Intensifying conflict in Afghanistan's Helmand Province has forced more than 150 schools to close, leaving about 100,000 students vulnerable to recruitment by the Taliban.
For about two months, a near-continuous battle has been raging between government forces and the Taliban for control of Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital that the insurgent group nearly seized in October. Thousands of extra soldiers have since been deployed, but they have succeeded in pushing the Taliban only 17 kilometres from the city centre.
The Taliban has been steadily gaining ground as part of a strategy to encircle the capital. Insurgents now control parts of Babaji, an area on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah, and have consolidated positions in nearby Nad-e-Ali and Marjah districts.
Helmand’s newly-appointed police chief Brigadier General Abdul Rahman Sarjang said police fired 30,000 rounds of bullets and hundreds of rocket-propelled grenades in just one night last week to foil an advance on Marjah. “We are fighting round the clock in Marjah,” he told IRIN.
The province’s education system has become a casualty of war.
More than 50 schools in districts surrounding Lashkar Gah have been closed for nine weeks due to intense fighting, leaving almost 30,000 students without access to classes, according to Mohammad Sarhadi, the province’s deputy director for education. An additional 104 schools that catered to about 70,000 students in other districts have been shut for the past year, he told IRIN.
Fertile recruiting ground
Lack of education and job opportunities have left young men with few options, and the Taliban has been capitalising on the situation.
“In such circumstances, a little propaganda, a little inducement, can swing loyalties,” Haji Shah Khan, a tribal elder in Nad-e-Ali, told IRIN by phone.
“Taliban is distributing pamphlets and audio cassettes, inciting the young to join them,” he explained. “They are also offering money and weapons. If you are a poor, 16-year-old sitting at home, what will you do?”
Haji Bayatullah, a tribal elder in Marjah, said he knows of several students from his district who have joined the Taliban over the past few weeks alone. “Sitting idle, the younger generation is more susceptible to Taliban indoctrination,” he said, also by phone.
It’s not only the Taliban recruiting in Helmand. The so-called Islamic State, which is known as Daesh in Afghanistan, has been making inroads into the war-torn southern province too, according to security officials.
“Both Taliban and Daesh are recruiting young men in Helmand,” said Sarjang, the police chief. “But we are fighting hard to push them away.”
An internal military report shows that Daesh has been moving into Helmand and two more southern provinces after establishing control over territory in eastern Nangahar Province, according to General Qadam Shah Shahim, who heads the Afghan National Army.
The government is working on a plan to revive the school system in Helmand, according to Sarjang. The police chief declined to share details, but said it would undercut the Taliban’s draw. “Once the schools reopen, the insurgents will not get the fertile ground for recruitment,” he said.
There is no evidence so far of the government’s strategy to reopen schools. Sarhadi, the Helmand education official, said government forces have occupied school buildings, using them as posts or to stock supplies and ammunition.
“We have told them – please vacate schools as soon as possible,” he said.
Mujib Meharad, a spokesman for the education ministry in Kabul, said the government has issued “explicit instructions” to the security forces to not only vacate the schools but also provide them with protection.
The Taliban has also taken over school buildings and Meharad said the government is using “soft power” to convince them to leave. “The education ministry is taking the help of tribal elders, who try to talk and convince the insurgents to move out of school buildings,” he told IRIN.
Aside from strengthening the ranks of insurgent groups, Bayatullah, the tribal elder from Marjah, pointed out that halting education will have detrimental long-term effects.
“This way, we will only end up with more uneducated Afghans,” he said. “The country will not produce any engineer or doctor and we will have to travel to Pakistan or Iran for any medical emergency.”