10/09/2012 10:05 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Understanding the Gains and Gifts of Education in Afghanistan

As U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan dropped to a near-decade low of 68,000 last month on the way to a complete withdrawal at the end of 2014, America must take care to not repeat the mistakes of the last time the U.S. departed South Asia and left behind a country with little-to-no educational opportunities and therefore an open vacuum that was quickly filled by drug lords, terrorists and religious zealots.

Of course, America's presence in Afghanistan this time around has been far more robust than our covert activities in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and many signs point to our assisting the country in moving forward towards a level of success unseen since the Soviet invasion of more than three decades.

However, when it comes education -- the backbone on which any emerging society will be built -- it's unclear whether the infrastructure that the United States and NATO forces have worked so hard to build has a chance of surviving.

To be sure, significant progress has been made.

When the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001, decades of successive wars and the Taliban regime had combined to render education nearly non-existent. More than 10 years later, America has partnered with other countries, Hamid Kazai's own government and numerous non-profits to bring education a long way back.

As reported by UNESCO's International Institute for Educational Planning, in Afghanistan:

  • Between 2001 and 2010, primary school enrollment rose from around one million to nearly seven million;
  • The number of teachers in general education has risen sevenfold;
  • Since 2003, more than 5,000 school buildings have been rehabilitated or newly constructed.

But each of those positive benchmarks from UNESCO came with significant caveats.

  • Despite the enrollment increase, 42 percent of school-age children are not attending school.
  • The qualifications of teachers are generally under par
  • Just more than half of the total schools in the country have usable buildings.

Though not discussed by UNESCO, there has also been a significant lack of investment in education in tribal and rural societies with much of the money and resources dedicated to more urban settings.

And hovering over the entire reconstruction of the education system is what role women will play moving forward.

Here, again, UNESCO found significant positive movement, with women composing 37 percent of education-aged students and 31 percent of the teaching force. These numbers are even more impressive considering they both stood near zero during the Taliban's reign.

But for all of this success, those numbers would be -- and should be -- much higher if not for the security conditions that have served to put up roadblocks to the education of women.

As Reuters reported in the beginning of 2011, "Girls have had acid thrown in their faces while walking to school by hardline Islamists who object to female education. Several girls' schools, including some in Kabul, have also been hit by mysterious gas poisonings blamed on Islamists."

CNN recently reported that, "There were at least 185 documented attacks on schools and hospitals in Afghanistan last year. The majority were attributed to armed groups opposed to girls' education."

And then there was this week's shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose only crime was to work to educate girls in Pakistan. The Taliban took responsibility for the attempted murder.

So with just 15 months until the U.S. departs Afghanistan, what can Allied forces, non-profits, the Afghan government and individual people do to ensure that the gains in education, and girls' education in particular, are not lost forever?

CARE, the World Bank and the Afghani Government released a report in 2009 that provides a roadmap worth revisiting. Among the steps they advocated:

  • Raising awareness about the value and importance of education at the community level;
  • Engaging, supporting and training community leaders in risk reduction strategies;
  • Identifying appropriate locations for new schools;
  • Revising school policing policies for each community with the understanding that increased police or army presence can actually increase risk

Any or all of these steps will help ensure the safety of public education in Afghanistan and a brighter future for the kids who would have been left behind before the fall of the Taliban.

Can the different stakeholders on the ground come to agreement about how to bolster the education system before Dec. 31, 2014?

The clock is ticking.