Must young Afghans be willing to die for an education?

Afghanistan following the attacks on educational institutions: Afghan police guard an entrance to Kabul University
Afghanistan following the attacks on educational institutions: Afghan police guard an entrance to Kabul University

The latest attack on Kabul University left staff and students feeling desperate and vulnerable. An international letter of solidarity aims to express support for the academic community, who continue to instruct and study under conditions of war, violence and insecurity. By Marian Brehmer

By Marian Brehmer

November began violently for Afghan’s academia. On 2 November, three attackers stormed the law faculty at the University of Kabul, firing indiscriminately on students and teaching staff. During the six-hour occupation, 35 people were murdered and dozens of others injured, while Afghan security forces tried to protect thousands of students and neutralise the attackers at the same time.

The attack was the second on an Afghan educational institution in just two weeks; in late October, an IS suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to an education centre. The attack, which left 43 teenaged students dead, occurred in the troubled neighbourhood of Dasht-e-Barchi, where most residents are ethnic Hazaras. The district has already endured a number of attacks — on mosques, a wrestling club and in May, even a maternity hospital.

While the attack on Kabul University was claimed by the Afghan offshoot of IS, the government in Kabul believes that a different group was responsible: the Haqqani network, known for its brutality and affiliated with the Taliban. Whoever was responsible for the bloodbath, the perfidious message behind it came through loud and clear: just like previous attacks on other universities such as the American University of Kabul and the Polytechnic University, it was aimed squarely at the nation’s young harbingers of hope, people who may have one day been able to effect a change in the fortunes of their homeland.

Fatal signal: education can be life-threatening

According to a report by Al Jazeera, the dead included 23-year-old student Mohammed Raul Arif, a young man who was determined to serve his country one day. Although his parents tried to convince him to study abroad, he remained in Afghanistan. That decision cost Arif his life. Such tragic stories send a fatal signal to young people in Afghanistan and their parents — that education is unsafe and can even be life-threatening.


The university resumed normal operations after just a few days, but in an atmosphere of hopelessness. "Attacks like these now happen so often people have become accustomed to them," says Hussain Tawfiqy, a philosophy student at Kabul University. "Nevertheless, the attack came as a serious shock to students," he adds.

Kabul University, founded in 1931 under the government of Mohammed Nadir Shah, is one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious universities. It has 25,000 students, almost half of them women. This means that it has an important role to play in the education of future generations of professionals in Afghanistan.

Conscious of the horror and the destructive symbolic power of the attack, 350 academics from the United States, Europe, South Asia and Australia signed a public letter of solidarity on the Afghanistan Center website, initiated by the researchers Mejgan Massoumi (Stanford University) and Munazza Ebitkar (University of Oxford).

The letter, signed among others by Noam Chomsky, states: "As international scholars, we are outraged by the attacks on universities and educational institutions in Afghanistan. We stand in solidarity with the families of the victims and all Afghans who risk their lives to pursue their education in conditions of war, violence and insecurity."

The letter also calls on the Afghan government, the international community and NGOs operating in Afghanistan to bring those responsible for the attacks to account, to cut off their sources of support, to do more to protect teachers and students and force all actors in the Afghan war to respect and protect civilian life in the conflict.

A student in the Persian Literature reading room in Kabul's municipal library, one of the few public libraries in the Afghan capital (photo: Marian Brehmer)
Solidarität mit afghanischen Universitäten: Im Wissen um die zerstörerische Symbolkraft der Anschläge auf afghanische Bildungseinrichtungen unterzeichneten 350 Akademikerinnen und Akademiker aus den Vereinigten Staaten, Europa, Südasien und Australien ein auf der Website des “Afghanistan Center” veröffentlichtes Solidaritätsschreiben. In der Erklärung heißt es: “Als internationale Wissenschaftler sind wir empört über die Angriffe auf Universitäten und Bildungseinrichtungen in Afghanistan. Wir sind solidarisch mit den Familien der Opfer und mit allen Afghanen, die ihr Leben riskieren, um ihre Ausbildung unter den Bedingungen von Krieg, Gewalt und Unsicherheit fortzusetzen.”

Afghan colleagues feel abandoned

One of the German signatories is Dr. Annika Schmeding, Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, a woman who carried out field research in Afghanistan for many years. "To express solidarity with the victims and survivors is the least we can do," says Schmeding. "A letter like this shows that although news reports have a short shelf-life in the West, the murder of civilians in educational establishments cannot be allowed to become normality. I think many Afghan colleagues feel left alone in a seemingly hopeless situation co-initiated by the West," she adds.

In February, the U.S. government signed a peace treaty with the Taliban with the declared goal of pulling most American troops out before Trump’s exit from office. But despite the ongoing peace process between the U.S. leadership and the Taliban, there has been yet another surge in violence against civilians in the second half of the year. In the past six months alone, the Taliban carried out 53 suicide attacks and 1,250 bombings, most of them in the provinces, leaving 1,210 civilians dead and around twice as many wounded.

While U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Taliban representatives at the weekend, IS attacked Kabul’s heavily fortified Green Zone where ministries and foreign embassies are located. Another 10 people died.

So why are things not calming down in Afghanistan? It does appear that Taliban leaders, many of them living in Pakistani exile for many years, are struggling to sustain combat operations. As Afghan journalist Mujib Mashal of the New York Times reports, the functionaries often know little about conditions on the ground and the motivation of their fighters. These frequently young Taliban recruits have suffered considerable losses within their own ranks in recent years and are not about to lay down their arms any time soon. Their declared goal is the reunification of a Taliban Emirate; their fight is not primarily against foreign occupying forces but against what they perceive as a corrupt state system.

In view of the unabating violence, many Afghans increasingly regard the "peace negotiations" as a farce. The father of Hanife, one of the students murdered at Kabul University, described in the newspaper Hasht-e Sobh (“Eight O’Clock in the Morning”) how he attempted to identify his daughter among the corpses at the hospital.  "I wished I could take the lifeless body of my daughter to Doha, place it on the negotiating table and say: 'This is the reality in today’s Afghanistan'. The bloodied body of a young girl who had 1001 beautiful wishes, but who was killed so that you can broker a deal. How am I supposed to believe in such a peace?"

Marian Brehmer

© 2020

Translated from the German by Nina Coon