Opinion: I want to educate Afghan freedom fighters, but not with rifles. Will the world support us?

By Shabana Basij-Rasikh

Global Opinions contributing columnist
The Washington Post
26 Jan 2022
A boy looks as an Afghan fighter rides in the back of a vehicle during a police patrol in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sept. 14. (Felipe Dana/AP)

As a girl in Afghanistan in the 1990s, I learned to count by adding assault rifles together, the way the West wanted me to.

The rifles were black ink drawings in the pages of a textbook. No color at all, just black AK-47s on tan paper. Count the rifles, Shabana..

Somewhere, packed away, I still have my math textbook; I’ve never thrown my school things out. I can see the pages so clearly in my mind, and thanks to various online image repositories, you can see them, too.

My textbook was part of a curriculum funded and guided by the U.S. government and produced by the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the 1980s. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and this curriculum formed part of the United States’ Cold War fight against communism. Its aim was to educate a generation of Afghan freedom fighters and to encourage the mentality of jihad in Afghan children.

I’m not breaking any news by saying this. The Post has even reported on these books, and how they remained in use in Taliban-controlled areas long after the Taliban’s regime fell in 2001.

Over the past 40 years, millions of Afghan children learned from these books. Millions of us.

It’s remarkable, when I tell this story to American friends, to watch them respond. It’s always the same. There’s shock, upon hearing these books exist. There’s a sense of disbelief that these books were published not by the Taliban, but by the United States. And then, upon hearing the books’ purpose was to train anti-Soviet warriors, there’s a sense of “Oh, yes. That’s understandable.”

But no. It’s not.

I hope you’ll believe me when I say that I don’t find it helpful to look back in anger, or to self-righteously indulge in any sort of blaming and shaming.

I do think, though, that William Faulkner was right. “The past is never dead,” he wrote. “It’s not even past.”

I want you to know about these textbooks and this curriculum because the lives of 40 million Afghans depend in part upon a global willingness to examine, and learn from, 40 years of policy mistakes — and successes — in Afghanistan.

I learned mathematics by counting rifles in an American-made textbook. I earned a bachelor’s degree from an American liberal arts college. In the years between, I studied freely and openly in schools in Kabul, just like so many other Afghan girls following the U.S.-led military intervention and the Taliban’s fall.

We studied, and now in 2022 we are women who have invested so much of ourselves in our homeland and have seen so much of what we loved come to dust. We are watching those boys who counted black ink rifles walk with real ones in their hands: boys grown to manhood in a Taliban regime that, since August, has closed girls’ schools and limited women’s freedom of movement and has sentenced the entire population of our nation to a winter of utter ruin.

More than half our country faces potentially life-threatening levels of food insecurity — and 97 percent of the Afghan people could be living below the poverty line in the next 18 months.

This is not crisis. This is catastrophe.

International aid is a necessary bandage on a weeping wound, but education, especially girls’ education, is what allows the wound to heal, helping to eradicate poverty and laying the foundation for societal change. Let the world make this the central pillar of investment in Afghanistan for the next 40 years.

Education matters. I know I’m not alone in thinking this. I have an old math textbook to prove it.

And much like the United States in the 1980s, I, too, want to educate Afghan freedom fighters. But my students are Afghan girls. I have a different curriculum in mind. I have a country with a future worth fighting for.

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, a Washington Post Global Opinions contributing columnist, is co-founder and president of the School of Leadership, Afghanistan. 
Opinion: I want to educate Afghan freedom fighters, but not with rifles. Will the world support us?