In mid-March the Afghan Ministry of Education reported that at least 240 schools, mostly in the volatile south and southeast of Afghanistan, had reopened over the past 18 months. The Ministry said that 18 schools had been reopened in Ghazni Province, central Afghanistan, over the past few months, most of which had closed in 2007-8 due to attacks by the Taliban.
This comes against a desperate background in Afghanistan's schools. In Early March President Karzai said that almost half of school-age children - around five million - do not have access to education. Numbers are up from their low point of less than a million children in school at the end of the Taliban rule, but there is still a long way to go.
All the more reason for the surprise about Ghazni Province. According to the Ministry's spokesman Abdul Sabour Ghofrani, “Almost all of the 456 schools in Ghazni Province are now functioning and we expect 50,000 extra students will be enrolled in 2010”. He added that the breakthrough was achieved with the support of local people, including religious leaders and tribal elders.
What was behind the suceess? Martine van Bijlert from the Afghan Analysts Network has some interesting answers.
According to Bijlert,"the local Taliban had issued an order, which was being implemented, that in the new year (starting on 21 March) all schools in the province should be reopened, including girls’ schools up to sixth grade. The Taliban was said to have been so serious about it that they offered to introduce teachers and district representatives wherever the government was unable to provide them or to ensure that they did their job properly."
One explanation for the Taliban change of heart is the fact that the Education Ministry is now controlled by Minister Farooq Wardak, who is a member of Hezb-e-Islami, the party led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (A delegation from Hekmatyar's military faction of Hezb-e-Islami has recently been in Kabul exploring the possibility of joining the Karzai government).
As Bijlert says: "The move (ie reopening schools - ed)was explained as a result of the realization in Taliban and Hezb-e Islami ranks, as well as in the wider Pashtun community, that the campaign against education was harming both the reputation of the insurgents’ cause and the future of the Pashtuns, who would otherwise remain largely illiterate."
However, it may not be so simple. Bijlert says other reports suggest a very different explanation: "According to these reports government staff, local Taliban commanders and teachers had joined hands in an elaborate salary scam, in which they conspired to create the impression that all schools were active, all teacher slots filled and all teachers actually teaching - in order to claim the total budget for salaries and other costs, and divide it among those involved (which, if the reports are true, will also need to include senior figures at the centre on both sides)."
In Afghanistan, nothing is simple.