Damir Sagolj / Reuters An Afghan girl reads from the board in a home-based school in Kabul, 2001.

Schools Under Siege

How Afghan Classrooms Became Bunkers

Since the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan, Western countries have invested heavily in education there. But as security across the country deteriorates, schools in many places are under threat, not only from resurgent Taliban forces but also from the very Afghan security forces that are mandated to protect them.

Increasingly, the country’s national forces are using schools—many of them constructed by foreign donors and often the only concrete-reinforced, multi-story buildings in smaller villages—as their military bases during offensives into Taliban-held areas. Even if the buildings remain unscathed, the military occupation interrupts children’s education. But all too often, the schools become battlegrounds as the Taliban counter-attacks government positions, leaving the buildings damaged or in ruins and denying children an education until they can be rebuilt, if ever.

In 2015, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan documented 20 cases in which government security forces and armed opposition groups occupied schools for military purposes. During a brief research mission in April, Human Rights Watch identified 11 schools that were under occupation and being used for military purposes in just one small area of the Baghlan province alone, suggesting that the problem is underreported and getting worse. An investigation by the Guardian newspaper in April uncovered two British-built schools in Helmand province being used as Afghan army bases, including one in which students were still attending school on a lower floor.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the entrance of a local school sponsored by Japan's International Cooperation Agency in Kandahar City May 11, 2010.

An Afghan policeman stands guard at the entrance of a local school sponsored by Japan's International Cooperation Agency in Kandahar City May 11, 2010.

The Ustad Golan Jelani Jelali Middle School, in the village of Postak Bazaar in the Baghlan province, is a case in point. Its most recent troubles are only the latest in a long litany of woes. In 2010, the Taliban laid siege to the school when it was occupied by the Afghan police, gunning down seven policemen inside a classroom. “Their blood just wouldn’t wash away,” a school official told me, “so we had to chip it away from the wall with an axe.” 

In 2015, the Afghan police were back at the school, setting up base with sandbagged positions on the

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