by Frud Bezhan and Homayoon Shinwary, RFE/RL
The Afghan government has lauded its progress in restoring the country's education system as one of its preeminent achievements over the past decade.
But despite some visible inroads, there are warning signs.
At best, the effort to open opportunities through education has failed to meet expectations; at worst, the system has essentially become a breeding ground for extremists.
The Afghan government, from the onset, earmarked education as key to eliminating poverty and thwarting radicalism. It devised a plan to send all Afghan children to school, to construct universities and technical schools to address a skills shortage, and, above all, to create job opportunities.
Those who pass through the system find the going tough upon graduation, however, with jobs and university slots scarce.
Wadir Safi, an Afghan law professor, says this leaves young graduates with few options.
The Afghan National Army and National Police Force are expanding, but the work is low-paid and hazardous. Some choose instead to eke out a living on the streets, which can descend into a life of drug abuse. In the end, joining the ranks of militant groups can begin to look appealing for some.
Safi says it is unsurprising that disillusioned students would join the Taliban, insisting that in most cases the students feel safer, more empowered, are given a sense of purpose, and receive salaries that match or better those of the army. He adds that new Taliban recruits can receive several hundred dollars a month, as well as clothing, food, and shelter.
"Youths who become unemployed and fail to enter university have little choice," Safi says. "The government doesn't have any initiatives to create jobs. Angry as a result of this, they're purposely joining the insurgency. They see that the government is unable to help them and see the other side [insurgency] as where the power [and money] is."
Najib Mahmoud, a political science professor at Kabul University, says millions of children have enrolled in thousands of newly built schools in the last decade but that advancements were hindered by shortsightedness.
Mahmoud says that while the government has made progress in primary and secondary education, they have neglected the question of what those students will do once they complete school.
He adds that in the past decade, only a few universities and semi-higher education institutions, which provide technical and skills training, have been built. None have been built in underdeveloped and insurgent-hit regions -- where Mahmoud says they are particularly needed.
"In the last 10 years, the Afghan government should not only have worked on increasing the quality and quantity of education, but in every province they should have built universities, especially in underdeveloped areas," Mahmoud says. "If we had done this, we could have increased the number of professionals and prevented our kids and students from joining the Taliban."
No Rhyme Or Reason?
Within the education system, the perception of widespread government corruption has become a major factor for students deciding what direction they will take.
Locals in the country's volatile and conservative south, where insurgents exert significant influence, say many students feel the government has abandoned them. In some cases, that disillusionment has given way to anger amid claims of injustice and discrimination.
Abdul Wali, a high-school graduate from southeastern Zabul Province, says the result of this year's university entry exams, which were marred by widespread allegations of corruption, is a case in point.
Wali says many of his friends earned sufficient marks to enter university but were unjustly denied a place. Others, he claims, insist that their test scores were higher than some students in urban centers who were admitted -- leading to claims of fraud and favoritism.
"This time, many students participated in university entry exams. Only some got in and many others failed," Wali says. "Those that failed didn't have any other options so they joined the Taliban. They were my good friends and now they're standing alongside the Taliban and fighting against the government."
According to statistics from the Afghan Education Ministry, only around 40,000 of the 147,000 students who took part in the national exams were granted university slots, with only a handful of them hailing from the volatile south of the country.
Mohammad Omar, a student from southeastern Ghazni Province, says students in the region already face huge hurdles in receiving an education -- notably militants burning schools down, poisoning students, and assassinating teachers and education officials.
He says the controversy surrounding the exam results, for some, was the last straw, claiming scores of his male relatives and friends have joined the Taliban in the aftermath of the results.
"I have a lot of close friends that had to face this misfortune and went to support the Taliban," Omar says. "Some of them carry out ambushes on the roads, not looking whether it’s a civilian vehicle or one that’s carrying supplies to foreign forces. They're burning these valuable supplies with only matches."
*Written and reported by Frud Bezhan, with additional reporting by RFE/RL Afghan Service correspondent Homayoon Shinwary