WASHINGTON - Afghan education authorities are concerned about the use of schools for military purposes by militant groups and Afghan security forces, a practice they say puts children at risk and deprives them of an education.
“Unfortunately, around 30 schools in various parts of Afghanistan are being used for military purposes by Afghan government forces and militant groups,” Kabir Haqmal, director of information at the Ministry of Education in Kabul, told Radio Liberty's Afghanistan service on Thursday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report last year said that schools in Afghanistan have increasingly been threatened by both insurgent forces and Afghan security forces. HRW called on the Afghan government to stop the use of schools for military operations by its security forces.
“Afghan children's education is at risk not just from the Taliban, but also from government forces that occupy their schools,” the HRW report said. “Children are being put in harm's way by the very Afghan forces mandated to protect them.”
Seen as protecting force
Afghan defense authorities say they are not using the schools as bases but are in the schools to protect them from Taliban destruction and occupation.
“When schools are used by the enemy, we should rescue them and attack the enemy to drive them out of schools and that does not mean that we are stationed there,” Mohammad Radmanesh, a spokesperson for the Afghan defense ministry said.
At least two schools have been closed for several months in central Baghlan in northeastern Afghanistan, local authorities say. Afghan soldiers are using the schools during clashes with Taliban fighters, local authorities added.
“Afghan national army soldiers were stationed at the Abu Mohammad High School for three to four months and the school could not operate during that period,” a Baghlan education official told VOA on condition of anonymity for safety reasons. “A middle school in the Pashayan area also remained closed for several months because of the national army based at the school.”
School leaders in Baghlan sent several letters to army officials asking military forces to vacate the schools but received no reply, the education official said. Locals say Afghan soldiers left recently as fighting with the Taliban paused for the winter months.
School also is on break for the winter and teachers hope classes can resume in the spring.
Civilian sites targeted
Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of the Unity Government in Afghanistan, expressed concern last year about the use of schools for military purposes, saying civilian centers, including schools and hospitals, have been targeted.
“We should not hear that a clinic or school has been used as a front line, even in the worst situations,” Abdullah said.
Military forces are also using the schools, because much of the education in the volatile regions has been suspended due to fighting and terrorism by Taliban insurgents or the Islamic State (IS).
“Schools have regularly been used for military purposes, including during the past years,” Sediq Patman, former deputy minister of education, told VOA. “Both sides have used schools. … The army does not have infrastructure and bases in many places, so it uses closed schools as their bases.”
The Afghan education sector has made huge strides in the past 15 years after the Taliban rule. Millions of students, including girls, have returned to school.
But rights groups say educational institutions are facing a serious threat amid continued fighting.
“A decade of achievement rebuilding Afghanistan's educational system and increasing education for girls is at risk so long as schools are used by military forces and threatened with attack,” HRW said.
Thousands of students in eastern Nangarhar province have been unable to attend school because IS has kept classrooms shuttered in areas it rules.
According to the Ministry of Education, about 33,000 students were deprived of an education last year in 58 schools in the Achin, Haskamena and Kot districts of Nangarhar.