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The Children's Hour

I visited schools in Kabul in 2004 and what I saw there reinforced what I had learned in Peshawar almost twenty years before, about Afghans and education. That is, if you put up a sign that says "School" it will be full of Afghans in about a New York minute. No matter if you hang your sign outside a bombed-out building or a vacant lot, if you teach it, they will come. In 1987 when my colleagues and I opened a journalism training center in Peshawar a line began to form almost immediately. We had to conduct our admissions interviews on the lawn of the venerable Dean's Hotel, where adult Afghan refugees patiently queued up waiting for a chance at a seat in the classroom. Of course there were no Afghan women in that waiting line. The women were queued up elsewhere, at the offices of Save the Children and other NGOs seeking treatment for depression or shelter from battering husbands; the lot of women in the refugee camps was even bleaker than it had been in the home villages they had abandoned during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

In Kabul, as schools began to reopen after the ouster of the Taliban, Afghans of all ages and both sexes (though not together) flooded the classrooms of the primary schools, high schools, and Kabul University. One of the most joyous sights in Kabul was seeing young schoolgirls in their new uniforms bouncing along the street in happy bunches on their way to and from school. It is easier for them in Kabul, where the level of security is still better than in most parts of the country, but even there the children have to be aware of kidnappers, suicide bombers and Taliban terrorists. Still they are not deterred, and are willing to risk their lives for what most American kids take for granted.

Adam Ellick's documentary, A Schoolgirl's Odyssey, heartbreakingly chronicled the struggle of a Pakistani girl whose education, and her dream of becoming a doctor, were derailed by the Taliban in the Swat Valley. The girl, Malala, is a symbol of all the Afghan and Pakistani kids who are desperate for education; to see the Taliban, in their profound ignorance, extinguish those bright little lights makes their ideology even more repugnant. The Taliban can exist only in a miasma of ignorance; no one with education willingly subscribes to their narrow, violent dogma.

The BBC's World News for Children recently broadcast a discussion between schoolchildren in Kabul and their carefree counterparts in the U.K. I think some of the British kids got an inkling of how precious an education is, and some of them promised never again to take education for granted. I hope they mean it. The world needs every educated child it can produce.

This is what gives one hope for Afghanistan: the population is young (the median age is only 17.6 years) and avid for education. Because of modern technology, which has reached deep into Afghanistan in the form of mobile phones, the Internet, radio and television, the young Afghans are aware of the modern world beyond their borders and want nothing to do with the Taliban. If the Taliban somehow took over Afghanistan tomorrow, the next day the anti-Taliban movement would begin. The Taliban could repress it for a while, but this is a very different Afghanistan than the one they terrorized from the late 1990s until their ouster in 2001. Despite all the fighting, death and destruction, despite the mismanagement of the government, despite the rampant corruption and the drug trade, a new Afghanistan has been born, and it is through education, not warfare, that it will be kept alive. It is the children's hour in Afghanistan and it must not be squandered.

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