Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Fighting the Taleban with literacy

BY Jill McGivering
BBC News, Lashkar Gah, Helmand

Afghan boys in Lashkar Gah
The vast majority of children in Helmand cannot go to school

Khalai Kohna High School in Lashkar Gah, the main town in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, is hailed as a success story.

It's dusty and lacks power and drinking water and the children share books.

But it is open, giving several hours of education a day to more than 1,000 boys and, in the afternoons, more than 600 girls.

It is a rarity. The vast majority of children in Helmand cannot go to school.

Khalai Kohna managed to open earlier this year because Lashkar Gah is a bubble of relative security, even though it's surrounded by the Taleban.

One of the school's science teachers, Abdul Raziq, says the fight against the Taleban must also take place in the classroom.

Key weapon

"The current insecurity is because of the illiteracy in our country," he told me.

"If the people were literate, they wouldn't have this insurgency now. That's why I'm trying to do what I can to educate the future generation, so they can serve their country, instead of destroying it."

Farmers in Lashkar Gah
Farmers in Lashkar Gah say security is the top priority

Development is seen as a key weapon in the battle to win hearts and minds.

The thinking is that evidence of functional local institutions - a thriving school or a busy clinic - will encourage people to support the Afghan government and turn against anti-government forces such as the Taleban.

I flew by military helicopter to the district of Garmsir with one of the province's leaders, Deputy Governor Abdul Sattar.

He was launching a new wheat seed distribution programme, an attempt to persuade local farmers to plant wheat instead of poppies.

Several hundred farmers, mostly older men with long beards and all with traditional Afghan headwear, sat cross-legged in an open courtyard in the sun and listened as the deputy governor addressed them.

His speech was a rallying cry, an attempt to bolster belief in the government and the brighter future it promised.

'Two-way process'

He urged the farmers to be patient. Garmsir was very poor and wracked by decades of violence, he said.

The government would help it rebuild - but it must be a two-way process. The people must support the government in return, he added.

Mr Sattar also had a strong emphasis on self-help.

Helmand's Deputy Governor Abdul Sattar
Deputy Governor Abdul Sattar seeks to bolster farmers' confidence

Instead of demanding security from the government, he said, people should make sure their children went to school to study, instead of joining the Taleban to fight.

And instead of complaining that there were no teachers in the schools, they should identify some people with education and send them forward to train as teachers.

Many of the farmers listening were broadly sympathetic to the government, but when I spoke to them privately afterwards, some expressed anger and frustration.

One elderly man said he had to keep growing poppies because he was poor and wheat simply did not give him enough income.

If they want us to stop growing poppies, he said, they need to give us much more help.

Another man complained that the government did not ask their views or listen to them.

"We need security," he said. "Security is our main priority. It isn't wheat or water we need most, it's security. People here are dying every day in the fighting for no good reason."

There is no doubt that the children now learning their lessons in school in Lashkar Gah represent a possible future for Helmand.

But it is also true that the military battle in Helmand is far from won.

And for development to be an effective weapon, it must be delivered quickly - while hope still lasts.

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