Reaching Boiling Point: High School Activism in Afghanistan

The educational sector is a very important aspect of state-building. As schools are a primary vehicle for conveying national and civic education to the youth, education is a very political subject. Arguably, studying education in Afghanistan from a political science and sociological perspective has been neglected.

One key assumption of donors in Afghanistan is that the quantitative growth in the availability of state education is always a positive indicator and that the number of students enrolling in high schools is an unmistakably positive sign.1 However, is this always the case? The literature abounds in other cases in which the numerical rise of youth in education, not matched by an improvement in the quality of education and/or growth in educational opportunities, leads to youth radicalisation and political instability.2 There is anecdotal evidence that the lack of employment prospects and the dissatisfaction about the functioning of the Afghan educational system are driving frustrated high school youth toward extremist groups.

In 2010, an AREU study investigated university students and their political orientation.3 This current project instead focuses on state-imparted secondary education. The companion policy brief to this study, “The Politicisation of Afghanistan’s High Schools,” summarises the findings of the survey of high schools in ten provinces of Afghanistan. While this report draws from those findings, it additionally tries to explain the patterns identified in the survey through the material gathered in a series of interviews. The qualitative interviews sought to gather information relative to the following questions:

How aware are student activists of the political debates going on in Afghanistan and how do they position themselves within these debates?

What factors drive recruitment to political groups?

What are the implications of political activism among students?

The interviews focused on upper secondary schools, where political engagement is more likely than in lower secondary. The existing literature on this topic is very limited.4

The present report is organised into five main sections. After outlining the methodology, the first section, entitled “The Ministry of Education’s Approach to Politics in the Classroom,” discusses in general terms the impact of the ban on political activity in high schools. The next section focuses on the activists of pro-government parties and groups, discussing in detail the patterns of recruitment, aims, activities, and views. Two similar sections follow to discuss the anti-government activists of legal and illegal organisations, respectively. The fifth section, “Are High School Students Becoming Radicalised?,” draws together evidence of on-going radicalisation.

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