Photo: Peretz Partensky
The international community’s perception of Afghanistan over the past 12 years may be in for a bracing shot of reality when the foreign troops leave in 2014. Political agendas back home are shifting in ways that are likely to change the long-distance view of this country. In particular, the effects of the past decade of Western intervention will need no longer be viewed through rose-coloured glasses.Meanwhile Afghan children’s perception of their own history over the past four decades is being subjected to a surreal bit of air-brushing, thanks to a few departing American agencies. The new edition of textbooks for Afghanistan’s high schools were paid for partly by the American forces’ foreign-aid arm, the Commander’s Emergency Response Programme. Cultural advisers to the American army revised these books with an eye to eliminating any inappropriate material such as might, for instance, incite religious intolerance or violence.
Why such care? There are a number of embarrassing antecedents: in the 1980s USAID, in a spate of cold-war fervour, supported the publication of millions of hot-blooded textbooks for Afghan children. That American-sponsored curriculum, published with the University of Nebraska, tried to teach schoolchildren the basics of counting with illustrations featuring tanks, missiles and land mines. Those children have long since come of fighting age, so to speak.
This time the ideological pendulum is swinging the other way. In order to avoid controversy, most of Afghanistan’s recent past was simply snipped out of the history textbooks, whose stories turn suddenly cryptic, starting around the year 1973. In one of these books, titled “Social sciences”, events are few and far between: instead, just two pages of mostly description-free lists of names and dates. Then a single page to enumerate various colossal injuries to Afghanistan and its people. A key sentence on this final page states: “It is obvious that all this is foreigners’ fault” (though specifically which foreigners, it does not say).
“Social sciences” includes a brief mention of the Soviet invasion, using notably cautious verbs, eg the Soviet Union “ended” the previous regime, and “brought” Babrak Karmal, its Communist puppet, to power. A politically sanitised sentence summarises another remarkable period of Afghan history (as translated from the Dari):
In 1996 freedom fighter Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of Taliban came to power and announced the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan; he was removed from power in 2001.
The reader is left to guess who did the removing. The textbook reveals absolutely nothing about the American forces or even about the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). And not a word on Ahmad Shah Massoud—the assassinated leader of the Northern Alliance—whose portrait is on almost every major Kabul intersection, next to the one of Hamid Karzai, who perhaps catches some of its reflected glory. His face is to Kabul, one might say, what Che Guevara’s is to Havana.
Pictures being safer than adjectives, a page devoted to the 2004 election that returned Hamid Karzai to power is filled with photos. Its sparse text says simply that on the day of voting the atmosphere was calm and the ballots were secret.
What these textbooks provide is not so much lessons in the social sciences as lessons in a half-hearted form of deception. In real life, to schoolchildren as well as to adults, the American army is seen and heard everywhere in the capital, from helicopters whirring through the air (as drones do above more contested lands) to the concrete barriers and concertina-wired sandbags that have turned the streets of central Kabul into tunnels. The contrast between those scenes and the printed pages of the official textbooks will be jarring.
Nodja, a teacher at a girls’ school in northern Afghanistan, disapproves of this laconic version of her country’s recent history. She says that she and her colleagues will have to give their students the full story through their own teaching—and they will encourage them to ask their parents about what they lived through. “Without knowing the past, how to understand today?” Nodja asks in exasperation. She adds that in her opinion the elimination of four decades of history from the textbooks amounts to censorship, and shows that in Afghanistan there is no freedom of expression. Some of her fellow teachers nod in approval, beneath their light-blue burqas (they are preparing to venture out into the street, where they are well-advised to cover themselves).
All of them are too young to remember the primer that was used in schools by their own parents. Page one, in Pashto, taught the letter “T” (or te) of the alphabet for topak (“weapon”), and used as an example “My uncle has a weapon”. Page two went further: “J” (jim), for jihad, as in “Jihad is mandatory”, or “Jamil went to jihad” and “I too will go to jihad”. And go he did.
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