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Building Schools in Afghanistan: Not as Simple as ABC

6 years ago
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DURNAMA, Afghanistan -- In the broiling sun of the relentless Afghan summer, four heavy armored trucks labor up a boulder-studded mountain path. Jolting in their turrets, U.S. Army gunners can see hundreds of miles of jagged skyline and rocky uplands, an immense, barren vista where the United States of America has come to win a war through generosity.

Specifically, the U.S. military is spending $312,000 to build a school on a windswept plateau here. It's part of an intricate theory of counterinsurgency warfare that involves big money and grinding hard work for a long shot, distant payoff: that kids will grow up in a stable, moderate society not wrenched by extremist violence.

That's our exit strategy from the Afghan war.

Construction of the school provides local jobs. Building material is bought through a local shopkeeper. Once the school is built, it will give nearby kids a chance for jobs in the local economy and government. And, according to U.S. strategists, this school and others like it will help keep boys from drifting away to extremist madrassas in Pakistan and falling into the clutches of the Taliban. The entire enterprise, it is hoped, will reflect well on the U.S. and the Afghan government, which will take credit for the new school. In the struggle for local "hearts and minds,'' the Taliban will lose: They don't build schools.

The U.S. military has already spent $1 billion on "high impact'' development projects like this – and more are coming.

"Local education is critical,'' says David Kilcullen, a counterinsurgency adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan.

Sound simple? Read on.

Air Force 1st Lt. Anthony Rafaele, a 24-year-old engineering graduate of Virginia Military Institute, has come to Durnama to inspect the work under way. Afghan contractors are supposed to e-mail photos of the project to Rafaele every day. It's a requirement not often met.

Local government officials are supposed to be supervising the project. But that idea is often defeated by a severe shortage of government engineers in this region, and by the vast distances between isolated villages in a country where automobiles are a luxury. Suited up in flak vest and helmet and encumbered by his M-4 carbine, Rafaele clambers over boulders to reach the work site. Contractors have meticulously crafted a foundation out of rocks, but haven't used mortar to cement the rocks in place.

Rafaele clucks in disapproval. "This is not the way we want to do this,'' he says finally. "This building will not last long with this kind of work.''

Afghans have been building this way for hundreds, if not thousands, of years: rock foundations without mortar. The contractors and workers, some with long white beards, watch Rafaele carefully, waiting perhaps for him to explain this interesting new idea.

"The building will not last and . . . your grandchildren will not be able to go to school here,'' Rafaele insists. "We are not complaining,'' he adds as a silence builds. Shrugging, the contractors agree to redo the foundations with mortar, and to make sure they send in regular progress reports.

The additional work will further delay the school. The laborers don't seem to mind. Jobs are scarce here, as they are across the country. Many others in the village have gone to Iran to find work, one of them confides.

"Good thing we came out here to check,'' Rafaele says cheerfully as we pick our way back through a boulder field to the armored trucks.

"It's hard to get them to change their ways,'' he tells me later. The problem is "their stuff is over-built. We can show them how to build more efficiently, quicker and easier,'' he says.

Construction is not the only problem with schools.

Another constraint is a nationwide lack of teachers. Several school building projects here in north-central Afghanistan have been cancelled after it was determined there were no teachers available.

Once a school is built and filled with kids and teachers, there is a continuing need for paper, pencils, textbooks, desks, chairs -- and no obvious source of supply. As it is, U.S. troops on patrol are routinely asked for school supplies, requests that are often forwarded home to military families and charities in the States to handle.

Another problem: how to measure progress, especially for a cost-conscious Congress already tapping its foot impatiently for Afghanistan to turn the corner.

"You can say how many students attend school, and that's great, but can they get jobs after graduation?'' frets Lt. Col. W. Mark Heiser. He commands the Kapisa Provincial Reconstruction Team, a unit of about 60 soldiers, two engineers, including Rafaele, and others assigned to development work.

Rafaele is philosophical about the difficulties of winning the war by building schools. "It's going to take a while,'' he says, referring both to changing the local style of building and to the larger goal. "The important thing is to keep moving forward.''
Filed Under: Afghanistan Journal

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