Reinventing the Layeha (Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, 2009), 22.

[41] Davis, Paul K., Eric V. Larson, Zachary Haldeman, Mustafa Oguz, and Yashodhara Rana, Understanding and Influencing Public Support for Insurgency and Terrorism (Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2012), 95.

[42] “Annex: The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, The Layha [Code of Conduct] For Mujahids,” International Review of the Red Cross 93 No. 881 (2011): 116, available:

[43] Ibid., 16.

[44] Ibid., 28.

[45] Ibid., 29-30.

[46] Assumption #2, Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 6.

[47] Marit Glad, Knowledge on Fire: Attacks on Education in Afghanistan (Atlanta: CARE, 2009), 36.

[48] Ibid., 35.

[49] Giustozzi, “Nation‐Building Is Not for All,” 17.

[50] “Lessons in Terror,” 4.

[51] Antonio Giustozzi, Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop: The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 104-5.

[52] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 8.

[53] Christopher Reuter and Borhan Younus, “The Return of the Taliban in Andar District Ghazni,” in Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field, ed. Antonio Giustozzi (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 110-111.

[54] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 21.

[55] National Interim Plan 2011-13, 46.

[56] Attaulah Wahidyar (Director of Publications and Information, Afghan Ministry of Education), in discussion with the author (Elizabeth Royall), 28 January 2012.

[57] Wahidyar, interview by Elizabeth Royall.

[58] Lynne Bethke, “Primary and Secondary Schooling Sub-Sector Report,” Education Joint Sector Review 1391 (2012): 4, 9.

[59] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 2.

[60] Ibid., 11-12.

[61] Farooq Wardak (Afghan Minister of Education), in discussion with the author (Elizabeth Royall), 29 May 2012.

[62] Giustozzi and Franco, “The Battle for the Schools,” 18.

[63] While most statistics about education in Afghanistan cite enrollment numbers, attendance numbers are much more accurate. Enrollment numbers are significantly higher than attendance and are not responsive to external changes. School attendance and totals are taken from the Ministry of Education’s Education Management Information System and covers years 2008 to 2011,

[64] Gerd Junne and Willemijn Verkoren, “Seeking the Best Way Forward,” in Postconflict Development: Meeting New Challenges, ed. Gerd Junne, & Willemijn Verkoren (London: Lynn Rienner Publishers, 2005), 323.

[65] C. Christine Fair and Bryan C. Shepherd, “Who Supports Terrorism? Evidence from Fourteen Muslim Countries” in Coping with Terrorism: Origins, Escalation, Counterstrategies, and Responses, ed. Rafael Reuveny and William R. Thompson (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010), 287.

[66] Ibid., 287-314. (Albany: SUNY Press, 2010); Christine C. Fair, The Madrassah Challenge: Militancy and Religious Education in Pakistan (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2008), xiv.

[67] “Operation Enduring Freedom,”,; “Afghanistan NGO Safety Office,” ReliefWeb,

[68] “U.S. Overseas Loans and Grants–Afghanistan,” USAID; “Commander’s Emergency Response Program Obligations Are Uncertain,” Special Inspector General For Iraq Reconstruction, 31 January 2011 , 6, available

[69] Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, “The Quality of Terror,” American Journal of Political Science 49 No. 3 (2005): 515-530, 516.

[70] John Nagl (Minerva Chair at the U.S. Naval Academy), in discussion with the author ( Elizabeth Royall), 4 March 2013.

[71] Kevin Baron, “Gen. Allen’s Lessons from Iraq,” Foreign Policy Magazine, 14 March 2013,

[72] Afghanistan in 2012: A Survey of the Afghan People (Kabul: The Asia Foundation, 2012), 60.

[73] Thompson, “Winning ‘Hearts and Minds’ in Afghanistan,” 2.

[74] Buonocore, “Aid as a Weapon.”

[75] Thompson, “Winning ‘Hearts and Minds’ in Afghanistan,” 3.

[76] Evaluating U.S. Foreign Assistance to Afghanistan, 9.

[77] Gordon, Winning Hearts and Minds?, 6.

[78] Thompson, “Winning ‘Hearts and Minds’ in Afghanistan,” 11.

[79] Ibid., 13.

[80] Giustozzi, “Nation-Building Is Not for All,” 2.

[81] Christopher Jasparro, “Sociocultural, Economic, and Demographic Aspects of Counterterrorism,” in Countering Terrorism and Insurgency in the 21st Century, ed. James J.F. Forest (London: Praeger Security International, 2007), 440-441.

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