Life, death and the Taliban: War of ideas

KABUL — On the morning of July 9, boys and girls were walking down a narrow road in the Logar Province on their way to school just as they did every day at that time.

That’s when the large bomb packed in a timber truck pulled up at a checkpoint and detonated, killing 25 people, including 13 school children, in the worst bombing in Afghanistan in several years.

It is believed the Taliban carried out the attack in retaliation for the girls’ school that had been built in the village in the Mohammed Agha district.

News photos showed that the crater left by the blast cracked the asphalt in the shape of an enormous spider’s web. Amid the wreckage of the truck and other vehicles destroyed in the enormous explosion there were blown-apart student backpacks. Pages torn from school books were scattered in the rubble.

Education is on the frontline of the war in Afghanistan.

Almost daily, girls’ schools are burned and bombed and teachers, principals, students and their families receive what are known as “night letters,” Islamic decrees of death issued by the Taliban and pasted on homes and the walls of villages in the dead of night.

In just two years, more than 640 schools in Afghanistan and more than 350 in Pakistan have been bombed, burned or shut down, according to the education ministries in both countries. Eighty percent of those targeted were girls’ schools.

In the Helmand Province in the south of Afghanistan, where the Taliban is effectively in control of most of the province, 75 of the 228 schools have been shut down by Taliban militias that disapprove of the secular teaching and the idea of girls receiving an education.

There are indeed too many bombings and too many funerals for school kids risking their lives in what is literally a war of ideas.

But the July 9 bombing in Logar and the devastating effect the deaths of 13 elementary-school-age boys has had on the village where it happened offers a microcosm of just how bad things are in Afghanistan.

The story really begins on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

Peter Goodrich, 32, was among those killed on the second plane that was hijacked and crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

His parents, Don and Sally Goodrich of Vermont, fell into the abyss of despair that lies before any parent who loses a child, as well as the unique trauma experienced by Sept. 11 families.

The light that helped lead them out of the darkness was an idea from a close friend of Peter who served as a Marine in Afghanistan. He thought Sally, a schoolteacher, might want to help Afghan school kids as a way to honor Peter.

Sally headed straight for the light. Eventually, she established the Peter M. Goodrich Memorial Foundation, which raised the $200,000 in funds needed to build the impressive, two-story, 26-room, K-8 girls’ school in the Mohammed Agha district of Logar. The foundation has taken on other projects as well, from water distribution systems to relief for victims of the Nangarhar earthquake.

Two years ago, I traveled with Sally to Afghanistan to be with her when she saw the school in the Logar Province in session for the first time. The classrooms were overflowing and the hallways were buzzing with the chatter and giggling excitement of elementary school girls.

Sally is a schoolteacher from Vermont and even though the girls’ faces were wrapped in the white headscarves of Islamic modesty, they looked up at her with the confidence and the glee that comes with learning.

The story I wrote for Mother’s Day 2007 was featured on the cover of The Boston Globe Magazine as a feel good story about reconciliation after Sept. 11. It was titled “The Education of Sally.”

Then, in March of this year, Sally and Don received news that the village, about 20 miles outside of Kabul, was overrun by the Taliban.

On March 9, U.S.-led coalition forces raided the village in the middle of the night and burst into the homes of the two village elders: Haji Malik and Khadel Khan. They were handcuffed and bundled off for questioning as Taliban sympathizers. Sally and Don had bonded with these men — tall, bearded Pashtun brothers who wore all the traditional regalia of silk headscarves and salwar kameez. Sally likes to say they and the community they represent gave her back her life.

Haji Malik was soon released but his son and his brother, Khadel Khan, have been held ever since March in detention at the military prison at Bagram Airbase. They have been detained without charges but are suspected collaborators with Taliban militants, according to the U.S. military.

Sally, who is a brilliant educator, and Don, who is a talented lawyer, were convinced that the U.S. military had been supplied with flawed intelligence. They refused to accept that Haji Malik or Khadel Khan could have been involved with the Taliban. Sally had developed a particularly close bond with Khadel Khan, who had lost his son as well. They had bonded through shared loss, she said. I had gotten to know both men as well on my trip there. There are snapshots of all of us smiling, arm in arm after a big lunch we shared in the village.

And now here was Khadel Khan standing accused of offering support to the Taliban. Sally and Don refused, at first, to accept such a betrayal as a possibility. How could these men side with the same group that had provided the support Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda needed to carry out the attacks of Sept. 11 that killed Peter and some 3,000 others, not to mention the steady campaign of bombing and violence they carried out every day in Afghanistan?

In mid March, Don and Sally flew to Kabul and sat down with U.S. Army Brigadier General Michael Ryan. He handed them a dossier marked “restricted” from ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. It contained documentation of the allegations against the men. Documents state that both Haji Malik’s son and Khadel Khan are associates of “a major insurgent leader” of Taliban militants in the area who’ve carried out “suicide vehicle Improvised Explosive Devise attacks in both Kabul and Logar.” There were also photographs of the cache of weapons, including machine guns, landmines and the wiring, detonators and explosive material to make roadside bombs, all of which, the military report stated, were found in the residential compound where the extended families of Haji Malik and Khadel Khan live.

Don and Sally came away convinced the allegations had substance, and devastated by the facts. Sally said she was impressed with how respectful and thorough the U.S. military had been in its handling of the case.

Sally described the scene that day, saying, “I am getting up from the table, leaning forward and I said, 'These men gave me back my life.' And Ryan leaned toward me and he said, 'And they are taking the lives of my men.'"

Sally added, “So where am I? I am in a position where I can’t support the school at this moment because I am an American. That is why Peter was killed on that plane. And they are who they are. And I am who I am. We each have to make our own decisions and live with them. But there is great loss … for me and for them … . I just don’t see anyone coming out a winner on this point.”

I returned to Afghanistan in June and was provided with the dossier of evidence. I reached Haji Malik by phone in Logar and arranged a meeting in Kabul.

In a long interview, Haji Malik denied that his son, Salim, who is 32, or his brother or anyone in his village had ever lent any support to the Taliban. Haji Malik holds the position and name of “malik,” which is akin to a mayor or village leader elected by a village council. He is a man of standing and he insisted that an enemy had fabricated evidence against them and that he would never betray the support Sally had given his family and his village.

“I am a Muslim. I am proud of it. But I am not a Talib. I hate them. In the eye of Americans, I look like a Talib. But I am not. This is a conspiracy by our enemy,” he said.

“Taliban are narrow minded people. They don’t believe in freedom for women, they don’t believe in education. They don’t believe in development. They cannot deliver services. Sixteen of our female kids are going to school … . So how can I take sides — or how can my brother or my son take sides — with the Taliban who are against this?” he asked.

The more I delved into the layers of this story, the more confusing it became. It seemed possible that the tribal chiefs had undertaken a classically Afghani deal. They would support the Taliban in order to keep the school open.

For Autallah Wahajir, the deputy minister of education, it is a plausible explanation and something he has seen before in other provinces.

“Yeah, it happens in many provinces that the maliks, they go to Taliban and say, 'We know you have a problem. We know you are going to fight, but we don’t care … . We want our children to be educated. So you help us with that. And in response we let you do what you want, but let our children get an education.'"

Wahajir, who is from Logar, had been exiled from his country by the Taliban during its reign. Earlier this year, his younger brother was kidnapped by the Taliban and the family had to pay a ransom in tens of thousands of dollars to secure his release. He calls the Taliban who attack schools “worse than animals.” And yet he believes Haji Malik was right to have cut such a deal if it meant getting education for his children.

“The positive aspect is that at least they (the Taliban) are convinced that the girls' school is important. … If all Taliban agree to this then at least we will have education free of politics. We will be able to establish girls' schools everywhere in this country. It’s a very positive thing and we will encourage all Talib to do that,” said Wahajir.

He is a young, rising star in the government and holds a key post in a very important ministry, which presides over some 12,000 schools attended by nearly 6 million students. Girls make up about one-third of the students. In 2001 when the Taliban was toppled, there were less than 1 million students and no girls enrolled as it was prohibited under their perverse interpretation of the Quran.

Wahajir is proud that the ministry has fought to keep schools open despite threats from the Taliban and regrets that many parents are pulling their girls out of schools fearing that their safety is not secured. In accepting that the maliks of Logar may have cut a deal with the Taliban, Wahajir seems to be speaking without thinking through the logic of his argument or the long math on a deal that, in this case, seems to have ended in tragedy.

I was unable to travel to the school as the road into Logar is extremely dangerous. An American journalist was kidnapped and four Western aid workers had been killed on that road. We were told by everyone, including Afghans who lived there, that it was far too risky to chance it. So I arranged for a local TV cameraman who was from Logar to go with a small handheld Flip video camera. He documented that the school was open, but attendance was clearly down dramatically. The principal, who has received death threats, has not been showing up for work. And there was footage of the road leading into the school and the children walking along it.

On July 8 in the evening, I shared this video with Don and Sally who were thankful to see the school open but sad attendance was down so dramatically.

Sally could not have known how prophetic were her words. She said, “We need to close the school. We can’t risk the lives of even one child.”

With USAID putting the female literacy in Afghanistan at a staggeringly low 10 percent in the rural areas where most Afghans live, education is the future for the country and particularly for women. No one believes that more than Don and Sally, but still they felt the safest thing to do was to close the school for now. They let that be known on their last trip in March. But the school falls under the Ministry of Education and Wahajir had stated that he wanted to keep it open in defiance of the Taliban’s attempt to intimidate.

Just hours after I showed the video to Don and Sally, news of the bombing came via email from Logar. The details were sketchy, but it was confirmed that it exploded on the road that runs between the girls' school and the boys' school. The 13 children killed were all boys and all from the same families whose daughters attend the girls' school. Local leaders say they believe the Taliban targeted the boys, knowing it was a more severe punishment to the families in a male-dominated, patriarchal society.

For Sally, the wounds are extremely raw right now. She was in tears when she discussed her feelings about the bombing.

“I honestly wish we had never built the school. We put these people at risk. I just don’t know how I am going to get through that,” she said.

To Don, the school is the microcosm of so much on so many levels that has gone wrong in Afghanistan:

“Our strategy in Afghanistan is on the brink of failure if it hasn’t already failed. We had an opportunity that we felt we were part of and the surging toward a different life for the Afghan people is gone … . And I think it is gone because we did not understand the culture. We did not stand behind the promises we made. And I don’t think we understand who to trust. Whether we can pull it back now is doubtful to me.”

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