Education has been touted as an “island of success” in the sea of hubris and corruption that was our misadventure in Afghanistan. Progress in education had been viewed as a sign of hope and cited as a marker of advancement. When the U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001, there were 900,000 secondary school students: all boys. By 2020, there were over 9.5 million students: 39% of them girls.
Today, in the aftermath of our blundered exit, these advances are in jeopardy. The Taliban have struggled with myriad challenges, including decimated schools, a lack of qualified teachers, and the deep cultural divide over education for girls. Education in Afghanistan is at a tipping point, as many families face only negative choices regarding their children and education.
The U.S. policy of sanctions and isolation has crippled the Afghan economy while doing little to mollify the Taliban. We just seem to make the misery of everyday Afghans appear without end. The BBC recently reported on Afghans selling organs, drugging their children so they would sleep on empty stomachs, and selling daughters into marriage to buy food and medicine. There is an opportunity for the U.S. to still make a difference using targeted humanitarian assistance already in the pipeline and a modest humanitarian investment, but we cannot dust off failed policies and programs of the past.
An innovative digital education program focusing on core educational objectives and support for students could help bring Afghan education back from the precipice. While there are clear challenges, digital learning presents an opportunity to address many of the cultural and systemic problems plaguing the country. Success could become a catalyst for equality (all students with equal access to learning resources) and equity (all students receiving the resources needed to succeed) in education.
Alas, there are no approved digital programs for secondary education in Afghanistan. There is no platform using the national curriculum taught by qualified Afghan teachers, both men and women. There is no program that focuses on students in rural and remote areas, while offering a complete K-12 education for all students. We are trying to change that by establishing the Afghan Digital Learning Academy (ADLA). We have an established site in Kabul and 30 experienced educators committed to our program. In coordination with the Ministry of Education, ADLA has fulfilled the requirements to be the first approved digital learning program.
Skepticism about digital learning in Afghanistan seems to come more from the international donor community than the Taliban government. It is unclear if they doubt Afghans possess the technical competency or whether the national infrastructure could support digital learning, but they choose not to fund it. They appear content with the same type of programs they have been funding for 20 years, with hopes of different outcomes.
They might want to consider the voices of three Afghan women and career educators working with our program. One is a headmaster at a girls school, another a university professor, and the third has taught in Afghanistan’s rural schools for nearly two decades. They still believe education can empower and uplift people and inspire change. They would agree with one of the region’s most revered poets, Mawlana Rumi: “Ignorance is God’s prison; knowing is God’s palace.”
The educators described the Afghan secondary school system as “not very effective” before COVID-19 and our catastrophic withdrawal. Schools were planned, and many were built with international assistance, but countless projects stagnated and were left either incomplete or plagued by faulty construction. They are of little use today. Teacher training lagged, and essentials such as schoolbooks were woefully inadequate. Many of the advances touted seem to have vanished as exaggerated claims bore few enduring markers of success.
While there were some excellent schools in the major cities, rural and remote schools could be quite different. One educator noted that classes routinely consisted of three or four (mostly unqualified) teachers for 300 to 400 students, with few books or materials. Their classrooms might be under a tree, or in some semi-dilapidated structure, with no electricity or running water. There was also little to no accommodation for students with learning challenges or disabilities. Overall, the quality of education was poor.
With a severe COVID-19 learning loss and fallout from the change in government, many Afghans find the system paralyzed, leaving, as one educator noted, “many parents to agonize about the future of their children,” how “uneducated children will lead their lives.” The educators openly discussed the role of women in Afghan society and the ban on girls in grades six through 12. One characterized the issue because of some “unfortunate customs and traditions.” Another remarked, “Efforts are made to ensure that female teachers do not go to school, and if they do, there are many problems in the way of dignity.”
They believe that education could still be a catalyst for change and is a crucial factor in life trajectories. Studying remotely, the educators think, is a credible option for many, given the realities in Afghanistan. Parents would no longer be worried about their children going out, especially girls. A stipend offered to students could alter the negative choices many families face with education. Equitable teaching materials would be available to all. Qualified teachers would provide the instruction. Equity and equality for disadvantaged students in remote areas and poor villages could be tackled. The educators also strongly believe that Afghan students would quickly adapt to the technology, and teachers would be better positioned to manage education in a digital learning environment.
Our hapless departure from Afghanistan has been costly. The 20-year investment was an immense sacrifice, not something that should be forgotten. For the United States, a modest investment in digital learning could have an outsized impact on Afghan society and cement a transcendent legacy instead of just adding something else to our bucket load of regret.
• Ron MacCammon is a retired U.S. military officer who worked for the State Department in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2015. He has a doctorate in education in innovation and program development.
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