January 3rd, 2008 09:40 EST
Afghanistan: Some schools more vulnerable to attack than others?
Schools built and/or reconstructed by international forces are more vulnerable to attack by Taliban insurgents and other radical elements than those built by civilians, according to experts.
"Oxfam is aware of research which suggests that in some areas schools built by international military forces are twice as likely to be targeted by militants as those built by civilian agencies," Mat Waldman, policy and advocacy adviser for Oxfam International in Kabul, told IRIN.
At least 230 students and teachers have been killed and about 250 schools attacked by militants in the past three years, according to the Afghanistan Ministry of Education (MoE).
Owing to these attacks, over 400 schools remain closed, mostly in volatile southern provinces, denying education to thousands of students, MoE officials said.
Almost 70 percent of school-age children are not attending schools because of insecurity in Helmand, Zabul and Uruzgan provinces, Haneef Atmar, the Afghan minister of education, told a meeting in Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand, on 9 December.
NATO-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and US-led coalition forces have built and/or rebuilt hundreds of schools in different parts of Afghanistan and have spent large amounts of aid money on education support activities, a spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.
On 26 December, dozens of US forces inaugurated a girls' school in Aftabachi village, Kapisa Province, US military said in a press release. The project cost US$120,000 and took six months to complete.
"They [local people] don't have enough schools around here, so this one's a big one for them," Sergeant Henry Rodriguez, a US military official, was quoted in the press release as saying.
On 30 December, Afghanistan's education minister, teachers and US military personnel discussed education issues at Forward Operating Base Fenty in the eastern city of Jalalabad, a separate US press release said.
Experts - including Abdul Qader Noorzai, an official at the human rights commission in Kandahar - warn that the increased involvement of Afghan and international military forces in school-building efforts, and continued interactions with schoolchildren, could send the wrong signals to Taliban insurgents and other extremist militants who have repeatedly attacked schools and students as "soft targets".
Research carried out by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation (CCIC) in October said that in Afghanistan the role of the military is often confused with that of humanitarian and development non-government organisations (NGOs).
"There needs to be some space between them [NGOs and military]. They need to be independent. If not, we can end up with civilians being targeted," Gerry Barr, president of CCIC was quoted as saying by CTV Canada.
Donors' use of sensitive logos, flags and other markings in their funded projects and on aid items such as school bags, notebooks and books could also incite militants, observers - including Member of Parliament Shukria Barakzai - say.
"Every donor and every NGO also has a responsibility to consider whether using a logo or emblem of any kind would endanger the beneficiaries of a project. If in any way there is a significant risk that this could generate attacks or make people who use that project targets, or less secure, then I think that the logo should not be used," said Waldman of Oxfam.
Education Ministry disagrees
However, officials in MoE played down concerns that the involvement of the military in education projects, and the use of sensitive logos, may increase attacks on schools and students.
"Those who attack schools and schoolchildren will do so even if we were to put verses from the holy Koran on a school gate and a student's bag," said Siddiq Patman, deputy minister of education.
ISAF spokesman Carlos Branco also repudiated claims that military-built schools were more vulnerable to attack.
According to Branco, ISAF-led PRTs conduct school-building and other education projects in close consultation and cooperation with Community Development Councils (CDDs) and relevant government bodies. "No school that has been constructed through the respective CDC has been burned down," he said.
Patman gave assurances that aid provided by military forces would be stopped immediately if it were found to jeopardise schoolchildren's safety.